After Afrin Turkey cannot continue to play ‘Kurdish card’ in Rojava
The Turkish government has repeatedly tried to stress that it distinguishes between ordinary Kurds on the one hand and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and Syrian Kurdish Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG) on the other.
It has sought to stress this as it simultaneously threatens to launch another cross border military campaign into Syria against the YPG in Syrian Kurdistan’s (Rojava) cantons, but how long will Ankara’s rhetoric stand?
“This organization never had the aim to defend the rights of our Kurdish brothers or any group in the region,” said Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on March 8. He was referring, in this case, to the PKK.
Erdogan often denies that his government targets its “Kurdish brothers”, insisting that it solely focuses on combating PKK “terrorists.” Some Kurds argue that Turkey not only targets the PKK, but in the process kills civilians and non-PKK elements. This was demonstrated when Turkish airstrikes killed five Peshmerga from the Kurdistan Region in Shingal in 2017 and most recently killed at least half a dozen civilians in Shiladze in January.
When US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in early January, underscored the “importance of ensuring that the Turks don’t slaughter the Kurds” of Syria, Ankara responded angrily — denying that it has any such intention.
“Minister Pompeo’s equating the PYD/YPG terrorist organization with the Kurds, even if not deliberate, indicates a worrying lack of knowledge,” stated Hami Aksoy, the spokesperson for Turkey’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Turkey, Aksoy added, “will continue to oversee the protection of the rights of Syrian Kurds in efforts to achieve a political solution to the Syrian conflict.”
Ankara has the support of a small Kurdish entity in Turkey which also condemns the PKK and YPG and supports Ankara’s actions against them.
The self-styled Independent Kurdish Coalition of Syria portrays itself as an alternative for Syrian Kurds to both the leading Democratic Union Party (PYD), the political wing of the YPG, and the Kurdistan National Council (KNC/ENKS), which is backed by the Kurdistan Region and has had cordial ties with Turkey. These two parties, the Kurdish Coalition claims, do not represent the Syrian Kurds.
According to Al-Monitor, the Kurdish Coalition displays Turkish flags at its gatherings and has even held a conference in Turkish-occupied Afrin, which one could interpret as an endorsement of Ankara’s unprovoked invasion and occupation of that Rojava canton.
The group’s latest meeting consisted of 300 members.
“Turkey has never fought against the Syrian Kurds but against the PKK. Our common enemy with Turkey is the PKK,” the Kurdish Coalition’s president, Abdulaziz Temo, told Al-Monitor.
Echoing the Turkish government he described the YPG as a terrorist organization, stating that everyone in the Coalition’s last meeting agreed with this designation and wants to see the group removed from Rojava.
“They don’t represent us and should get out of our land,” Temo declared.
It is unclear if this entity is promoting itself as a possible alternative to the PYD in northeast Syria following a Turkish operation there. The fact it held a meeting in Afrin may be its way of suggesting that it could help play such a role.
However, historically groups of this kind installed by foreign armies to govern in the Middle East have had a very poor track record. Ahmed Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress (INC) was a very good example of this.
Turkey’s actions in Afrin seriously undermine its claim that its objectives in Syria are solely aimed at destroying the YPG and are not intended to harm Kurds in general.
Erdogan has said once the Turkish military clears YPG from east of the Euphrates, Rojava’s heartland, it will return it to its “rightful owners”.
This is the exact same terminology the Turkish president used on the eve of the Afrin invasion in early 2018.
The invasion of Afrin displaced hundreds-of-thousands of Kurds. Many of them have not yet returned since Turkey’s Syrian militiamen proxies occupy the whole area. Those militiamen have committed several documented crimes against Afrin’s residents throughout their occupation which Turkey has turned “a blind eye” to.
Many of Afrin’s displaced Kurds are, consequently, still languishing in camps in the nearby Shahba Canton, too fearful for their lives to even attempt returning to their homes. Afrin’s occupiers have resettled displaced Syrian Arabs from across the country in vacated Kurdish homes in a clear attempt to create new demographic facts on the ground.
It’s clear that the engineered demographic change, or Arabization, of Afrin was what Erdogan meant by returning that region to its rightful owners. One can logically deduce from this precedent that Erdogan intends to do the same in Rojava’s primary regions in northeastern Syria if Turkey conquers them, or gains control over large swathes of them under the proposed safe zone along the border where most of Rojava’s major cities are incidentally situated.
The KNC/ENKS, whose officials were jailed by the PYD and its political activities suppressed in Rojava by the PYD for years, oppose any Turkish military operation east of the Euphrates. It’s likely that it too has concluded that any Turkish incursion into Rojava would not end in the military defeat of the YPG but could also see the uprooting of hundreds of thousands more Kurds from their homeland.
Neither Turkey’s grandstanding rhetoric about protecting innocent Kurds and only combating terrorists or having the support of a tiny Kurdish entity changes this observable reality.