Turkey’s invasion will make the suffering worse

February 6, 2018

Emma Wilde Botta explains the tangled backdrop to the latest development in the Syrian civil war: Turkey's invasion of a Kurdish region in the northwest of the country.

TURKEY'S TWO-week-old military intervention into northwestern Syria to attack a Kurdish stronghold has ratcheted up tensions between allies and enemies alike.

It will lead to more misery and death among the victims on all sides--whether of Syria's dictatorial regime, of Turkey and other regional powers, or of the major imperialist powers looming behind the conflict, including the U.S.

On January 20, Turkey began its assault on Afrin, one of three Kurdish-majority cantons that make up a semi-autonomous region where Kurds predominate, commonly known as Rojava. The Democratic Union Party (PYD), an affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers' Party in Turkey (PKK), controls Rojava, defended by its military wing, the People's Protection Units (YPG).

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan justified the invasion by claiming that the PYD and YPG represent a terrorist threat to the Turkish state. The Kurds are an oppressed nationality in Turkey, as well as Syria, Iraq and Iran--they have been subjected to violence and oppression for decades in all these countries, but especially Turkey.

Turkish military forces participate in the invasion of Afrin
Turkish military forces participate in the invasion of Afrin

But during its war on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the U.S. came to rely on Kurdish fighters in Syria as the main ground force that could attack ISIS strongholds. When ISIS's capital in Syria, Raqqa, fell last fall, the flag of the Kurdish YPG went up over the city.

Last month, the U.S. announced it was working to transform the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)--the military alliance led by the YPG that carried out ground operations in coordination with U.S. air power--into a 30,000-strong "border force."

Turkey, though a longtime ally of Washington, has been warning the U.S. against its support for the YPG. Erdoğan used the announcement about the "border force" as a pretext for the assault.

The Turkish government appears to be getting its way with the U.S. At the end of January, a spokesperson for Erdoğan reported that Donald Trump's National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster confirmed in a telephone call that the Pentagon would no longer supply the YPG with weapons.

As for Russia, it is the prime international backer of the Syrian dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad, Turkey's historic rival--but Russia green-lighted Turkey's invasion. Russia has been building a closer relationship with the Erdoğan government by playing on discontent with the U.S. connection to the Kurds in Syria.

Map of Syria after Turkey's invasion of Afrin

Meanwhile, in other parts of Syria, the Assad dictatorship is continuing its murderous attack on the Syrian people.

But at the same time, some units of the Free Syrian Army (FSA)--the broad umbrella group of armed opponents of the Assad regime that have fought in the civil war since the 2011 pro-democracy uprising in Syria--are participating in the assault on the Kurds, even though it is obvious that their enemies in Damascus and Moscow are collaborating with Turkey.

Turkey's invasion is a new front in the seven-year-old civil war in Syria--and a further complication in a twisted situation in which different forces of counterrevolution are both collaborating with each other and competing to project their interests, with ordinary people on all sides in Syria paying the deadly price.

The response of the people of Afrin this past weekend is a sign of hope amid the horror: a large demonstration against the invasion. "Protesters went out on the squares of the city with music, dancing and singing to denounce the military intervention against the province," reported Joseph Daher, a Swiss-Syrian socialist activist, writing on his Syria Freedom Forever blog.


AFRIN WAS one of the first predominantly Kurdish cities to support the Syrian uprising against the Assad dictatorship that began during the 2011 Arab Spring.

Soon after the initial protests in March 2011, over 10,000 people in Afrin called for the fall of the regime, the unity of the Syrian people and national rights for Kurds.

Assad and his father, Hafez al-Assad, before him have a long history of oppressing Kurds in Syria--their record includes stripping 120,000 Kurds of their citizenship, denying many the right to own property, and banning use of the Kurdish language in schools. These and other measures were inflicted on the Kurds in Turkey, too.

The Syrian regime has a long history of pitting different populations, including the Kurds, against each other, with some success historically. But at many early demonstrations, the Kurdish flag flew next to the flag of the Syrian revolution. Kurdish and Arab activists alike were detained, tortured and killed by the dictatorship's military and security forces.

In 2012, having lost control of large parts of the country, the Assad government abandoned Kurdish-majority areas in the north to focus on crushing uprisings elsewhere. The PYD and YPG assumed control and, two years later, declared the autonomy of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, known as Rojava.

This coincided with a growing division between Kurdish forces and the rebel forces fighting the Syrian regime.

On the one hand, the Turkish government offered support to the rebels of the Free Syrian Army, but on the condition that they oppose the establishment of a Kurdish state in Rojava.

Meanwhile, though some Kurdish brigades continued to fight as part of the FSA, the PYD opposed uniting with the other parts of the rebellion. As the dominant political force among Kurds, the PYD sought to exploit the Assad regime's de facto cease-fire in relationship to Rojava in order to build up its control over what it hoped would be a self-governing federal region within Syria.


THIS IS in keeping with the politics of the PYD and its longer-standing sister organization in Turkey, the PKK.

From the early years after its formation in 1978, the PKK resisted the Turkish state's repression of the Kurds, waging a separatist guerrilla war that the Turkish regime has been repressing with utmost brutality since long before Erdoğan came to power.

Faced with a military stalemate, the PKK shifted toward a new political project described by leader Abdullah Öcalan, who has been imprisoned since 1999, as "democratic confederalism," referring to the writings of libertarian theorist Murray Bookchin. Instead of an independent Kurdistan, the goal became the building of alternative societies within the existing state, based on participatory democracy and local autonomy.

This is a strategy that the PYD has referenced with respect to Rojava. Though the extensive council system governs the region with an impressive 40 percent quota of seats held for women, it is not a model of grassroots democracy, according to socialist activist Alex de Jong:

The councils in Rojava...are the initiative of a political force, not of autonomous bottom-up initiatives. The PYD is the dominant force in Tev-Dem [Rojava's governing coalition]. The armed forces in Rojava (YPG, YPJ, and the security forces, the Asayiş) are trained in the ideology of the PYD and swear an oath to Öcalan

The reality is that the PYD has a history of repressing rival political parties and dissenting Kurdish activists.

Meanwhile, the PYD's wariness to stand in solidarity with the aims of the Syrian revolution has distanced the party from forces opposed to Assad. Rather than recognizing the shared destiny of Syrians struggling for democracy generally and the Kurdish struggle for autonomy, the PYD has sided more and more openly with Assad.

However, Assad's refusal to recognize Rojava suggests that he--and his imperial backers in Russia--are planning to eventually reassert control over the region, which makes Turkey's invasion all the more threatening.


ON THE other side of the conflict, a section of the Free Syrian Army is supporting Turkey's invasion, which further erodes the possibility of solidarity between Arabs and Kurds.

Some elements of the Syrian opposition fell victim to the same divide-and-conquer tactics that left the PYD in a de facto alliance with the regime. In particular, the Syrian National Council--established in exile as the civil war began and criticized by the left in Syria and beyond for its connections to U.S. imperialism--failed to uphold the Kurdish right to self-determination.

Meanwhile, for the past two years, the YPG has been engaged in military operations not only against ISIS, but against rebel forces. It began to expand into Arab-majority areas, such as the Tal Rifaat-Menagh region, in order to connect the three geographically non-contiguous cantons that form Rojava.

In July 2016, the YPG assisted the Assad regime's barbaric siege of Aleppo by capturing a key road leading out of the city. Last month, YPG forces shelled a mental hospital in rebel-controlled Azaz.

Since the liberation of Raqqa from ISIS by forces dominated by the YPG, many residents of the city celebrate the expulsion of ISIS--but describe rule under the PYD as another occupation.

Thus, as left-wing analyst Michael Karadjis describes, FSA's support for the Afrin offensive stems from a mix of many factors: revenge; unpaid debts to Turkey, which backs parts of the FSA; and longstanding sectarian sentiments against the Kurds; among others.

Regardless of the reasons for it, however, the FSA's support for Turkey's invasion should be condemned. Turkey is attempting to subjugate Kurdish democratic and national aspirations in both Syria and at home.

Notably, not all FSA brigades have supported the invasion. Last August, a Kurdish commander from the largest Kurdish FSA faction, Ahfad Salah al-Din, publicly refused to support a Turkish assault on Afrin, stating: "The people of Afrin are my people. They are close to my heart. It is the PYD party that I am absolutely opposed to." He was reportedly tortured at the hands of a Turkish-backed FSA faction.


FOR ITS part, Turkey's motives for the invasion are transparent. Whether ruled by the military, a center-left party aligned with the military or Erdoğan's Islamist Justice and Development Party, the Turkish government has systematically quelled all expressions of Kurdish self-determination.

Currently, the government is using domestic opposition to the invasion into Syria as a further excuse for its heavy-handed crackdown on dissent. According to a Reuters report, nearly 600 people have been detained within Turkey for social media posts and protests against the invasion.

The Turkish regime has been deeply hostile to the Kurds' assertion of autonomy and military power in northern Syria all along.

When ISIS forces, still at the height of their power in 2014, besieged the Kurdish city of Kobanê, just over the border in Syria, Turkey's military--supposedly an ally of the U.S. in the war on ISIS--did nothing to aid the Kurdish fighters defending Kobanê, and instead turned their repression against Kurds attempting to reach the city to help with its defense.

Kobanê survived, and the YPG's militia eventually became the strongest force on the ground in northern Syria, collaborating with the U.S. in the war on ISIS.

The U.S. aim was to sponsor ground forces that would explicitly commit to not fighting the Assad regime. Thus, YPG fighters became predominant within the Syrian Democratic Forces, the umbrella military alliance that represented Washington's attempt to quell Turkish outrage at the U.S. arming an affiliate of the PKK.

With air support from the U.S. and other powers, the SDF successfully pushed ISIS out of northern Syria. But when Turkey began its attack against the Kurds in Afrin last month, the U.S. failed to condemn the invaders. Once again, it appears that the U.S. will betray the Kurds--whose partnership offers far less in the long term than Turkey's support as a regional power and NATO ally.

The other main imperialist power intervening in Syria is Russia, the prime international backer of the Assad regime. With control over Afrin's air space, Russia would have had to green-light Turkey's attack.

Prior to the Afrin offensive, Russian officials met with Kurdish representatives to offer a deal on behalf of the Assad regime, which was reportedly willing to protect Afrin if the PYD relinquished control of the border.

The PYD initially refused, but five days into the Turkish assault, PYD leaders called on the Syrian regime to defend the border, stating that "the Afrin region is an integral part of Syria."

Thus, the growing international consensus in support of Assad's continued rule, added to Turkey's latest aggression, has pressured the PYD to solidify relations with the Assad regime. Facing few alternatives, the PYD may begin to seek accommodations within the framework of a Syria ruled by Assad.


WHILE TURKEY invades Afrin to the north, the Assad dictatorship is continuing its four-year-long brutal siege of Eastern Ghouta, a rebel-held enclave east of Damascus.

Since mid-November 2017, the 400,000 people in the area have endured nearly daily bombing. According to the local Civil Defense, on January 20, regime forces used chlorine gas in Douma city.

An ongoing regime offensive to retake Idlib from rebels continues to kill scores of civilians and displace hundreds of thousands. Since the day Turkey's Afrin offensive began, over 110 civilians in the Idlib region have been killed by regime air strikes. Over the weekend, a suspected chlorine gas attack took place in the town of Saraqeb.

The Assad regime's war on the Syrian people--supported by the Russian air force and Iranian-backed sectarian militias--continues to add to the horrific death toll in Syria, counted at about 321,000 people killed since 2011 and more than 145,000 missing, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

As for Turkey's invasion, military forces have failed to make significant progress in Afrin, due in part to bad weather and unfamiliar terrain, according to news reports.

But Erdoğan has hinted at ethnic cleansing to come in Afrin, stating, "The whole point is to give Afrin back to its real owners." A video has surfaced showing the horrific capture and mutilation of a woman Kurdish fighter, committed by Syrian opposition forces working with Turkey.

Erdoğan has declared his government's intention to clear Kurdish forces from all of northern Syria, and he called on the U.S. to remove its military personnel from Manbij, an Arab-majority town 60 miles east of Afrin. But late in January, Gen. Joseph Votel, head of U.S. Central Command, told CNN that American troops won't withdraw from Manbij.


THUS, THE potential for a military confrontation between these NATO allies threatens to ignite further violence--with ordinary people on all sides of the conflict paying a greater toll in misery and death.

A recent statement by the Alliance of Middle Eastern Socialists reiterated the importance of the left opposing all imperialist and regional intervention in Syria and solidarity with struggles for democracy and freedom:

There has been a consensus between all the international and regional powers on the necessity to liquidate the revolutionary popular movements initiated in Syria in March of 2011 and to stabilize the murderous and authoritarian regime in Damascus with Bashar al-Assad as its head in the name of the "war on terror." It is this consensus that has given the latest "carte blanche" for these crimes.

In the face of this counter-evolutionary consensus, what is desperately needed is solidarity between all (Arabs, Kurds, and all other ethnic minorities) revolutionaries who are against the Assad regime and all the regional and international imperialist powers, and who support the struggles for social justice, women's rights and the rights of oppressed minorities.

Alan Maass contributed to this article.

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