The Turkish advance into northern Syria marks a turning point in the Syrian conflict. Its nominal target was Islamic State, but with large powers reconsidering their alliances in the region, the Kurds stand to lose the most.
One common description of chaos theory holds that the flapping of a butterfly’s wings can trigger a tornado. And it could very well be that the theory is the best tool we currently have available to describe the complex situation in Syria. The butterfly wings in this case was the late July decision by the Syrian regime to recruit new tribal militia fighters in a remote northeastern province. The tornado it triggered four weeks later was threefold: the invasion of northern Syria by the Turkish army; the sudden expulsion of Islamic State from the border town of Jarabulus; and the US military suddenly finding itself on both sides of a new front in Syria — that between the Turks and the Kurds.
“It is 3:30 p.m. and we have almost reached the center of Jarabulus and have suffered almost no casualties. But we only just crossed the border this morning!” Saif Abu Bakr, a defected lieutenant and commander with the rebel group Hamza Division, sounded on Wednesday as though he couldn’t believe what had just happened. “We set off with 20 Turkish tanks and 100 Turkish troops from Karkamis” — the border town in Turkey — “and headed through the villages west of the city and then on to Jarabulus.”
More than two-and-a-half years after Islamic State (IS) conquered the border city, displaying the heads of its adversaries on fence posts in the process, the jihadist tumor was removed in mere hours. Jarabulus was one of the last IS bastions on the Turkish border and the group had long been able to use the border crossing there unchallenged, allowing them to funnel both men and materiel into the parts of Syria under their control. “Almost all of them fled three days ago, except for a few local followers and a couple of foreigners,” Umm Chalid, a widow from the city, said of the IS fighters. “All the residents left too. We knew that something would happen.”
The invasion in the north is a turning point in the Syrian war, marking the first time that Turkey has become directly involved in the conflict. At the same time, many of the complicated alliances in the region are suddenly shifting, with some allies becoming estranged and some enemies discovering common interests.
In the days leading up to the Turkish invasion, a bizarre procession could be witnessed traveling along the roads on the Turkish side of the border — the product of the Turkish army’s attack preparations, which involved bringing in rebels belonging to a variety of groups from Idlib and Aleppo in buses and pick-ups. The fighters were mostly from small, Pentagon-supported units, such as the Hamza Division, the Sultan Murad Brigade and the Levante Front. Large and powerful hardcore Islamist groups like the former Nusra Front were not part of the operation.
Once the Turkish tanks had established their position on a hill west of Jarabulus, they began firing on the fragmented IS units in the city. But they also fired on those troops that had likewise been seeking to liberate Jarabulus from IS: the Kurdish-controlled SDF militia, which had advanced on the city from the south. For the Turks, it was a two-fold success: For one, they attacked IS, which Ankara believes was behind the attack last weekend on a wedding in Gaziantep which killed over 50 people. For another, Turkey was able to pursue its primary goal of stopping the advance of the Kurds, who are seeking to establish a contiguous territory stretching across all of northern Syria. That is something Ankara wants to prevent at all costs.
The events are consistent with the pattern that seems to govern the involvement of most powers active in Syria. Each party is fighting its own war: It’s Syria à la carte. The Turks are interested in battling the Kurds. The Americans are only interested in defeating Islamic State. The Kurds are seeking to establish their own state. And the Russians are primarily intent on demonstrating to the world that they are once again a global power.
The Turkish army’s new invasion partnership with Syrian rebels — car-sharing included — is just the latest of the rapidly shifting alliances of convenience used by all to pursue their interests. Taken together, they have transformed this horrific war into a completely unpredictable battlefield. The cards have been reshuffled — and one of the catalysts was local skirmishes in the remote northeastern province of Hasakah.
But first, a bit of background. For years, a tense alliance of convenience had existed in Hasakah between troops loyal to Syrian ruler Bashar Assad and Kurds with close ties to the PKK, the Kurdish militant group in Turkey. The Kurds have continually founded new PKK offshoots in the region, an alphabet soup of groups including most importantly the YPG (which stands for People’s Protection Units in Syria) and, more recently, the SDF, or Syrian Democratic Forces. All the groups share personnel, funding and leadership and the image of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan can be seen everywhere. The YPG did not participate in the uprising against Assad and in exchange, the group was allowed to expand its control in Kurdish areas with Assad’s unspoken acquiescence. There have been occasional skirmishes between the YPG and Assad troops, but the conflicts have always been rapidly resolved.
Because it is running out of troops, however, Assad’s army in July began recruiting a new militia as part of the “National Defense Force” from Sunni tribes in Hasakah — fighters from the same clans that were involved in earlier plundering and killing of local Kurds when they rose briefly in 2004. The Kurds haven’t forgotten and within days, the situation escalated, with the two sides firing on each other and the Kurds conquering almost the entire provincial capital, likewise named Hasakah. Then on August 18, the Syrian air force bombed Kurdish positions in the region for the first time in five years.
The air strikes didn’t have much impact on the local fighting, but they completely altered the international balance of power. Though Turkey has long been fighting against Syrian President Assad, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recognized that the Syrian strikes against the Kurds could be useful. As a leading member of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party formulated it in June: “Ultimately, Assad is a killer and tortures his own population. But he doesn’t support Kurdish autonomy. We abhor one another, but in this respect, we are pursuing similar policies.”
Assad’s attack on the Kurds also facilitated rapprochement between the Turkish and Russian governments on the Syrian question. Ankara and Moscow have long been far apart on Syria. Erdogan has been demanding Assad’s deposition since 2011 and finances some rebel groups. Russian President Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, has preferred to prop up the Assad regime in the hopes of a more orderly transition of power. But the ice age between Erdogan and the West, which has only become colder since the recent putsch attempt in Turkey, has once again made Russia a potential ally for the Turks.
Dropping the Kurds
On the other hand, the Kremlin is no longer making much progress towards its own vision for Syria. The Russian air force, to be sure, has been effective in propping up Assad’s rump empire despite ground troops from Iran, Afghanistan and elsewhere doing their best to defeat him. But Bashar Assad has refused to make even the tiniest of concessions. His renewed military strength is entirely the product of Russian support and Moscow’s plan was not to dump him, but to present him as an example of their own successful strategy of intervention.
Were Turkey to accept a transition goverment under Assad’s leadership, this would be easier to achieve. Assad would never step down on his own, but the Russians would be in a position to swap him out with a favorable general at their convenience. That would clear the way for an international agreement — with the West likely footing the bill for Syrian reconstruction — and for Russia’s departure from Syria.
Turkish support would make the plan easier to achieve — and such support appears to be forthcoming: Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said last weekend that Turkey would tolerate an Assad-led transition government. The deal would involve concessions for Turkey in exchange for Ankara’s agreement that Assad could remain in power for the time being. Russia, meanwhile, would then drop the Kurds as an ally, a partnership that only came into being last autumn.
In the tactical shifting of alliances in Syria, the Kurds had hoped to be the cleverest player. Now, however, it looks as though they may have risked too much.
To make matters worse for the Kurds, their relations with the US have likewise deteriorated rapidly, despite being Washington’s closest ally in the fight against Islamic State. After pushing IS out of its own areas, Kurdish fighters did not, as had been agreed with the US, turn their attentions to the de facto IS capital of Raqqa but opted instead to head in the opposite direction and push IS out of the Arab city of Manbij before heading north to Jarabulus, another predominantly Arab city.
From the Turkish perspective, any further Kurdish advance west of the Euphrates River crosses a red line — and the Turkish name for the tank operation in northern Syria, Euphrates Shield, indicates as much. The US is likewise uninterested in seeing the Kurds conquer additional Arab cities. “We’ve put a lid on the Kurds moving north,” a US government official told the Wall Street Journal this week, “or at least doing so if they want any support from us, which I think is a fairly significant piece of leverage.”
The Turkish operation in Jarabulus also received US air support and US Special Forces are thought to have participated. Furthermore, just hours after the invasion, US Vice President Joe Biden landed in Ankara in an attempt to smooth over tense relations between the two countries. The upshot, though, was that on the ground south of Jarabulus, the sudden change of course very nearly led to two American-supported groups firing on each other.
The recent events mark an unfortunate example of history repeating itself — of the PKK allowing itself to be used by the Syrian regime only to be dropped at the whim of Damascus. For many years beginning in the 1980s, Assad’s father and predecessor Hafez Assad allowed the PKK to maintain a presence in the Syrian-occupied Bekaa Valley in Lebanon. But when Turkish tanks appeared on Syria’s northern border in 1998, Hafez turned his back on the Kurds and the PKK had to abandon its Bekaa Valley camps. That marked the beginning of Öcalan’s odyssey across the world, which ended with his arrest by Turkish special forces in Kenya.
Now, it looks as though the PKK has once again miscalculated. The group had hoped to take advantage of the US and Russian battle against IS to establish a Kurdish state in northern Syria. And Russia had been happy to use the Kurds to pressure the Turks. Now that Moscow has achieved its goal, though, it looks to be abandoning the PKK.
On Wednesday, Shirwan Darwish, spokesman for the Kurdish military leadership in Manbij, issued a threat to Turkey during a conversation with DER SPIEGEL. “We have established our defensive lines on the Sajur River (west of the Euphrates) and will defend ourselves against anyone who even comes close to this line. It has been drawn with the blood of our martyrs.”
Most of the residents who fled Jarabulus, the majority of whom are Arabs, see the situation a bit differently. “If you liberate an area, that doesn’t mean that it subsequently belongs to you,” says Darwish Chalifa, a local politician. “The majority of the people here are for the Free Syrian Army and against Assad. We hope that our Kurdish brothers understand that and don’t begin fighting against us.”
The fact that Assad’s air strikes targeting the YPG were close to a US Special Forces camp has finally moved the US to prevent all Syrian planes from flying into the region — “that is extremely positive,” says Chalifa.
“As soon as the situation has calmed down, we want to go back home,” says Ahmed Abd al-Hossein, a member of the city’s former municipal government. “We’ve been preparing for months and have established a stabilization committee for several villages. First, we intend to evaluate the damage that has been done and then to meet with international aid organizations next week to determine what is needed. The FSA has promised to withdraw, with the exception of one small unit, and then we plan to open up a police station.”
Under the Eyes of the Russians
City elections are expected to be held soon. A naive hope maybe, but it at least offers a clear perspective. For the larger protagonists in the region, it isn’t yet clear whether they will profit from the recent changes or not.
- Islamic State, which all sides insist is the true enemy, has lost Jarabulus and will quickly be forced to give up its last bastions on the Turkish border
- That will likely mean that the willingness of the Kurds to attack the IS stronghold of Raqqa on behalf of the West has sunk dramatically.
- Syrian rebels are rejoicing over the successful invasion. But a rude awakening could be on the horizon when Turkey turns its back on them so it can join Assad in the battle against the Kurds.
- Turkey has improved its relations with Russia and the US and put a halt to the Kurdish advance. But the conflict may now flare in Turkey. Already, several hundred people have been killed there in recent months in skirmishes between the Turkish military and the PKK.
- Bashar Assad has now added the Kurds to his list of enemies, but Turkey isn’t as great of an enemy as it used to be. His fate, though, remains in the hands of Moscow.
- And the US now has the problem of having two allies in Syria who actually would like to shoot at each other.
The Russians would seem to have gained the most, and the Kurds look to be on the opposite end of that spectrum.
The fighting in Hasakah, where it all began, was hastily brought to an end on Tuesday. Emissaries from the government in Damascus and YPG representatives agreed to put a stop to the skirmishes. Furthermore, the only road to Qamishli is to be reopened: Assad’s troops still control part of the town in addition to its airport, which is the only airfield in northeastern Syria.
Negotiations for the agreement took place at the Russian air force base at Khmeimim, which has long since become a second center of power for the Assad regime. It is here where the government leads talks with all manner of Syrian groups — under the close watch of the Russians.