8 questions and answers on Turkey’s invasion of Rojava

Analysts Lurdes Vidal, Gabriel Garroum and Clara Torres speak to Nationalia on context, consequences of attack against Western Kurdistan

Mapa oficial turc de l'operació militar. La línia roja marca el límit esperat per Ankara de l'ocupació de Rojava. La zona groga és sota control de les SDF.
Mapa oficial turc de l'operació militar. La línia roja marca el límit esperat per Ankara de l'ocupació de Rojava. La zona groga és sota control de les SDF.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced the start of the military operation against Rojava in northern Syria on Wednesday 9 October. The operation is led by the Turkish army with the support of Syrian fighters brought together under the umbrella of the self-proclaimed Syrian National Army —not to be confused with the Syrian Armed Forces, the army of the Syrian Arab Republic, loyal to President Bashar al-Assad. The operation, which may herald the beginning of the invasion of most of Syrian Kurdistan, comes four days after US President Donald Trump gave Erdogan a free hand.

According to informations obtained by The New Arab, the operation is set to last until 2020. It will consist of the invasion and subsequent occupation of a 25-kilometre-wide strip along the border between Turkey and Syrian Kurdistan in other words, the international border between Turkey and Syria. On both sides of the border, about 20 million Kurds mostly on the Turkish side live, besides Arabs, Turkmens, Assyrians, Turks and others.

In order to explain in detail what the operation can entail, Nationalia has spoken to Lurdes Vidal, director of Arab World and Mediterranean at Barcelona’s European Institute of the Mediterranean (IEMed); Gabriel Garroum, a researcher at the Department of War Studies at King’s College London; and Clara Torres, a member of the Catalan Solidarity Platform with the Kurdish People Azadî and the European Jineolojî Committee.

1. Who controls northern Syria, south of the Turkish-Syrian border?

Two main zones of control exist.

The westernmost part, some 1/4 of the border from Efrîn to the Euphrates River—, is under Turkish military control. Several local civilian administrations have been put in place, ultimately dependent on Ankara. Within this area, the mainly Kurdish former canton of Efrîn is found. In 2018, Turkey expelled the Kurdish militias (YPG-YPJ) and the Kurdish autonomous administration from it.

The eastern 3/4 of the border from the Euphrates to the Iraqi border are under the control of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, except for a tiny area in Qamislo which remains under Al Assad’s forces. The region is widely known as Rojava, the Kurdish name for “West”. It has an autonomous government led by the left-wing Kurdish movement. Its armed forces are the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), made up by the YPG-YPJ and several Arab, Turkmen and Assyrian militias allied to them. The SDF have so far received support from the US, who have deployed military personnel in the area, with the aim of fighting ISIS remnants.

2. Why is Turkey saying that the military operation is necessary?

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan claims that Rojava is a “corridor of terror” on the grounds that the YPG-YPJ have links with the PKK, the Kurdish political-military organisation that Turkey lists as terror group. Erdogan argues that, in order to guarantee the security of Turkey, a 30-kilometre-wide strip along the entire Turkish-Syrian border needs to be created —and placed under Ankara’s rule.

On August 7, Turkey and the US agreed to establish a “security zone” that would include joint patrols between the Turkish and US armies. The agreement, however, did not meet all of Turkey’s demands. Erdogan continued to insist that he would order an attack against northern Syria. The SDF agreed to dismantle part of their defences at the border, as a compromise measure to prevent the invasion.

Apart from this, the other reason stated by Turkey is that it intends to resettle to the north of Syria at least 1 of 3.5 million Syrian refugees currently in Turkey, building there at least 150 new towns and villages to host them.

If Turkey were to fulfil such purposes, the demography of the northernmost strip of Syrian territory would be fundamentally altered. It is in that strip, which would fall under Turkish military rule, where many of Syria’s Kurds live. Cities such as Kobanê, Qamislo, Serê Kaniyê (Ras al Ayn) or Girê Spî (Tall Abyad) are located there.

3. What are Turkey’s real intentions?

According to Lurdes Vidal, “Turkey’s plan is quite clear: demographic engineering [and] repopulating the region with refugee population that will dilute the Kurdish component of the territory, while ensuring that it breaks or greatly hinders the physical links between Syrian Kurds and Turkish Kurds and it contains the Kurdish push in the region.”

Refugees play a central role in such “demographic engineering”, Gabriel Garroum points out: “In fact, the argument of refugee relocation achieves three goals. First, it is the pretext for driving the YPG out of the border. The excuse of creating a security zone links both ‘securities’: humanitarian security (protecting the lives of refugees) and state security (chasing one of the main armed threats away), Second, it serves as an internal outlet: the demographic pressure and the emergence of some conflicts between Turks and Syrians, among other factors, would be relieved by this relocation. Third, both facts are related to a larger project: the establishment of a governance zone —in the short term— that can be de facto joined to Turkey in the medium or long run.”

According to Clara Torres, Turkey’s will to destroy Kurdish autonomy is pivotal. “What is a threat to Turkey,” she says, “is the democratic project that is being developed in the territory of the north and east of Syria,” because “it calls into question the need for a nation-state for the organisation and administration of life, and breaks with one of the basic premises of the nation-state: [the idea that] the existence of other peoples and nations does not and will not allow a strong rooting of state structures within society.”

Furthermore, Torres believes that Erdogan seeks to distract the attention of citizens: “Turkey finds itself in a political, social and economic crisis that is becoming more and more acute. The AKP, Erdogan’s party, is losing voters and members, and civil society is increasingly showing its discomfort with him. In order to get out of this situation and to secure the nationalist base, as well as to achieve his neo-Ottoman dream, Erdogan is once again betting on the war against the Kurds.”

4. Which is the role of Bashar al-Assad’s allies Russia and Iran?

The Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, mainly supported by Russia and Iran, currently controls some 70% of the Syrian territory. The remaining 30% is under the control of the Autonomous Administration, the Turkish occupation in the northwest, and several Islamist groups, especially in the Idlib area.

Iran and Russia, together with Turkey, are the main promoters and actors of the Astana Process, a series of negotiation rounds launched in 2017 in the capital of Kazakhstan, aimed at seeking a way out of conflict. European countries do not take part in that process. Nor does the United States, as the country has gradually limited its involvement in the Syrian theatre during Donald Trump’s presidency.

Even if Russia and Iran support one side of the conflict —the Al-Assad regime— and Turkey another —the opposition—, Vidal points out that all three actors of the Astana Process “agree” to the Turkish intervention, “forging a type of ‘distribution’ that benefits them all. Turkey manages to contain the Kurds, perhaps even avoiding a massacre that, in the eyes of the world, would greatly damage its image.”

Garroum agrees: “Iran, Russia and Turkey have set an axis with increasingly aligned interests, also in relation to the Kurds. For Russia, American abandonment of the Kurdish militias means that the United States no longer has a relevant ally in Syria”. The King’s College researcher recalls: “Russia did not lift a finger when Turkey launched the offensive on Efrîn.” Torres adds: “It was Russia that gave Turkey the green light to attack and invade Efrîn, since it is Russia who controls Efrîn’s sky.” Garroum, on the other hand, believes that it is “possible that [Russia] will expect something in exchange from Turkey, possibly in relation to Idlib.”

5. Do Kurdish militias and their allies have the ability to resist a Turkish invasion?

It is true, as Clara Torres points out, that “Rojavan society has long been preparing for a possible invasion, and there is no doubt that they will resist with all their strength and courage. In addition, the political and revolutionary project through which they organise gives special importance to training and knowledge as a form of self-defence.” The SDF are equipped with war material, especially light weaponry, with which they have been able to defeat ISIS in a region of more than 40,000 square kilometres.

It is also true, however, that their war opponent, Turkey, has clear military superiority. It is the second largest NATO army, with air capacity and heavy artillery able to bomb Rojava from the Turkish side of the border many kilometres inside Syrian territory. In Garroum’s words: “To be honest, it seems that [the SDF] have little to do. In the case of Efrîn, the resistance lasted just a little more than one month. Although the Turkish offensive will by no means be easy, we will have to see to what extent the SDF are able to mobilise all their human power beyond the YPG, and what the degree of fervour/resistance is.”

6. A deal with the Syrian regime is an option for the Autonomous Administration?

In recent days, SDF commanders have invited the Syrian regime to agree on a joint strategy to defend northern Syria from a possible Turkish invasion. Most analysts point out that the Syrian government is unlikely to accept. Al-Assad’s stance is that military control of northern and eastern Syria should be handed over to the Syrian army, apart from the fact that his real room for manoeuvre is limited, says Garroum: “I do not think that Al-Assad will oppose Turkish action head-on, even if he can make some more inflammatory statement. The current move is backed by Russia and most probably by Iran, who currently hold Al-Assad in their hands.”

The King’s College researcher, however, does consider that “the Turkish offensive opens a window to a possible rapprochement of the YPG towards Damascus,” which Vidal also agrees: “There is every reason to believe that the Turkish action will end up pushing the Kurds towards the Al-Assad regime. In fact, for Russia this is a good solution, since it allows to both reinforce the Al-Assad regime and control the Kurds.”

Similarly, Garroum adds that the new situation may allow the Syrian army, “with Russian help, to advance and gain ground to the SDF. It seems that Manbij could be the first objective to be retaken by the regime in the face of an SDF that will have to concentrate its troops in the northern strip to fight the Turkish offensive.”

Torres does not believe that the Kurds can expect anything from the Syrian government: “For nearly two years, the territory of Efrîn has remained invaded by Turkey and its jihadist mercenaries, and the regime has done nothing about it.”

7. Can the Turkish invasion lead to ethnic cleansing?

Multiple Kurdish voices from Rojava warn that the Turkish invasion may lead to ethnic cleansing, as fear of the consequences of the occupation may impel many Kurdish families to flee towards SDF-controlled areas further south.

“Unfortunately, precedents of ethnic cleansing by Turkey exist”, explains Torres, who quotes genocides suffered “by Armenians and other Christian peoples” one century ago, “millions of Kurds [who] live in Europe due to the policies of repression, assimilation and annihilation of the Turkish government against the Kurdish people,” and “the most recent example of Efrîn.” According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, 350,000 people left that area after it was captured by Turkey in 2018, while an undetermined number of non-Kurdish Syrians were resettled there. “This is why the Kurds speak out when they refer to [Turkey’s] intentions of ethnic cleansing.”

Garroum is pessimistic: “Everything points to it. Efrîn is a paradigmatic example: intervention, war, displacement of local population, control of the territory by the aggressor and, finally, demographic substitution, assuring loyalty. It is possible that this scheme will be repeated, now on a large scale and with much greater reverberation.”

Vidal admits that “such a fear exists,” but says that she believes that Turkey “will opt for demographic engineering as a resource,” in which resettlement of Syrian refugees currently in Turkey —with the aim of altering the demographic composition of Rojava— would play a central role. “Everything will also depend on how the different actors in play react,” the director of Arab World and Mediterranean at Barcelona’s IEMed argues.

8. What about Europe?

While the US has gradually disconnected from the Syrian chessboard, Europe’s minimal role there is also worth noting. Both factors have ended leaving Syria outside the western orbit. Now, the Turkish invasion “seems to be the beginning of the territorial ‘division’ between the three great international actors that have remained pulling the strings in Syria,” namely Turkey, Russia and Iran, “after the progressive disinterest of the US and inaction of the Europeans”, says Vidal.

The IEMed expert also points out that, with the military intervention, Turkey “is seizing the opportunity to make a move with the refugees. Europe will continue to be conditioned in some way by Turkey, especially if it finally gains control of the prisoners linked to Daesh [ISIS] who are now under the control of SDF militias. [ISIS] European prisoners and their families are a hot potato that can become a card to be played.”

Torres is very critical of the EU and especially of Germany, where several million citizens of Turkish and Kurdish origin and descent live: “The EU is a direct accomplice to Turkey’s attacks. Not only because of its silence in the face of the Efrîn invasion, but also because Germany is a major arms seller to Turkey. Europe benefits economically from attacks and wars carried out by the Turkish army.” The Azadî Platform member also highlights the agreements that the EU and Turkey have signed to prevent this country from allowing refugees to travel to Europe. “Especially Germany is a great ally of Turkey,” Torres goes on, as “it carries out repressive policies against the Kurdish population within German borders, where Kurds as well as other people in solidarity with the Kurdish cause have faced fines and even prison sentences. Last year, Germany banned and closed the Kurdish book publishing house Mesopotamia, and the flags of the Kurdistan Liberation Movement are banned in Germany.”

Faced with this situation, Torres believes that European civil society should take action: “We must be aware that the defence of Rojava is everyone’s responsibility, beyond its borders. For a few months now a campaign #RiseUp4Rojava has been active, which coordinates resistance actions within the internationalist framework.”