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The logic of Syrian rebel support for Turkey's Afrin operation Open in fullscreen

Sam Hamad

The logic of Syrian rebel support for Turkey's Afrin operation

Turkish armed forces attack PYD and PKK targets in Syria's Afrin [Anadolu]

Date of publication: 30 January, 2018

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Comment: Why are as many as 20,000 Turkish-trained and armed Syrian rebels currently doing the bidding of Turkey against the PYD in Afrin? asks Sam Hamad.
As Turkey and its Syrian rebel allies, under the name Operation Olive Branch, enter the Afrin canton of Syria held by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), one can't help but think that maybe this might not be the rebels' war. 

In recent weeks, Assad, Iran and Russia have recently moved to conquer Idlib, with hundreds of thousands of Syrians cleansed from the rebels' largest remaining stronghold over a matter of weeks.

So why then are as many as 20,000 Turkish-trained and armed Syrian rebels currently doing the bidding of Turkey and launching a ground assault on the PYD and its military wing, the People's Protection Units (YPG)? Wouldn't these forces be best utilised in Idlib fighting against the main enemy, Assad? 

Regardless of what one thinks of the PYD, or indeed the Syrian rebels, any reasonable observer would conclude that Syrian rebel forces fighting Kurdish forces represents a further degradation. 

But Syria's war is far from reasonable. As ever, while Olive Branch ought to be opposed by supporters of the Syrian rebellion, the reality is that over the years this confrontation has become something of an inevitability. 

The most obvious point is that the PYD has consistently sided with the enemies of the rebels and acted solely in its own interests, interests that are antagonistic to the rebellion.

As I wrote previously, the PYD's initial rise to power in Syria was not precipitated by a popular pulse among Kurds within northern Syria, but rather due to a deal it made with Assad in 2012. Then came a combination of two important root factors: Assad's forces withdrew from Rojava - the three cantons now held by Kurds, so they could be utilised in the fight against the rebels, while the PYD was given de facto control of the area, with its rule subsidised by Assad. 

The PYD has never had any real will to support the cause of the rebellion, while Turkey's influence over the opposition meant that rebel overtures to Kurds by supporting autonomy have largely been off-limits.

But these are the elements that underlie the consequent rebel-PYD animus. It's perfectly true that two wrongs don't make a right, but if you accept the argument - as many of the PYD's manifold supporters in the West do - that the PYD joining with Assad, Iran and Russia in conquering Free Aleppo was necessary to secure its own interests in Rojava, it's difficult to then blame some of the Syrian rebels for participating in Turkey's Operation Olive Branch.

Kurdish autonomy ought to be a priority for the Syrian revolution

Are they not also simply doing what they believe is necessary to secure the interests of the anti-Assad cause?  It was precisely the same with their participation in Euphrates Shield, the Turkish-backed offensive by rebels to take back "cleansed" Syrian towns and villages the PYD grabbed under the cover of Russian airstrikes to try to join up the cantons that comprise Rojava. 

While Turkey's endgame in Afrin remains unnervingly nebulous and vague, the rebel perspective, however naive you might think it is, contains logic. 

Many of us warned that there would be ramifications of Aleppo falling in the manner it did. As rebel-supporting areas of the city were ethnically cleansed by the regime, or as mass terror was unleashed on Syrian residents of the recently-conquered Aleppo by Assad's ruthless organs of domination, the PYD's enclaves were cooperating with the murderers, torturers and death squads. 

Read more: Kurdish autonomy within a united Syria does not undermine the revolution

And while revenge is never a good motive, the PYD's support for Russia and Assad has obviously fostered the idea among anti-Assad rebels that this force is inexorably attached to counter-revolution.

When Turkey and its rebel allies intervened in Idlib last Autumn to aid the existing moderate rebels in countering the growing menace of al-Qaeda within the Hayat Tahrir as-Sham (HTS) coalition, many said this was secretly a move by Ankara to destroy the rebellion from within, and force the rebels to accept Russia's conception of "peace".

But the reality is that Turkey managed to split HTS: The al-Qaeda-supporting wing opposed Turkish intervention and continued to wage war on the rebels, while the pro-intervention wing disowned al-Qaeda and sided with the moderate rebels and Turkey. Establishing a rebel presence in Afrin would create a corridor from which the rebels could confront and neutralise the al-Qaeda-linked wing of HTS.

But of even more importance, with a rebel presence established in the Afrin area, it makes it possible for the rebels to defend Idlib and, more long-term, even to liberate Aleppo. 

With a rebel presence established in the Afrin area, as opposed to the Russian one that has moved out since Turkey announced the beginning of Olive Branch, it makes it less likely for the PYD to be able to, as they did in Aleppo, aid Assad's forces in attacking Idlib and bolstering the occupation of Aleppo city by pro-Assad forces.

Turkey's aim is not even to get rid of the PYD, as per its rhetoric, but rather to establish a long-term pro-Turkish rebel presence

It has been claimed by the PYD, and assumed by many pundits, that Russia withdrawing from Afrin was the result of a deal with Turkey.

Some believe that this supposed deal would see Russia sacrifice Afrin to Turkey in exchange for Turkey sacrificing Idlib to Russia - but this is highly implausible. It's assumed that Russia wouldn't let Turkey "violate" Syrian airspace, but this assumes that the already-stretched Russia would want to risk a confrontation with Turkey, a NATO member state.

It also forgets the fact that Turkey conducted the almost year-long Operation Euphrates Shield, in which its military and air force engaged in operations within Syria against the PYD, and that Russia couldn't do a thing to stop it.

In fact, far from sacrificing Idlib, Turkey most recently sent in a convoy of armoured vehicles to enforce the de-escalation zone that Assad and Russia have been violating repeatedly. 

None of this is to say that Olive Branch is by any means a good thing, but it would be dishonest to say there isn't logic behind rebel support for or participation in it. 

And while its main victims will be civilians in Afrin, added to the fact that a degree of Kurdish autonomy ought to be a priority for the Syrian revolution, the reality is Turkey must surely know that the PYD, relative to any other force in Syria, has popular support in Afrin and cannot be dislodged.   

It is also possible that at some point Turkey will abandon the Syrian rebels after it is done with them in Afrin

Likely, Turkey's aim is not even to get rid of the PYD, as per its rhetoric, but rather to establish a long-term pro-Turkish rebel presence, and stop the PYD from advancing any further and from serving as a launchpad for the PKK within Turkey. 

The PYD danced with too many devils - it became the proxy force of the US against IS, while it also zealously welcomed Russia's intervention.

With the false comfort of the US, it crossed the Euphrates - a Turkish red line - and it stayed there, while the US unveiled plans to form a new "border force" out of the YPG.  When Turkey made its move against Afrin, none of its allies protested. 

It is also possible that at some point Turkey will abandon the Syrian rebels after it is done with them in Afrin. While this is unlikely, it does demonstrate the precarious fate of Syrians.

Whatever the outcome, the fact that Syria's future has come down to the whims of foreign states and not the Syrian people, whether Arab or Kurd, is by no means a positive development. 

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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