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Sam Hamad

Turkey's shifting interests and the perils of inaction

Turkey has shown the arguments for international inaction are completely void [Anadolu]

Date of publication: 6 September, 2016

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Comment: For both Turkey and the YPG, the fight against IS in northern Syria is serving to prop up two very different wider agendas, writes Sam Hamad

Turkey's recent intervention in Syria has sparked much speculation around the implications for the current geopolitical configuration, especially in the context of the Syrian war. 

For some, it means that Turkey has now experienced a rapprochement with Russia, since the incident that saw it shoot down a Russian bomber which had crossed into Turkish airspace while bombing rebel-held civilian areas of Latakia. For others, it means that Turkey has now fully acquiesced to the US's strategy of focusing solely on the Islamic State group as the main evil in Syria, despite there being a mass murderer in charge of the country. 

It seems that neither of these takes is entirely accurate, but rather that there are elements of truth in both. For a start, a significant proportion of Turkey's action has been concerned with aiding Syrian rebel forces in taking back Syrian Arab-majority towns and villages taken by the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) - the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD). The PYD is itself the Syrian affiliate of the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). 

Turkey's strategic interests here are clear: The first is to stop the development of a contiguous state run by a PKK-affiliate on its border. The second is to halt infiltration from IS (we must not forget that Turkey is, outside of places where IS has a concrete presence, the country that has faced the most terror attacks from the group) and carry out mortar attacks on Turkish towns near the Syrian border.

It is itself a tragedy that one must determine anything related to Syria based on ethnicity, but the narrative, widely perpetuated by the ever more unhinged PYD (they are now claiming not that Turkey merely supports IS, but that it is IS), that Turkey is "attacking the Kurds" and assaulting the PYD's Rojava statelet, is simply inaccurate.  

The Turkish military is assisting the Syrian rebel forces in retaking Arab-majority villages that the YPG took opportunistically during a time when the rebels were overstretched fighting Assad and IS. The YPG's purpose in this was to join up the Afrin Canton of Rojava with the Kobani Canton. The price of such unification would be vast areas of land occupied by Syrian Arabs.

In this respect, the rebels are merely using a rare and much-needed strategic advantage to take their towns and cities back from IS, and reverse the opportunistic land grabs of the YPG. Ideologically speaking, both Rojava and the Islamic State are - to different degrees - hostile to the idea of a Free Syria and the goals of the Syrian revolution. 

The more IS is allowed to run riot in northern Syria, the better the pretext for the YPG to conduct land grabs towards the unification of its cantons.

IS is unambiguously monstrous, but beneath the YPG's progressive rhetoric, they too are hostile to political pluralism, suppressing Kurdish opposition within Rojava. In addition, they are prone to ethnic cleansing based on the interrelated evils of chauvinism and the Realpolitik of state-building. 

The YPG's ranks are of course made up of people who want to defend their communities from the fascism of IS, but this doesn't mean that this very real fight can't also be used as a pretext for more pragmatic manoeuvers.

Manbij, an Arab-majority city that was recently occupied by the YPG is a good example. While the YPG have sought to portray the primary motivation of taking the city as being part of its fight against IS, the targeting of that city was not arbitrary. Manbij not only gives the YPG access to water resources via the Euphrates River, but it would also be key in uniting Kobani with Afrin. 

It is clear that the YPG had no intention whatsoever of giving up Manbij, despite the city being previously run by a revolutionary council elected after the city was first liberated by local Syrian rebels in 2012, prior to occupation by IS.

The US - the YPG's main backer - even ordered the group to leave the city for locals to run it (this has not occurred in any meaningful capacity), but things reached crisis point when the YPG then set up the Jarabulus Military Council, indicating that it planned on moving on the strategically important Arab-majority city. 

For Turkey, this constituted a crossing of the red line that ultimately prompted the incursion.

The YPG's narrative that Turkey and the Syrian rebels' current offensive is motivated by a similar "jihadi" ideology as that of IS, simply has no veracity. Of the Syrian rebel groups currently fighting IS and the YPG, all are fighting for a democratic and pluralistic Syria. This is not an issue of the perceived "secularism" of the YPG being assaulted by the Islamist barbarism of Turkey and the rebels. 

The different rationales behind the Turkish intervention, are of course interrelated. The more IS is allowed to run riot in northern Syria, the better the pretext for the YPG to conduct land grabs towards the unification of its cantons.

Turkey is not attacking Rojava proper and has absolutely no justification to do so - any such aggression would be indicative of its will to oppose Kurdish autonomy at all costs, which ought to be anathema to supporters of the Syrian revolution.

Turkey is not attacking Rojava proper and has absolutely no justification to do so - any such aggression would be indicative of its will to oppose Kurdish autonomy

Within the YPG-dominated "Syrian Democratic Forces" (SDF - the name given to the YPG by the US state department in a pathetic attempt to assuage Turkey and pretend that the US was somehow aiding democratic forces in Syria), the current Turkish-Syrian rebel offensive has stoked dissention among the ranks of the very marginal Arab forces that fight with it, due to the YPG's authoritarianism and domination of the SDF.

And this dissension does indicate something of an unravelling for the YPG. Since the war began, the YPG has had, in contrast to the rebels, a fairly easy time of it when it comes to Assad (as I detailed here), but its main fight has been against IS and - in line with expanding its state - the Syrian rebels. 

To the latter end, it has taken advantage of Russian airstrikes against rebel positions and coordinated attacks against the rebels with Assad's forces. In addition, it receives support from the US and its anti-IS coalition, through it does seem there has been some sort of shift in this respect. 

For example, Sputnik, one of Russia's main propaganda outlets, had previously cheered on the brave "Syrian Kurds" (meaning the YPG), against "jihadis" (meaning the anti-Assad Syrian rebels, including the Free Syrian Army). Yet during the current Turkish-rebel offensive, it has spoken of the FSA "liberating" villages around Jarabalus from YPG "terrorists". This is a rapid turnaround matched by Russia and Assad's relative silence on the offensive. 

One could be forgiven for thinking that this means that some kind of deal has been struck between Russia and Turkey, perhaps granting Turkey hegemony over the northern Syria, including Aleppo. However, a much simpler answer lies in the fact that this offensive poses no immediate threat to Russia's interests in Syria (ie ensuring the survival of Assad's rump state), and aside from that, even if it did, there's nothing much Russia could do about it.

Still, the world will watch passively as Assad and his allies continue with their genocide

If Russia was opposed to this action and hadn't come to some alleged deal, it is worth asking how realistic it is to believe that Russia might attack or even just threaten to attack a member state of NATO, thus unleashing a potential world war? As for the US, it has, as ever, been caught off guard by the Turkish action, though its narrow anti-IS interests have not been imperiled.

The Turkish intervention is symptomatic of a central tragedy of the war in Syria. Assad and his Iranian and Russian allies can now ethnically cleanse the rebel-held, revolutionary-run areas of Syria. These have been broken down by years of brutal besiegement and bombardment, just as we saw recently in Daraya, and are key to Assad's survival. 

We'll soon see this in al-Waer in Homs, and other precarious rebel-held areas - the main argument of appeasement now is that nobody can act to aid these rebel forces because it would run the risk of military confrontation with Russia. 

But, in reality, as this Turkish intervention proves, if those countries who had the capability to do so, were to comprehensively aid rebel forces fighting against ethnic cleansing, mass extermination and this brutal dynasty and its imperialist allies, it could with some ease do so without risking a World War.

Turkey has shown the arguments for inaction are completely void, but still, the world will watch passively as Assad and his allies continue with their genocide.


Sam Hamad is an independent Scottish-Egyptian activist and writer.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff. 

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