In blow to Trump, Syrian Kurds call on al-Assad to Save them from Turkey

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

The hopes of the Trump administration to use the Syrian Kurds as a wedge against the government of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus may be rapidly fading.

The liberal Lebanese newspaper Elbalad [The Country] reports that the Autonomous Administration of the Kurdish-majority Afrin region of northern Syria, which is under attack from Turkey, has called on the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus to defend the country’s borders from the “brutal Turkish aggression,” affirming that Afrin is an inseparable part of Syria. The Kurds, organized by the Democratic Union Party and its paramilitary the People’s Protection Units (YPG) said that the Turkish invasion, launched last Saturday, aims at grabbing another piece of Syrian territory through the occupation of the district of Afrin.

The Kurds called on the Syrian state to undertake its responsibilities of sovereignty with regard to Afrin and to safeguard the borders of the country from the attacks of the Turkish occupier, something it has not done so far despite the announcement by Damascus that it would send troops to man the frontier.

The communique said that the People’s Protection Units had spent the last six years fulfilling their national duty to safeguard the district against the attacks of terrorist groups and preserving of the integrity of Syrian territory and its national institutions.

The some 2 million Syrian Kurds in the north and northeast of the country have been a wild card for decades. They were discriminated against by the Arab nationalist Baath Party, the tattered remnants of which still huddle around al-Assad in Damascus, on the grounds that Kurds are not Arabs and so not full citizens of the Syrian Arab Republic unless they are willing to learn Arabic and give up their ethnic identity. The Baath Party is as racist as the KKK. In fact, in the 1960s, the Arab nationalist government in Damascus just removed citizenship from 100,000 Kurds, who later grew into a million.

When the attempted revolution broke out in 2011, Bashar al-Assad went up to Hasaka in the northeast and offered to restore citizenship to the Kurds if they would back his government instead of rebelling. The Kurds showed little interest in the offer. For them, the outbreak of revolution was a chance to stake their claim to a federal Kurdish ethnic province, which they call Rojava. Some hope that eventually it will become independent but at least they say they are willing to live under Syrian government rule. But, they insist, Syria has to be reformulated as a federal state with strong states’ rights instead of remaining a French-style unitary state.

The ambiguity of the Kurdish position, in seeking more autonomy from Damascus but declining to join in attempts to overthrow the government, is underlined by Kurdish relations with the Arab rebels. The latter moved toward Muslim fundamentalism, sometimes of an extreme sort, which turns out to have a latent element of virulent Arab racism. So the Arab rebels, especially the al-Qaeda affiliate and ISIL, attacked the Kurds. And the Kurds often made common cause with the Syrian Arab Army of al-Assad against them.

So what the YPG in Afrin is attempting to do is to revive that alliance with Damascus. It is alleging that the Arab rebels Turkey sent in to Afrin as guerrilla fighters against the Kurds are al-Qaeda, and depicting the Turkish invasion as a foreign occupation. In other words, the Kurds are ironically working the keyword political vocabulary of Arab nationalism, for which foreign colonial occupation is the supreme evil and the occupied are virtually saints.

This rhetoric is aimed not only at garnering support from Damascus but also from the wider Arab world. It has already succeeded to some extent. Egypt has come out to condemn the Turkish incursion, as an affront to the Arab nation.

Unfortunately for Afrin’s Kurds, neither Damascus nor Cairo is likely to intervene in any practical way. And the US, which is allied with the YPG in Manbij, Kobane and Jazira, has relinquished Afrin as a sphere of influence, leaving the 500,000 Kurds there to their fate at the hands of Turkey.

Turkey maintains that Afrin has been a base for terrorist attacks into Turkey and that the YPG is an affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which both the US and Turkey deem a terrorist group. The US, which used the YPG to defeat ISIL in Syria, does not agree with Ankara on this issue. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis still hopes to use the American position in Eastern Syria to ease al-Assad out of power, but his unwillingness to defend the Syrian Kurds from Turkey is driving the former into the arms of Damascus.


Bonus video:

France 24 English: “Syria: Turkish offensive on Afrin forces US to perform diplomatic balancing act between allies”

15 Responses

  1. I curious that you don’t mention the US in this piece, professor, as the US is at the very heart of this current upheaval in Syria. The US has announced to the world that it intends to train up a 30,000 man border force and its this that’s got the Turks so riled. A benign rural population is of no consequence to Turkey, but a large well armed force is. Its a bit rich for the Kurds to now ask for Assad to help them when they sat on their hands when Assad had his back to the wall. Once again American meddling and interference is at the root of this now new conflict.

    • You need glasses if you don’t think I mentioned the US.

      But your point is anyway incorrect, since the US was not saying it would train or arm anyone in Afrin. The Turks are attacking where the supposed threat wasn’t.

      • Yes, that is correct, and the behavior and objectives are consistent with who Erdogan has always been.

    • You mean, the same Assad Dynasty that took away their citizenship and made them as stateless as Palestinians.
      It’s rough having four national governments taking turns trying to annihilate your identity.

    • The U.S. recognizes the Syrian National Coalition based in Turkey as the Syrian government-in-exile and who hold Syria’s seat in the Arab League as well as form the political wing of the Free Syrian Army, but the U.S. also supports the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces whose political wing is the Syrian Democratic Council based in Rojava.

  2. “Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis still hopes to use the American position in Eastern Syria to ease al-Assad out of power, but his unwillingness to defend the Syrian Kurds from Turkey is driving the former into the arms of Damascus.” At the very least, Syrian Kurds are scrambling to relieve Afrin from areal bombardment. The US needs to realize that Kurds from Afrin contributed to SDF and also fought to defeat ISIS in eastern Syria, not just in Afrin and surrounds. Erdogan has chosen to call the American hand in these dealings, and the American response has been weak.

    • The U.S. is caught in an enviable dilemma:

      (A) they needed the YPG to eradicate ISIS and cannot abandon the YPG, despite the Kurdish opposition to Turkish government forces;

      (B) they owe an allegiance to Turkey by virtue of NATO membership and the U.S. alliance with the YPG undermines the NATO treaty alliance obligations owed by the U.S.;

      (C) the U.S. owes some degree of allegiance to the Free Syrian Army whom they spent years and hundreds of millions of dollars arming and training – and who now are chiefly allied with Turkey;

      (D) the U.S cannot support the YPG to the extent that they, the YPG, become cozy with the Baathists in Damascus;

      (E) further complicating matters is that the Assad regime’s Syrian Arab Army in Damascus – and Hezbollah -are fighting the al-Qaeda affililiate al-Nusra Front and rolling up battlefield victories against this group that has been designated by the U.S. State Department as a foreign terror organization and has invited hundreds of battle-hardened veteran al-Qaeda foreign fighters into Syria under as part of the organization known as Khorasan.

      The U.S. is currently a de facto ally of Hezbollah, the Assad regime and the Russians in eradicating ISIS and has U.S. Army Rangers embedded with the Marxist-oriented YPG who oppose a NATO ally – Turkey.

      Some observers have opined that the U.S. best extricate itself from this conflict and leave the remaining actors to go their own separate ways. Turkish forces have already killed Russian pilots; it may just be a matter of time before an American servicemen kills a Turkish or Russian soldier or vise versa and ignite an international incident.

  3. The Kurds did this for 2 important reasons #1 They wanted to get support from Syrian Forces to Repel Turkey cause the more the better. #2 If they choose not to fight for the soverienty of Syria (as we all assumed) after the kurds beat the Turks, Syria will have no claim to that land. Hence the north will be partitioned by Syrian Inaction. Kurds will win this thing.

    • Right. If a country still resenting the “theft” of Antakya cedes more land to the neoOttomans, it’s game over for Assad, and a very bloody game, too.

    • .
      from this limited perspective, it appears that all Kurdish success in battle these last couple of years was tied directly to massive bombing by the US Air Force.
      are you predicting that Turkiye will allow the USAF to launch bomb attacks from Turkish AF bases onto Turkish forces in Afrin ?
      Seems unlikely.


  4. Kurdish propaganda,
    They refuse to let government security and institutions in which Russia is bound to protect. Turkey asks Russia for permission, Assad propositions the Kurds but Kurds Allied with Americans refused. Erdogan knows Assad will survive turkey and its 30k border guards.

  5. A few things here: The announcement in question has been denied [and then reconfirmed?] since it was first reported. The Syrian military right now is pushing northward in Idlib against HTS and Da’esh. It probably lacks the manpower and weaponry to take on the Turks without having to abandon this Idlib priority.

    It is also not clear what the “deal” was with Russia and Turkey that led to Russia’s green-lighting the Afrin operation is intended to achieve. Together with Iran, it is likely a gambit to move the US/SDF out of eastern Syria’s and its borders with Iraq.

    If the US does bend to the Turkish demand that we abandon Manbij, it is possible that the whole of the YPD, not just the Afrin branch, will give up on the US in the rest of Syria. According to the Turkish media, the USG has finally stated that we now DO consider the YPG to be part of the terrorist PKK and that we have vowed to NO LONGER supply them with arms. Before that, we told the YPD in the east that if any of them leave their positions in the east to help protect their western canton, they were no longer with the US. It is unclear how many Kurdish fighters actually did so. It was reported that ten of their Western [US, Brit, other European] volunteers have moved to Afrin.

    Bringing the Kurds back under SAG control would eliminate the proximate excuse Turkey uses to justify its incursion. Of course, they have also gone back to their “regime change” line but the Russians have a whole lot of ways to lean on Turkey on issues unrelated to Syria to retreat, leaving yet more sovereign territory under government control.

    And where does all this leave the SDF as a unified force?

    • The Free Syrian Army’s Turkey-headquartered political arm, the Syrian National Coalition, while making the decision to avoid the Sochi Conference, has had an emissary recently meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

      Meanwhile, the Syrian-American Council recently financed a visit by four Free Syrian Army delegates to Washington D.C. – where they were rebuffed in their attempts to meet with the Trump administration. Whether this was an intentional slight or a mere scheduling difficulty remains to be seen, however that FSA delegation did meet with members of U.S. Congress as well as the top U.S. State Department official responsible for Syria to salvage their trip to the nation’s capital.

      What seems odd are that the pro-democracy Syrian rebels are seeking increasing help from Russia for advancement of their interests but are being largely ignored by the Trump administration.

  6. ” affirming that Afrin is an inseparable part of Syria.”

    The Kurds of Syria have always claimed that Syria is indivisible. They only want the same local rights that the 50 American states have to elect their own governors and their own representatives. At east that has been the position of the PYD, the majority Kurdish party.

  7. Note that Ismail Kahraman, the Speaker of the Turkish Parliament, has called the Afrin offensive Jihad against unbelievers.

    There are several Yezidi villages on Mount Busayra which is one of the focal points of the Turkish attack. Are they going to suffer the same fate as what happened in the massacre in Iraqi Sinjar in 2014? And in the resultant kidnapping and slave auctions of Yezidi women and girls?

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