A new frontline has opened up in the Syrian War that has already had tragic consequences for the Kurds of Syria and risks a revival of the threat from ISIS. A halt in the fighting is dependent on the withdrawal of the Kurds from a buffer zone.
One question that loomed large within the complexity of the Syrian War was the future of the areas controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces, a large swathe of eastern Syria taken from ISIS. While the government and its allies crushed the myriad rebel groups of the opposition in the south and Damascus, the Kurdish-administered area was left to its own devices. With the government focused on the rebel groups in Idlib province the status of ‘Rojava’ seemed secure in the short term. The Kurdish led SDF ran the east and the United States provided a check on Turkish designs on northern Syria. Within the space of barely two weeks there has been a dramatic change and it is Russia that polices the north-east and the Syrian Arab Army has moved into the area.
It began with an announcement by President Trump that the United States would be pulling its forces out of border area. The SDF rushed reinforcements to Kurdish towns and cities and Turkey launched ‘Operation Peace Spring’, quickly taking territory from the Kurds. The US sent its forces over the border to Iraq, leaving stone-throwing Kurds in their wake. Left without allies, the SDF made a deal with the Syrian government to allow the Syrian Arab Army into the area as a counter to the Turkish advance. Soon there were reports of ISIS attacks and in one instance hundreds of ISIS family members escaped detention. President Trump then announced economic sanctions against Turkey and a US delegation led by the Vice-President travelled to Ankara and secured a ceasefire that would allow the Kurds to retreat. This was followed by talks between Erdogan and Russia’s President Putin, which resulted in permanent ceasefire, provided the Kurds withdrew their forces within a specified period. The border region, once patrolled jointly by Turkey and the US, would now be patrolled by Turkey and Russia. Then there was an announcement that the US would be returning to ensure that oil fields would not fall back into the hands of ISIS. Further afield, in Idlib province, the US showed what it was actually capable off and put an end to the ISIS leader, Abū Bakr al-Baghdadi.
One thing is clear: more Syrians have died or were injured or displaced from their homes and there are horrors and accusations that we have seen before. The media campaigns are also familiar, as both Ankara and the Kurds have highly effective media organisations that are able to broadcast the wrongs of the other. There is plenty to go round, and almost of it was carried out by the stronger side as Turkish forces and their Syrian allies advanced in to what the Kurds call Rojava. There are two conflicts happening here, meshed into one. The first is the conflict in Turkey between the government and the Kurds that fired up again in 2015. The administration of Turkey’s President Erdogan does not distinguish between the Turkish PKK and the Syrian YPG and has openly called the Kurdish-administered region of Syria that borders Turkey a threat. The second is the rivalries internal to Syria itself where relations between Kurds and Arabs deteriorated during the violence of the war. The proxies at the front of the Turkish advance are fighters from the Syrian National Army and they have a vested interest in President Erdogan’s vision of a border area cleared of Kurds. The thirty kilometre zone is about more than just security, for there are plans to relocate Syrian refugees into it.
The previous fortnight has been the time of the strongmen. Erdogan got to launch his incursion into Syria and took a major step towards a border zone free of Kurds. Syria’s President Assad was able to cut a deal with the Kurds and promptly moved troops from the Syrian Arab Army into Kurdish cities. Russia’s President Putin managed to make permanent a ceasefire agreed by the US with Turkey and deployed Russian troops to jointly patrol the border. Despite the death of their leader, the remnants of ISIS have also been given a boon due to the instability caused by the Turkish incursion and there are serious concerns over the security of camps where ISIS fighters are detained. For their part, the Kurds have done what they have done many times before and made the most of a bad lot. As for the US, there is little to be had from this debacle and both sides of the political divide are aghast at what is seen as a betrayal of Kurdish allies that led the SDF to victory over ISIS. While the Trump administration managed to arrange a ceasefire, this constituted an acceptance of the occupation of north-east Syria, one that the removal of US forces made inevitable. Despite the bluster over the impact of economic sanctions on Erdogan’s thinking the ceasefire was made permanent due to events on the ground as the regime, Russia and the Kurds adapted to the absence of the US. The Europeans could do little, having little influence in the first place, and their condemnation of Turkish actions led only to a threat by Erdogan to send the refugees currently in Turkey westwards.
What happens next is hard to predict as despite the quick gains of the Turkish advance and the promised withdrawal of the Kurds from the border area the arrival of the forces of the regime has meant that further advances risk open conflict with the Syrian Arab Army. This would not benefit either Assad or Erdogan and Putin appears to want to keep the two apart. Nor does anyone know how much the Kurds of the SDF will concede to the regime. Their advance to Raqqa resulted in them holding non-Kurdish territory, the sands of which they have now been pushed into. If Erdogan carries out his plan of dumping Syrian refugees into Rojava it will not only be at the expense of the Kurds, whom have fled east and south, but may also mean sending the Syrian National Army proxies into the buffer zone. This may be a step too far for the regime of Bashar al-Assad, which will see this in the context of Turkish involvement in Idlib province. Here a ceasefire was brought into being provided that Turkey brought some degree of control to opposition forces in the area. This backfired spectacularly when rebel infighting resulted in the jihadists of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham dominating the region and the government began an offensive this year.
Syria’s borders have meant little since the outbreak of the war and the Turkish offensive is further evidence of this. The Syrian War began with an uprising that led to fighting between rebels and the government, with much of the blame to be laid at the doors of the Assad regime. There is also much that happened later that is the responsibility of outsiders, with the jihadists of ISIS being the prime example. The Turkish incursion, like that of 2018 into Afrin, has more to do with Ankara’s war with the PKK in Turkey than with the complex conflict that has taken place in Syria. Ankara sees Rojava as a terrorist haven and President Erdogan has been explicit in his intentions to resolve this through force. Since 2015 the Kurds in Turkey have been hammered by a major military offensive that has led to at least 4551 deaths as of the 2nd August 2019, according to International Crisis Group. Erdogan may believe that the creation of a buffer zone in a neighbouring country will deal with a perceived threat from the YPG. He is very likely to be catastrophically wrong. In the meantime, the Kurds have been killed or forced from their homes. It did not need to happen and it could have been prevented from happening but, as is often the case, the strongmen won out.
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Dr Carl Turner, Site Coordinator.