The Real Reason Behind Turkey’s Military Incursion Into Syria

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says the Turks invaded Syria in order to combat ‘Kurdish terror,’ but preventing three Kurdish districts establishing territorial contiguity along the border is no less important

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A Kurdish girl, who lives in Cyprus, stands with her face painted reading "Afrin" during a protest against the Turkish offensive targeting Kurds in Afrin, Syria, Nicosia, January 24, 2018.
A Kurdish girl during a protest in Nicosia Cyprus, against the Turkish offensive targeting Kurds in Afrin, Syria, January 24, 2018. Credit: Petros Karadjias/AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

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On the ninth day of Turkey’s incursion into the Kurdish district of Afrin, an international movement is underway to try to stop the galloping Turkish assault into Syria.

Germany announced Thursday it would halt arms shipments and suspend the deal it signed to upgrade Turkey’s German-manufactured tanks. France convened a special meeting of the UN Security Council on Monday, and U.S. President Donald Trump warned Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday to “avoid any actions that might risk conflict between Turkish and American forces” in Syria.

It was unclear from that wording if he meant that U.S. forces might attack Turkish forces, but Turkey was quick to deny that any such warning was included in the phone conversation between the two leaders, saying instead they discussed only the situation in Syria.

Accurate data on the number of dead and wounded is not available, but the photographs and reports being released through a Kurdish news agency in northern Syria show wounded civilians, including women and children.

In the Kurdish districts of northern Syria, men and women are being called on to enlist, while teenage boys have received weapons and basic training so they can protect fellow civilians in case Turkish troops enter the regional capital in Afrin. Before the war, the district was home to some 170,000 people, 35,000 of whom lived in the city of Afrin itself.

Kurdish social media contains performances by Kurdish singing groups in traditional dress, in which they pledge to eject the Turks from their land. Women’s groups have released statements of support for the male and female Kurdish fighters, and the heads of the Arab tribes living in these areas say they will stand “shoulder to shoulder with the Kurds against the Turkish enemy.” They say they will stand “against the murderer of women and children, Erdogan, because the fate of all of the population of northern Syria is one, there is no difference between us,” and also pledge to “be the dam that will stop the Ottoman state.”

This sense of a shared fate between the Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen, the Armenians, Assyrians, Muslims and Alawites is far from an obvious one. Kurds actually fought Armenians in Turkey, and many took part in the 1915 Armenian massacre. The Alawites and Christians were – and still are – considered supporters of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime. Some Kurds do not have Syrian citizenship due to a process of Arabization that began under Assad’s father, Hafez Assad, during which the latter settled many Arabs on land he confiscated from the Kurds.

On the face of it, the civil war in Syria provided the perfect conditions for a settling of accounts between the various ethnic groups in northern Syria. But in fact, the opposite happened.

In the three autonomous districts – Afrin, Jazira and the Euphrates, most of whose population is Kurdish – the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria was established in 2014, in the area known as Rojava (“West”), which constitutes the western part of the Kurdish national dream. This federation wrote a joint constitution that granted equal rights to every ethnic and religious group, and also to women.

The constitution’s principles are based on the doctrine of Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) who is in a Turkish prison near Istanbul. Öcalan – who was influenced by the theories of the Jewish philosopher and anarchist (and later communist) Murray Bookchin – seeks to establish a secular, liberal, democratic federation that sanctifies environmentalism, and which will in the future be part of Syria, which in itself will be a federated country according to this theory.

Öcalan is locked in an ideological dispute over these principles with the Kurdish leadership in the autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq. The Kurds in Iraq want to establish an independent Kurdish state. In contrast to the Kurdish region in Iraq, which is controlled by family and tribal elites (the most prominent of which are the Barzani and Talabani families), the Kurdish districts in Syria were built on a political foundation based on direct democracy and egalitarian participation.

For example, the elementary school curriculum is based on studies suited to each student’s ethnic group and language. Lessons are taught in these schools in Arabic, Assyrian or Kurdish, but only in junior high school must students also learn the other two languages that are not their native tongue (in addition to English, which is compulsory in all schools).

This is a real revolution in the education system, after decades when the teaching of Kurdish was banned and Arabic was considered the only official language to be taught.

Each of the districts governs itself autonomously. It is led by an elected government and president, as well as a council that is a kind of local parliament in which each community is represented proportionately to its numbers in the population. In every senior government position, women and men have equal authority. In the Afrin district, for example, a woman, Hayvi Mustafa, is president and she has two male deputies. Each of the districts held elections for the people’s council and municipal positions in 2015. Two years later, in September 2017, elections were held for community councils, in which some 12,400 candidates vied for 3,700 public posts. The large number of candidates attests to the great faith in the political system, which gives power to the people through local councils, neighborhood councils and even street committees that manage civil matters.

The judicial system operates on a local level by means of civil judicial committees called peace and consensus committees, which act as mediators in local disputes. The highest level is the constitutional court, shared by the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria. Each district has its own police force, in which women and men both serve. As part of Öcalan’s radical socialist doctrine, the economy is run mostly as a cooperative, with communities jointly working land and selling the produce. However, there are also a few factories in private hands. People do not pay direct taxes; most of the income comes from the payment of license fees, registration of vehicles and various services that citizens receive, and from the sale of oil refined by distinctly homemade methods.

Above the district level is the federal government, which is based on the federal constitution (amended in 2016): This is responsible for foreign policy, coordinating military action, exports and economic planning. Each district must operate according to the federal constitution, which prohibits polygamy and forced marriage, and also encourages civil marriage. Co-heading the federal government are a male and female president, as well as a council to which representatives are elected from the districts.

The executive body of the federal government is the Kurdish National Council, which is controlled by the Democratic Union Party, which established the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in 2004. These consist of men and women tasked with protecting the Kurdish districts from outside attack. Turkey calls the YPG a terror organization affiliated with the PKK, which Turkey also defines as a terror group. The YPG operates separately (but not in isolation) from the Kurdish militia known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, which consists mainly of Kurdish fighters with a minority of Arabs, and was established by the United States as a ground force against the Islamic State.

It is now clear that some of the Kurdish units, which continue to receive military and financial aid from the United States, will join the defense units in the struggle to stop the Turkish incursion into Afrin district. The Pentagon said this week it would examine ways of assisting the Kurdish militia if its forces head into combat in Afrin, but denied it would be stopping assistance altogether, as Turkey has been saying over recent days. This is the source of concern over possible conflict between U.S. forces, who have pledged to protect the Kurds, and Turkish forces.

The main problem facing the autonomous Kurdish districts in their struggle against Turkey is a lack of territorial contiguity – meaning they are unable to establish a joint military line. Their geographical dispersion along the Syrian-Turkish border has created separate buffer zones, some of which were taken over by Islamic State, which has since been uprooted. In other places, the Turkish army has taken over, together with the Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army.

The invasion of Afrin – the westernmost district – was thus intended not only to “fight the Kurdish terror organizations,” as Turkey claims, but to prevent any possibility of creating Kurdish territorial contiguity and establishing an independent Kurdish state along the Syrian border with Turkey.

But according to the strategy and ideology that unites most Syrian Kurds, they have no intention of establishing an independent Kurdish state that might threaten Turkey. They seem to have successfully persuaded the United States of this, as well as both Russia and Syria, which withdrew its forces from the Kurdish districts at the start of the war in 2011.

Russia knows the survival of Assad’s regime and his control of the entire country depends to a large extent on his ability to assimilate the Kurdish districts into Syria, with the ideal scenario being one that allows the Kurds to run their federation as part of the Syrian state under Assad’s rule. The United States also sees the Kurdish federal system in Syria and the principles of the Kurdish constitution as being no less worthy of defending than the Kurdish region in Iraq.

This is the crux of the dispute between Erdogan and his counterparts in Washington and Moscow, each of whom – for their own reasons – regard the Kurds as allies. The question now is how far the superpowers are willing to go to stop Erdogan’s aspirations without causing an irreversible rift with him.

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