Jan 07 2019

Is Erdoğan’s latest Syria incursion a political move?

The Turkish military’s expected military campaign in northern Syria is unlikely to garner any great strategic advantage, so it might be really about appealing to nationalist Turks in the lead-up to Turkey’s March elections, reported the Arab Weekly.

The Syrian Kurdish forces, People's Protection Units (YPG), aims to develop a 100,000-strong military in Rojava, its autonomous region in northern Syria -- which should concern Ankara, not to mention Damascus.

But, according to Irish journalist Stephen Starr writing in The Arab Weekly, the Kurdish threat to Turkey all but evaporated after the 2016 terrorist attacks by separatists in Ankara and Istanbul. “Neither attack was linked to Kurdish movements in Syria,” Starr wrote. “Homegrown Kurdish resistance was crushed by military operations in south-eastern Turkey in 2015 and 2016 and, since then, it’s been largely dormant.”

Perhaps more importantly, the YPG and its backers have “brought an unprecedented level of stability and security to the regions they control,” said Starr. The YPG is doing so well because it has the broad support of local civilians, including several powerful Arab tribes in Rojava.

Locals do not support the Islamic State (ISIS), Jabhat al-Nusra, and pro-regime forces because of their brutality, said Arab Weekly -- a path the Kurdish militias have not pursued.

With Baghdad and Damascus failing to provide public services and stability, Kurdish forces have proven an important bulwark against the chaos created by ISIS. “Unquestionably, Syria, Turkey, Europe and the wider world are safer from jihadist attacks thanks to the Kurdish militias that brought about the territorial defeat of ISIS in Raqqa in 2017,” Starr wrote.

But maintaining Syria’s borders is one of the few topics that unite the Syrian regime, its opposition and Ankara. This is why Kurdish aspirations for autonomy have little support. Even fellow Kurds in neighbouring Iraqi Kurdistan broadly oppose the efforts.

Anyone who has spent time in Turkey recently knows that Kurdish nationalism in general and the YPG, in particular, are regarded with deep distrust, even scorn. Ankara sees the YPG as the Syrian wing of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has fought the Turkish state since 1984 and is labelled as a terrorist organisation by the United States and European Union.

Overall, Turks are fiercely opposed to Kurdish autonomy — ardent liberals, religious conservatives and almost everyone in between. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan aims to exploit this with military incursions into Kurdish-ruled parts of Syria.

“By warring with the Kurds, Erdoğan seeks to appease and secure the political support of Turkey’s powerful ultranationalist politicians and their followers,” Starr wrote. “The soon-to-be-announced operation east of the Euphrates River becomes particularly timely, even strategic, with Turks set to vote in local elections in March.”

The U.S.'s planned withdrawal from Syria will be conditioned upon Turkey agreeing to protect Kurdish fighters in the region who have been pivotal to battling ISIS, U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton said on Sunday.

Despite this, Starr expects Washington to choose Turkey over Kurdish forces in Syria, even when doing so will slow democratic transformation in Syria since the Kurds have been spearheading the social developments. Ankara’s expected operation could see Kurdish civilians in northern Syria flee or rebel, potentially causing a bloodbath in Rojava.

“The cost in lives to Kurdish fighters and civilians, as well as Turkish soldiers, far outweighs any meaningful strategic advantage the operation would bring,” wrote Starr. “The destruction of the YPG and Kurdish governance structures would greatly damage progressive forces in the region...Despite the important efforts they’ve aided in recent years, Syria’s Kurds may yet again be abandoned.”