Under the cover of Covid-19, Turkey is hammering the Kurds. Again. Should the world care? Turkey enters northern Iraq in ground operation against Kurdistan.
Turkey regularly carries out air and ground attacks against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, which it says maintains bases in northern Iraq. Wednesday’s was the first known airborne and land offensive.
Turkey’s transfer of ISIS families to Tell Abyad from Afrin has reignited worries of demographic engineering in Kurdistan
The operation by commando forces is being supported by warplanes, attack helicopters, artillery and armed and unarmed drones, according to the ministry’s statement posted on Twitter. It did not say how many troops are involved.
Turkey’s plan to recruit mercenaries from Syria for the Libyan battlefield is gaining traction but appears to creating rifts among the Syrian opposition as fighters are lured to Libya by Turkish promises of money and more.
A week after the Turkish parliament approved a government motion for a military deployment in Libya, the scope of the mission remains unclear, but Ankara seems inclined to make use of non-military elements, including militia from Syria.
Almost exactly 100 years ago – 20 August 1920 to be precise – the victors of the First World War promised the Kurds a homeland.
Within three years that pledge – made under the Treaty of Sèvres – was tossed into the brimming bin of broken promises.
Losing part of its territory didn’t suit the new post-Ottoman state of Turkey, and the Allies complied. High-level agreements between nation states are what counts. Kurdish independence could go hang.
Today, as the world is preoccupied with the worst pandemic in living memory, Turkey is attacking the Kurds within its own borders, and in Iraq and Syria.
In spite of a ceasefire called by the UN during the epidemic, Turkey persists with indiscriminate shelling and drone attacks in North and East Syria. It is cutting off water supplies to people who desperately need them, increasing the risk of Covid-19 spreading through the region’s many refugee camps.
Turkish troops and their proxies are setting Kurdish farmers’ fields ablaze while ‘ethnic cleansing’ of Kurds continues apace.Regretfully, world powers only see them as useful proxies when needed – and friends to forget when not
Hassan Hassan is a teacher living in Shahba, just north of Aleppo. He tells me about the situation on the ground, where 150,000 Kurds are living in refugee camps and war-torn villages:
‘Here we come under non-stop barrages of Turkish artillery from the north and the east. Inside the occupied areas in Afrin, Til Abyad and Ras al Eyn, more than 50 pro-Turkey armed groups plus Turkish army and intelligence units have almost succeeded in depopulating the area of its Kurds, Yazidis and Christians. The Kurds, who have now become a small minority compared with the Arab and Turkman settlers, are subjected to violence on a daily basis in a bid to destroy the pluralist character of the area and empower extremists.’
He goes on: ‘The remaining Kurdish residents say they are suffering a litany of abuses at the hands of Turkish-backed rebels – kidnappings for ransom; armed robberies; appropriation of homes, shops, businesses, fields; and torture and killing.’
The area’s revolutionary experiment in autonomy, he says, is attacked by enemies, surrounding it like ‘sharks’: ‘the Turks and their cruel proxies from the north, IS and pro-Turkey sleeper cells from inside as well as Iranian militias from the south’.
Here, in numbers, are the consequences of six months of Turkish occupation in the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES, aka Rojava): 200,000 civilians permanently or temporarily displaced; 288 killed by Turkish shelling and drone strikes; 600 settlements occupied; 127 homes destroyed; 460,000 people denied access to clean drinking water; 1.8 million in need of humanitarian aid; 86,000 children denied access to education.
It’s hard to believe that not so long ago the Kurds were being lauded on the international stage as victors and heroes. The plucky ones who, with international coalition support, saw off Islamic State (IS) in Syria. Whose women and men had bravely led the ground fight against IS and taken back the Syrian city of Raqqa that the extremists had made ‘capital’ of their caliphate. Who, as part of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), partnering with the US, drove IS militants out of their last stronghold of Baghuz in early 2019.
Young female fighters of the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) were the symbol, not only the more acceptable face of the Kurdish armed struggle, but also the most interesting and media-friendly one. Perhaps the military success and kudos the Kurds of Rojava had gained would bring them closer to international recognition of their self-declared autonomous authority?
Then, suddenly, on 6 October 2019, US president Donald Trump announced, after a phone call with Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, that he was pulling US troops out of North and East Syria. It was a green light for Turkey to invade Rojava, which it did three days later under the cruelly inappropriate name of ‘Operation Peace Spring’.
There were international cries of dismay and talk of suspending arms sales to Turkey. Faced with Turkish military might, Syria’s Kurdish officials even struck a deal with Assad, their former enemy, for military reinforcements in the border area.
On 22 October Russia and Turkey reached an agreement. Turkish troops would remain in the areas they had seized and Russian troops and the Syrian army would control the rest of the border. The Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (YPG) element of the multi-ethnic SDF had 150 hours to withdraw. Both powers agreed they would not allow ‘any separatist agenda’ in the territory.
There was a bit of rollback on the part of the US: it would keep a small number of troops in the area after all. But the damage was done. Turkey had got away with its invasion under the pretext of ‘securing its border’ by creating a 5,000-square-kilometre, ideally Kurd-free, buffer zone within Syrian Kurdistan.
The Syrian Kurds, still under attack today, had been stitched up by the great powers and hung out to dry by their former partners.
As Hassan puts it: ‘Regretfully, in whichever state they live, the Kurds endure a perilous existence and world powers only see them as useful proxies when needed – and friends to forget when not.’
The geopolitics are complex, but they are also crude. Turkey has clout; President Erdoğan has several cards to play.
Card one: refugees. Turkey is host to 3.5 million refugees, many of whom would rather go to Europe. For Erdoğan they are a weapon that can be unleashed at any time on the EU and its neighbours. The countries of Europe have domestic, populist, political imperatives for keeping migrants out that trump humanitarian (and economic) reasons for letting them in.
Card two: Turkey is a powerful member of NATO, with the second-largest army of all members and housing 50 US nuclear bombs. It’s the world’s fifth-largest buyer of arms, 60 per cent coming from the US and plenty from the UK, France, Spain and Russia.
Turkey also invests lavishly in lobbying power, spending $6.6 million on influencing the US government in 2018. It is seen as a tricky but strategic ally in the US’s so-called ‘war on terror’ – even though it is supporting jihadist militants with al-Qaeda connections.
Card three: Turkey has nation-state power. Nation states have a mutual understanding. They can have their own armies, without being called terrorists. They can lock up journalists and political opponents, and still be welcome at the table of world democracies. They can displace thousands of citizens and still be courted as a valuable trading partner.
They have tacit permission to be tough on non-state actors if they arm themselves to defend themselves from government violence and abuses. On this matter states generally hang together, however unsavoury their fellow gang members.
If you are not in the club of nation states you are out in the cold when it comes to receiving UN support, even during a pandemic. Although it comprises almost a third of Syrian territory, the Autonomous Authority of North and East Syria (aka Rojava) is not recognized by the international community. The United Nations and the WHO therefore refuse to provide direct support and will only go via nation states.
This means that any assistance to Rojava has to go through the hostile Assad regime in Damascus, ‘even though it is known to be misusing funds and blocking humanitarian support for AANES,’ according to Kurdish movement researcher Anya Briy.
No-one doubts the region’s need. Its healthcare facilities have been battered by years of conflict. There are at least 600,000 internally displaced people and refugees.
Briy writes: ‘Only 2 of 11 hospitals are fully operational. There are only 40 ventilators to serve a population of up to 5 million, and given an acute lack of beds and medical practitioners, the region has the capacity to treat fewer than 500 cases. Given these conditions, one would expect international institutions to help prevent the spread of Covid-19 in the region.’