Turkey’s long threatened invasion of Northern Syria has begun. Following a phone call with Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday, October 6th, President Trump ordered US troops in the Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR) to withdraw from the border area where they had been conducting joint security patrols with the Syrian Defence Forces. After ensuring that the invading forces would not clash with its NATO US military counterparts, Turkish aerial bombardment and land invasion has started. The international community, especially Turkey’s NATO allies, should do more than just ask for restraint.
The Turkish government has been angling to invade the autonomous area of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (DFNS), more commonly known as Rojava, since the SDF managed to repel ISIS forces from there in 2016-2017. Turkey has argued that the SDF’s presence in Rojava poses an imminent security threat. The Turkish government partially accomplished its objective with the bloody invasion of Afrin in 2018, but the largest and most densely populated area of Rojava east of the Euphrates remained under local civilian control in a complex system of rule generally known as Democratic Confederalism modelled on the political philosophy of imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. A compromise between Turkey and the US referred to as the security mechanism was implemented last month. The mechanism created joint US-Turkey patrols in a buffer zone along the border area. In return for US guarantees to enforce the mechanism, the SDF dismantled its defensive fortifications and tunnels along the border, withdrew many of its forces and all of its heavy weapons further south. The mechanism had seemed to successfully avert any immediate threat of Turkish invasion until Trump gave Erdogan the go-ahead on Sunday evening, betraying the SDF who had led the successful fight against ISIS, losing around 11,000 combatants in the process. The snap decision shocked US forces on the ground, as seen by the official CJTF-OIR twitter feed which published an enigmatic tweet on Wednesday October 9th, that seemingly expressed solidarity with the SDF; the tweet has been deleted.
In reality, the threat posed by Rojava to Turkey is a purely political one. The implementation of an autonomous Kurdish-led political system, sharing an ideological basis with the Kurdish movements and the HDP in Turkey, demonstrates that there are viable alternatives to the authoritarian rule imposed on the Kurdish region in Turkey. That is of course not to argue that Rojava’s system of governance is as utopic as occasionally projected by its sympathisers in the west nor that the SDF’s military conduct has always been beyond reproach, but these criticisms need to be grounded in the realities of a prolonged bloody conflict and are also subject to critique in Rojava itself. It is undeniable that there are links between the PYD in Northern Syria and the broader Kurdish movement including the PKK in Turkey, but these are not reducible to the SDF simply being the Syrian wing of the PKK. Most importantly the SDF has not launched any cross-border attacks on Turkey and the YPG (the Kurdish fighting forces within the SDF) is not considered a terrorist organisation by any states other than Turkey and Qatar.
Betrayal of the SDF
This betrayal of the SDF forces and the political structures it represents is being dismissed as the product of another demented Trump solo effort. Trump’s most recent justifications for his decision about Kurds not being present for the Normandy invasions, simply confirm his increasing mental volatility. Nevertheless, the Turkish army is a NATO army, invading a region which had been a key NATO ally until this past weekend. The international community sat idly by as Erdogan invaded the most western canton of Rojava, Afrin in January 2018, imposing neither international sanctions nor even severe reprimands. On this occasion, the betrayal is even more egregious, as unlike in Afrin where no international forces were present on the ground, NATO forces have had to actively withdraw to facilitate Turkey’s aggression. They have exacerbated the situation by first supervising the dismantling of the region’s minimal defensive infrastructure and then even granting the Turkish army total control of the airspace allowing it, as of October 9th, to bomb civilian areas of Qamshili and Kobane and in an incontrovertible war crime, target the Mansoura dam which provides water to most of the region. NATO’s chief Jens Stoltenberg has endorsed the invasion in a tweet which pathetically called on the Turkish army to exhibit restraint. In recent years the Turkish army and its affiliated jihadist forces have consistently disregarded all such entreaties, committing numerous war crimes in Afrin and widespread civilian massacres in its operations in cities like Cizre, Nusaybin and the Sur district of Diyarbakir in 2015 and 2016.
Support for the invasion in Turkey
Although the short-term trigger for the invasion was Trump’s encouragement at the weekend, it has been long planned. Erdogan’s domestic political problems have continued since the invasion of Afrin characterised by a lagging economy, unprecedented ill-feeling and dissenting voices within the AKP and of course highly damaging losses in recent municipal elections. An external conflict serves as a timely distraction for the Turkish government and as always occurs in Turkey has received cross-party approval, not only from the usual right-wing anti-Kurdish parties but even from the liberal doyen, recently elected mayor of Istanbul Imamoğlu. The Turkish directorate of Religious Affairs has also called for the ‘Conquest Prayer’ to be chanted at all mosques across the country. The fact that Erdogan has argued that he plans to relocate millions of Syrian refugees currently living in Turkey to the area once it is under Turkish occupation has also proved popular. Tensions have been rising against Syrians in Turkey as they have been increasingly accused of undercutting Turkish workers, driving up rents and engaging in criminality. The relocation of millions of them is perceived as an ulterior benefit by many supporters of the invasion. And those few dissenting voices in the country, which oppose the invasion, will certainly be harshly repressed as occurred during the invasion of Afrin. Indeed, Birgün journalist Hakan Demir has already been detained for the paper’s coverage of civilian casualties from Turkish bombing.
The invasion, particularly if the Turkish air force is given continued liberty to bomb heavily populated urban centres, will likely result in massive civilian casualties and a huge outflow of refugees southward to Syrian regime-controlled areas or if possible, to the Kurdish controlled region of Iraq. Unlike in Afrin 2018, when co-ordinated efforts on the ground facilitated a relatively orderly flow of refugees to other autonomously controlled territories prior to the attack, the unanticipated nature of the onslaught has resulted in chaos which will further enhance civilian vulnerability. Contrary to the ludicrous premise of the attack as continuing the fight against ISIS, the invasion will certainly strengthen the movement. The US government’s former envoy to the international campaign against ISIS, Brett McGurk decried Trump’s decision as impulsive, before re-emphasising that Turkey refused all requests to inhibit ISIS using the Tal Abyad border crossing into Turkey in 2014 and 2015 as its main supply route for weapons and recruits. He further dismissed Trumps ill-informed notion that the invading Turkish army will take charge of the ISIS fighters and supporters detained by the SDF, as their camps are far to the south, nowhere near the border with Turkey and its anticipated security zone.
The SDF has announced that it has ended its mopping up campaign against clandestine ISIS units in order to concentrate its forces against the Turkish invasion. On Wednesday morning, an ISIS cell launched a coordinated attack on the SDF in Raqqa and the SDF’s difficulties controlling and maintaining peace in the enormous al-Hawl camp, which homes tens of thousands of ISIS supporters have been well documented. Lingering ISIS units will certainly take advantage of the weakening of the SDF and it could potentially further embolden its latent international networks. It is almost guaranteed that PKK guerrillas in Turkey will intensify their low-intensity guerrilla campaign within Turkey’s borders. More broadly, Kurds just north of the border’s anger at Turkish state complicity in ISIS’ siege of Kobane in 2014, triggered violent protests which eventually led to the urban clashes of 2015 in a number of Kurdish cities resulting in thousands of deaths and hundreds of thousands displaced. One can reasonably imagine that with a full-blown invasion the popular response will be even greater. And if it were not already clear that the Turkish government has no intention of revitalising the peace process in Turkey with its detention of the Kurdish dominated HDP party’s leaders and the seizure of its democratically elected municipalities, the bloody invasion of its kinfolk only a few miles to the south will surely serve as the final nail in its coffin.
In the short term, it is hard to be optimistic about any de-escalation of the violence. In the ‘best’ foreseeable case, the SDF’s resistance will hold up the Turkish army and its jihadist allies until domestic and international pressure will convince the Trump administration to impose a no-fly zone and demand a ceasefire of sorts. Even in such a scenario, this will entail substantial civilian deaths. In a worse case scenario, the Turkish operation will proceed unhindered, particularly with unfettered air power, due to the nature of the terrain, most of the SDF’s defensive actions, honed by years of fighting with ISIS, will occur in urban environments thus augmenting the chances of mass civilian deaths over a prolonged period of time. The international community’s calls for restraint are futile and self-serving. This is not the time for supine calls, like those by international human rights groups such as Amnesty International for both sides to avoid targeting civilians when one side is so clearly the unprovoked aggressor. Turkey, NATO member or not, has once again demonstrated that it increasingly behaves as a rogue state in complete disregard of international laws and norms. The international community needs to immediately impose a no-fly zone over northern Syria, apply substantial economic and political sanctions on Turkey, including personal sanctions on the political and military architects of the invasion, and urgently end all forms of military support and co-ordination with it. The time for weasel worded, hypocritical condemnations is over, its time for international action.