Category Archives: Syria

As Erdogan prepares to meet Trump, can US keep allies from bloodshed?

The timing of the Turkish airstrikes on Syrian Kurdish forces, weeks before Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is due to visit the US President Donald Trump, is not a coincidence.

The attacks serve as a warning for the US, but it also aims to ensure Turkey retains an influence over proceedings in Syria, while simultaneously appeasing hawkish circles in Turkey crucial to Erdogan’s recent referendum win.

The attacks on the Kurdish Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG) bases near the Syrian town of Derik, which also included Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) positions in the Shingal area in Iraq, led to diplomatic protests from the US.

The US is in a difficult conundrum. It relies heavily on Syrian Kurdish forces, whom they have stated many times as one of the most effective troops battling the Islamic State (IS).

However, keeping their once dependable allies in Ankara onside at the same time is proving an impossible balance.

Underlining this difficult predicament, Turkish airstrikes came as YPG led forces were in the middle of an intense battle to capture Tabqa from IS that would pave the way for the final assault on Raqqa.

The strong Turkish opposition to the growing ties between the Kurdish forces, whom they accuse of being an extension of the PKK, and the US is not new.

Turkey has attempted to pressure Washington on multiple occasions to sideline the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which the YPG forms as its largest and strongest contingent, and to propel Turkey, and its Syrian opposition allies, to lead the fight to drive IS from their stronghold of Raqqa.

This week, Erdogan stated the US-led coalition, working hand in hand with Turkish forces, “can turn Raqqa into a graveyard for IS.”

This suggestion of anti-IS alliance has been proposed countless times and has been evidently rejected by the US, which has increased their support of SDF forces in recent months.

Erdogan warned continued US support needs to stop “right now,” or risk bringing persistent strife in the region and Turkey while urging that without cooperation on the global fight against terrorism, “then tomorrow it will strike at another ally.”

The US has rejected the notion that the YPG and the PKK are one and the same. This places the US in an increasingly difficult standoff with Turkey.

According to Mark Toner, the former US State Department spokesperson, Washington had already communicated that “Turkey must stop attacking the YPG.”

Toner added the US supports “Turkey’s efforts to protect its borders from PKK terrorism,” but this stance fuels ambiguity in an already tense regional landscape.

The US policy towards the YPG forces, both now and in the future, remains incoherent and unclear.

Erdogan warned that “we may suddenly come at any night,” referring to further attacks on YPG positions. This would certainly undermine Kurdish support in the battle against IS.

For Erdogan to back down on his unwavering stance on the YPG now would risk a nationalist backlash.

It remains to be seen how far the US is willing to go to defend their Kurdish allies, who had even requested a no-fly zone.

The US had already expressed their disappointment over a lack of notice and coordination before Turkish strikes. Col. John Dorrian, the spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR), described the time provided by Turkey as “inadequate.”

According to Dorrian, the US “had forces within six miles of the strikes,” while the operations box given by Turkey was too big to ensure the safety of US troops.

As a deterrence to further Turkish attacks, US armored convoys were seen patrolling some areas alongside Kurdish forces.

This came as US officers visited the site of the airstrikes, with reports of US forces attending funerals of YPG members killed by the air raid.

Deployments of US troops along the border areas was confirmed by Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis, who urged focus from all parties in the fight against IS as the common enemy.

An angry Erdogan remarked that “we are seriously concerned to see US flags in a convoy that has YPG rags on it.”

Erdogan is likely to protest strongly with Trump when they meet.

Ankara hoped Trump would abandon former US President Barack Obama’s policy in allying with the Kurds.

But, with the Kurds driving deeper in their assault on Raqqa, Trump has seemingly taken advice from his military leaders and stuck with the Kurds.

Any change now would spell bloodshed either way. Turkish forces would have to wedge through Kurdish territory, leading to certain conflict.

Conversely, Turkey’s resistance against the YPG would only embolden, especially as Kurds solidify their autonomous rule.

This regional powder-keg goes well beyond the question of who will take Raqqa. IS will be defeated, but the complex Syrian web from years of bloodshed will be much more difficult to untangle.

After IS, is the US willing to protect YPG forces at the continued expense of Turkey, or will it leave both allies to open a new chapter of bloodshed?

First Published: Kurdistan 24

Do US air strikes change the picture in Syria?

Where former US President Barack Obama hesitated when the Syrian regime crossed his “red lines,” current President Donald Trump took swift military action in the aftermath of the Syrian chemical bombing of the rebel-held town Khan Sheikhoun which for Trump “crossed a lot of lines,” leaving 80 dead and hundreds more injured.

The 59 Tomahawk strikes on the Shayrat airbase near Homs, which the US believes was used to orchestrate the nerve agent attacks, was defended by Trump as a “vital national security interest” of the US, as Washington vowed they could yet do more.

The US’ new willingness to take action adds an unprecedented dimension to the already complicated Syrian civil war. However, will the US action hasten diplomatic initiatives to end the war or will it drive Syria into a deeper conflict?

Trump, whose campaign was on a US-first and anti-interventionist basis, showed the unpredictable style of his presidency as he took action without seeking permission from Congress or his allies, with knowledge it would damage the warmer ties he hoped to foster with Russia.

The primary purpose of this proportionate response was to deter Damascus from further chemical attacks, something Obama believed he achieved with the last-minute deal brokered by Russia in 2013 to dispose of Syria’s chemical stockpiles after the regime launched a deadly chemical attack in Gouta.

It also served as a warning Trump was willing to change his position quickly based on unfolding events, and, at the same time, remind the likes of Iran and North Korea the US remained a major global player who was not afraid to intervene if required.

Western powers backed the US’ military response, but they also received broad support from the Democrat-Republican line.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande issued a joint statement highlighting that after repeating the chemical attack of 2013, “President [Bashar al-Assad] alone bears the responsibility for this development.”

Meanwhile, UK Defense Secretary Michael Fallon, echoing the similar sentiment from US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, blamed Russia as the key backer of Assad responsible “by proxy” for “every civilian death” that resulted from the chemical attack.

The dramatic turnaround in fortunes in recent months for the Assad regime is directly owed to Russian military intervention in 2015 which led to the recapture of swaths of territory, including Aleppo.

The US military response may give the fading opposition renewed hope, but US policy on Syria remains incoherent.

Whether the US strikes change Assad’s calculus or willingness to negotiate a political settlement depends if US action proves a one-off. It also depends on if the Americans are willing to take steps to significantly bolster the fragmented opposition or take radical steps such as the creation of US enforced safe-zones.

However, Assad’s stance will be largely dependent on Russia, who remains the key component of how the six-year Syrian civil war will play out.

It came as no response Russia strongly condemned the US strikes on the Syrian airbase. Russia accused the US of encouraging “terrorists” with actions they deemed as “unilateral” and an “act of aggression,” as they vowed to bolster Syrian air defenses and mobilized a warship to confront US naval positions in the Mediterranean Sea. 

Denouncing the strikes as illegal, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev went as far as warning the strikes were “one step away from military clashes with Russia.”

Moreover, a statement from a joint command center, comprised of Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah, threatened to “respond with force” if their red-lines were crossed.

The greatest challenge of the G7 nations remains to change Russia’s stance on Syria, whether through sanctions or diplomacy.

But, with every Western rhetoric denouncing Russia’s role in the Syrian civil war, or any threat of further US military action in Syria, Moscow’s position becomes more entrenched.

The contradictory claims emanating from US officials on their priority in Syria or stance on Assad does not help matters.

A week before the chemical attacks, Washington had publicly stated the removal of Assad was no longer a priority, but this seemingly changed after the chemical bombing.

However, in recent days, Trump stressed the priority remained to defeat the Islamic State (IS), and Washington was “not going into” Syria’s civil war.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov accused the US of “very ambiguous” and “contradictory ideas.”

With an unclear US policy, a seeming lack of hunger to be drawn military into Syria, and growing friction with Russia, the past week’s events make a political solution in Syria all the more difficult.

Either way, for Trump, military action now sets a precedence. If Assad launches another chemical attack, will he be willing to escalate military action and a potential stand-off with Russia or risk appearing weak?

First Published: Kurdistan 24

Who will spearhead the Raqqa offensive?

With focus largely on the Iraqi liberation of Mosul, the Islamic State (IS) Syrian stronghold of Raqqa remains the ultimate prize for defeating the group. However, owed to a complicated regional dynamic, the battle for Raqqa is marred by a lack of consensus on the strategy to take the city.

As US President Donald Trump waits for an official review of options from US Defense Secretary James Mattis, due by the end of this month, the military picture against IS in Syria is far from idle.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), comprised largely of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), continues to make inroads in isolating Raqqa, while coalition warplanes relentlessly pound IS targets. The SDF has been vital in pushing back IS in recent months, but this was only possible with significant US support, much to the dismay of Ankara who remains uneasy at increasing Kurdish territory and military power.

Turkey has presented its own plan to the Trump administration to take Raqqa, while at the same time Russia has offered to coordinate directly in liberating the IS stronghold. Another option on the table to accelerate the offensive is increasing the number of US troops on the ground.

With time of the essence, it remains unclear if the US-led coalition can afford to sideline the Kurdish forces in any Raqqa offensive.

Turkish Defense Minister, Fikri Isik, recently expressed optimism that the “new US administration has a different approach to the issue” of support to the YPG and the main Kurdish party, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), who Turkey accuses of been an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). However, there are mixed signals on the ground.

US support for the SDF has continued in recent weeks, including arms shipments. While the official line remains the US does not provide arms to the Kurds, only to Arab elements of the group, the lines remain murky.

Former US president, Barack Obama, left the controversial decision to arm the Kurds, an idea many in his administration supported, to Trump.

It remains unlikely that the Kurds will be put to one side, not because Washington is insensitive to concerns from its Turkish allies, but because the Kurds are the most effective local force and Washington cannot afford to waste time to build a strong local Arab force.

The US is mindful of the ethnic makeup of the force entering the predominantly Arabic city and has tried to calm Turkish fears of Kurds entering Raqqa, by empowering Arab elements of the SDF.

However, this conundrum cannot satisfy all sides.

It is difficult for the coalition to split their policy, such as providing arms to only Arab components of the SDF, as it creates an imbalance that hinders any assault on the city.

Lt. Gen Stephen Townsend, commander of the US-led coalition forces in Iraq and Syria, who visited a newly established logistical hub near the Turkish border to support US and SDF forces alongside head of U.S. Central Command, Gen. Joseph Votel underlined this dilemma, “we can’t just equip parts of this force, we have to equip the entire force.”

Townsend has concluded that a combined Arab-Kurdish force will be needed “because the Kurdish component is the most effective.”

Any gap in local Arab forces can be filled with the US, Turkish or Russian boots on the ground, but none of these will be without drawbacks and risks.

The details around the Turkish-led proposal to enter Raqqa are unclear, but ultimately, even if a sizable force could be mustered, it risks a confrontation with the Kurds and a further complication of the Syrian dynamic.

Turkish entry into Syria was as much to check the growing Kurdish aspirations as to contain the IS threat on its border. Isk has openly stated that once al-Bab is liberated, they would turn their attention towards Manbij.

Any eastern advance into the Kurdish-held territory by Turkey will almost certainly see the Kurds divert their forces from the IS battle.

Underscoring the importance of keeping momentum, Colonel John Dorrian, spokesman for the US-led Operation Inherent Resolve, recently stated, “we’re now seeing signs that ISIS fighters, its leaders in Raqqa, are beginning to feel the pressure.” Meanwhile, Votel expressed his concern of “maintaining momentum.”

Ahead of the recommendations to Trump, both Dorrian and Votel stressed they would continue to work with local forces, with Dorrian emphasizing “that fundamental principle isn’t going to change.”

Major General Rupert Jones, a deputy commander of Operation Inherent Resolve, believes “the force that looks most likely capable of conducting the liberation of Raqqa remains the SDF.” While adding, he expects the Arabs and Kurds to work in tandem to liberate the city.

Whatever Trump decides, the socio-political picture is guaranteed to remain as complex as the battle for Raqqa itself.

First Published: Kurdistan 24

US sidelined in Syria, as Turkey and Russia set stall for Trump

The notable absence of the United States (US) in the latest Syrian ceasefire coordinated by Turkey and Russia coincided with escalating rhetoric and growing animosity from Turkey, blaming Washington for the failed military coup, recent security attacks, and the growing Syrian Kurdish power.

The intensification of criticism from Turkey is designed as parting shots at the outgoing US President and as pressure on the incoming US President-elect Donald Trump.

With the thawing of ties with Russia, Turkey is increasingly looking to build bridges away from the West; this is evident not only with general animosity towards Washington but also the European Union in recent months.

The shift in Ankara can be seen with the armed intervention in northern Syria to drive out the Syrian Kurdish forces and the Islamic State (IS) and by accepting that Russia and Iran would not allow the demise of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Michael A. Reynolds, a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, told Kurdistan 24, “Under Obama’s leadership the US either by intention or default put itself on the sidelines. This, I think, exasperated Ankara and led it to reach out to Moscow, repair relations, and to accept Assad’s continued tenure as president of Syria.” 

Now, in playing a prominent role in the latest ceasefire and the prospective talks in Kazakhstan, Turkey is seemingly open to striking a deal, without the US to act as a roadblock, to preserve its interests in Syria while Russia and Iran would also maintain strategic interests.

Ankara’s key goal, however, is to curtail the growing Syrian Kurdish autonomy, in contrast to the continued US support for the People’s Protection Units (YPG) forces.

As for Russia, it will continue to enjoy unhindered access to the Mediterranean via its naval bases, a pro-Russian regime in the Middle East and growing influence in the region last seen in the Soviet era.

Meanwhile, Iran’s influence is also growing through a pro-Iranian access zone along the Shiite axis between Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut.

By pressing ahead with a ceasefire, peace talks and a possible grand bargain over Assad, Turkey, Russia, and Iran are setting the stall for the future Trump administration.

While Trump will exert some influence, the expectation is that a more Russia-friendly Washington will provide little resistance to any initiative. Trump has already highlighted that his focus is on working with Russia to defeat IS and is unlikely to continue support for Syrian rebels.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov signaled his hope that Trump “will also join the efforts in order to channel this work into one direction basing on friendly and collective cooperation.” One of Trump’s dilemmas will be how to handle the existing military alliance with the Syrian Kurds that has been vital to pushing back IS.

Turkey has a strong expectation that Trump will change course over support of the Kurds, but a complete u-turn by Washington is risky and not inevitable.

Overlooking the Kurds and allowing Turkey to take center stage in battling IS on the ground, as it has long insisted, may weaken IS but will risk inevitable conflict with the Kurds that Obama has tried to avoid.

Trump has previously stated “I’m a big fan of the Kurdish forces. At the same time, I think we could have a potentially very successful relations with Turkey. And it would be really wonderful if we could put them somehow both together”. However, balancing between the Kurds and an increasingly hawkish Turkey is difficult.

Ultimately, the indecisive approach of the Obama administration towards Syria lead to its waning influence and credibility in the region.

Various red lines such as the use of chemical weapons by Assad were crossed without action and Obama hesitated to empower Syrian rebels, especially as the distinction between moderates and Islamists amongst fragmented rebels became murky.

According to Reynolds, “Trump was quite critical of Obama’s half-hearted attempt to intervene in Syria, and particularly of Obama’s muddled and incompetent efforts to aid the armed opposition in Syria.

Whereas Clinton wished to double-down on intervention, Trump did not see how such recklessness would serve American interests.”

While the US dithered, Russia took center stage diplomatically and shaped the military picture on the ground. After all, it was both a combatant and an arbiter and had to be taken seriously.

As for Trump–Turkey and Russia expect him to come on board with their plans, but Trump has already proved unpredictable, and Syria remains too complex for straight forward relations between sides with their differing agendas.

First Published: Kurdistan 24

Who represents Kurds at Syria peace talks?

Swiftly after the last rebels were evacuated in Aleppo as Syrian forces took full control, a new ceasefire was orchestrated by Russia, Iran, and Turkey intending to a fresh round of peace talks in Kazakhstan. Though, the dominant Syrian Kurdish political party, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), along with its military wing, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) forces, have been excluded from the talks at the insistence of Turkey.

The capture of Aleppo by the Syrian regime and their allies provides a pivotal moment in the Syrian war and a platform for a peace deal. However, vast areas of the country remain not in the hands of Assad or even the opposition but the powerful Kurdish forces.

Turkey’s Syria policy has long been shaped by its fear of an increasingly assertive Kurdish zone on its southern border. In fact, in some ways, this defined its approach to dealing with the Islamic State (IS).

In contrast, the United States has relied heavily on these Kurdish forces as one of the most effective forces against IS. Ongoing US support for what Ankara deems as terrorists has placed Turkey at loggerheads with the US.

With the thawing of ties between Ankara and Moscow, Turkey is enjoying new leverage in Syria, culminating in their intervention last year to curtail Syrian Kurdish aspirations to join their cantons. With the realization that Russia and Iran would not forgo Assad, Turkey’s focus has fast shifted from the removal of Assad to keeping Kurdish aspirations in check and creating a northern zone of influence.

The exclusion of the PYD and YPG in any talks and perhaps even the dismantling of their autonomy was likely a key Turkish condition on any deal with Russia and Iran.

Although the PYD has been excluded from the talks, the Kurdish National Council in Syria (ENKS) will be taking part. Dr. Abdulhakim Bashar of ENKS told Kurdistan24, “the claims that Syrian Kurds are not represented in the peace talks are false.”

The ENKS has played down PYD’s exclusion from the peace negotiations from being linked to Kurdish rights. But, ultimately, PYD has greater political leverage in the region as well as the influence of YPG forces.

This underscores the division among Kurds that undermine their solidarity, unity, and negotiating position in future talks.

Various agreements to unite the ENKS and the rival People’s Council of Western Kurdistan (PCWK), an affiliate of PYD, have eroded.

Turkish intervention and takeover of a strip of IS controlled land in the north of Syria, primarily aimed at curbing Kurdish aspirations, is likely to have been launched with Moscow’s tacit approval.

Russia had previously insisted that participation of the main Syrian Kurdish party was vital in any peace talks.

In March 2016, the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, critical of Turkish ultimatums at the time, even said leaving the Kurds out of the Geneva talks could endanger Syria’s territorial integrity.

Turkish intervention in Syria was not received warmly by Washington as it feared conflict between Kurds and Turks and a focus away from defeating IS.

In recent weeks, tense relations between the NATO allies were visible over a lack of US air support in Turkey’s bid to take al-Bab. Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Isık said the ongoing US support for the PYD was leading the government to “question” the use of the strategic Incirlik base by the US-led coalition forces.

Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim was equally damning of the US stance on the Kurds, accusing the US of been engaged in a “fake struggle.” He urged President-elect Donald Trump to “put an end to this vileness, as it is now time for friends and foes to clearly separate themselves from each other.”

As much as Trump will be eager for a deal with the Turks and Russians to end the war, pulling the plug on the Kurdish forces is a significant risk at a crucial time against IS. Moreover, any military moves to curtail the Kurds would merely prolong and intensify the Syrian war.

Autonomy is a red-line for the Kurds, and regardless of which political party represents them in any peace talks, they remain a vital component of the Syrian landscape, and their rights should be ensured if Syria is to find any semblance of peace and stability.

As for Syrian Kurds, without a unified political scene and armed forces, any autonomous region cannot flourish amid hostile neighbors.

First Published: Kurdistan 24

US depends on Kurds once more in Raqqa offensive

As the battle to liberate Mosul gathers steam, the US-led coalition facilitated plans for the liberation of Raqqa from the Islamic State (IS) with the launch of Operation Wrath of the Euphrates. However, Syria is no Iraq, and the Raqqa offensive adds to the already complex Syrian landscape.

As the operation began, the US-led coalition was seemingly forced to rely on the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), dominated by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), as its best chance of success.

Highlighting this point, Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend stated, “…the only force that is capable on any near-term timeline is the Syrian Democratic Forces, of which the YPG are a significant portion.”

The coalition had to act quickly for many reasons: To capitalise on IS losses in Iraq, to prevent retreated IS forces from remobilising and to prevent IS attacks on European soil.

Kyle Orton, Syria and Middle Eastern analyst with the Henry Jackson Society, told Kurdistan 24 that “the US has prioritised timing in the Raqqa operation – it wants it done as quickly as possible – and the tactical reality there is that the YPG is the only force positioned to do it.”

On a phone call to the US President Barack Obama, the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan insisted, “we do not need terrorist organisations like the PYD and YPG in the Raqqa operation. Let us work together to sweep Daesh from Raqqa.”

But in defiance of frequently harsh rhetoric from Ankara owed to the US reliance and support of YPG forces, the US has decided to go with the Kurds again.

The US finds itself in an awkward corner; it has acknowledged the sensitives of Ankara but at the same time does not have a plethora of choices at a critical juncture. Further, it has tried to appease Turkey into playing a role in the Raqqa offensive alongside the Kurds, but Turkey rejected the idea.

Nabeel Khoury, an analyst at Atlantic Council’s Hariri Centre for Middle East At, told Kurdistan 24 that YPG and Ankara could be convinced to work together against a common enemy in IS “with good diplomacy and inducements”. According to Khoury, “the two friends of the U.S. will have to work together, albeit in limited and prescribed roles for this campaign to succeed.”

However, Orton believes “it is highly doubtful that the Turks and the YPG can be convinced to work together. The announcement of the Raqqa operation is itself a means of the YPG gaining a political advantage over Turkey. The interests of Turkey and the YPG simply vary too widely to imagine a convergence that would allow cooperation.”

This begs the question, could the US forgo the Kurds and rely on the Turkish-backed forces?

Any Turkish troops leading a charge into Raqqa would inevitably cut through Kurdish-held territory sparking the possibility of conflict with the Kurds, which would jeopardise Kurdish cooperation with the coalition.

Syrian rebels are too weak without Turkish backing, and in reality, their priority remains the ouster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and aiding their fellow rebels under siege in Aleppo.

At the same time, Raqqa is not a top priority for the YPG. Had they had a choice, Kurds would have preferred to focus on expanding their territory westwards towards Afrin, instead of an Arab-dominated city that they cannot hold.

The Kurds have sought assurances that they are not stabbed in the back by Turkey in sacrificing forces for the Raqqa assault.

The US-led coalition has openly acknowledged that they would prefer an Arab force, as does Turkey, to lead the charge into Raqqa with the Kurdish forces mainly working to seal off the city. However, such a force does not exist and training one will take time.

The US general, Joseph Dunford, acknowledged “we always knew the SDF wasn’t the solution for holding and governing Raqqa. What we are working on right now is to find the right mix of forces for the operation”. But it is proving almost impossible, especially since Turkey remains reluctant.

European Ministers such as Britain’s defense secretary, Michael Fallon, have warned that the liberation of the Raqqa would have to be done by an “essentially Arab” force to avoid a local backlash.

In essence, the coalition has little choice but to continue to rely on Kurdish forces. However, as YPG seemingly gathers more strategic strength and perhaps more territory, this opens the door to further violence and instability once IS are gone.

First Published: Kurdistan 24

Can Turkish intervention curtail growing standing of Syrian Kurds?

The already complicated Syrian landscape was given another dose of fuel as Turkish tanks rolled into Syria overrunning the town of Jarablus under the pretext of fighting the Islamic State (IS).

Western powers have long accused Turkey of not doing enough in the fight against IS and in tightening control of its porous border that has served them as a vital gateway. So why did Turkey suddenly intervene?

If the threat was solely IS, Turkey could have invaded years ago. However, Turkey’s real eyes were on curtailing the rapidly expanding territory under the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) who simultaneously became United States’ (US) key ally in the battle against IS.

Hossam Abouzahr, the editor of the Atlantic Council’s Syria Source blog, told Kurdistan24, “Turkey has been planning this move for at least a year.  The fighting between the Turkish and Kurdish forces shows just how serious Turkey is about stopping the Kurds from seizing control of northern Syria.”

Turkey was content as long as IS and YPG forces were locked fighting, the former was a natural way to keep Kurdish aspirations in check.

But with growing US-led coalition support and international recognition, YPG forces have quickly taken a large swathe of territory from IS, including Manbij, west of the Turkish Euphrates red line, and had their eyes set on creating a contiguous Kurdish autonomous region.

The Russian and US support to the Kurds was in contrast to Ankara’ frosty relations with these powers leaving Turkey isolated.

In addition to the loss of territory by its Syrian proxies, and the failed coup, Turkey embarked on a policy of rapprochement with Russia, Iran, Israel and the US.

John Cookson, Chief Correspondent of Arise News, told Kurdistan24 “Turkey has now turned to look East instead of West…An incursion into Syria to crush the Kurds plays well among his base in Istanbul.”

However, Amanda Paul of the European Policy Centre told Kurdistan24 that although there is evidence of a Turkish compromise with Moscow in light of the recent rapprochement, “the Russians were clearly not expecting the scope of Turkey’s current offensive.”

Either way as history has shown, the West could betray the Kurds again.

The thawing of ties between Ankara and Moscow was a stark warning to NATO and the Americans. Now in the quest to entice Ankara, US had to appease Turkey especially with regards to the Kurds.

According to Cookson, “If America has to choose between the Kurds and Turkey, the US will ultimately back Turkey” before adding that like the uprising in Iraqi in 1991, “the Americans will sell the Kurds out.”

For Paul, “Biden’s recent visit was aimed at building bridges.  At the end of the day Turkey is a vital US strategic partner and long-time NATO ally.   While the PYD has been an important partner for the US in Syria it is not comparable to the relationship with Turkey.”

Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim made clear that “Turkish forces will remain in Syria for as long as it takes to cleanse the border of Islamic State and other militants”.

 

However, Kurdish control west of Euphrates is one thing, and their large and well-entrenched control of the region east of the Euphrates is another.

According to Paul, not only could Turkey become bogged down in Syria but “the current operation is not going to help Turkey’s own Kurdish issue and it is likely to spread furthers enmity toward the Kurdish people in the region.”

However, for the US and its primary focus on defeating IS, the armed confrontation between Turkish and Kurdish forces is a major headache. It can tolerate a limited incursion to appease Ankara, but the boundaries are becoming ever murky. Pentagon warned Turkey to focus on IS and not the Kurdish forces. According to Washington, the YPG had retreated east of the Euphrates as promised but an unconvinced Yildrim vowed, “operations will continue until all threats to Turkish citizens have been eliminated.”

More importantly, there is now a sense of unease between the Kurds and US that would hamper operations against IS further south.

The US spent millions on training moderate forces who quickly failed against IS; hence, it has relied heavily on the Kurds. However, will the new development change the game again?

There are already signs that Turkey will accept a grand bargain to curtail Kurdish advances.

Regardless of any deal between these powers, the Kurds of Syria remain a key component of the Syrian calculus. Their new found autonomy and military might cannot be ignored. Not without wide-scale military intervention, which is a step far for the likes of Turkey and certainly for Syria.

First Published: Kurdistan 24

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc

U.S. and Syrian Kurds – Hand-in-hand on the road to Raqqa

Normally any march towards the de facto Islamic State (IS) capital of Raqqa would be met with jubilation and relief but such is the sensitive political picture in Syria that even the long hoped for liberation of Raqqa is shrouded in controversy.

The U.S. spent millions on training so-called moderate Arab opposition forces only to see a handful of forces emerge. All the while, the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) forces were proving themselves as the most capable force on the ground and ticked all the boxes the U.S. spent huge amounts of effort to find.

The alliance between the U.S. and the Syrian Kurds was logical in many ways even if it has resulted in constant outcries from Ankara who accuse the YPG of been an extension of the PKK.

This has placed the U.S. into a difficult corner placating anxieties from its traditional regional ally in Turkey whilst at the same time growing closer to the YPG who it views as their number one ticket to drive out IS in a way that thousands of coalition air raids have failed to achieve.

YPG advances against IS have been met more with threats and unease by Turkey than any sense of relief. The establishment of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) was in many ways an answer to the heavy Kurdish identity of forces battling IS, increasing Kurdish control and the growing ties between the U.S. and Syrian Kurds.

Although there are thousands of Arab and Christian forces in the SDF, the vast majority are still Kurdish.

Images of US Special Forces not only coordinating with Kurdish forces on the ground but even wearing the YPG insignia was bound to cause uproar in Turkey. Washington has been quick to downplay the gesture and even ordered the removal of such insignias but nevertheless the situation is not any less complicated.

The U.S. has a heavy reliance on Kurdish forces that it sees as its best ticket to rid Raqqa of IS before the end of Barack Obama’s presidential term but it’s stuck in a dangerous game.

Kurdish forces will not merely sacrifice or coordinate closely with the coalition without firm preconditions regardless of whether they are at the peace table in Geneva. They are continuously looking to enshrine their autonomy and expand their territory.

The U.S. cannot afford to abandon the YPG just to appease Turkey and on the other hand the Syrian Kurds cannot rely long-term on Washington to achieveitslong-term goals.

All the while, the Turkish hand is weakened in spite of all the harsh rhetoric over the YPG. At some point, the SDF is likely to move west towards Jarablus and break more Turkish redlines. Turkey has threatened to retaliate but an all-out invasion would not only be met with dismay by the US-led coalition but will ultimately deepen the Syrian civil war and Turkey’s own war against the Kurds.

Regardless of any role in peace talks, the Syrian Kurds are not about to reverse their hard-earned autonomy or new found prominence. In the past Turkey felt it was easier to deal with a neighbor such as IS than a strong Kurdish force with growing autonomy.

Syria will never be the same again and the new regional outlook will have a profound influence on the future of the region regardless of the resistance of any country.

 

First Published: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc

 

 

As Turkey frantically jockeys to tarnish Syrian Kurds, can the U.S. afford to abandon the Kurds?

As Kurdish-led forces were rejoicing the capture of the strategically important town of al-Shadadi from the Islamic State (IS), Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was on a frantic mission to pressure Washington to abandon support for the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and label the Democratic Union Party (PYD) as terrorists.

Erdogan’s call to Barrack Obama was on the back of statements from State Department spokesman John Kirby that refused to blame the YPG for the recent bombing in Ankara that Turkey vehemently insists was carried out by the Syrian Kurds.

Turkey has long insisted that the PYD are a mere extension of PKK and has stuck to the view that the PKK or PYD are no different than IS. In fact, since Turkey formally joined the war against IS after a bombing in Suruc in 2015, it is the PKK that been the subject of Turkey’s rage on “terrorists”.

On the other hand, the Syrian Kurds have proved to be the most effective ground force against IS and have made significant gains in recent months in curtailing vital IS supply routes. At the same time, Turkey has insisted that Washington decides between the PYD and Turkey.

The fact that the U.S. has refused to take sides speaks volumes. The U.S. spent millions of dollars on a training program for so called Syrian moderates that amassed to virtually no gains. The Kurds have demonstrated to the U.S. that they are the ready-made boots on the ground that Washington had craved in vain for so long.

The visit of US Special Presidential Envoy for the Coalition against ISIS, Brett McGurk, to the Kurdish town of Kobane, the source of the symbolic victory of the US-led air campaign against IS, illustrates the significance of Kurdish support to the U.S.

Even though the Kurdistan Freedom Hawks (TAK) claimed responsibility for the deadly Ankara bombing, this would have always fallen on death ears in Turkey.

It is not just about a bombing incident, it is about the strategic standing and clout of the Syrian Kurds, who aside from a narrow corridor between Afrin and Jarablus hold almost the entire Syrian border with Turkey, that Ankara is trying to tarnish.

The fact that Turkey sees the PYD as bigger “terrorists” than IS, Jabhat al-Nusra and various other jihadist groups tells its own story. Turkey would tolerate any group on its doorstep than an autonomous Kurdish stronghold.

Turkey’s border has been the lifeline for not just the Syrian opposition but also IS. The remaining IS access to the Turkish border could have been easily sealed by Kurdish forces with coalition air support.

Turkey is already fighting a frenzied new battle against the PKK and the south east of Turkey is threatened with a return to the dark days of the 1990’s with daily curfews and violence.

The fate of the Kurds in Turkey and Syria are intrinsically linked. Without an affective Turkish policy that caters for both realities there will never be peace in Turkey.

As for the Syrian Kurds, what if Turkey succeeds in getting the U.S. to abandon ship and desert their Kurdish allies? The simple answer is that the already uneasy Kurds will merely become fully engrossed in the Russia camp where they already enjoy strong ties.

First Published: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc

Can a ceasefire be achieved in Syria amidst Assad’s victory march?

The battle lines have been frequently redrawn in the deadly Syrian civil war. However, Russian military intervention shattered the military picture. From the outskirts of Latakia, Syrian rebels are scampering to defend an increasingly encircled Aleppo from outright fall into regime hands.

As regime forces lay siege on remaining crucial rebel supply lines to the Turkish border, it becomes clear that with Geneva III coinciding with the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s strongest hands in years, peace talks were always going to fail.

For the rebels, it is increasingly a becoming now or never moment. They rebels are surrounded by regime forces with the Islamic State (IS) in close proximity and to the north, especially around Azaz and the Turkish border, rebels are under pressure from Syrian Kurdish forces, who increasingly feel their strategic goals are more likely to be realized through Moscow than Washington.

Under the cover of relentless Russian airstrikes, rebels groups are increasingly weak on the ground and since leverage at any peace talk will always be heavily swayed by the picture on the ground, Syrian opposition parties will find it difficult to twist Assad or Moscow’s arms with their lofty demands.

Even as major powers agreed on a “cessation of hostilities” in Munich which is due to take effect next week, sheer skepticism and animosity quickly diluted any optimism.

For one, the agreement is not an actual ceasefire, since neither of the warring parties signed the agreement. Secondly, Russia has vowed to continue airstrikes against what they deem as “terrorists”. Thirdly, a buoyant Assad remains ambitious that with Russian support and a potential sealing of the borders he could recapture all of Syria.

Assad recently statement that “… if we negotiate, it does not mean we stop fighting terrorism” does not speak of a man, who after clinging to power at his weakest point is about to relinquish power when he holds the aces.

Russia enjoys a powerful position in the Syrian calculus, and whilst the U.S. is bogged down in the struggle against IS, it can ill-afford the same bold intervention as the Russians or to turn the focus to the removal of Assad, which longed slipped as a priority.

The ball is firmly in the court of Assad and Russia. Assad has always been willing to negotiate but on his terms. If Assad succeeds in sealing the borders and overrunning Aleppo, any peace talks will to him feel like a victory treaty.

However, the war in Syria has proved be fluid and Assad’s renewed position of strength could easily change if Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other regional powers decide that after 5 years of immense investment in the opposition cause, they can ill-afford to throw-in the towel.

Assad and his allies are juggling a rapid defeat of rebel forces with the possibility of a Turkish or Saudi ground invasion.

Tensions between Russia and Turkey are already high owed to the Turkish downing of a Russian jet last November. It won’t take much for all-out war if Turkish or Russian forces engage each other once more.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry openly acknowledged that if the peace plan fails then more foreign troops would become a reality in the conflict. As Kerry pointed out, without pressure on Russia or Iranians to hold Assad to any ceasefire or peace talks, then Syrian regime has little reason to back down on their victory march.

First Published: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc