New Delhi: Turkey last week launched a military assault against the Kurds in northeast Syria, just days after the US pulled out its troops from the area due to “untenable” situation there.
Turkey’s action drew flak from world leaders and organisations as they fear the offensive could threaten regional security and allow for revival of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
India has also condemned the “unilateral military offensive” and called upon Turkey to “exercise restraint and respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria”.
Who are the Kurds?
Kurds are an ethnic group that belongs to the mountainous region of Western Asia. They are the fourth largest ethnic group in the Middle East.
They are often referred to as “the largest ethnic group without a state” — there are 25 to 35 million Kurds spread across Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran and Armenia.
Kurds do not follow any particular religion, but most of them adhere to some form of Islam. But many Kurds, such as the ones in Syria, consider themselves to be non-Muslims.
Kurdish insurgency in Turkey
The Kurds have been demanding for an independent country ever since the end of World War I. They want a country comprising all the Kurdish-dominated areas spread across Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran and Armenia.
The demand for an independent country has sometimes taken the form of militant insurgencies and Turkey has faced the brunt of it.
Turkey has grappled with a raging Kurdish insurgency for decades. This insurgency has mostly been spearheaded by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is a militant organisation. The PKK demands a separate state for the country’s Kurdish population and has used violent means to achieve that goal.
But there is no mainstream political group in Turkey that is ready to accommodate the demands of the PKK as both the Kemalists and Islamists — the two main camps in Turkey — want to quash the Kurdish insurgency.
Kemalists are those who abide by the ideas of Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey and they believe in secular nationalism, while the Islamists see Turkey as primarily an Islamic state. But regardless of this ideological division, there is a consensus between the two groups that Turkey needs to finish the Kurdish insurgency.
Turkey, Iran, the US and Russia have been involved in the Syrian Civil War since its beginning in 2011. Their involvement further grew when the ISIS announced the establishment of a caliphate or an Islamic state in 2014.
Syria has 1.8 million Kurds and a large chunk of that population resides in its northeast. These Syrian Kurds came to the spotlight in 2014.
For western powers, northeast Syria is considered vital in their fight against the ISIS as the terrorist outfit has grown from this region before spreading to Iraq.
Even before the ISIS announced the establishment of a caliphate, a Syrian Kurdish militia — People’s Protection Units (YPG) — had been spearheading the fight against ISIS. But when the ISIS amassed enormous fighting capabilities, the YPG needed foreign support to fend them off.
In 2015, the US government under President Barack Obama decided to provide the YPG with arms, arguing that it had the capacity to fight the ISIS. But the US support came with a twist.
Turkey, which is a major part of American-led NATO alliance, expressed its anger at the US for arming the YPG, which is an ally of PKK that “has pursued a bloody insurgency on Turkish soil since 1984 in the name of greater autonomy for the country’s Kurdish minority”.
To placate Turkey, the US told Ankara that the support to YPG was just “temporary and transactional”.
In the same year, the YPG was broadened to include militants from several ethnic groups such as the Syriacs and Arabs and renamed as the Syrian Democratic Force (SDF).
Turkey’s major irritant
Over the next few years, the SDF succeeded in expelling the ISIS from northeast Syria and carved out an autonomous enclave for itself in the region. It is this autonomous Kurdish enclave, manned by the SDF on the Syrian-Turkish border, that has became an irritant for Turkey.
“More than a military threat, the Syrian-Kurdish experiment in ‘democratic autonomy’ based on the libertarian socialist principles of imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, represents an ideological and political challenge to Turkey,” noted a report in DW.
The Turkish government fears that this de facto autonomous region might inspire Kurdish insurgents in Turkey to launch their own de facto autonomous state in the country.
Turkey’s refugee crisis & proposal for a ‘safe zone’
In addition to the presence of an autonomous Kurdish quasi-state along Turkey-Syria border, Ankara is also grappling with a major refugee crisis. Refugees, escaping from the Syrian and Iraq wars, have been residing in Turkey for a long time now.
Today, Turkey houses 3.6 million refugees and there is a growing public discontent about their prolonged presence. As the Turkish economy continues to deteriorate, the people in the country have expressed their anger against the authorities for providing for these refugees.
To deal with this, Turkey has proposed building a “safe zone” in northeast Syria, where Syrian refugees — currently residing in Turkey — can be rehabilitated.
In December 2018, US President Donald Trump tried to withdraw US troops from northeast Syria. But he backtracked after facing a major backlash from the national security agencies and the legislature.
The decision to keep the US forces irked Turkey and led to intense negotiations between the two countries. These negotiations finally ended in August this year.
According to the deal, the US and Turkey would jointly build the “safe zone”. Besides, the SDF was asked to withdraw from its forward positions along the Syrian-Turkey border. In return, the US promised to retain its forces along the border and deter an attack by Turkey.
The SDF obliged and the US forces replaced SDF in the border areas.
US withdrawal and the Turkish offensive
On 6 October this year, Trump abruptly decided to withdraw US forces from northeast Syria, leaving the region unprotected and thus paving the way for a Turkish military offensive.
Turkey has two motives behind attacking the region. First, to destroy the autonomous Kurdish region in northeast Syria and second, to create a ‘safe zone’ there that can be used to rehabilitate Syrian refugees currently living in Turkey.
Over the past few days, Turkey has been “pounding the region with air raids and artillery fire amid heavy fighting that sent panicked civilians on both sides of the border fleeing,” Al Jazeera reported.
Northeast Syria is “open plains, which would make it difficult for the lightly-armed SDF to resist NATO’s second-largest army,” notes a report in DW.
This would also force SDF to redirect its resources along the border away from fighting ISIS elements still active in the region.