Kurdish conundrum: Turkey's incursion into Syrian territory

Abdur Rahman Chowdhury from Falls Church, Virginia, United States | Friday, 1 November 2019

The outbreak of civil war in Syria in 2012 and brutal response of the Assad regime resulted in large-scale displacement of populations. About 3.6 million people crossed the border and took refuge in Turkey. Another 1.5 million moved into Jordan and Lebanon. Thousands took life-threatening voyages across the Mediterranean and reached Europe. Despite opposition from many countries, Germany granted temporary asylum to over100,000 Syrian refugees.

Ankara confronted an unprecedented dilemma. It could not shut the border and prevent the refugees from entering Turkey even though the influx of displaced population was putting huge economic burden on the host population. President Erdogan was aware that there would be no quick resolution of the crisis and Turkey should be prepared for a long-term turmoil at the southern border. His concerns were not unfounded. Turkey's southern region has been the home of over 15 million Kurds and many of them were involved in armed confrontation with Turkey's military in connivance with the Kurds living in Syria and Iraq. Ankara had always accused Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) for its complicity in the insurgency and declared it a terrorist organisation. The US and NATO members also consider PKK as a terrorist organisation.

The emergence of Islamic State (IS) in 2014 and its swift capture of huge chunk of territory in Syria and Iraq altered the warfare trajectory. Syria's military had the priority to restrain the rebels from making further territorial gains while the rebels fought hard to seize as much land as possible along the northern border with Turkey and southern boarder along Jordan and Israel. The brutal reign of the IS in the region west of the Euphrates compounded the pressure on the rebels fighting the Assad regime. Syrian military in this intractable situation, backed by Iran and Russia, was fighting for survival. It could neither confront the IS militia nor had the strength to push hard against the rebel forces.

President Obama admitted, under this imbroglio, the United States had no exculpatory option. It could not restrain Assad regime from using deadly biological weapons nor could aid the fragmented opposition forces. When it became increasingly evident that the advance of IS could not be halted by the rebel forces, the US dispatched around 3,000 troops to Turkish southern boarder to train and guide the rebel forces. By that time, a large chunk of territory including some oil fields had fallen to IS control. The US troops were mandated not to engage in the combat operations.

Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a combined striking force comprising Arab and Kurdish militia, was reorganised with arms and ammunitions supplied by the United States. The SDF, under US guidance, gradually recovered the territories lost to IS. In 2017, Raqqa, the so-called IS headquarters, was also taken by the SDF. The fight against the IS was not without a price. SDF lost around 12,000 soldiers as they pushed IS militants from towns and cities taking and holding territories in the process. Meanwhile, Turkey's military created Free Syrian Army inducting army personnel who defected from the Syrian national army. Its activities however, remained restricted to Syrian territory along the Turkish-Syrian border.

The arming and training of the SDF by the US was fraught with deep concern by Turkey. It feared that once the IS is pushed deep into Iraqi territory, the Kurdish militia would turn against Ankara. Kurds in Turkey have long been demanding the right of self-determination. Its leader Abdulla Ocalan called for armed confrontation against Ankara in pursuit of independence in mid-1980. Consequently, over the period, a few thousands Turkish nationals including civilians were killed by Kurdish-led insurgency.

Following the First Gulf War in 1991, the United Nations approved autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq bordering Turkey and Iran. The Kurds were able to secure, for the first time, "one country two nations" system in Iraq. Erdogan was concerned that Syrian Kurds would draw inspiration from Iraqi experience and indulge in armed movement in favour of greater Kurdish homeland encompassing territory in southern Turkey.

President Erdogan had cautioned the US administration against arming the Kurds and argued that with IS threat being diminished, Kurdish militias should be disarmed. In December 2018, he spoke to President Trump and demanded that the US troops should be withdrawn from Tal Abyad and Ras-al-Ain in northern Syria. Erdogan proposed setting up of de-militarised zone -- 50 miles deep into Syrian territory and stretching about 200 miles -- to rehabilitate about one million Syrian refugees, now living in camps inside Turkey.

Trump accepted the proposal and ordered withdrawal of the American troops from Syria. Defence Secretary Jim Mattis opposed the decision and resigned. As pressure mounted against complete pull out, Trump yielded to retain no more than 1,000 troops in Syria. Early this month, Erdogan reiterated that the US should relocate its remaining troops from northern Syria and remonstrated that the area vacated by the US troops and SDF would be patrolled by the Turkish army. He re-emphasised the urgency to transfer 1 million Syrian refugees in the buffer zone. Trump acquiesced and ordered that all US troops deployed in Syria must return home within weeks.

The decision to pull out the remaining troops from Syria was received with utter dismay and anger by SDF and the Kurds. They termed the US decision a betrayal similar to what President H. W. Bush did to the Iraqi Kurds in 1991 at the end of the first Gulf War.

Turkish troops advanced to the town Ras-al-Ayn at the dawn of the weekend. The United Nations estimates that more than 200,000 people have fled to the west for safety. SDF, in a dramatic move amid exasperation, vacated the area it held for years and handed it over to the Russian troops. Russian President Putin surreptitiously concluded "150-hour ceasefire agreement" with his Turkish counterpart to enable the SDF personnel to fend for themselves in the face of Turkish military offensive. As the truce came to an end, Russian officials confirmed on Tuesday that 68 SDF units numbering 34,000 fighters have moved 19 miles from the border.

The US troops reportedly have moved to the west of the river Euphrates to prevent the fall of oil fields to retreating IS cadres. The pull out of US troops will mark the end of US military presence in the region and proclaim Russia's diplomatic and military victory in Syria. Kurd's dream of having a greater Kurdish homeland remains unfulfilled for the time being. The American exit might offer an opportunity to Moscow to accelerate Syrian unification process. Ankara will be keen on a political settlement that would facilitate the repatriation of millions of Syrian refugees from Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. Tehran and Baghdad will welcome a unified Syria free from US proxies.

Turkey under Erdogan has undergone a diplomatic transition. Although being a NATO member, Ankara has moved closer to Moscow and bought Russian S-400 missile costing about $2.0 billion. In protest, Washington threatened to put on hold the sale of F-35 missiles valued $1.0 billion to Turkey. Turkey is no longer an over-enthusiastic partner of Israel. It supports the legitimate demands and aspirations of the people of Palestine. It condemned building of settlements in the West Bank and opposed US decision to recognise Jerusalem as capital of Israel.

President Erdogan, however, should not lose sight of the fact that the area vacated by SDF is historically a Kurdish homeland and his plan to resettle one million Arab refugees will give rise to hostility between the Kurds and the Arabs. The Sunni refugees in Turkey were displaced from the region west of the Euphrates and they would prefer to be resettled in their region -- not on Kurdish land.

Abdur Rahman Chowdhury is a former official of the United Nations.

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