By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –
The BBC reports that Turkish armed forces are massed on the border with Syria in preparation for a possible move into the Kurdish-held areas of Afrin and Manbij. The Kurdish militia, the YPG, took Manbij away from ISIL with US support. Afrin, home to some 500,000 mostly Kurdish residents, is one of three Kurdish-majority cantons in northern Syria, containing about one-fourth of Syria’s Kurds. It is surrounded on both sides by Arab populations, some of them aligned with strongly anti-Kurdish hard line Salafi fundamentalists. Syrian Kurds are for the most part Sunni Muslims, but either they practice mystical Sufi traditions or they have become modern leftists. In either case, the Salafi militants hate them.
Turkish president Tayyip Erdogan gave a fiery speech Monday, in which he announced a determination to invade and wipe out what he called the terrorist threat in Afrin and Manbij. He is presumably equally concerned about the YPG stronghold in Kobane and Jazira, which have been united, but these two cantons now have a US military security umbrella and 2000 embedded US special operations forces. The YPG was the main US ally in defeating ISIL in Raqqa. Despite Erdogan’s announcement that he will not be deterred by perfidious so-called “allies” (i.e. the Trump Administration), it is a little unlikely that the Turkish military will invade the northeast. Afrin, in contrast, is alone and isolated.
Indeed, the US military on Tuesday made a cowardly announcement that Afrin falls outside the area of responsibility of the anti-ISIL coalition operating in eastern Syria. Erdogan will certainly see this statement as a green light. It is a little hard to see how the US can string the Syrian Kurds along for three years as allies against ISIL and then blithely allow the ethnic cleansing of one fourth of them by a NATO ally!
The US announcement was made at a tumultuous NATO military meeting in Brussels, where Turkish chief of staff Gen. Hulusi Akar exploded at the Americans over their announced plan to create a 30,000-strong Kurdish border patrol on the Syrian-Iraqi border. This police force is supposedly to deter reinfiltration by ISIL but covertly is aimed at trying to interfere with Iranian logistics in getting men and materiel through Iraq into Syria and Lebanon, a key goal of US allies Saudi Arabia and Israel. Turkey fears a standing, US-armed Kurdish military force on its borders will promote secessionist tendencies in eastern Anatolia.
It strikes me as odd that President Trump has not said anything about this growing crisis.
Ironically, the Russians are the ones who might stand up for the Kurds in Afrin, since they have cultivated a relationship with the Syrian Kurdish political leadership.
Turkey is afraid of Kurdish nationalism spreading to its own Kurds, some 1/5 of the Turkish population, and sees the leftist-anarchist YPG militia that controls Afrin as a branch of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) terrorist group. In contrast, the US sees the YPG as an essential partner in fighting ISIL and other extremist terrorist groups.