Turkey invades Syria: escalating war on Kurds

Rojava february2014

On 24 August 2016 Turkey launched an invasion of Syria with tanks, several hundred Turkish soldiers and 1,500 fighters from the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The invasion force entered the town of Jarablus with US drones in attendance, feeding information to the Turkish forces. Turkey’s defence minister, Fikri Isit, said the intention was to degrade Islamic State (IS) and ‘prevent the Democratic Union Party (PYD) from uniting Kurdish cantons’. IS had controlled Jarablus for three years; it left the town without a fight. Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) executive member Murat Karayilan explained, ‘IS evacuated the area between Jarablus and Azaz, so what is happening is an exchange rather than a military operation’; IS and the Turkish government made a deal.

Locals reported IS fighters travelling from Jarablus across the border to Turkey and donning FSA uniforms. As Hisyar Ozsoy MP, from the predominantly Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) in Turkey, put it, ‘This is not an operation to rescue the town of Jarablus from IS…This is an operation to rescue IS from Kurdish forces, who last week captured the town of Manbij and defeated IS.’ In the name of fighting IS, Turkey has escalated its war against the Kurds. Trevor Rayne reports.

By 31 August Turkish artillery had killed 50 civilians in the area south of Jarablus. Kurds in the cantons (administrative areas) of Kobane and Afrin of Rojava (northern Syria/west Kurdistan) have been attacked by the Turkish army and its FSA allies. Turkey’s Prime Minister, Binali Yildirim, said, ‘We will never allow a Kurdish entity from forming on our southern border. We see it as a threat to our national security.’ US officials called on the Turkish state to exercise restraint, but Turkey’s President Erdogan said ‘We are going to continue [operations in Syria] until we eradicate PYD. We are supporting FSA in every way.’ Kobane’s deputy foreign minister Idris Nissan warned ‘[The Kurds] consider this to be an obvious aggression. Turkey will suffer a lot of losses and although it is the one who decided to come into Syria, it is not the one who will decide when to leave.’

Following the failed coup attempt on 15 July 2015 (see FRFI 252 August/September 2016) Turkish government ministers and officials held a series of meetings with representatives of the Russian, Iranian, Syrian, Israeli and US governments. Turkey prepared the diplomatic ground before launching its long-standing invasion plan. Russia is likely to have informed the Syrian government before the invasion took place. Masoud Barzani, President of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq, was in Turkey just before the invasion. The KRG has close economic ties to Turkey and together with the Turkish government enforces a blockade on Rojava. US Vice President Joe Biden was in Turkey when the invasion was underway.

The Turkish, Syrian, Iranian and Iraqi states were formed after the First World War, in part, on the basis of the suppression of Kurdish rights. In recent years, the Kurdish struggle has gathered momentum and is now viewed as a threat by all four Middle Eastern states and, consequently, by the powers that back these states. At the same time, the Kurds have proven to be the most effective fighters on the ground against IS and have received US air support. For the US, the intention must be to constrain the Kurdish struggle to serve US imperialist purposes.      

With the Syrian civil war starting in 2011 the Kurds took the opportunity of declaring autonomy for Rojava in 2012. They neither sided with the Ba’ath government nor with the imperialists seeking to overthrow it. They have developed their movement as an alternative to both: the democratic revolutionary path (see FRFI 237 February/March 2014). The Turkish government responded by demanding a ‘safe zone’, purportedly for Syrian refugees, and a no-fly zone in northern Syria, across the border from Turkey. Both of these would increase Turkey’s influence in Syria and challenge the Kurds’ autonomous Rojava. Turkey also declared the Euphrates River to be a ‘red line’ which Kurdish forces must not cross. When the Kurds successfully defended Kobane and expelled IS in January 2015, the Turkish government prepared for war against the Kurds in Turkey and Syria. In June 2015 Kurdish-led forces successfully liberated Tal Abyad in Syria from IS occupation. Tal Abyad was a channel for supplies and recruits to jihadi organisations from Turkey to Syria. In March 2016 Rojava’s Kurds proposed a federal political system in Syria which would grant autonomy to Kurds and to other ethnic groups. On 12 August 2016 the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), in which the YPG/YPJ (Women’s Protection Units) are predominant, liberated Manbij after IS forces had resisted for 75 days. Manbij is west of the Euphrates. The SDF was heading for Jarablus. The Kurds were consolidating military and political gains; the Turkish state decided to act.       

There appears to have been Turkish coordination with the Syrian government. On 18 August the Syrian Air Force attacked the YPG/YPJ in Hasakah province in north east Syria, killing several civilians. This was the first Syrian Air Force attack on the Kurds in five years of the civil war. A battle ensued in which 77 Syrian government forces and paramilitaries were killed and 170 captured alive. 14 YPG/YPJ fighters were also killed. The US warned the Syrian Air Force not to attack.

On 20 August 2016 a wedding in Gaziantep in south east Turkey was attacked by a suicide bomber and 53 people were killed, about half of them were children. The HDP said it was the latest in a series of attacks on its members. The Turkish government used the slaughter to justify its invasion of Syria.

US sets out role for the Kurds

The US values the Kurds commitment against IS, but wants to support Turkey. This can lead to seemingly contradictory positions. Arriving in Ankara, Turkey’s capital, on 24 August, just after the Turkish invasion began, the US Vice President said, ‘No corridor, period. No separate [Kurdish] entity on the Turkish border…They [Kurdish guerrillas] must go back across the [Euphrates]. They cannot, and will not, receive American support if they do not.’ A week later, the head of US Central Command, General Joseph Votel, said that US support for the Kurds would remain as long as they fought IS. He said that the SDF was not just Kurds but includes Arabs, Turkmen and others that ‘really are proving to be the force that is most capable against IS in that part of the theatre’. He added that ‘The Kurds, for the most part, the portion of the Kurds that are part of the SDF, are on the east side of the Euphrates River at this time. They have lived up to their commitment to us.’ Cautioning Turkey, Votel said, ‘When they [Turks] began to focus on something other than IS then I think we had to withdraw our support for that.’ If Turkey focuses on IS the US supports them.

US Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter IS, Brett McGurk, visited officials from the SDF and YPG/YPJ in Kobane on 5 September. McGurk reportedly assured them that the US will continue supporting the Democratic Forces on the ground against IS. He previously visited Turkish officials in Ankara and evaluated Turkey's attacks on Rojava. For the Kurds, the hint of betrayal by the US is a familiar experience. They cannot be expected to limit their struggle to serving as loyal foot soldiers for US imperialism in the Middle East.    

How long will Turkey stay in Syria?

Following the initial invasion Turkey has added to its tanks and soldiers in Syria. Since 2011 the Turkish state has consistently called for the overthrow of the Ba’athist government in Syria and removal of President Assad. In recent weeks Turkey has modified these demands and suggested that Assad could play a transitional role in establishing a new Syrian government. Turkey’s priority is to limit and weaken the Kurds and to do this it needs more influence in Syria and the support of the US and Russia. Turkey’s proposed safe zone and no-fly zone would, if implemented, prevent the Kurds from uniting the three Rojava cantons. It would require the stationing of Turkish forces and their militia allies in positions from which to attack Rojava and the Kurds. Turkey’s allies are part of, or are connected to, the jihadist Jabhat Al Nusra and IS. YPG/YPJ figures for August record 17 Turkish army attacks on Rojava, including one air strike. On 2 September the Turkish army attacked people protesting against Turkey building a wall along the border of Kobane and Turkey, injuring 80 civilians. Three people were killed. On 5 September Turkish forces attacked a Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (YPG) post in Rojava. The YPG retaliated and killed a Turkish soldier; the first Turkish soldier to die at the hands of the YPG. The following day Turkish forces attacked Kurdish villages outside Kobane city with heavy artillery and killed a YPG combatant. Kurds have a right to self-defence. The prospects for escalating conflict are menacingly high. Kobane is being put under siege.

US strategists for the Middle East may approve of a plan to divide Syria. In 2012 Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Danny Ayalon, foresaw ‘Syria’s fragmentation into provinces…the formation of an Alawite district in the coastal region…a Sunni province…and a Kurdish province in northern Syria.’ However, a Kurdish region led by the PYD and YPG/YPJ would not be acceptable because it would be democratic, against patriarchy and sectarianism, and it would establish a model of autonomy and socialist government that challenges the ruling classes in all four states in to which the Kurds were partitioned after the First World War. A subordinate Syrian Kurdish movement resembling Barzani’s KRG would be acceptable to the local states and imperialism.

The Kurdish guerrilla struggle in Turkey continues to take its toll on Turkey’s army and police. The Diyarbakir Human Rights Association reported that 1,552 people, including soldiers and police, militants and civilians were killed in Kurdish areas of Turkey in the year after 24 July 2015. Special security zones were declared 87 times and curfews declared in 35 districts. 7,884 people, including 275 children, were taken into custody. Torture and collective punishments, including destruction of villages, are common. Selahattin Demirtas, co-chair of HDP, faces prosecution for promoting ‘terrorist propaganda’ and could be jailed for five years if convicted. Ozgur Gundem, Turkey’s largest Kurdish newspaper, has been closed by the state. On 5 September 2016, after not hearing from the imprisoned leader of the PKK, Abdullah Ocalan, since 5 April 2015, 50 Kurdish politicians, including MPs, launched an indefinite and irreversible hunger strike in Diyarbakir until they receive news from him. If the Turkish state does not respond to the demand a political volcano will erupt.

President Erdogan and the Turkish government may have made a big mistake by marching into Syria. Already wounded and weakened by the 15 July coup attempt, the Turkish state is opening up new fronts against what is developing into a people’s war that could envelop and sink it.