Analysis |

Turkey’s War on the Kurds: Quick Conquest or Quagmire?

An effective war of attrition can enlist public opinion in Europe and the United States, and above all, stoke a mass protest in Turkey itself as its number of soldiers killed rises

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Civilians carry their belongings as they flee amid Turkish bombardment, Ras al-Ain, October 9, 2019.
Civilians carry their belongings as they flee amid Turkish bombardment, Ras al-Ain, October 9, 2019. Credit: AFP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s declaration of the launch of a campaign against the Kurdish districts in northern Syria was accompanied by airstrikes on the city of Tal Abyad east of the Euphrates. The tactical plan of the war is still unclear, but starting it at Tal Abyad shows that the strategic intent is to take over the regions east of the Euphrates and from there continue west to link up with the Turkish forces that took control of the city of Afrin in March 2018.

Thus Turkey crossed the Americans’ red line, which so far has meant an attack-free zone as determined by agreements between Turkey and the United States.

Turkey is wasting no time, and with the departure of the American forces and President Donald Trump’s backtrack on his commitment to the Kurds, the Kurdish zone has become a hunting ground. Thousands of Kurds are fleeing their homes and the Kurdish political and military leaders have declared an emergency and a general call-up.

>> Read more: The seeds to Trump’s abandonment of Syrian Kurds were sown by Obama | Opinion ■ As far as Trump is concerned, the Kurds have done their job and now can go to hell | Analysis

According to reports by Kurdish spokespeople, Kurdish forces have stopped fighting the Islamic State, and they have no intention of continuing to hold thousands of ISIS male and female prisoners who have been in custody for months in temporary detention centers in the Kurdish area.

Turkish soldiers stand at the border with Syria in Akcakale, Sanliurfa province, southeastern Turkey, October 9, 2019.Credit: Lefteris Pitarakis,AP

According to Mazloum Kobani Abdi, commander of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, the largest armed militia that was established with U.S. assistance, the war against the Islamic State and the guarding of the detention camps has become a “secondary goal.” His soldiers, Abdi said, are now committed to fighting the Turkish occupation and protecting their families in the villages and towns in danger of falling to the Turks.

The military option for Abdi’s forces is to persuade the Syrian army to join the Kurdish forces to fight Turkey, but Syria probably won’t want or be able to open a new front against Turkey, especially with Russia indifferent to the Turkish invasion. Russia did promise to try to mediate between the Kurds and Turkey to prevent massive bloodshed, but as far as Russia is concerned, a temporary Turkish occupation could later ensure the transfer of the conquered area to Syrian President Bashar Assad and spur the political process that Moscow is promoting.

Turkey's Vietnam?

A more realistic option is for the Kurds to start a broad guerrilla campaign against the Turkish forces, one that will turn the Kurdish region into Turkey’s Vietnam. This modus operandi is the specialty of the Kurdish forces, which are facing Turkey with no air support and limited armored strength. It may also be expected that the Kurds will try to move the fighting into Turkey via mass attacks and direct hits in Turkish population centers, like the attacks the PKK, a Kurdish guerrilla movement, has carried out in recent years.

Time is a significant factor in this battle, especially for the Turks. The more massive the campaign and the quicker it reaches a decisive conclusion, the easier it will be for Turkey to evade growing international pressure. But the Kurds are in no hurry. A long and effective war of attrition can enlist public opinion in Europe and the United States, and above all, can stoke a mass protest in Turkey itself as its number of killed soldiers increases.

To avoid casualties in a ground war, Turkey has given the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army the mission of taking the territory, and according to spokesmen for this militia, the Kurds are to be hit with “a heavy hand and major firepower.” But this territory has a border more than 450 kilometers (280 miles) long and a depth of about 30 kilometers; thus there will be no choice but to bring in Turkish armored forces and infantry.

Civilians flee with their belongings amid Turkish bombardment on Syria's northeastern town of Ras al-Ain in the Hasakeh province along the Turkish border, October 9, 2019.Credit: AFP

The chance of a quick diplomatic solution depends on the intensions of Russia, the only power that can effectively pressure Turkey and halt the onslaught. But Russia has so far issued watered-down statements calling for a diplomatic solution. It has promised, but not committed itself, to bring the Kurds into diplomatic talks from which they have so far been excluded by Turkey’s demands.

Russia may be waiting to see how the military campaign proceeds, which has so far been roundly criticized by Iran, to decide whether it will side with the Kurds and the Syrian army. Or it might wait to see if Turkey will take over the northern districts and then negotiate for Turkey’s withdrawal, and bring in Assad’s army to take over without a fight, if the Kurdish forces are defeated.

U.S. policy 2.0

While the United States, which has renounced its commitment to the Kurds, has threatened to destroy the Turkish economy if it crosses the red lines agreed on by Trump and Erdogan in their strange phone conversation, this threat is apparently hollow, just like Trump’s warnings to punish Turkey for purchasing S-400 missiles from Russia.

The American policy, if it can be called that, is almost completely a quote of the policies of President Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger toward the Kurds in the early ‘70s. A report by the Pike Committee, established by Congress in 1976 to investigate the CIA’s conduct vis-a-vis the Kurds, noted at the time: “The president, Dr. Kissinger and the foreign head of state [the shah of Iran] hoped that our clients [the Kurds] would not prevail. They preferred instead that the insurgents simply continue a level of hostilities sufficient to sap the resources [of Iraq]. This policy was not imparted to our clients, who were encouraged to continue fighting … ours was a cynical enterprise.”

Kurdish demonstrators wave flags and portraits of the Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan in front of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, France, October 9, 2019. Credit: AFP

Ford wasn’t the last U.S. president to deliver a resounding slap to the Kurds. George H.W. Bush called the massacre of Shi’ites and Kurds by Saddam Hussein an “internal matter.” The desperate letters sent by Kurdish leader Mustafa Barzani to the American president and to Kissinger went unanswered. Now, too, the Kurds have no one to appeal to in the United States, whose president has said that his country should “get out of these ridiculous Endless Wars,” and that entry into the Middle East was the biggest mistake the United States ever made.

Not only has American backing disappeared, the Kurds in Syria can’t depend on Kurdish solidarity from outside Syria to help them. There is a deep ideological rift between the Kurdish leadership in Iraq and the leadership of the Syrian Democratic Party, the party of the Kurds in Syria, which suspects that the Kurdish leaders in Iraq intend to take over the Kurdish movement in Syria. The Kurdish region in Iraq has strong economic and diplomatic ties with Turkey and its leaders have joined the Turkish struggle against the PKK.

The Kurds in Syria don’t seek to establish an independent state, and the Kurdish government in Syria has adopted a system of direct democracy, unlike the patriarchal hierarchy in Iraq. At the beginning of the war against the Islamic State, the Kurdish leaders in Iraq offered to send forces to help the Kurds in Syria, but the latter refused out of fear that such forces would become a permanent garrison.

The Kurds’ concern now is that the Turkish war against them will be dubbed an “internal war,” or at most will win the Kurds international sympathy because of the expected harsh humanitarian implications. Thus it could turn “the Kurdish problem” in Syria into an episode that will take away their ability to negotiate over their rights and standing when the time comes for negotiations and discussions begin on a new Syrian constitution.

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