Turkey’s operation against Kurds in Syria risks reviving IS group

Turkey is threatening to send group troops into northeastern Syria in retaliation for a deadly Istanbul bombing on November 13 that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attributes to the Syrian Kurdish YPG (Kurdish People’s Protection Unit). The group has strongly denied responsibility for the attack. However, Erdogan now plans to escalate the assault in the region, building on the air operation launched on November 20, in a move that experts say risks destabilising the region, and reviving the Islamic State (IS) group. 

The noose is tightening around the Syrian Kurds. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan launched the “Claw-Sword” air operation in northeastern Syria on November 20 in retaliation for the deadly attack in Istanbul on November 13.

Ankara blamed the attack, which killed six and injured dozens, on the Syrian Kurdish YPG (Kurdish People’s Protection Unit), which has strongly denied responsibility for the bombing.

But Erdogan has said that the strikes were “only the beginning” and that he will order a ground offensive in northeastern Syria “at the most convenient time for us”. 

Washington has called on Ankara to exercise restraint while recognising the legitimacy of Turkey’s “security demands concerning terrorist attacks”.

“The continued conflict, especially a ground invasion, would severely jeopardise the hard-fought gains that the world has achieved against ISIS [using another acronym for the IS group], and would destabilise the region,” US General Pat Ryder told reporters on November 29.

Moscow, an ally of the Syrian regime, has also called for restraint.

The Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a US-backed militia alliance dominated by the YPG, has accused Turkey of using the bombing as a pretext to launch a long-planned cross-border offensive, and urged Russia to put pressure on Turkey.

If Turkey carries out its threats, “we will be forced to expand the scope of this war” to include the entire border area, said Mazloum Abdi, commander-in-chief of the SDF.

The SDF, backed by the US, spearheaded the fight against the IS group between 2015, driving them out of vital strategic areas, including their de facto capital Raqqa. 

But Turkey considers the YPG to be a terrorist group, viewing it as the Syrian arm of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). 

Between 2016 and 2019, Turkey carried out three major operations in northern Syria against Kurdish militias and organisations. 

The Turkish president, who has been in power since 2002 and is up for re-election in June 2023, has repeatedly said he wants to create a 30km-wide “security zone” along the country’s southern border.

Professor Fabrice Balanche, Lecturer in Geography at France’s University Lumière Lyon 2, believes Erdogan is exploiting Turkish nationalism in the hope of ensuring his re-election in June 2023. He also expressed concern that a Turkey-led ground operation in northeastern Syria could create a new generation of IS group jihadists in Syria.

FRANCE 24: What could prevent a Turkish ground offensive in Syria?

Fabrice Balanche: If the Russians and the Americans want to firmly oppose it, they need only deploy troops on the border between Turkey and Syria to prevent Turkey from attacking. But the opposite is happening. The Russians have stopped conducting joint patrols with Turkey in areas that are vulnerable to attack. The same goes for the Americans, who have exfiltrated their civilian personnel from northeastern Syria.

The question is therefore not ‘if’, but ‘when’, the offensive will be launched?

Erdogan has gone too far with his words and deeds to back down now. He has been threatening to attack for more than a year and demanding that Turkey’s security zone be extended. And this is the right time to do so. The Russians and the Americans both need the Turkish president in the context of the Ukrainian crisis; nobody wants to alienate him. He is therefore trading his services so that he can annex a new Kurdish territory in northern Syria. In the spring, Erdogan vetoed Finland and Sweden’s NATO membership bids because the two countries’ links with the Kurds in Syria were too strong. Sweden pledged to stop supporting them. In June 2023, Turkey will hold parliamentary and presidential elections. Erdogan has been in office since 2002, but his grip on power could be weakening. The opposition is divided, however, as there are the Kemalists on one side and the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) on the other. The Kemalists will support an attack in northern Syria. The HDP, on the other hand, will not. This situation will prevent an electoral alliance of the opposition from forming against the Justice and Development Party (AKP) [President Erdogan’s Islamo-conservative party]. Erdogan wants to launch this ground offensive for domestic reasons, to reinforce Turkish nationalism. Striking the Kurds always helps rally the population behind him.

What is the situation like in northeastern Syria?

I spent a month in the region in January 2022, in Kobane, Raqqa, Deir-Ezzor. It is a disaster for the population. They are barely surviving. There was a shortage of fuel, electricity, and bread – which is made from bad flour – all of which is rationed. This region used to be the breadbasket of Syria. Because of the lack of fertiliser, irrigation, drought, mismanagement and war, they are forced to import wheat. It is unbearable. The population is frustrated and no longer believes that northeast Syria can become independent and autonomous. The Arabs have never believed it and do not want it. The Kurds, even those who work within the local administration, do not believe it anymore. The Turks know that they are not going to fight.

Do the Kurds feel abandoned or betrayed by the West?

It’s hard for them to admit it and it took them a long time to do so. The Kurds don’t trust the US anymore. The US didn’t help them when Turkey took Afrin in 2018 and even less in October 2019, when it conquered Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain. On each occasion, the Turkish army’s Arab and Turkmen auxiliaries ethnically cleansed the Kurdish population. The West is providing emergency aid to the region, but this is not enough for a reconstruction process, which is not on the donors’ agenda. Moreover, humanitarian and economic aid generates shameless corruption, just as in Afghanistan and Mali. The population is frustrated that the aid is being siphoned off by a self-enriching minority. This acts as fuel for the IS group.

Could this current situation result in the IS group returning to Syria?

The IS group was never really eradicated. The fighters are either in the maquis [guerilla groups] or sleeper cells. In January, there was an attack on the Al-Sinaa prison in Hassaké to free the detainees [3,500 jihadists belonging to the IS group were held there, including leaders]. The city of Hassaké is divided in two. To the north, there are the Kurds, and in the south, the Arabs. The prison is in the south. The fighters had been infiltrating the southern districts for months. They rented flats. Then they came out of the woodwork and launched the assault. The Kurdish intelligence services saw nothing coming. The Arab zone was enthusiastic about what was happening. There is nostalgia for the IS group. They say: “With them, things were better. We had oil, electricity, there was trade with Iraq.” We know that the IS group is recruiting a new generation of fighters. They’re teenagers, frustrated people whose only choices are either turning to drugs that contain Captagon [an amphetamine derived from a drug used to treat narcolepsy or attention deficit disorder], which is wreaking havoc in this region, or joining the IS group, where they can feel useful, have an identity and earn a little money. You can easily buy people for $50 a month. There has been no reconciliation in the region. The massacres have been so huge that tribal regulation no longer works. People are slow to forgive. There are thousands of people who are in hiding and who do not dare to return home for fear of retaliatory actions. They form the IS group’s base.

What form could the IS group take in making its return?

The IS group is also present in Iraq, in the Mosul region and Al-Anbar province in Iraqi Kurdistan. There are cells that regularly carry out attacks. However, reconstituting the ‘caliphate’ with a territorial hold, like under Emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is no longer a good strategy. The IS group understood that managing territory meant managing people’s discontent and that this created easy targets for foreign intervention. Today, the IS group prefers to remain underground and harass whatever regime is in place.

What is the Syrian regime’s position vis-à-vis the Turks and the IS group?

The regime in Damascus thinks it has won and objectively, it has. Northern Syria still has to be reconquered. The areas under Turkish control, notably the Idlib region, will not be easy to reintegrate. Damascus has regained control of two-thirds of the territory thanks in part to Turkey’s benevolent neutrality, which is in accordance with the secret August 2016 Putin-Erdogan pact: “You give me a piece of the Kurds, I’ll give you a piece of the rebels.” Turkey controls 4 million Sunni Arabs who have fled the Damascus regime and have no desire to be under the Syrian army’s control. Damascus does not want to reintegrate these displaced people in the North either, as this would pose a security problem. Then there is the problem of the Kurds in the northeast who are supported by the Americans and control 30% of the territory, including the oil resources. Damascus is waiting for the fruit to ripen. The Turkish offensive is imminent. The Syrian regime will not fight against the Syrian Democratic Forces. It will wait for the Turks to attack and the SDF to collapse. The IS group is not a threat to Damascus. The group’s presence allows Syrians to unite behind the regime. That’s how it was saved in 2014. The West’s priority at that point was to eliminate the IS group rather than working for the fall of Bashar al-Assad.

This article has been translated from the original in French.

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