Turkey has intervened militarily into the region of northern Syria surrounding the town of Jarablus. The intervention is being conducted in the name of “fighting ISIS” but is, in fact, a pre-emptive strike to prevent the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces from expanding their influence and territorial control across northern Syria.
The intervention began with a show of artillery in the early morning of August 24, followed by Turkish tanks and other armoured equipment escorting right-wing, irregular forces from Turkey across the border, through neighbouring villages and into Jarablus proper.
Turkey wants to block the left-wing, Kurdish-led forces of the SDF from repeating in Jarablus their recent success in liberating from ISIS occupation the city of Manbij, located some 50 km south and east of Jarablus.
The intervention coincides with a dizzying about-turn by Turkey from its longstanding ‘regime change’ policy towards the government in Syria. Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim acknowledged at a press conference on August 20 that Syrian President Assad was one of the “actors” in Syria and may need to stay on as part of a “transition”.
Some Western media reports are playing up Turkish government descriptions that its intervention into Syria constitutes a major military assault against ISIS. But ANF News, citing local residents, said there was little fighting. Instead, ISIS forces turned the city over to the Turkey-supported irregulars and calmly withdrew, many traveling into Turkey. Several reports said that in crossing into Turkey, ISIS cadre donned the uniform of the Syrian Free Army.
Al-Masdar News explained, “The city was captured by the Islamist rebels with no firefights reported.”
Derrick Stoffel, the Middle East correspondent of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, reported in an August 24 dispatch that the taking of Jarablus, “wasn’t much of a fight… Most of the ISIS men had retreated.”
Al Jazeera reported, “The rapidity of the advance was in complete contrast to the long-grinding battles where Kurdish forces had taken towns in northern Syria such as Kobane and Manbij from ISIL…
“Security sources quoted by Turkish television said a small contingent of special forces had travelled into Syria to secure the area before the larger ground operation.”
A Reuters reporter spoke of “intense bombardments, with palls of black smoke rising around [Jarablus].” But the same reporter said, “A column of at least nine Turkish tanks crossed into Syria with the group of largely Arab and Turkmen rebels to drive Islamic State out of Jarablus and surrounding villages.” Nine tanks and irregular forces: hardly the stuff of “invasion” legend.
ANF News nonetheless reports that at least 49 civilians have been killed as a result of the Turkish-initiated attack.
U.S. backing of the intervention
United States bomber aircraft reportedly took part in the operation, such as it was. Herein is another about-turn by Turkey.
The Turkish government has been claiming a political falling out with Washington over accusations that the U.S. quietly supported the attempted military coup in Turkey on July 15 or did not alert Turkish authorities ahead of time. It also criticized the U.S. for not acting promptly on Turkey’s request to extradite Fethullah Gulen, who it says is the mastermind of a vast “terrorist network” in Turkey behind the coup attempt.
The claimed falling out by Turkey with the U.S. has been reported as good coin for weeks across the media spectrum. But the invasion of Jarablus was perfectly coordinated with the United States. As the intervention began, U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden was arriving in Ankara on an official visit. From Ankara, Biden hailed the intervention and warned Kurdish military forces not to intervene in Jarablus.
Visits to Turkey by U.S. military officials have intensified recently. These have coincided with pronouncements by the Turkish government that it will not talk to Kurdish rebels in Syria nor with the political leadership of the Kurdish population in Turkey itself. For the past year, Kurds in eastern Turkey have endured harsh attacks against their towns and cities by the Turkish military.
Turkey has gone so far as to exclude the left-wing People’s Democratic Party (HDP) from all-party, national reconciliation talks the government has held following the failed coup last month. The HDP is the third largest of the four parties in the Turkish Parliament. It vigorously opposed the attempted coup but it hasn’t stopped criticizing the government for refusing to reach out for a political settlement of longstanding Kurdish grievances.
Kurds comprise some 20 to 25 per cent of the overall Turkish population of 78 million (Wikipedia). They were some ten per cent of Syria’s pre-war population of 23 million. They comprise the majority in eastern Turkey and areas of northern Syria.
The U.S. has been playing a double game with Kurdish forces in Syria. It has been providing some military assistance. Kurdish-led YPG forces have scored major successes against ISIS and other rightist forces in Syria, including in the battle to liberate the city of Kobane near the Turkish border in 2014 and 2015. But on the key issue of inclusion of Kurds in comprehensive, international negotiations towards a political settlement in Syria, the U.S. is opposed. Russia has consistently favoured Kurdish inclusion. Russia’s foreign ministry restated its view in a brief statement on August 24 on the Turkish intervention.
Turkey has long called the Euphrates River a “red line” which Kurdish-led forces must not cross. Jarablus is located on the river right at the Syria-Turkey border. It is a stage on the ISIS supply route to and from Syria. The governing regime in Turkey has turned a blind eye to this for years.
The liberation of Jarablus and surrounding area by Kurdish-led forces would be a big step in connecting the entire region of northern Syria under a common, Kurdish-led, multi-ethnic administration. Right now, the east of northern Syria (Kobane and Cizire) and a large pocket in the west (Afrin) are governed by the Kurdish-led Democratic Union Party (PYD) and allies. (See political analysis and accompanying maps, by Washington Institute for Near East Policy.)
The PYD leads the self-defense units in Syria called the People’s Protection Units (YPG). Several YPG leaders have told Kurdish media outlets they will not follow anyone’s orders but their own as to their continued presence extending west from the Euphrates.
YPG official Redur Xelil, denounced Turkey’s move as “blatant aggression in Syrian internal affairs”. A report in RT.com continues, “Aldar Xelil, another influential Kurdish politician, accused Turkey of initiating an occupation of Syria, saying the operation amounted to ‘a declaration of war’ on the autonomous administration set up by Kurdish groups in northern Syria in 2011.”
Turkey’s blind eye towards terrorists
Another piece of the drama being given large play in the West is the claim by Turkey that its intervention in Syria is in response to the bombing of a wedding in Gaziantep in southern Turkey on August 20. That terrorist attack killed 53 people (latest reports cite the number of 58), about half of whom were children. Dozens more were injured. Gaziantep is located less than 100 km from Jarablus.
An August 21 statement by the HDP explains that the attack in Gaziantep was but the latest in a string of terrorist attacks against the party and its members. The wedding in Gaziantep was that of an HDP activist.
The statement also says that Gaziantep city and province have been allowed over the years to become a “nest” of ISIS forces. “The people of Gaziantep have been living in an environment with ISIS members who amass weapons and organize mass meetings. According to some accusations, those who launched the attack on October 10, 2015 in Ankara [bombing of an antiwar rally that killed more than 100 people] had also been planning to attack a Kurdish wedding. However, the ruling party did not take the necessary steps to prevent these plans despite all the warnings.”
The statement explained that the 2015 Ankara bombing set off a harsh process of accusation and recrimination where “discussion of peace and resolution was prevented, and people were pushed away from hopes of a more stable country.
“The ruling party’s hate speech, discriminating and divisive attitude in democratic political arenas furnishes the conditions for such attacks.”
In response to the Turkish intervention, a blatant act against the territorial integrity of Syria, the Syrian government issued a perfunctory statement voicing concern.
Last week, Kurdish and Syrian government forces clashed in the Hasakah, eastern Syria, when government forces tried to wrest control of the city. It was the first clash between the two forces for several years, adding another element to the timing of the Turkish intervention.
Mediation by Russia succeeded in establishing a ceasefire in Hasakah on August 21 after Kurdish forces successfully repulsed government attacks. But the clash was an ominous sign of the Syrian government returning to the policies of the past in which, like Turkey, it refused to recognize the national rights of the Kurds. The Syrian government has avoided conflict for the past several years, even collaborating on occasion with Kurdish forces in the fight against ISIS.
In March of this year, Syrian Kurds proposed a comprehensive plan for the future of Syria that would see a federated political system in a unitary state granting autonomy to Kurds and other national minorities.
Russia has backed Kurdish demands for autonomy, including in the recent events. It has condemned the violence of Turkey’s internal war against the Kurdish population.
Demands for ‘federalism’, or political autonomy, are, coincidentally a central issue in the military conflict in eastern Ukraine. There, a right-wing government issuing from a coup d’etat in Kyiv in February 2014 launched an ‘anti-terrorist operation’ in April of that year against the Russian-speaking civilian population of the Donbass region (Donetsk and Lugansk). More than 10,000 people have since been killed in Donbass and several million residents have been displaced. Ukraine continues to attack the Donetsk and Lugansk people’s republics, with complete impunity from its Western backers in the NATO alliance.
The similarities between Ukraine’s ‘anti-terrorist’ mania and that of the Turkish government are striking. In each country, complex histories have left the national and language rights and aspirations of peoples unmet–the Kurds of Turkey (and Syria) and the ethnic Russian people of Donbass.
In another parallel coincidence, the recent political history in Crimea can serve as an example for resolution of the conflicts in Ukraine and Turkey. A democratic referendum in Crimea in March 2014 resolved 60 years of dissatisfaction and conflict over Crimea’s status in Ukraine when a large majority voted to secede from Ukraine and rejoin the Russian federation. Crimea was annexed to Ukraine in 1954 by a decision of the then-Soviet Union in which the people had no say.
One of the first acts of the new Crimean authorities was to end the bizarre language law in which the only official language was the one spoken by a small minority–Ukrainian. Today, there are three official languages in Crimea–Russian, Tatar and Ukrainian.
Admittedly, the national and language makeups of Syria and Turkey as well as their histories are considerably more complex than that of Crimea. But with the new example of a peace deal in Colombia now added to the mix, surely the time is nigh for the Kurdish people in the Middle East to receive their historic due.