In northern Syria, outside powers have exploited Arab-Kurdish tensions to consolidate counter-revolutionary interests

Michael Karadjis writes: A week after the United States rushed to defend its Kurdish allies, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), against the Assad regime in Hassakeh, Washington supported the intervention of the Kurds’ Turkish nemesis to expel IS from the border town of Jarabulus.

These events suggest the outlines of a regional understanding over a reactionary solution in northern Syria.

It follows the recent diplomatic back-flips by Turkey’s Erdogan government – including Ankara’s reconciliation with Russia and Israel (who themselves have formed a very close alliance over the past year), the further strengthening of relations with Iran (which have remained strong despite Tehran’s backing of Assad), and the declaration by Prime Minister Yildirim that Turkey was no longer opposed to a role for Assad in a “transitional” government consisting of elements drawn from both the regime and opposition.

The YPG – connected to the Democratic Union Party (PYD) – has had a long-term, pragmatic non-aggression pact with Assad, sometimes leading to minor conflict, while at other times collaborating more closely – including during the recent siege of rebel-held Aleppo.

However, Hassakeh was the first time Assad launched his airforce against the YPG, possibly in response to Turkey’s feelers. An official from Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) recently noted that Assad “does not support Kurdish autonomy… we’re backing the same policy”. Despite YPG pragmatism, Assad has forcefully rejected Kurdish autonomy, while the rise in the Kurdish struggle in Iran suggests recent Turkish-Iranian meetings are likely anti-Kurdish in content.

Both Russia and the US have been key backers of the YPG. Russian airstrikes helped the Afrin YPG in February seize Arab-majority towns from the rebels in northern Aleppo, including Tal Rifaat. But Putin’s reconciliation with Erdogan suggests that Russia has dropped the YPG. [Continue reading…]


Turkey’s intervention in Syria, with tacit Russian backing, has raised tensions with Washington

The Daily Beast reports: Russia and Iran have raised no serious objections to Turkey’s intervention. The Political Directorate of the Syrian Arab Army now speaks of the Kurdish guerrilla force [the YPG] as the “PKK.”

As Aron Lund of the Carnegie Endowment’s Middle East Center observes, “Over the past five years, Damascus has more often referred to the pro-PKK factions in Syria by simply using their official names (such as YPG, Asayish, and so on) or by some quaintly patriotic workaround, such as ‘loyal Kurdish citizens.’ It is rare for them to employ the ‘PKK’ term and even rarer to blast it across state media.” The shift is obviously meant as much for Turkish ears as for Syrian ones.

Also remarkable is how Russia’s English-language propaganda outlet Sputnik has unblinkingly about-faced on who’s who in this war.

This week, it took the unprecedented step of referring to the Turkish-supported Free Syrian Army as having “liberated” villages in Aleppo from “terrorists,” citing the Turkish General Staff’s press release. As for the terrorists, Sputnik left it an open question as to whether or not these were ISIS militants or the YPG.

Washington, meanwhile, appears to have been outflanked. The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that the U.S. and Turkey had been discussing a joint intervention in Syria but that President Obama had delayed approving Pentagon plans.[Continue reading…]


Kurds carve out a home in Syria, testing U.S. ties with Turkey

The Wall Street Journal reports: Amid the chaos of Syria’s war, the Kurds have carved out a semiautonomous region called Rojava that is home to about four million people, is as big as Belgium and stretches nearly the full length of the 565-mile border between Syria and Turkey.

The emergence of Rojava also has added complexity to a region in turmoil, bringing resistance from outside and dissent from within.

Rojava’s continuing territorial expansion has alarmed Turkey, which is battling Kurdish separatists within its own borders and has pushed deeper into Syria to attack Islamic State forces and rein in the Syrian Kurds. The U.S. is stuck uncomfortably in the middle because it relies on Syrian Kurds to fight Islamic State yet considers Turkey a crucial ally.

And as Rojava gets mightier and realizes long-held ambitions of self-rule for Kurds, some of its own people feel alienated by what they claim are heavy-handed tactics that feel reminiscent of the Syrian regime.

Instead of helping Jude Hamo finish his junior year of college, his parents sold the family car and borrowed money to smuggle the 23-year-old to Germany so he wouldn’t be drafted into the Kurdish armed forces fighting Islamic State. “We chose the lesser of two evils,” says Jude’s father, Radwan.

Since late 2014, at least 6,000 young Syrian Kurds have been compelled to serve in the military, according to the regional administration’s military ministry. More than two dozen died in battle. [Continue reading…]


‘Everyone is pursuing their own interests, not Syria’s’

The New York Times reports: The rebel fighter, a former major in the Syrian Army, thought he had finally found what he was looking for: a group with strong international backing that was gearing up for an offensive against his two most hated enemies, the Syrian government and the Islamic State militant group.

But within days of crossing into Syria, backed by Turkish planes, tanks and special forces troops and American warplanes, the fighter, Saadeddine Somaa, found himself fighting Kurdish militias that, like him, counted the Islamic State and the government of President Bashar al-Assad among their foes.

That was because the Turks, who supplied the weapons and the cash, were calling the shots, and they considered the Kurds enemy No. 1. The Kurds, for their part, consider Turkey an enemy, and so as the Turkish-led troops advanced, the Kurdish militias attacked.

For all the hope the new offensive had inspired in Mr. Somaa and other Syrian insurgents, it showed once again how even rebels fighting against the Islamic State and Mr. Assad — both targets for defeat under stated American policy — remain dependent on backers who only partly share their goals.

“Everyone is pursuing their own interests, not Syria’s,” he said in a long telephone interview from Jarabulus, the border town the Turkish-led force took from Islamic State, known also as ISIS or ISIL, on the first day of the offensive. “The problem is the same everywhere in Syria.” [Continue reading…]

The Associated Press reports: The U.S. on Monday urged Turkish troops and Kurdish forces in northern Syria to halt their fighting, saying it hinders efforts to defeat the Islamic State group. But Turkey’s president vowed to press ahead with the military operation until the IS and Kurdish Syrian fighters no longer pose a security threat to Ankara.

It was the first U.S. criticism of its NATO ally since it launched a U.S.-backed incursion into northern Syria to help Syrian rebels seize the town of Jarablus from the Islamic State group. They have been clashing with Kurdish Syrian forces around the town to try to halt their advance.

The battle now pits Turkey against the Kurdish-led force known as the Syria Democratic Forces— a U.S.-backed proxy that is the most effective ground force battling IS militants in Syria’s 5-year-old civil war. It puts Washington in the difficult spot of having to choose between two allies, and it is likely to divert resources from the fight against IS. [Continue reading…]


Syria à la carte: Turkish invasion highlights rapidly shifting alliances

Der Spiegel reports: One common description of chaos theory holds that the flapping of a butterfly’s wings can trigger a tornado. And it could very well be that the theory is the best tool we currently have available to describe the complex situation in Syria. The butterfly wings in this case was the late July decision by the Syrian regime to recruit new tribal militia fighters in a remote northeastern province. The tornado it triggered four weeks later was threefold: the invasion of northern Syria by the Turkish army; the sudden expulsion of Islamic State from the border town of Jarabulus; and the US military suddenly finding itself on both sides of a new front in Syria — that between the Turks and the Kurds.

“It is 3:30 p.m. and we have almost reached the center of Jarabulus and have suffered almost no casualties. But we only just crossed the border this morning!” Saif Abu Bakr, a defected lieutenant and commander with the rebel group Hamza Division, sounded on Wednesday as though he couldn’t believe what had just happened. “We set off with 20 Turkish tanks and 100 Turkish troops from Karkamis” — the border town in Turkey — “and headed through the villages west of the city and then on to Jarabulus.”

More than two-and-a-half years after Islamic State (IS) conquered the border city, displaying the heads of its adversaries on fence posts in the process, the jihadist tumor was removed in mere hours. Jarabulus was one of the last IS bastions on the Turkish border and the group had long been able to use the border crossing there unchallenged, allowing them to funnel both men and materiel into the parts of Syria under their control. “Almost all of them fled three days ago, except for a few local followers and a couple of foreigners,” Umm Chalid, a widow from the city, said of the IS fighters. “All the residents left too. We knew that something would happen.”

The invasion in the north is a turning point in the Syrian war, marking the first time that Turkey has become directly involved in the conflict. At the same time, many of the complicated alliances in the region are suddenly shifting, with some allies becoming estranged and some enemies discovering common interests. [Continue reading…]


The Great Game in northern Syria

Hassan Hassan writes: Almost exactly a year after Russia intervened militarily to prop up the regime of Bashar al-Assad, Turkish tanks rolled into the Syrian border city of Jarablus on Tuesday to help anti-government rebels expel the Islamic State from one of its most strategic strongholds. The operation, which drove out the militants eight hours after the battle began, is part of a new Turkish policy in northern Syria, the most complex military and political terrain in the country.

The scale and nature of the Turkish intervention remain unclear. Top Turkish officials, including President Recept Tayyip Erdogan, say the purpose of the intervention is to clear the region surrounding Jarablus from both the Islamic State and the Kurdish forces who are also fighting the terrorist group. Indeed, two days after the liberation of Jarablus, the People’s Protection Units (YPG) announced their withdrawal from Manbij, another Islamic State stronghold that was liberated two weeks ago.

Notwithstanding the immediate objectives of the Turkish campaign, the development demonstrates a new state of play in the northern parts of the country. The YPG’s withdrawal from Manbij two days after the Turkish entry into Syria has bitter symbolism for the Kurdish group, since the battle in Manbij was the second-deadliest battle for Kurdish forces since Kobane. That iconic battle in 2014 consummated Washington’s relationship with the YPG in the global war against IS in Syria, to the dismay of Turkey, long an American NATO ally. [Continue reading…]


Turkey is in its own post-9/11 fury

Mustafa Akyol writes: When US Vice President Joe Biden visited Ankara Aug. 25 to repair Turkish-US relations, which have been strained since Turkey’s failed July 15 coup attempt, he offered an interesting analogy. After examining the ruins at the Turkish parliament bombed by the putschists, he compared Turkey’s trauma to America’s experience after 9/11, urging reporters to “imagine if the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania on Sept. 11, 2001, had made it to the US Capitol.” He added, “Imagine the psychological impact on the American people.”

Some Americans disliked this analogy, blaming Biden for “using 9/11 victims for political points.” Yet in fact, Biden was right; 9/11 is actually a good analogy to understand the impact of the failed coup on Turkish society. The death toll in these attacks, admittedly, were unequal: There were 10 times more victims on 9/11 than during Turkey’s coup. Still, just like 9/11, the coup attempt was the greatest attack the Turkish nation has faced in decades. Moreover, just like after 9/11, the Turkish state now has a right to defend itself and eliminate an immediate threat.

Yet, again just like after 9/11, there is a serious risk of overreaction. [Continue reading…]


With operation in Syria, Erdogan shows his new power over Turkey’s military

The New York Times reports: In recent years, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ordered plans drawn up for a Turkish military incursion into Syria. At every turn, though, military commanders, already fighting a war inside Turkey against Kurdish militants, pushed back.

And then last month a rebel faction of the military tried to stage a coup, and that changed everything.

In the aftermath of the coup, which failed but claimed more than 200 lives, Mr. Erdogan purged thousands of officers from the ranks, leaving the military seemingly depleted. It also provoked worry from Western allies, including the United States, that Turkey would either be unwilling or unable to be a reliable partner in the fight against the Islamic State.

Instead, the opposite happened on Wednesday, as Mr. Erdogan ordered Turkish tanks and special forces soldiers into Syria, under cover of American and Turkish warplanes, to assist Syrian rebels in seizing the city of Jarabulus, one of the last border strongholds of the Islamic State.

More Turkish tanks rumbled into northern Syria on Thursday to support rebels there, and the Turkish military seemed to be succeeding in clearing the border area of Islamic State militants, and preventing Kurdish militias from seizing more territory in the region — a primary goal of Turkey in the campaign.

The operation, coming so soon after the failed coup, has highlighted how Mr. Erdogan, even after the purge, secured more operational control of the military. It allowed him to undertake Turkey’s most ambitious role yet in the long Syrian civil war and to bolster the flagging fortunes of rebel groups, of which Turkey has been one of the most consistent supporters.

Other factors holding back Turkey’s ambitions in Syria were also recently resolved. A feud with Russia, which began last year after Turkey shot down a Russian warplane near the border, ended after Mr. Erdogan expressed regret for the episode. After Ankara’s relations with Moscow deteriorated, a Turkish incursion into Syria could have risked war with Russia, which has been bombing rebels in support of the Syrian government. And the United States, which had previously been opposed to Turkey’s intervention, agreed to support it.

The operation also buoyed the hopes of armed opposition groups that are not affiliated with the Islamic State or Al Qaeda, whose fighters and supporters have been dejected for months over losses in northern Syria that their foreign backers did little to prevent, and a fear that the United States and Turkey were preparing to abandon them to pursue of a broader deal with the Russians.

A senior Turkish official, who spoke anonymously as a matter of protocol, said that many commanders had resisted an operation in Syria in recent years. [Continue reading…]


Turkey’s military advance into Syria

The New York Times reports: Turkey sent tanks, warplanes and special operations forces into northern Syria on Wednesday in its biggest plunge yet into the Syrian conflict, enabling Syrian rebels to take control of an important Islamic State stronghold within hours.

The operation, assisted by American airstrikes, is a significant escalation of Turkey’s role in the fight against the Islamic State, the militant extremist group ensconced in parts of Syria and Iraq that has increasingly been targeting Turkey.

By evening, Syrian rebels backed by the United States and Turkey declared that they had seized the town of Jarabulus and its surroundings, which had been the Islamic State’s last major redoubt near the Turkish border. Numerous fighters posted photographs and videos of themselves online with the green, black and white flag adopted by the Syrian opposition as they walked through empty streets where the black flag of Islamic State still flew; it appeared that most of the militants had fled without a fight. [Continue reading…]

Michael Weiss writes: Turkey’s main motivation for invading Syria is to stop the YPG from connecting two Kurdish cantons Kobane and Afrin, which its political leadership refers to as the contiguous region of Rojava, or Syrian Kurdistan.

The YPG has made no secret of its plans to carve out a semiautonomous statelet in Syria’s north in line with a century-old ambition of eventually linking this territory to other Kurdistan regions in southeastern Turkey, northern Iraq and western Iran.

The problem is that the YPG’s political branch, the Democratic Union Party, is the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, a U.S.- and Turkish-designated terror organization.

Turkey therefore sees such a breakaway project as a graver national security threat than it does ISIS and its resentment toward America’s connivance in exacerbating that threat through fire and steel has been palpable, not to mention dangerous.

In the past, Turkish artillery has shelled YPG positions when the paramilitaries got too close to the border or moved too far west of the Euphrates River—deemed by Ankara to be a “red line” for Kurdish advancement. [Continue reading…]

The Washington Post reports: The Obama administration will cut all U.S. support for its Syrian Kurdish allies, considered the most competent rebel force fighting the Islamic State, if they do not comply with Turkish demands that they withdraw to the east of the Euphrates River, Vice President Biden said here Wednesday.

Biden said the Kurds, who Turkey claims intend to establish a separate state along a border corridor in conjunction with Turkey’s own Kurdish population, “cannot, will not, and under no circumstances will get American support if they do not keep” what he said was a commitment to return to the east.

The primary goal of Biden’s day-long visit here was to convince Turkey that the United States had no role in, and did not condone, a July 15 coup attempt that has sent the country into a whirlwind of conspiracy theories, mass arrests and estrangement from Washington at a key moment in the campaign against the Islamic State. [Continue reading…]


U.S. joins Turkish forces to launch push against ISIS in Syria

The Wall Street Journal reports: Turkish and American military forces launched a major offensive in northwestern Syria against Islamic State militants early Wednesday as they try to sever the extremist group’s vital supply routes and deter Kurdish fighters from seizing a key border town, according to officials from both countries.

Turkish special forces, aided by American military advisers, U.S. drones and Turkish artillery units, moved into northern Syria before dawn as part of the coordinated campaign to push Islamic State out of a strategic town on the Euphrates River, officials said.

Turkish jets bombed Islamic State forces inside Syria, according to Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency, in what are believed to be the first airstrikes by Turkey inside Syria since November, when Turkish pilots shot down a Russian warplane that briefly strayed into Turkish airspace. Turkish tanks also moved into Syria as the offensive gathered momentum early Wednesday, the news agency said.

Meanwhile, hundreds of Turkish-backed Syrian rebels were massed at the border, poised to retake Jarabulus, one of Islamic State’s last remaining gateways used by the group to ferry reinforcements and supplies from Turkey into its de facto capital in Raqqa.

Turkish artillery units had been pounding Islamic State forces holding the Syrian town for two days as the military — shaken by last month’s thwarted coup attempt — looks to re-establish its role as a key player in the fight on its doorstep.

U.S. drones based at Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey are carrying out surveillance missions over Jarabulus, and American special operations forces are working with Turkish military officers on the Turkish side of the border to plan the offensive, officials said. [Continue reading…]


Turkey’s great purge

Mustafa Akyol writes: More than a month has passed since the July 15 coup attempt in Turkey. Most people here are glad we averted a major attack on our democracy, which could have initiated not only a brutal military regime but maybe even a civil war. Many people outside Turkey, on the other hand, seem more worried about the failed coup’s aftermath than the bloody putsch itself, which left more than 250 people dead.

What really seems to worry people, especially in the West, is the purge that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his government began after the mutiny. The numbers are staggering: 80,000 civil servants have been suspended from their jobs, more than 2,000 of them judges or prosecutors. Meanwhile, more than 20,000 people have been arrested. The justice minister announced earlier this month that some 38,000 inmates would be released to free up space in Turkey’s prisons.

To some, these numbers conjure memories of dark episodes of the past century: Stalin’s infamous Great Purge of dissidents in the 1930s or Hitler’s use of the Reichstag Fire to crack down on Communists.

But Turkey’s situation is too complicated for such historical comparisons. For example, Mr. Erdogan’s main political rival, the secularist Republican People’s Party, or C.H.P., agrees with the president that the state should be cleansed of people who backed the coup attempt. In the days after July 15, the C.H.P. leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, visited Mr. Erdogan at his presidential place for the first time. The two rivals even spoke together at an anti-coup rally attended by millions.

In other words, the coup plot that tried to rip our democracy apart has strengthened our resolve. Turkey’s main political groups — Islamists, secularists, nationalists and Kurds — are now largely united for the first time in decades, albeit around just one issue. They agree that the plot was not the work of individual officers, but rather an Islamic cult that had infiltrated key state institutions: the movement led by Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish imam who has been living in Pennsylvania since 1999. [Continue reading…]


Turkey’s migrant deal with Europe may collapse under post-coup attempt crackdown

The Washington Post reports: The landmark agreement that halted a torrent of migrants flowing from Turkey into Europe is nearing collapse in the wake of the failed Turkish coup and the subsequent nationwide crackdown.

Turkish and European leaders are threatening to abandon the deal — the Europeans because they say they are worried about widespread human rights abuses, the Turks because of European reluctance to fulfill a promise to drop visa restrictions for Turkish nationals.

Now, even as it detains tens of thousands of people in response to the coup attempt, Turkey has given the European Union an October deadline over the visa pledge — or it will walk away from its commitment to stem the flow.

An end to the agreement, which came after more than a million migrants and refugees entered in Europe in 2015, would mark another blow to the contentious relationship between the E.U. and Turkey, which is petitioning to join the bloc. It could also result in a fresh surge of asylum seekers traveling from Turkey, which would confront E.U. leaders with a new humanitarian and political dilemma after a relatively quiet spring and summer. [Continue reading…]