25 October 2019

A far-off dream- the Kurdish autonomy gets postponed

Laurenţiu Sfinteş

For the Kurds in Syria, the “Arab Spring” was an opportunity, the Syrian opposition’s insurrection against the Damascus regime, a chance, and the withdrawal of the Syrian forces in North-East Syria to start a fratricide war from the inside, a liberation. Even the emergence of the terrorist group “Islamic state”, a lethal threat for the Kurds, has strengthened the Kurdish territories’ unity from North of Syria. And it brought a strong ally- the US military forces. All of these positive evolutions for the Syrian Kurds have ended in the afternoon of October 9th 2019, when Turkey’s military forces stated the “Peace Spring”.

Image source: Mediafax

An announced operation

Turkey’s previous military operations, called more like peace missions than force actions: “Euphrates Shield”- 2016, “Olive Branch”-2018, have led to Turkey’s third incursion in the Syrian territory and it received a humanitarian operation name, “Peace Spring”. For Turkey, the Kurdish issue needed a phased solution, considering the priority at that time and the stance of the international community.

Just like the previous operations, Turkey presented its actions more like having a humanitarian purpose, than a military one. And, also alike the previous operations, the created framework for the military forces use was a political, regional security one, presented as a first inevitable option that Turkey had to follow in order to block a dangerous evolution or to avoid a tragedy.

At the 2016 operation, there were talks about a Kurdish corridor, as a consequence of the West of Euphrates offensive of the Democratic Security Forces (majoritarian Kurdish). In 2018, they had to eliminate the “Afrin pocket” and create their own corridor in North-West Syria, managed by Syrian rebels, controlled by Turkey.

In October 2019, they are claiming the implementation of a Security Zone in the South of the Turkish-Syrian border. The objective is, however, larger, aiming at blocking and deleting the Syrian Kurds’ statehood project, even if they called it differently: autonomy, federalization. And because the Security Zone was not enough, Turkey claims also that it is an antiterrorist move and a re-dislocation of Syrian refugees from its national territory.

It allowed Ankara to continue to ask European support for the humanitarian/re-dislocation/takeover actions of the refugees inside this area or the NATO allies, for the speculated antiterrorist actions.

The operations deployed in the first days after October 9th showed that the military objectives are uppermost.

Turkey and Erdogan’s objectives

Even if Turkish army’s and the Syrian rebellious military groups’ attacks were presented rather as punctual, exclusively targeting the military dislocation and objectives, the “Spring Peace” has already provoked a wave of refugees, which have chosen to stay out of the fights, some going inside the Kurdish villages, considered safer, others towards the Iraqi Kurdistan. Kurdish sources are estimating the number of dislocated people to 100.000-150.000.

Besides these, there were attacked also civil objectives, mostly recorded where the actions were conducted by the Syrian opposition groups controlled by Ankara. These evolutions, along with the already announced ones, to relocate some of the Syrian refugees (mostly Arabs) from Turkey’s territory in camps inside the Security Zone (mostly Kurdish areas), were regarded by the West states as an ethnical clearance attempt.  

Currently, the Kurds have a positive image in Europe thanks to their actions against the terrorist groups (the Islamic state, first of all), but also the Kurdish diaspora, more and more active in the media and the public space. The massive protests following the start of the operation is the perfect proof for that.

The result was a pretty negative opposition of the European states on Turkey’s decision to start this operation, which, even if it was not unanimously made within EU, pushed some states to block the weapons exports to Ankara. EU’s reaction was nothing new for Turkey, accusing the European Union that it does not consider its concerns on PKK terrorism, which Turkey sees not only as an internal threat, but also as a regional one; among others, the Turkish state highlighted some possible migration phenomena towards Europe, this way being repeated the 2015 situation.

Therefore, this operation’s objectives are not a secret, being extremely visible and obvious, old for two decades, since the Kurdish problem in Syria was the reason of a Syria-Turkey agreement (the Adana Agreement, which led to Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan’s arrest), monitored by…surprise: Russia! And back then, in 1998, a weak and ignored Russia, still had a word to say, in terms of businesses with Middle East, especially Syria’s ones. This is where Russia’s desire to have a regional presence comes from. Hence, for Turkey, the decision was not the result of president Erdogan’s strategic decision, but the continuation of some regional evolutions, which Ankara thinks it has the right to control for national security objectives reasons.

The first objective of the operation is the threat elimination of an evolution towards statehood of any Kurdish community inside Turkey’s borders. This time, we are talking about the project developed by the Syrian Kurds, after the internal conflict in Syria. The fact that they contributed to defeat the “Islamic State” terrorist group, under US’s umbrella, did not matter too much for Ankara. The threat was actually their institutional development, the existence of their own military forces, of an administration, their own education system and even some diplomatic contacts with European capitals.

Syrian Kurds’ connections with PKK, which, indeed, are not part of Turkey’s inventions, helped Ankara a lot in getting a national popular consensus for this operation and, broadly, for the anti-Kurdish operations outside the borders. The war in Syria is not “Erdogan’s war”. In terms of the issue with Kurds outside Turkey, the Turkish society is not pro or against Erdogan. On the contrary, their big majority, including also some of the internal Kurdish community, installed in economic and administrative zones, which sees the Kurdish terrorism as the main threat against the national security. Therefore, the PKK Syrian franchise is a legitimate target for Ankara.

The second objectives is the identification of a solution for Syrian refugees situated on Turkey’s territory. The country is still sheltering around 4 million refugees. When they first entered the national territory, the Turkish economy was slowly growing, and Erdogan was a supporter of the Syrian opposition. In the meantime, the crisis in the relations with US and Europe, the economic sanctions, the internal opposition on refugees’ presence have changed the political picture of the Turkish-Syrian relations. Erdogan is, now, against the Damascus regime, but for the past years, Moscow had his back. And Assad is also still there, stronger than ever in the past eight years.

Refugees are no longer welcomed in Turkey, neither those in the working class, Erdogan’s supporters, accusing the newbies for the lack of jobs, nor the population in the main cities, where the rent price increased a lot, or the secular political opposition, who is complaining about the conservative values threatening the Turkish culture.

According to a recent poll made by Kadir Has University in Istanbul, only 7% of Turkish citizens agree with the Turkish government's policy towards refugees. It is a reality that the Turkish authorities are aware of, realizing that delaying its solution is worsening things. And the resolution can come only either as a result of these refugees’ voluntary relocation in Syria, as a consequence of achieving a national constitutional consensus that creates the conditions for it, or as a result of a forced dislocation, in a humanitarian presentation, in a "liberated" and safe territory, such as this Security Zone. The first option can hardly be achieved in the immediate term, the second is also difficult, but it may indicate that, given the progress of an initial phase, Syrian refugees are no longer welcomed in Turkey. This way, indirectly, hastening their leaving.

Who wins, who loses. Now and in the future

In such complex operations, with such different and contradictory consequences, those who gather or, on the contrary, lose points internationally and internally are more determined by perceptions than by developments in the field. At this moment, an obvious defeat, the project of Kurdish autonomy in northern Syria, but also an unexpected winner, who only reaps the fruits of the situation, thanks to a better insight of everything: Russia. And, of course, Assad.

The Kurds lose, even if the situation on the ground is still quite confusing, and their resistance can cause many headaches for the rebel Turkish and Syrian forces, for several reasons:

- the loss of US support is an extremely powerful blow, along with the foreseeable withdrawal of the British and French troops. Of course, after the December 2018 announcement, even tempered by the Trump administration's military component, this evolution is not a surprise and comments that Kurdish leaders could have a back-up plan are warranted. Partially. However, they only had two working options: together with the US, for long-term security coverage, which would have allowed them to further build their institutions, or with the Damascus regime, and the return to the situation before 2011. They chose what was available and waited. Erdogan, however, lost his patience;

-after several years of ignoring Damascus and taking advantage of Syrian army’s partial withdrawal from the garrisons deployed in northeastern Syria to create their own military structures, the Kurds have now turned to President Assad for protection and interposition of regular forces on Turkish offensive’s way. If they could have negotiated better positions previously, this time, risking to lose everything, Kurdish leaders are interested in at least discussing their subsequent status in the new Syria, as well as stopping the Turkish offensive so as not to cause a community exodus. There are few data leaked in the media on the agreement with Damascus, the potential integration of the Kurdish forces into a "Corps 5" of the Syrian army, about maintaining the Kurdish administration, about a possible cooperation in the West of the Euphrates for the liberation of the Idlib province. Discussions on the status of Syrian Kurds will be postponed for the post-conflict period and the tone will be set by the relationship with Russia, which, like Damascus, has previously criticized their partnership with the US.


Russia wins without being involved in large-scale military operations, other than air support and bombing in Idlib. Moscow manages to have better cooperation relations with a NATO member state than its partners in the Alliance, which, these days precisely, have decided, at least some of them, to block arms exports to Ankara.

It is a paradoxical situation, created both by Turkey aiming to follow a strict national security agenda, opposing some important European states’ security objectives in the region, as well as by these states’ misunderstanding of how important it is for Ankara to achieve its military operations’ objectives in recent years. And the evidence of this reality is certainly Erdogan's visit to Sochi, not to Brussels, not to Washington, Paris, Berlin or London, for consultations to solve the crisis.

President Assad's regime also wins. The return of Syrian forces in Kurdish-controlled territories, the takeover of border crossings with Turkey, presence’s resumption in garrisons and symbolic localities for the war effort - Kobane, Tabqa, Deir ez-Zor, Manbij - validates Damascus and its war effort. The legitimation also occurs externally, with the Arab League blaming "Turkey's aggression" (only Qatar and Somalia expressed "reservations"), other important states (Algeria, Lebanon, Iraq) demanding the repression of Damascus within the organization. Paradoxically, Turkey will not oppose the return of Damascus forces to the northern and northeastern Syrian border, as long as Kurdish forces are removed from there.

And let's not forget the Syrian oil, the resource that has been deposited mostly in Kurdish regions or under Kurdish control in East of the country. A resource that allowed the functioning of the "Islamic State" for quite some time, which made Kurdish forces to hope that it would strengthen their new entity’s economic power and which, now, will come under Damascus’s control. Most likely, although the US forces, those still remaining in Syria, will be disposed around the oil wells. To somehow remind them where the US interest in the Middle East started.

To say that the US loses from this evolution is probably too much. US capabilities in the region remain unchallenged, but at this stage, American influence on Syria events is below these capabilities. It is a perspective that does not support Washington too much in relation to Arab states in general. And among those who have militated politically and diplomatically against this US withdrawal from Syria is Israel, a state that was an indirect promoter of Kurdish autonomy, for its own security reasons.

But to say that decisions about US presence in Syria have no negative connotations including in Washington is also too less. The ad-hoc majority in Congress to disapprove of this withdrawal (354 votes to condemn Trump's decision, only 60 in his favor), though without executive action, shows the discomfort that US lawmakers faced with the situation of abandoning an ally and of a military presence. Of course, American public opinion wants its children back in uniform, displaced in areas and conflicts without perspective such as Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. But he wants this to happen according to his own scenario. What happened in Syria seemed to lead US to a secondary, unusual role.

Leaving the operations area with a rather reassuring conclusion: "If Syria wants to fight to take back their land, that's up to them and Turkey "(statement by President Trump, after the White House meeting with Italian President Sergio Mattarella), is not the epilogue expected by the American political, military and diplomatic elite.

Ending it and starting over again

The Syrian Kurds have sacrificed around 11.000 lives in the fight against the “Islamic State” terrorist group, but also during the Turkish army operations in 2016 and 2018. Was it worth it?

 For Fawza Youssef, one of the political leaders in North of Syria, the support demand from Damascus does not mean not continuing the Kurdish autonomy project: „The state is defending its borders. We are dealing with a survival issue right now”. „Our priority now is to stop the aggression against Syria’s unity. This does not mean that we have forfeited our rights and the gains we have achieved thus far; on the contrary, we have taken this step to guarantee them”. The Kurdish politician, one of the women promoted to have one of the highest positions of the political leadership and the local administration in North of Syria, hopes that eight years of war meant something and that they will not get back to the before-2011 situation.

If this will happen, if the Kurdish hopes are based on field realities, we should find it in the near future, maybe until November 13th, when president Erdogan will go to the White House.

Then, we will know if there is a new chapter to be closed for the Kurdish community in Syria or if, on the contrary, their national identity strengthening project is still in a writing process.

Translated by Andreea Soare