Ergun Babahan
Jul 16 2019

​​​​​​​Turkey ups pressure on Kurds as U.S. sanctions loom

The news that Turkey had received its first shipment of Russian S-400 missile components on Friday was accompanied by reports that could be just as portentous - of large-scale Turkish troop deployments to the border with Syria.

Turkey’s acquisition of the S-400s is bound to provoke repercussions from the United States, but the possibility of a Turkish attack on the Kurdish dominated autonomous region in northern Syria known as Rojava could have even further reaching consequences.

Settlements along the border, like al-Malikiyah in the northeastern tip of Syria and Cizre in southeast Turkey, are at times so close that they seem to be two suburbs of the same city. But you would need more than just a passport to travel between them.

Turkey views the predominantly Kurdish militias and administrations that govern Rojava as extensions of outlawed militant groups that it considers terrorists. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been angling to clear them away from the border, either through the creation of an internationally mediated safe zone, or through a Turkish cross-border military operation.

The news of the troop build-up has made the latter option more likely, but neither the Kurdish civilian, nor military inhabitants of al-Malikiyah seem particularly concerned – a composure that comes from having already spent years in an unforgiving conflict.

“If there’s an attack, we’ll resist and defend ourselves,” said one of the locals. They have the means to do so, with as many as 100,000 fighters mobilised in the Rojava areas, including those tasked with border security.

But the lack of an air defence system has made continued cooperation with the United States, which allied with the Kurdish groups to defeat Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria, a necessity. Turkey’s current stance could be seen as an attempt to force the U.S. hand.

Nevertheless, U.S. backing has provided a degree of security to the Kurds in Rojava. Kurdish officials in discussions with their U.S. counterparts have informed them that a Turkish assault would leave them no choice but to call Kurdish armed forces away from areas recently captured from ISIS such as Deir al-Zor and Raqqa, leaving the field open for a resurgence of the extremist jihadist organisation.

This is a possibility that Western states do not wish to risk under any circumstances. It is also why Erdoğan, when discussing the cross-border operation last year, was careful to paint it as an effort to target ISIS elements, as well as Syrian Kurdish forces.

ISIS and other dangerous jihadist groups may have lost their territories, but they have not been eradicated. ISIS cells are biding their time and waiting for an opportunity to regroup.

The United States is telling the Kurdish administration in the region that talks with Turkey are continuing and that it will not allow a military assault. But as Kurds have suffered a history of betrayal due to shifting Western interests, they are also cautious about such assurances. 

Kurds also believe that the Turkish government, struggling with economic problems and internationally isolated, could resort to adventures abroad to bolster its position. But any Turkish military operation in Syria carried out without the clear approval and support of the United States would have grave consequences. Therefore, I believe tensions will continue, but not turn into an outright assault.

It seems that Turkey has been following a triple strategy since it decided to try again to resolve the Kurdish question by military means in 2015. One front is to try to destroy the headquarters of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Qandil in northern Iraq and to replace them with Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga forces. That would require not only U.S. approval and the cooperation of Iraqi Kurdish authorities, but also the consent of Iran. The other strategies are holding Rojava continuously under siege and to tie Iraqi Kurdistan to Turkey in the long run in some way. 

Though Iraq on paper still has territorial and administrative unity, it has in effect been divided. Turkey has expanded its presence in Kurdistan and cooperated with the Iraqi Kurds. There is not much the Iraqi government can do to stop it.

The Kurdistan government in northern Iraq wants to guarantee its future by selling its oil through Turkey and by cooperating with the Turkish Armed Forces against the PKK. Turkey has a say in every critical decision related to the region and the Iraqi Kurdish government is always keeping an eye on Ankara.

But as countries in the region have failed to solve their problems within the framework of democracy and the rule of law, international powers have become a part of the equation as a result and this in turn does not guarantee that plans once implemented will succeed. It is more likely that they will lead to deeper problems. 

The outlook is tangled and messy. Turkey, despite pressures, continues to cooperate in Syria with Russia, but the pair have big differences over Idlib, the last major rebel-held enclave in Syria, as well as over Cyprus, where Turkey has stepped up efforts to drill for gas.

Turkey is also is carrying out a military operation against the PKK in Iraq coordinated with the United States, which is to expel Turkey from the programme to help make its latest F-35 stealth fighter jets and will impose sanctions over Ankara’s decision to acquire Russian missiles.

In Syria, the positions of the two NATO allies differ. Turkey’s relations with Europe have been reduced to threats to send Syrian refugees to the West. The unstable status quo can collapse quickly and Turkey could find itself in an impossible situation.