Michael MacKenzie
Mar 25 2018

Turkish military activities ramp up across southern border

After Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch cross-border offensive into Syria sealed a powerful victory over Kurdish militias in Afrin on Sunday, reports and speculation about Ankara’s next moves have been prominent in the Arab media.

The Syrian writer Bakr Sidqi’s column for the pan-Arab Al-Quds Al-Araby asked what would happen to the northwest Syrian canton of Afrin now that it has been captured and occupied by Turkish forces and their Arab militia allies.

Afrin had been under control of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and its political wing, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) since the civil war compelled Syrian regime forces to withdraw from the majority-Kurdish area in 2012.

Sidqi’s thoughts on the future of Afrin reflect Syrians’ uncertainty and pessimism over their country that has been devastated by seven years of civil war and is currently under the influence of competing international powers.

The Syrian writer refers to bellicose nationalist propaganda and rhetoric from Turkey, including the widely advertised March 23 release of a film, “Bordo Bereliler 2” set during the Afrin campaign. Sidqi notes the “record speed” of the film’s production, allowing for a release just five days after the fighting, and coverage in other media sources describing Turkey’s victory as a “conquest”.

Sidqi also touches on a rise in recent discussions of the renewal of the “Misak-i Milli”, or National Pact, a set of resolutions agreed in the last days of the empire by Ottoman officers, including republican founder Mustafa Kemal, as they rallied to resist foreign occupation and preserve remaining Ottoman territories, including some areas that eventually became parts of Syria and Iraq.

The “symbolic density” of this rhetoric around Afrin may indicate “a desire to annex the region to Turkey,” wrote Sidqi, noting Turkish presidential spokesperson İbrahim Kalın’s declaration that Turkey would not return Afrin to Syrian President Bashar Assad.

“If this supposed annexation scenario is correct, it means Afrin will be gifted to Turkey by the Russian, as Iskenderun province was the gift of the French occupier,” wrote Sidqi, referring to Hatay, a province that was ceded to Turkish control after a referendum in 1939, while Syria was under French mandate control. “Thus the history of our stricken country repeats itself.”

Activists in Tel Rifaat, a subdistrict a short distance to the east of Afrin, were far more welcoming to Turkey’s military incursion, and news that Olive Branch would come to a close without extending to their area prompted demonstrations by locals calling for Turkish forces to capture the area, Syrian non-profit news organisation Enab Baladi reported on Thursday.

Tel Rifaat has been under the control of the YPG and affiliated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) since 2016, when they captured the Arab-majority area from Turkish-backed rebels with the help of Russian air support.

The area’s capture was followed by allegations of the forced displacement of tens of thousands of the Arab and Turkmen population.

The activists calling for a Turkish capture of Tel Rifaat include members of the country’s Syrian rebel allies, the Free Syrian Army, who have declared their readiness to participate in a battle for the area, Enab Baladi reported.  

The demonstrations, which continued on Friday, reportedly included placards condemning Turkey for its lack of action. Meanwhile, areas adjacent to Tel Rifaat have reportedly been taken under control by Syrian government forces, which took the opportunity presented by Turkey’s invasion to renew their presence near Afrin.

A stumbling block for a potential Turkish drive into Tel Rifaat may be the presence there of Russian troops, Turkish state media organ TRT World reported on Mar. 15. The Russian forces withdrew to the area from their observer posts around Afrin at Turkey’s request, shortly before the launch of Olive Branch on Jan. 20.

This report echoes other signs of unrest among Arab populations of areas controlled by the YPG, including demonstrations in Manbij by members of the Al-Bobna tribe, reported earlier this month.

Also widely reported this week were Turkey’s activities in northern Iraq, where Turkish troops have been deployed to the Sidakan area, leading daily pan-Arab newspaper Al-Hayat said last week.

Al Hayat quoted a local district administrator, who said Turkish forces had “established fixed positions in the area between Iraq, Iran and Turkey," and that he expected the deployment would be long term.

A town mayor quoted by Al Hayat reported that the Turkish forces had established 12 “military barracks” in the area and had already clashed with militants from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The Turkish forces reportedly employed heavy weapons and aircraft during the confrontations.

Sidakan is situated to the northwest of the Qandil Mountains, which is known as a sanctuary and headquarters of the PKK. The armed Kurdish group has been in intermittent conflict with Turkish armed forces for decades, since launching a separatist insurgency in Turkey in 1984, and has built up strong networks and affiliate groups in neighbouring countries including Syria.

While Qandil is an important PKK sanctuary, and the group has a presence in the surrounding areas, the predominantly Kurdish northern Iraq is governed by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), which on Thursday called on PKK fighters to safeguard civilian lives from intensified Turkish air strikes by leaving inhabited areas in the region, local media company Nalia Radio and Television (NRT) reported on Thursday.

The heightened Turkish military activities in the area has led Giyath al-Surji, the leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), to state that Turkey is on the verge of launching a large-scale military operation targeting PKK fighters in Iraq.

“Turkish ground forces, after recently arriving in areas bordering Iraq, have made sorties into border areas in preparation for a large Turkish force to launch a large anti-PKK security operation in the Qandil mountains in Sulaymaniyah and Jabal Sinjar in Mosul,” Iraqi newspaper Azzaman quoted Surji as saying on Monday.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan would later explicitly threaten such an incursion, saying on Thursday “one night we will suddenly enter Sinjar and we will clean that up as well.”

The statement was met by condemnation by the Iraqi central government, however, it appears to have had the desired effect on the PKK, which announced its withdrawal from Sinjar on Friday.