Washington Kurdish Institute
By: Yousif Ismael January 19, 2018
The recent attack on the Kurdish city of Afrin in Syria by the Turkish government is not new development, despite the increased intensity of the government’s threats against the city of Afrin and the surrounding region. Indeed, these attacks began almost more than a year ago. In 2017, the Turkish military and their proxy jihadist groups attacked Afrin 920 times, yet this has barely been mentioned by the mainstream global media despite significant coverage of the broader conflict in Syria. The Syrian Kurds repeatedly cried out for assistance in the face of these savage and unrelenting attacks, but these pleas have mostly fallen on deaf ears.
Turkish attacks on Afrin over the past 10 days have killed at least one Kurdish member of the People’s Defense Units (YPG) and injured a 10-year-old boy. The Turkish bombardment has also damaged civilian homes. In the face of this ongoing aggression, the YPG declared a vow to resist against any attempt at Turkish occupation of Afrin, as Turkish actions risk opening up a new front in Syria’s bloody civil war, this time in Afrin, a city that has enjoyed relative peace and is currently hosting approximately half a million displaced people forced from their homes by the ongoing conflict.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared this war on the Kurds, claiming that Afrin is controlled by “terror army”, a label he assigns to the YPG, part of the U.S.-backed multi-ethnic and multi-religious armed alliance known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Erdogan reportedly upset by a recent supposed decision by the U.S.-led coalition to recruit members of the SDF to secure Syria’s borders with Iraq and Turkey. Without justification, Erdogan now boldly threatens to provoke more bloodshed in Syria, a country in the midst of one of the world’s most deadly conflicts due, in part to the aggressive and destabilizing policies that Turkey has pursued in the country. Indeed, Erdogan’s claims have no basis in reality.
The idea of creating of a new border army by the U.S led coalition in the Kurdish-controlled areas has been dismissed by the U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. However, it is undeniable that the YPG and SDF have proven to be not only most effective fighters against terrorism in Syria, but also most organized and most aligned with the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS. The current and the former administration have both Turkey and their armed Islamic proxy groups many chances to act over Syria for many years, but in they have failed both in fighting terror and in governing. The Idlib province is under the control of the Islamic opposition groups accompanied by the Turkish military, but no tangible peace has been achieved in this region. Turkey is now rather ironically rejecting alleged U.S. plans to create a new border force to protect the Syrian border from the terror groups due to the participation of the YPG, who have have been protecting the Turkish border in north of Syria for seven years.
The Turkish government consider the YPG and the major Kurdish party in Syria, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), to be terrorist groups, and describes them as being identical to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). This is simply not true. The YPG and PYD both admittedly follow the ideology of imprisoned PKK founder Abdullah Ocalan. And indeed, Kurdish people comprise the membership of the majority of the YPG and PYD as well as the PKK. Of course, this is a consequence of the simple fact that the Kurds of Syria and Kurds of Turkey are both Kurds – in many cases speaking the exact same language and sometimes even the same local dialect. The share the same culture and in many cases intermarry despite the artificial borders created by the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923. Indeed, Ocalan’s charisma attracted the the sympathy and support of many Syrian Kurds in the 1980s and 1990s while living in Syria and presiding over the growth transformation of the PKK from a small revolutionary movement into a large party with a strong network of political figures, activists, and militants throughout various parts of Kurdistan and adjacent areas.
The YPG and PYD have ideological ties with the PKK, but not organic links. Scholar Henri Barkey explained, “If there was a deal between Turkey and the PKK in Turkey in terms of the Kurdish rights, etc. and PKK had disappeared, the PYD still would be there. And the PYD will be still fighting. We should not forget that the PYD is a result of Syrian phenomenon.” said Henri Barkey at the Bipartisan Policy Center. Barkey, the former Director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and former U.S. State Department official, also believe that Turkey’s assertion that the PKK is the same as the PYD is not factual. He explained, “The idea the Turks seem to propagate is the PYD are in the arms of the PKK is not realistic because the Syrian Kurds actually have suffered a great deal. Yes they are affiliated with the PKK but they are a response in Syria. We should not forget.” Neither the PYD nor YPG are considered terror groups by major world powers, most of whom show great respect for both groups and their struggle against terror and often host the groups’ representatives in official capacities and, in some cases, provide them with aid including weapons. Indeed, Kurds are all to familiar with the technique of labelling their organizations as terror groups. While the PYD and YPG are not widely considered to be terror groups, the PKK is listed as such by the US and European Union, among others, and, decades ago, the two main Kurdish parties opposed to the regime of the genocidal dictator Saddam Hussein found themselves sanctioned in a similar manner and, indeed, were considered “tier III terrorist groups” by the U.S. list until 2015 despite strong political and military coordination with the U.S. on the ground in Iraq since the 1990s.
Since 1984, the PKK has been fighting the Turkish state, which has consistently rejected assertions of Kurdish identity within Turkey’s borders, frequently denying the existence of the Kurdish people altogether.
Even in light of the PKK’s designation as a terror group by the U.S. and other countries, even if one accepts the premise that the PKK have ties with the PYD and YPG, this does not necessitate the listing of the PYD or YPG. James Jeffrey, former U.S. ambassador and security advisor and current fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy explains, “In U.S. law, having ties with a terrorist organization does not necessarily make one a terrorist, and U.S. officials should make that distinction clear in the PYD’s case.” If PYD and YPG are to be abandoned by the international community for their alleged ties with the PKK, then Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), should certainly face similar if not more extreme measures, as they not online maintain ties with the Hamas terror group but also actively aid and support the group.
It is no secret that, since the beginning of the upheaval in Syria, the Turkish state has played a negative role, contributing significantly to bloodshed in the country. Erdogan’s policies is in Syria have directly led to thousands of death and weakened the role of the opposition that initially emerged from Syrian society to overthrow the country’s brutal regime. These policies have consistently fanned the flames of war and obstructed attempts at de-escalation – and even caused serious international security concerns.
Turkey’s initial intervention in Syria consisted of supporting jihadist groups and turning a blind eye to jihadists, including members of ISIS, crossing from Turkey into Syria. Turkish support for jihadist groups in Syria caused a weakening of secular opposition forces, who fell victim to violence at the hands of both the Assad regime and Turkey’s jihadist proxy forces. While Erdogan and his party, the AKP, are close to the Muslim Brotherhood, he and his government supported not only Muslim Brotherhood linked groups in Syria, but also Salafist jihadist organizations such as al-Qaida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. The ultimate goal was to establish a Sunni Islamic state in Syria which would be under the influence of Turkey. Many accuse Erdogan regime of having direct ties with ISIS from the earliest stages of the groups emergence, drawing attention to incidents such as the Turkish trucks being used to deliver weapons to ISIS in 2014, which Erdogan blamed on Fethullah Gulen, an exiled Turkish cleric with whom Erdogan was previously very close.
Erdogan’s aggressive policies in Syria represent a continuation of the longstanding policies of the Turkish state with respect to the Kurdish people – Turkey has consistently expressed opposition to any and all Kurdish aspirations in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey, and often used deadly force to keep Kurdish people from achieving any type of status. Nonetheless, Erdogan has often claimed that his problem is not with the Kurdish people but with PKK, and drawn attention to the example of his relations with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in Iraq, though when the latter conducted the planned independence referendum for Iraqi Kurdistan in September 2017, Erdogan immediately allied with the governments of Iran and Iraq to implement sanctions on the Kurds of Iraq, and cut ties with much of the KDP. In Syria, Erdogan often times uses Kurdish proxies who are members of the Kurdish National Council (KNC) for his own purposes, but nonetheless stands against them with respect to any measure of autonomy for the Kurds of Syria. Erdogan, like those who came before him in Turkey, is Kurdophobia-positive. Erdogan’s regime is also a part of the largest sanctions-evasion scheme in modern history, having conspired to break international sanctions on Iran. Intent on retaining power, Erdogan is currently focused on proving his nationalist credentials to build support among Turkey’s right wing to broaden his support base, while engaging in a campaign of repression against all who oppose him. While Erdogan’s previous attempts to carve out a sphere of influence in Syria have, for the most part, failed, an Turkish operation in Afrin will, of course, prove popular among Turkish nationalists while distracting in the fight against ISIS spreading war throughout another part of Syria. As of late, Erdogan has increased the frequency and intensity of his threats against Afrin. “Currently the bombardment of Afrin has intensified. There has been a large deployment by the Turkish military, and joint checkpoints run by the Islamic groups like Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) [which includes the al-Qaida affiliate formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra] and Turkish army have been established west of Afrin,” reported Rezan Hedo, an activist and political commentator in Afrin. Hedo warned that a former Al Nusra Front (Al Qaeda offshoot) of HTS Abu Malik al Tali, a former leader of Jabhat al-Nusra who is now part of HTS has been sighted with other jihadists aiming to attack Afrin.
The defeat of ISIS by the SDF and the establishment of a successful new democratic federation in north of Syria by Kurds, Arabs, Christians, and others minorities can serve as an example for the entire region, and stands in stark contrast to Erdogan’s ambitious. Erdogan will only cease interference in Syria if his jihadist proxies take control.
The U.S. administration should continue to strengthen the secular, multi-ethnic forces of the SDF as they proven time and time again to be the most effective force in countering terrorism. The U.S. should also recognize the northern Syrian federation as a successful model for Syria, one that provides hope for an end to the miseries and massacres endured by the Syria people for many years. With respect to Turkey, the U.S. administration should consider its own regional interests in light of the fact that Turkey has proven itself to be, at best, an unreliable ally since 2003.
Disclaimer: The views, opinions, and positions expressed by authors and contributors do not necessary reflect those of the WKI.