The Ugly Reality That Is Emerging in Syria
Beirut—By mid-March, Turkish forces, alongside the remnants of the Free Syrian Army, entered the northern Syrian town of Afrin. Fifty-eight days into the siege of this city, the Syrian Kurdish forces were routed. They decided to end their defense of the city and instead turn their fighting units toward a long process of guerrilla warfare. Turkey’s president Recip Tayyib Erdogan had a triumphant air at a commemoration ceremony for the Gallipoli Campaign during World War I in the northwestern province of Canakkale. "The terror corridor has been broken," said Erdogan.
The phrase "terror corridor" has become part of the vocabulary of the Turkish government. What it refers to is the slice of land that had been taken by the Syrian Kurdish forces that runs along Syria’s northern border with Turkey. The Syrian Kurdish political authorities had come to call this territory the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria. But this formal name was not the common one. It has been known as Rojava, or western Kurdistan. It is this name that bothers the Turkish government, since it harkens to a fuller Kurdish state that would include eastern Kurdistan (in Iraq and Iran) as well as northern Kurdistan (in Turkey). Turkey has been fundamentally opposed to any such Kurdish state. Even a hint of it has earned the wrath of Ankara, Turkey’s capital. It is far more useful for the Turkish government to call the belt a "terror corridor" than either a "democratic federation" or a province of a future Kurdish state. The language of the "war on terror" defines the Turkish intervention in Syria.
In 2011, Turkey’s government decided to give its full support to the rebellion against the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad. Erdogan was one of the first regional leaders to publicly call for the removal of Assad—"Assad must go" became the familiar formula. Turkey opened its borders to the rebels, allowing them to move supplies and fighters into Syria. It allowed a Syrian political opposition group to take up residence in Istanbul and it gave this platform—mainly composed of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood—full political support and encouragement. Tens of thousands of refugees from Syria streamed into Syria. Gulf Arab and Western intelligence agencies began to operate from southern Syria to help shape the war against Assad.
Turkey’s Erdogan miscalculated. The entry of Iranian and Russian armed power as well as the resilience of the Assad government allowed it to withstand the full force of the Gulf Arab and Western intervention through a range of fighters. Turkey produced its own militia group (Ahrar al-Sham) and provided logistical support to sections of the Free Syrian Army. Neither of Turkey’s armed groups was able to prevail. They were outflanked by the arrival of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) from Iraq and by the al-Qaeda franchise, Jabhat al-Nusra. Without U.S. airpower against Damascus, it was clear that the various proxy groups of the Gulf Arabs, Turkey and the West would not succeed.
Syrian Democratic Forces
A weakened Syrian state allowed the Syrian Kurds who largely live along the Syria-Turkey border to create their own political formations—the Kurdish Supreme Council—and their own armed wing—the People’s Protection Units (YPG). It was not easy for the YPG to carve out the region known as Rojava. ISIS seized Kobane in 2014, while the Turkish government intervened through Operation Euphrates Shield in 2016-17. The expansion of ISIS and the entry of the Turkish army suggested that the Syrian Kurds would not be allowed to easily establish their homeland in the north.
The Syrian Kurdish leadership realized that it would not be better to create a Syrian rather than a Syrian Kurdish outfit. For that reason, the Syrian Kurdish leadership created a new political platform and a new militia group—the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). They reached out to Damascus and to the Russian government, seeking to assure them that its ambitions were only to demonstrate that Syria could be a federation and that the northern province would merely be an autonomous part of a future democratic and federated Syria. This did not convince the Turks, who seemed sure that the talk of federation was a smokescreen for the establishment of an outpost of a future Kurdish state.
When the United States sought an ally on the ground in the fight against ISIS, Washington’s generals settled upon the Syrian Democratic Forces. It was the SDF, with close air cover from the United States, that fought tenaciously against ISIS in northern Syria. Officials in Washington and in Damascus agree that without the SDF, it would have been much more difficult to defeat ISIS in northern Syria and to free Raqqa from ISIS hands.
It is a sign of the complexity of this war in Syria that the Syrian Kurds would provide their fighters to defeat ISIS under the cover of U.S. warplanes. The United States, which is an ally of Turkey through NATO, used its airplanes to strengthen the position of the Syrian Kurds in northern Syria. The Assad government allowed this to occur because it had little choice and because it perhaps recognized that this put Turkey into a bind. The Syrian Kurdish position would never be able to be sustained. There is no powerful country—neither the U.S. nor Russia—that would protect the Syrian Kurds once they had created Rojava. Betrayal of the Kurds, whether in Iraq or in Syria, is a hallmark of contemporary West Asian history.
The Turkish army and its Free Syrian Army allies have already begun a campaign within Afrin to destroy the emblems of Syrian Kurdish rule. Kurdish statues have been destroyed and Kurdish political figures have been arrested. It is clear that the Turkish army has been given free rein to attack the confidence of the Syrian Kurdish population. It seeks to send a symbol across Rojava that the Turkish government will not stand for any kind of Kurdish independence along its borders.
There was no sign from the United States that it would help its Syrian Kurdish allies. No pressure was put on the Turkish government and no U.S. aircraft flew over Afrin to protect it from superior Turkish firepower. In Astana (Kazakhstan), before the final assault on Afrin, Turkey, Russia and Iran met to acknowledge some realities. Turkey would be allowed to take Afrin and defeat the Syrian Kurdish forces. The Syrian Army, which sat outside Afrin, did not intervene to protect this Syrian city from the Turkish intervention. Meanwhile, as part of the deal, Turkey has promised not to intervene when the Syrian Army—with Russian and Iranian support—will move into Idlib in northern Syria. When the Syrian army has come close to defeating rebel groups across the country, it has allowed fighters to leave as long as they go to Idlib. It is this city that will be one of the main last fights of this war on Syria. It is now clear that Turkey will not intervene to protect the rebels in Idlib. It is the price that the Turks are now willing to pay to ensure that the Syrian Kurds lose their Rojava.
Bravery led Othman Sheikh Issa, co-chair of the Afrin Executive Council to say, "Our forces all over Afrin will become a constant nightmare" for the Turkish army. The Syrian Kurdish leaders had ordered their fighters to leave the city and begin guerrilla operations. But this order was disobeyed by a section of fighters who tried to hold the city. They recognized that the fall of Afrin is more than a blow to their ambitions. It might very well set back the Syrian Kurdish political cause back by a generation.