Danger to Rojava as United States Threatens to Stab Kurdish Allies in the Back
Danger to Rojava as United States Threatens to Stab Kurdish Allies in the Back
Washington stands by Turkey while expecting the Kurds to help fight tough battles against Islamist militants in Syria
The democratic organisation of society in Syrian Kurdistan stands in marked contrast to the Erdogan and Assad dictatorships, ISIS and the Israeli state. It is a beacon of hope in a region without much hope. The equality of women, with 40% of its fighting forces made up of women, stands in marked contrast to the feudal barbarism of ISIS and Ahrar al-Sham and the other US sponsored jihadi groups in Syria.
The United States has
used the Kurdish YPG (People’s Protection Units) of the Kurdish Democratic
Party (PYD) as their foot soldiers in the battle against ISIS. It was always an unholy alliance since the
United States is not interested in the liberation of the Kurdish people or
indeed any people in the region.
Rojava – Kurdish Autonomous Enclave in Syria
The alliance was
however useful for the Kurdish people as the YPG would not have managed to have
ousted ISIS from Kobane over a year ago without the help of US air
support. However the US has many other
fish to fry in the Syrian quagmire.
Things are now
looking very dangerous for the Kurds and that is why western solidarity with
the Kurdish struggle is so important.
The Assad regime,
which historically has brutally suppressed the Kurds was forced during the
civil war to withdraw from Rojava, the Kurdish autonomous region and even have
a non-aggression pact as the Syrian Army came under sustained attack. With the strengthening by Russia of the Assad
regime’s position and the new de facto alliance between Assad and the Turkish
dictator Erdogan, the Kurdish position is under direct threat.
It was to forestall
the two parts of Rojava uniting that the Turkish military in conjunction with
Arab forces under US command has attacked and captured the town of Jarablus
from ISIS. Although this was ISIS’s main
outlet to the outside world in Syria, the main purpose of the attack was to
forestall the unification of Rojava. Turkey
does not want to seen an independent Kurdish statelet on its border.
This picture taken from the Turkish Syrian border city of Karkamis on August 24, 2016 shows smoke following air strikes by a Turkish Army jet fighter on the Syrian Turkish border village of Jarabulus.Bulent Kilic, AFP
between Turkey and the USA, the position of Turkey in NATO is of some
importance to the USA, especially given the recent raprochment of Erdogan and
the Russians. The Kurds in other words
are facedd with the prospect of a united from consisting of Assad, Erdogan and
the Russians to some extent against them.
It was into this configuration of power politics that US Vice President
Jo Biden has appeared to make it clear to the Kurds that they should abandon
all hope of uniting Rojava and to stay clear of the eastern banks of the
Euphrates. Once again the Kurds are at
the mercy of the power play of larger forces in the region, forces they had
hoped to play off against each other.
However both Erdogan and Assad have an interest in opposing Kurdish autonomy.
Erdogan has also, separately, made his peace with Israel and thus stabbed the Palestinians of Gaza in the back too.
Secretary of State
John Kerry’s threat was unequivocal. If the Kurds did not pull back east of the
Euphrates River, the United States would not help them, he said.
It is unlikely that
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is relying on this threat. More
important, will the Kurds heed it, and in exchange for what?
YPG in Tel Abyad
One day after the
threat, the Kurdish forces also withdrew from Manbij, Syria, one of the Islamic
State’s most important strongholds, which had been taken by Kurdish forces
under cover of American air support in a battle that won them accolades for
their important victory.
“It’s a slap in the
face to the Kurds,” Erwin Stran, a U.S. volunteer who fought with the Syrian
Democratic Forces against the Islamic State organization, told ARA News, a
Kurdish press agency covering northern Syria and the Kurdish areas.
A Turkish army tank and an armored vehicle are stationed near the border with Syria, Karkamis, Turkey, August 23, 2016.IHA via AP
The SDF was
established by the United States as an alliance of Kurdish, Arab and other
militias to blur the organization’s Kurdish character — necessary to allow
Washington to continue to support the Kurds without overly angering Turkey.
But now it seems that
the Kurds are once again paying in blood for the complex and tense relationship
between Ankara and Washington.
An official in the
Kurdish administration in Iraq told Haaretz that the American threat “conveys a
frustrating and dangerous message not only to the Kurds in Syria but to the
entire Kurdish people, who are spilling blood in the war against ISIS and were relying
on the U.S. government to stand by them.”
Pro-Ankara Syrian opposition fighters moving two kilometers west from the Syrian Turkish border town of Jarabulus.Bulent Kilic / AFP
forces in Syria seek to establish an autonomous region and that is their
right,” he said. “They paid and are paying a heavy price to create
territorial contiguity in Syria that they need to establish an autonomous
“That was clear
to the Americans from the outset and they said nothing when the Kurds declared
Kurdish autonomy in Syria. Now they have decided to stand with Turkey and at
the same time they expect the Kurds to continue helping in the war against
Turkey, which has
changed its attitude about direct military involvement in Syria after years of
helping Islamic State and other extremist militias, is holding a major means of
The renewal of ties
between Turkey and Russia and the establishment of a commission for military,
intelligence and political cooperation between the two countries has earned
But at the same time,
Turkey can threaten to withhold cooperation with the United States if the
latter allows the Kurds to establish an autonomous region on its border with
Turkey can also
pressure Washington to extradite Turkish Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom
Turkey claims was behind the recent failed coup.
The United States is
not anxious to extradite Gulen, but it began legal discussions with Ankara this
week to examine the evidence against him and it may be assumed that the threat
against the Kurds is part and parcel of efforts to ease the diplomatic tension.
But there are two more
heavyweights in this muddy arena. Over the past year, Russia has become an ally
of the Kurds in Syria and was even able to mediate between them and the Syrian
alliance blossomed in the wake of the crisis between Turkey and Russia after
the downing by Turkey of a Russian Sukhoi aircraft in November 2015.
But even after the
two countries reconciled, Russia did not abandon the Kurds. Last week Moscow
initiated a cease-fire between the Syrian regime and the Kurds in the Hasakah
region in northeastern Syria.
According to the
terms, the Syrians could maintain a symbolic police force in two cities of
Hasakah and Qamishli, the two sides would trade prisoners and the dead, and the
Kurds would be in charge de facto of security in those cities.
workers who had been dismissed due to the war would return to work and
negotiations even began over the “Kurdish problem.”
Ostensibly this was
“merely” a local accord, but its special importance is that it strengthened the
standing of Russia, which, unlike the United States, can establish a
cease-fire, create “areas of quiet” and translate its aerial assaults into
achievements on the ground.
According to Syrian
media reports, Russia is trying to change Turkey’s position vis-a-vis Syrian
President Bashar Assad, and agree to his remaining in office at least until
elections can be held.
This initiative has
already seen partial success with Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim’s
declaration that Assad is an important player in the Syrian crisis and Turkey
could agree to his remaining temporarily in office.
Iran is trying to
encourage Turkey, and worked behind the scenes to further Turkish-Russian
reconciliation. Iran sees the axis of Russia-Turkey-Iran leading diplomatic
initiatives to resolve the crisis. The importance of this axis to Iran is not
only the chance of ending the war, but also to neutralize diplomatic moves by Saudi
Arabia, Tehran’s bitter adversary, and to distance Turkey from the Sunni
coalition that Saudi King Salman has established. Iran’s realpolitik approach
is unimpressed by the fact that Russia is an “infidel” state and that Turkey is
Sunni. Iran has already proven that when the need arises, it is prepared to
cooperate with any entity that serves its interests, including the United
States, with which it signed the nuclear agreement.
rapprochement comes at a political cost. That has recently manifested itself in
verbal blows exchanged between Iranian Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan and the
Speaker of the Iranian Parliament, Ali Larijani, over granting permission for
Russian planes to operate from Iran’s Hamedan airfield.
Dehghan said that
since permission was only for takeoffs and landings, no parliamentary approval
was needed, and that parliament should keep its mouth shut in matters that do
not concern it.
that the defense minister “had better avoid statements against parliament and
act according to the customs of the regime.”
The problem worsened
when Dehghan said the Russian planes had stopped operating from the airfield
and Larijani said the opposite.
Russia wants to
establish a regular base in Iran for refueling, bomb storage and a large
technical team, while for now Iran is willing only to allow landings, takeoffs
and refueling. The dispute is wider because Russia is not willing to attack
targets of interest to Iran and does not coordinate its flight destinations
This is not a crisis
in ties between the two countries, but an arm-twisting effort in the context of
Iran’s concern over what it considers Russia’s takeover of Syria. Hence the
importance Iran accords the partnership with Syria and its actions now to sort
things out over Assad’s future.
According to the
Saudi daily Asharq Al-Awsat, Turkey sent a retired general, Ismail Hakki (not
to be confused with the former Turkish chief of staff) to Tehran where he met
with senior Syrian officials.
Hakki was the Turkish
coordinator of the 1998 Adana Agreement that ended the crisis between Turkey
and the Hafez Assad regime in Syria over actions of the Kurdish PKK in Syria.
Washington has no
contribution at all in any of these moves. At the moment it can only prepare
the assault on ISIS in Mosul, Iraq and Raqqah, in Syria.
On those two fronts,
its plans depend on massive cooperation on the part of Kurdish forces. We can
only watch to see how the Kurds will operate after the slap in the face they
received this week.
Syrian rebels retake town with aid from Turkish tanks,
special forces and warplanes. U.S. and Turkey agree to limit Kurdish expansion
to east of Euphrates.
Reuters and The
Associated Press Aug 24, 2016 7:53 PM
forces, tanks and jets backed by planes from the U.S.-led coalition launched
their first co-ordinated offensive into Syria on Wednesday to try to drive
Islamic State from the border and prevent further gains by Kurdish militia
forces said they are in control of Jarablus only hours after Turkey launched a
cross-border operation to help them oust the Islamic State group from the
border town in northern Syria.
factions involved in the fighting announced they had liberated the town from
ISIS, but were still fighting small pockets of militants.
Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the Syrian civil war, says
rebels are in almost full control of Jarablus, adding that ISIS had lost its
last link to the outside world.
Ahmad al-Khatib, an
opposition media activist embedded with the rebels, says they control 90
percent of the town and posted photos of rebels purportedly in the town’s
funeral for the victims of a suicide bombing in Gaziantep
After the takeover of
Jarablus, a Turkish official said the operation in Syria will continue until
Turkey is convinced that threats to its national security were neutralized.
According to the official, the operation aims to permanently stop the influx of
foreign fighters to Syria and cut supply lines to Syrian militias.
The Turkish and
Syrian governments said the cross-border incursion on the town on Jarablus was
backed by U.S. airstrikes. Hundreds of Syrian opposition fighters also joined
the assault. Just hours after the operation began, U.S. Vice President Joe
Biden landed in Ankara.
incursion marked a dangerous escalation in the Syrian conflict — and
demonstrates the twisted rivalries that run through the war.
This picture taken on August 24, 2016 shows a Turkish army tank driving towards Syria in the Turkish-Syrian border city of Karkamis, in the southern region of Gaziantep. Bulent Kilic, AFP
The U.S. has long
pushed for more aggressive action by Turkey against the Islamic State group.
But Turkey’s move to thwart Kurdish ambitions puts it on a path toward
potential confrontation with Kurdish fighters in Syria who are also supported
by the United States and have been the most effective force battling ISIS in
Turkey has been
deeply concerned by the advances of the main U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish
militia, known as the YPG, which after months of taking territory from ISIS is
poised to control nearly the entire Syrian side of the border with Turkey. The
YPG is also linked to Kurdish rebels waging an insurgency in southeastern
Speaking in Ankara, Biden backed Turkey’s demand
for limits on Kurdish expansion. Kurdish forces “must move back across the
Euphrates River. They cannot, will not, under any circumstance get American
support if they do not keep that commitment,” he said.
A senior U.S.
administration official said U.S. advisers have been working closely with
Turkey on plans for the Jarablus operation, providing intelligence and air
cover. The official was not authorized to discuss the military operations
publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the military operation aims to prevent threats from
“terror” groups, including the Islamic State and the YPG. He said the
operation was in response to a string of attacks in Turkey, including an ISIS
suicide bombing at a wedding party near the border which killed 54 people.
A senior official
with the YPG’s political arm warned Turkey will pay the price. Saleh Muslim,
the co-president of the Democratic Union Party or PYD, tweeted that
“Turkey is in Syrian Quagmire. Will be defeated as Daesh” will be. He
used the Arabic language acronym for IS.
Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu accused the Kurds have a secret agenda to establish a
state. “If his (Muslim) intention had been to fight Daesh then he wouldn’t
oppose such an operation… And so the PYD’s secret agenda is out in the open.”
ISIS-held Jarablus is
a key lynchpin in the Turkish-Kurdish rivalry. The town lies on the western
bank of the Euphrates River at the point where it crosses from Turkey into
The YPG and other
Syrian Kurds stand on the east bank of the river, and from there they hold the
entire border with Turkey all the way to Iraq. They also hold parts of the
border further west, so if they ever took control of Jarablus, they would
control almost the entire stretch.
Last month, Kurdish
forces and their allies scored a major victory, crossing west of the Euphrates
to retake the town on Manbij from Islamic State militants. They now say they
will push further west to assault the ISIS-held town of al-Bab.
Turkey codenamed its
cross-border assault “Euphrates Shield,” suggesting the aim was to
keep the YPG east of the Euphrates River.
Minister Binali Yildirim said that in Biden’s talks in Ankara, the two sides
reached agreement that that the Syrian Kurdish forces “should never spread
west of the Euphrates and not enter any kind of activity there.”
Cavusoglu said Syrian
Kurdish forces must cross back to the east side of the Euphrates as soon as
possible. “Otherwise, and I say this clearly, we will do what is
The Syrian government
denounced the Turkish military incursion and called for an immediate end to
what it described as a “blatant violation” of Syrian sovereignty. It
said Turkish tanks and armored vehicles crossed into Syria under the cover of
Turkey has backed
rebels against Syrian President Bashar Assad throughout Syria’s civil war. It
has conducted small, brief special forces operations in the past.
assault was its first major ground incursion.
The operation began
at 4 A.M. with intense Turkish artillery fire on Jarablus, followed by Turkish
warplanes bombing ISIS targets in the town. Then up to 20 tanks and a
contingent of special forces moved across the border, according to Turkey’s
private NTV television and several Syrian opposition activists.
Ahmad al-Khatib, a
Syrian opposition activist embedded with the rebels, said some 1,500 opposition
fighters were involved. He said the fighters come from the U.S.-backed Hamza
brigade, as well as rebel groups fighting government forces in Aleppo, such as
the Nour el-Din el Zinki brigade, the Levant Front, and Failaq al-Sham.
Fighters from the
powerful and ultraconservative Ahrar al-Sham brigade are also present, he said.
Biden’s visit comes
at a difficult time for ties between the two NATO allies. Turkey is demanding
that Washington quickly extradite a U.S.-based cleric blamed for orchestrating
last month’s failed coup while the United States is asking for evidence against
the cleric and that Turkey allow the extradition process to take its course.
But Biden’s comments put Washington and Ankara
on the same page on limiting the advances by the United States’ other main ally
in the conflict, the Syrian Kurds.
The capture of the
town of Manbij last month from ISIS heightened Turkey’s fears. It was seized by
the Kurdish-led group known as the Syria Democratic Forces, or SDF. The U.S.
says it has embedded some 300 special forces with the SDF, and British special
forces have also been spotted advising the group.
The Kurdish takeover
in Manbij and their stated intention to further encroach on ISIS territory
raised the stakes for Ankara, which understood that if it doesn’t act now it
may find a new Kurdish entity on its border.
“We will cleanse the
area of all the terrorists,” declared Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim on
the eve of the Turkish invasion of Syrian territory near the city of
Jarablus. But the Turkish definition of terrorists does not relates solely to
Islamic State operatives or Al-Qaida; it also includes, perhaps primarily, the
Kurdish rebels in Syrian territory that are considered a threat to Turkey.
Herein lies the
paradox of the Turkish military operation. Ostensibly it is a reprisal
operation for the mortar fire from Syrian territory early this week and the
suicide attack that killed 54 people at a wedding in Gaziantep, only a few
dozen kilometers from the battle site. But the Islamic State had committed
large attacks before without drawing a Turkish invasion of Syria. The main
reason for the incursion was to launch a military plan that had already been
drawn up to prevent the Kurds from creating territorial contiguity for
Jarablus is a
relatively small city, but its strategic importance lies in its location
between two districts controlled by Syrian Kurds that have an enclave
controlled by the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) between them.
Until now, that enclave has prevented the two Kurdish districts from merging, a
move that would provide the geographic infrastructure for establishing a
continuous Syrian Kurdish district that could become an independent enclave,
like the Kurdish region in Iraq.
That is why for years
Turkey ignored – and, according to American reports, even assisted – the
logistical traffic of Islamic State fighters and equipment between the little
town of Karkemish, in Turkish territory, and Jarablus on the Syria side. Until
the Turkish attack that began on Wednesday, Jarablus was the only direct
crossing point between the Islamic State enclave and Turkey; this campaign may
close that route.
The question is
whether Turkey plans to leave a permanent military presence in Syria to prevent
the Kurdish rebels from seizing control of the ISIS territory or whether it can
succeed in enlisting enough non-Kurdish rebels, particularly from the Free
Syrian Army, to act on its behalf.
The Turkish decision
was not based solely on the ISIS mortar fire but primarily on developments in
the field and the intervention of the great powers. The Kurdish conquest of the
city of Manbij, south of Jarablus, and the Kurds’ plan to also capture Al-Bab,
south of Manbij, made it clear to Turkey that it was liable to find itself
facing a new reality on its border that would be difficult to change if it
didn’t act immediately. The cooperation of the United States and Russia with
the Kurdish rebels made Turkey realize that it was losing control over what was
happening in the region close to its border.
Although Turkey has
signed a military cooperation agreement with Russia, Russian aid to the Kurds
has not stopped. Russia, which saw the Kurds as a way to aggravate Turkey
during the months of crisis between the two countries, believes the Kurds will
not oppose keeping the regime of President Bashar Assad in place.
military cooperation between Russia, the United States and Turkey created a
dilemma for the Turks, who had to decide where their most important interests
lie. Is it more important to maintain the ISIS enclave, which split the territory
held by the Kurds, or to cooperate in the battle against it?
For now, there is
only one solution to this dilemma; to deploy Turkish forces in the field and
help the Free Syrian Army seize control of the enclave, in the hope that these
forces won’t then cooperate with the Kurdish rebels, who are considered the
most effective fighters in the war against ISIS.
The problem is that
the Turkish invasion and the involvement of the Free Syrian Army may cause an
internal battle between the invading forces and the Kurdish militias and divert
the focus of the battles from the war against ISIS to a struggle for
The Turkish invasion
interferes with the plans of Russia and the United States, which have declared
their desire to preserve Syria as a united entity, but in practice have not
categorically rejected the idea of establishing an independent Kurdish zone
that they will take under their wing. On the other hand, Russia and the United
States cannot stop the Turkish invasion, which has acquired legitimacy because
it’s being portrayed as a battle against ISIS.
At the same time, the
Turkish campaign publicly demolishes the strategy of non-intervention on the
ground that the great powers have been upholding until now. It’s true that a
few hundred American fighters and trainers are operating in the field alongside
the rebels, Russian ground troops are involved in the fighting and, of course,
Iranian forces have been fighting in the Syrian arena for years. But as a
declared policy, the powers have stressed that they do not plan to deploy
ground troops. The Turkish move is liable to change that approach, particularly
since plans to conquer the cities of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria from ISIS
are advancing in the background.
Turkey recently came
to the realization that its immunity to ISIS attacks on its territory has faded
and that the period in which it cooperated with the organization didn’t bring
the hoped-for results. It seems that Turkey is also rethinking its strategy and
may no longer be so insistent about blocking Assad’s continued rule at any
Last week, for the
first time, Yildirim said that, “Assad is one of the players in the Syrian
arena,” and that he could be allowed to continue his rule temporarily. This approach
is based on the desire to keep Syria united in the face of demands to create a
federated state in which the Kurds would have an officially recognized
Despite Assad’s sharp
condemnation of the Turkish invasion, he too wants to prevent the establishment
of an independent Kurdish district, and would prefer Turkey as a possible
partner over the Kurdish or other rebel groups.