Turkey invaded northern Syria this week, ostensibly to oust ISIS from a border zone it has long controlled. But in fact it was clear to all observers that the real target was a coalition of Kurdish and other militias who have rapidly been defeating ISIS forces in the area, and were threatening to establish a Kurdish autonomous region which would cover virtually all of Turkey’s southern border, inevitably raising the independence dreams of some of Turkey’s own restive Kurds. So a putative American ally, Turkey, is now at war with America’s major allies against ISIS in Syria. Al Akhbar’s Syria analyst Sohaib Enjrainy quizzes his sources in the region north of Aleppo: what are we to make of Turkish president Erdogan’s latest gambit?
In northern Syria, Turkey’s invasion last week raised the temperature of a civil war that has already been long boiling. The arrival of the Turks has rendered the landscape even more bewildering than before, turning the conflict into a sort of war between friends-of-friends, as partners of the United States battle other tools of the Americans. In the visible spectrum, seeming-allies are in conflict now; but it is in the invisible, behind-the-scenes alliances that truly complex and strange things may be going on.
On the battlefield, the fight between the Turks and Syria’s Kurds has escalated and come out into the open. But even as the tone in the statements made by the various groups directly involved in the fighting has escalated, the official positions of the governments most entangled in Syria – Damascus, Moscow, Washington and Tehran—have remained very low profile, contributing a further layer of opacity to what is actually going on.
The Turkish invasion at Jarablus opens a window onto the transformed landscape in Northern Syria, and the unprecedented complications on the ground there. The complexity is due in part to Turkey’s invasion and occupation of Syrian land for the first time, to the outbreak of open war between two forces, Turkey and the Syrian Kurds, which are both allied with the United States, each an effective and influential element in the international coalition [against ISIS]. But the foremost complication is the digging of ever deeper divisions between the armed groups operating in northern Syria.
The Kurdish ‘People’s Protection Units’ [YPG] are the main pillar of the Syrian Democratic Forces [which have taken northern Syria from ISIS], and are at the same time on the front line in the fight against the Turks. But the Syrian Democratic Forces also include other elements, among them a group called the Seljuk Brigades, composed of Turkmen [Turkish speaking Syrians]. Another of the SDF groups, the Army of Revolutionaries, maintains friendly relations with, of all places, Saudi Arabia; battalions of this group were once part of the Syrian Revolutionary Front, led by Jamal Maarouf [before it was defeated by its erstwhile allies, the al-Qaeda affiliated Nusra Front, and Maarouf fled to Turkey].
The latest developments point to the up-to-now concealed contest between Turkey and Saudi Arabia at last coming out into the open, with direct clashes between groups affiliated with the two apparent allies coming soon.
Adding further complexity is the fact that every faction fighting for its slice of the Northern Syria pie is simultaneously straining to keep ‘back channels’ open in case of completely different outcomes. America’s role is particularly striking, having long given extensive support and cover to the SDF, and now abruptly providing the Turks with air support as well as political support for their attack.
What is not clear is whether American support for Ankara’s military invasion is intended by the Americans to simply keep the flames of the conflict going on both sides, in order to gain from it later, or whether it came out of fear of a possible rapprochement between Turkey, Russia and Iran, which would have meant a Turkish rapprochement with Bashar al Assad.
For its part, the SDF wants to preserve its very close relationship with the Americans, even as it maintains its options for an alliance with the Russians and keeps intact a thin thread of basic contact with the Syrian regime.
And as for the relationship between Syria and Turkey: it is wrapped in total opacity, particularly now that there are more and more reports suggesting an ongoing exchange of intelligence at ‘high levels’ between the two countries. In this light, it is interesting to note that up to the present, the Syrian government has contented itself with issuing statements denouncing the Turkish attack on its territory, and has not for example tried to take the issue before the UN security council. Though some have suggested that Syria has not bothered complaining to the UN due to the Adana security agreements signed in 1998 between the two countries, other believe what we may be seeing at present is a ‘hidden coordination’ between the two countries against a new ‘Kurdish peril.’
It perhaps need not be said that the “Kurdish Peril” is a Turkish obsession, an issue perceived as an existential threat to Turkey, and thus constitutes an entirely valid political motive for their invasion of Syrian land. But there are other calculations which should not be dismissed out of hand, additional factors which may have dragged Turkey into the Syrian quagmire: the presence of Turkish troops across the Syrian border will for example give Ankara far more weight in the final outcome of the conflict, likely to be imposed following negotiations between the Russians and the Americans.
On the ground, in Jarablus and its environs, events quickly spiraled into an all-out and grinding war between the Turks and the Kurds, a continuation on Syrian ground of the longtime historic conflict between the two sides. Although it is the allies of the YPG who are on the front lines of the ongoing battles between the Turks and their adversaries in Syria, the fingerprints of the group’s fighters are present in every detail.
Kurdish missiles have found their way to Diyarbakir airport in southeastern Turkey, and in Jarablus Turkish tanks have already experienced the Kurdish anti-armor units. And conversely, Turkish warplanes have bombed civilian buildings, killing dozens of people in an area that Kurdish sources have assured Al-Akhbar was outside of the conflict zone; the villages the Turkish military is now bombing had been designated a neutral zone by all sides in the conflict because they were ‘areas for displaced persons and refugees.’
Among others, the Turkish bombs have killed refugees for Al-Arima village. Rumors that the Jarablus Military Council was using them as civilian human shields are completely untrue, sources tell us; 37 civilians from Arima, Al Sairissat and Bir al Koussa were killed, and the number of casualties may well increase, given the large number of severely injured victims, among them numerous women and children.
Turkish President Recep Tayyib Erdogan seems determined to take this opportunity to permanently erase the Kurdish presence along the border between Syria and Turkey. He reiterated in a statement on Sunday his intention to “continue all operations aiming at eradicating the terrorist separatist PKK group”.
To which the SDF replied that they were prepared to wage the battle all the way “to the end,” continuing what they called “Kurdish-Syrian resistance to the Turkish occupation.” Rizan Haddou of the Syrian Democratic Council [which oversees the SDF]told Al-Akhbar that those who are now fighting the Turkish Army are a Syrian resistance; while most of them are Kurds, they include such diverse Syrian groups as the Kataib Shams Al-Shamal [Northern Sun Battalions], the Seljuk Brigade [Syrian Turkmen], the Army of the Revolutionaries, and the Brigade of the democratic North. The latter, Haddou said, is a brigade of fighters from [Arab] Idlib who have announced their unflinching resolve to support the resistance to Turkish occupation.
Haddou said that Turkey’s plans for northern Syria are clearly to “copy what Israel did in South Lebanon: a military occupation followed by the use of local proxy militias to manage the occupation,” he said. “The Turks want to occupy the region, which they are going to call a “security zone’ or something to that effect, after which they might well proceed with a referendum that aims to annex it to Turkey. But they will not succeed.”
Haddou insisted that the goal of the SDF is to ‘preserve the integrity of Syrian territory, and its sovereignty. That is our answer to all of those who are trying to take advantage of the depressing events in Hasaka.” [another Kurdish majority region of Syria in which savage fighting broke out this month between regime troops and Kurdish militias, not long after the area emerged from ISIS menace.]“Erdogan’s Aleppo fantasy,” Haddou said, “is the ultimate engine of Turkey’s invasion. The [Syrian Jihadi groups] who are attacking Aleppo from the south are the allies of Ankara; they are supporting the invasion of Jarablus, and are planning to link up toward [the central Syrian province of Idlib], allowing them to put Aleppo between the jaws of a plier.
Finally, the SDF says that in spite of recent events, their alliance with the Americans against DAESH [ISIS] continues. “American and French advisors are still present, sharing their expertise with us, and advising us in our battles against DAESH,” Haddou said, adding that, “we have demanded that the international coalition open an investigation and expose what happened in these massacres committed by the Turkish occupiers.”
Sohaib Enjrainy Translated from Arabic by International Boulevard
31 Aug 2016