Friday,26 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1351, (6 - 12 July 2017)
Friday,26 April, 2019
Issue 1351, (6 - 12 July 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Ahead of Afrin

Ongoing conflict in Syria continues to raise for Turkey’s Erdogan the spectre of Kurdish nationalism. But it remains to be seen if Ankara has the stomach to contain it, writes  Sayed Abdel-Meguid


Ahead of Afrin
Ahead of Afrin

اقرأ باللغة العربية

A “Kurdish state” is Turkey’s eternal nightmare. It has loomed larger and evermore ominously during the past two years since the collapse of the negotiating process that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan initiated when prime minister with the Kurdistan People’s Party (PKK) led by Abdullah Öcalan who has been serving out a life sentence for about two decades in the high security prison on Imrali Island in the Sea of Marmara. As the situation deteriorated in Turkey, developments in the gruelling Syrian civil war aggravated the anxiety, if not alarm, among decision-making circles who are staring at Turkey’s large Kurdish minority the majority of whom are concentrated in the towns and cities in southeast Anatolia near the borders with Iraq and Syria and who, in the imagination of these circles, are awaiting the signal to arise and march towards the realisation of their national dream in a geography in which the Kurds predominate.

Erdogan, now vested with absolute powers thanks to a constitutional referendum that passed by the thinnest margin, and this only due to the skewed playing field and considerable sleight of hand, has little choice but to sustain the tenor of the rhetoric that characterised his polarising referendum campaign. But now he is pounding the drums of “one nation, one land, one flag and one language” more stridently and aggressively than ever and the ostensible reason is the need to ward off the emergence of a Kurdish entity across the border in Syria. Such an entity, whether called autonomous or federal, would be unthinkable after four decades of efforts to prevent such a spectre in Anatolia.

As things in northern Syria appear to be moving in a totally opposite direction to “the unity of Turkey and the Turkish social fabric”, Ankara clearly had to act. Accordingly, the president sounded the call to another “mobilisation”, this time in preparation for a “sacred” military move reminiscent of the seven-month long Operation Euphrates Shield.

Unfortunately, things are never as easy as they may appear at first, especially in neighbouring Syria. Firstly, Euphrates Shield certainly did not yield the extensive Turkish influence and domination in northern Syria that the ruling party’s mouthpieces had trumpeted at the outset of that campaign. In fact, the drive to seize control of Tel Rafaat with the help of forces from the Turkish-supported and equipped Free Syrian Army proved a dismal failure. Moreover, the numbers of dead among Turkish troops involved in Operation Euphrates Shield astounded even the authorities in Ankara whose first instinct was to keep the toll and the effects on the bereaved under wraps.

Secondly, new factors have emerged in that rapidly changing scene in which dozens of factions and militias are battling on the ground on behalf of assorted international and regional players while Syrian skies are filled with fighter planes from dozens of countries.

More significantly, the US has considerably strengthened its presence there, with Russia’s tacit consent, and it has strengthened its support for the Syrian Democratic Forces and its primary component, the People’s Protection Units (YPG). Moreover, the US has begun to equip these forces with heavy weaponry despite the vehement protests from Ankara that has branded Syrian Kurdish fighters as terrorists.

The foregoing and more led Erdogan to tell the Russian Izvestia on 23 June, “Presently, negative processes are underway in Syria. In case they lead to a threat to our borders, we will respond the same way as during the Euphrates Shield operation.” He added: “We had expressed our readiness to participate in the liberation of Manbij and Raqqa from the control of extremists but our Western partners in the international coalition preferred to rely on Kurdish contingents.”

Barely a week later, the staunchly pro-Erdogan Yeni Safak reported that the Turkish armed forces in collaboration with the Free Syrian Army were planning another advance on Tel Rafaat and the Menagh military airbase, which are both under the control of that implacable Kurdish foe of the Erdogan regime. The hardline conservative newspaper added that it expected “fierce battles in the weeks ahead in order to capture those two strategic targets in the region”. Already there have been exchanges of fire across the border between Kurdish and Turkish forces.

Although government media sources have said that Ankara’s aim was to “isolate” Afrin, a city in the province of Aleppo, rather than to occupy it, Farhat Patiev, head of the Council of the Federal National-Cultural Kurdish Autonomy in Russia, relates that the inhabitants of this strategically located city are preparing for the worst, signalling the likelihood of stiff resistance and a protracted urban war. The question facing the powers-that-be in Ankara, who have yet to overcome the shock from the Turkish death toll in Operation Euphrates Shield, is whether they are prepared to sustain an even higher toll, which will be in the hundreds rather than dozens.

In this connection, the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which are now equipped with some sophisticated weapons, have hinted at the possibility of intense clashes with the Turkish army if the latter invades the areas under their control. SDF officials also doubt official Turkish statements. They maintain that the Turks with the aid of the jihadist militias they support in Syria plan to invade and occupy the entire pocket of Afrin in Rojava, as the region in northern Syria is called in Kurdish. They add that Ankara’s planned invasion of Afrin is also intended to obstruct the operation to liberate Raqqa by diverting SDF/YPG forces from that operation. Their implication is that the Americans should do something either to defend the Kurds or to stop Ankara.

Naturally, Erdogan’s belligerent jihadist rhetoric has aroused concern in both Moscow and Washington. Another conflict in Syria will serve neither country’s interests and they will try to prevent Ankara from doing something reckless.

Meanwhile, amidst the clashing waves in that tumultuous sea around the “Kurdish question”, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) received a surprise from within its own ranks when its very own Kurdish MPs came out in support of the decision of the leaders of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region to hold a referendum on national independence on 25 September. The party, once again headed by the now officially partisan president, had previously declared its opposition to the referendum, describing it as a “grave mistake”. Party officials maintained that the Turkish policy towards Iraq upheld the preservation of the territorial integrity and political unity of Iraq, a principle that was crucial to that country’s stability. However, as the AKP MP from Diyarbakir, Galip Ensarioglu, pointed out, the Iraqi constitution granted Kurdistan the right to hold an independence referendum and that right had to be respected.

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