Turks, Kurds clash over ethnic cleansing claims

Turkey and the Kurds are not only fighting on the frontlines in Afrin, they are engaged in a war of words over claims of ethnic cleansing in the Syrian enclave.

Kurds have taken to social media saying one of the key aims of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s military offensive, now in its second week, is to displace Kurds and end their political sway over the territories. That would weaken the People’s Protection Force (YPG) and strengthen Sunni jihadist groups allied with Turkey.

Turkey denies the allegations, saying a buffer zone it is seeking to establish with Operation Olive Branch will create the conditions for the safe return of Syrian refugees and protect the population of the northern areas, which it says is now majority Sunni Arab.

Former U.S. officials are concerned. Michael Rubin, previously an adviser at the Pentagon and an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), said Turkey's aims in Afrin are clear:

"Turkey has moved into Afrin not to fight terrorism — because Afrin isn’t a centre of terrorism — but rather as part of its obsessive and unhinged campaign against Kurds," he said in an analysis for AEI on Jan. 29. "What Turkey seeks to do in Afrin is not eradicate terrorism but rather to engage in ethnic cleansing."


Erdoğan said last week the area is now 55 percent Arab and 35 percent Kurdish, with the remainder being Turkmens.

“First, we will wipe out terrorism and then make the place liveable. For whom? For 3.5 million Syrians who are our guests” in Turkey, he said in a speech.

Former U.S. envoy Alberto Fernandez picked up on the Turkish president's words.

“Of course, Erdoğan's operations in Afrin are aimed at uprooting Kurds (not just YPG). But relying on what he and his cabal clearly say, his ambitions seem to be clearly hostile to the United States and its regional interests,” he said on Twitter.

The United States has armed and trained the YPG with great success in battles against Islamic State (ISIS) – the group was instrumental in re-taking Raqqa late last year and continues to fight the extreme jihadist group.

Turkey says the YPG and its political wing, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), are part of the same military and political group as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), recognised as a terrorist group by the United States and European Union. Turkey says the YPG is no longer focused on ISIS, but rather expanding its territory, which also include Manbij, and is engaged in their own ethnic cleansing.

“The Kurds of Syria form 8 percent of the population, but the United States has let the PKK invade 25 to 30 percent of Syrian territory,” Ilnur Çevik, a senior adviser to Erdogan, said in a column for the Daily Sabah newspaper on Tuesday.

“Turkey aims to stamp out the PKK from Syria and hand over the lands back to their rightful owners, the Arabs, Turkmen and the Kurds,” he said.

In 2015, Turkey abandoned peace talks with the PKK and embarked on a military crackdown against armed Kurdish youths holed up in its southeastern cities, flattening scores of buildings and expelling residents. Turkey says the operation was needed to stem the unrest, but some political analysts suspect Erdoğan was motivated by a general election, which resulted in his party losing its legislative majority and a pro-Kurdish party entering parliament. The poll was re-run after coalition talks failed and fighting had erupted, and Erdoğan secured a majority.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan speaks to his deputies

After restoring his party’s position in parliament, Erdoğan led a political crackdown against the Kurds, which resulted in the seizure of Kurdish municipality seats across the southeast and the jailing of pro-Kurdish deputies and human rights activists, all on charges of terrorism.

The Kurds claim Erdoğan's track record toward the Kurdish minority shows his intentions in Syria.

"When the Kurdish question is not solved in Turkey, the question kind of moved to Syria," the European Parliament's Turkey rapporteur Kati Piri told Ahval in an interview. "A large part of your (Turkey's) population with Kurdish origin have legitimate demands, therefore the domestic issue became a foreign policy issue."

Piri added that Turkey's focus on Kurdish groups in Syria meant it would be less focused on ISIS, the primary security threat for the EU.

"After decades of fighting with the PKK, now moving this fight to Syria, I can imagine that ISIS is not its priority. This also showed itself in the international coalition against ISIS that Turkish government’s priority was never ISIS."

Turkey, helped by jihadist former Al-Nusra Front fighters, has vowed swift victory in Syria, It has fought a three-decade war against the PKK at the loss of more than 30,000 lives, most of them Kurdish,

Sixty-seven civilians have been killed by Turkish forces since the start of the operation in Afrin, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.