Syrian Kurds Turn to Assad
As the first week of Turkey’s offensive into north-eastern Syria comes to an end, the coalition of Turkish Armed Forces and Syrian National Army (SNA) is slowly gaining ground.
The declared goal of the intervention is to create a 30-km wide “safe zone” along Turkish-Syrian border, that would serve two purposes. Firstly, it would provide an additional buffer zone against the threat posed to Turkey by the Syrian offshoot of the Kurdish Marxist terrorist group PKK and its local armed wings being the core components of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Secondly, a large portion of the 3,8 million Syrian refugees living in Turkey could be relocated to the newly-occupied territory, thus partly relieving Turkey of this burden and appeasing the population that is losing patience with this issue.
The United States acted as the main ally of the Syrian Kurds until recently – shortly before Turkey launched the offensive, American troops withdrew from the area. Feeling betrayed by the West and under Turkish pressure, the SDF have turned to the Syrian government for help. On 13 October, an agreement was reached that would allow the units of the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) to enter the SDF territory and move towards the Turkish-Syrian border in order to prevent further Turkish advance. The relations between Damascus and the SDF have always been strained, but in this new situation, Syrian Kurds do not have many options. Their position is very different from what it was just a few months ago: now it will be Mr Assad who will dictate the conditions of cooperation. Thus, his dream of retaking “every inch of Syria” seems to be one step closer to reality. On the other hand, it is still too early for the Syrian government to celebrate – Turkey may choose not to halt the offensive and it is unlikely that the SAA will be able (and willing) to repel a full-scale invasion and even the deployment of Russian forces may not be enough to deter Turkey.
Regardless of further developments, we can presume that the Turkish offensive will destabilize Northern Syria. In a short term, aside from the fact that the fighting has been renewed only 7 months since the IS has lost its last stronghold, hundreds of former IS jihadists escaped the prisons in which they were kept by the SDF. The Kurds and the Turks are accusing each other of releasing them intentionally. The escapees may attempt to start a guerrilla war and launch terrorist attacks against both Turkey and the SDF. In the long term, provided that Turkey will begin to resettle predominantly Arab refugees into the newly occupied territories, the ethnic tensions will rise. A similar scenario occurred after Turkey occupied Afrin in March 2018. Tens of thousands of Kurds left and Turkish authorities brought in Syrians of Arab descent, drastically changing the demographics of the region and causing resentment among the Kurds.
Violent protests in Iraq have been escalating
The Iraqi capital, Baghdad, as well as several southern provinces, have been experiencing a series of bloody protests since last Tuesday. They are rooted in the government’s long-term inability to improve the economic situation, provide citizens with basic social services, drinking water and electricity, and effectively combat corruption, which is often referred to as the main reason for the poor conditions. The protests were triggered by the controversial relocation of Iraqi General Abdul Wahab al-Sadi, which is perceived as an attempt to dispose of a personality beyond the control of the corrupt establishment.
By nature, it is an internal conflict of the Shiite community. The protests are mainly attended by young Shiite men who are most affected by the country’s economic problems. Important religious leaders of Iraq Ayatollah al-Sistani and Muqtada al-Sadr also joined the debate and called on the government to reform. The Sunni and Kurdish communities appear to have no role in the protests. The role of Iran in riots is discussed, too. Part of the protests is aimed against the influence of the Shiite leader and the militia supported by him. The Iranian consulate in Baghdad was burned down on Sunday. There have been reports of Iranian forces trying to escalate violence and delegitimize the efforts of protesters. Iranian religious leader Khamenei described the protests as an attempt to deteriorate the relations of the two states.
From the beginning, the situation was addressed by the security forces. The Mahdi government initially expressed their support to this solution, but since the repression did not contribute to the reduction of violence, it went on to negotiate with the protesters. At the same time, the government refuses to take responsibility and blames “enemy elements” acting for the destabilization of Iraq. Despite the escalation of violence, PM Mahdi acknowledged the legitimacy of some of the protesters’ claims and promised to improve the situation. The government also announced that it is negotiating with protesters’ representatives. However, the problem remains in the spontaneous nature of the protests, resulting in no clear guidance with clear demands.
Turkey has attacked the Kurdish forces in Syria
Turkey has launched a military operation against the Kurdish territories in Syria (Rojava), an operation called Peace Spring. The ground attack is likely to focus primarily on the predominantly Arab-populated areas and will not be deeper than 30 km. However, the Turkish bombing campaign will also hit targets outside the ground advance perimeter.
Turkey’s goal is to take advantage of the withdrawal of US troops from the border and to present the situation to the US as a fait accompli before the planned meeting of Erdoğan and Trump in Washington in November.
By doing so, Erdoğan pursues Turkey’s security interests, since the Kurdish YPG and PKK militias are considered a primary threat, and the operation could improve an otherwise declining support for the AKP among the Turkish population. The creation of a buffer zone also allows Turkey to transfer a part of the Syrian refugees currently living in the Turkish territory back to Syria. A recent survey showed that refugees are perceived as the second biggest problem for the Turks after the economy. Last but not least, Erdogan’s operation managed to disrupt the otherwise strong opposition alliance between the CHP and the Iyi Party on the one hand and the pro-Kurdish GDP on the other. Yesterday, however, both CHP and Iyi party voted in Parliament to extend the presence of the Turkish troops in Syria and Iraq for another year, causing a wave of resentment among the HDP members.
The primarily Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces, which represent the armed forces of Rojava, have moved most of their members to the north to face the Turkish threat. Daesh will most likely take advantage of this situation, as suicide bombers has already attacked positions of YPG in in Raqqa city. Daesh will most likely concentrate on the liberation of its members in the poorly protected prisons in the region.
At the same time, mobilization of militant left-wing and Kurdish groups in Turkey can be expected, presumably in the form of bombings in Turkish cities. Clashes between representatives of the Kurdish and Turkish diaspora are very likely to escalate also in European countries. It remains uncertain how relations between the Kurds, the US and Assad will develop, but it is possible that the Turkish operation marks the beginning of the end of the US military presence in Syria. This means that the Kurds will lose their main ally and have no choice but to submit to Assad in the face of the Turkish threat. The Syrian regime can also use the Turkish attack to enforce by force its territorial claims against the Kurds. In the context of domestic Turkish politics, it will be interesting to observe whether the Turkish president tries to use his reinforced popularity to announce early elections.
STRATPOL Memos is a project which on a bi-weekly basis provides a short overview of the most important selected moments of Euro-Atlantic security and related areas. Our goal is to provide brief and informative comments with short analysis putting news into a broader context.
Responsible editor Matúš Jevčák.
Authors: Martin Dudáš, Dominik Novosad
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