• Ola Rifai

Turkish military campaign in Syria and the widening Arab/Kurdish trust gap

On August 24th Turkey, backed by American jets and its NATO allies, sent tanks and especial forces into Syria with the main aim of driving away ISIS off her southern borders, as Turkish officials claimed. Such a military intervention adds more complexity to an already complicated scene as it signifies a shifting in the power balance and alliances among players in the Syrian drama.

For Erdogan, yesterday's rival: Russia is today's friend. And the Assad regime seems to be now a palatable alternative to the Kurdish threat which triggered Erdogan to undertake this demarche in his strategies.

In truth, the main reason behind Turkey's military campaign in Syria is to block any attempt by the Kurds to achieve a contiguous piece of territories across its southern borders. Rojafa (referring to western Kurdistan or Kurdish enclave in Syria) is far more terrifying for Erdogan than the ISIS Jihadis, who at some point, were pouring into Syria through the Turkish borders where officials there turned a blind eye for the flow of arms and fighters.

Footage streaming from Manbij (tiny town northeast Aleppo-west to Euphrates River) earlier this month of Kurdish fighters cheering with locals their victory over ISIS provoked Erdogan to recalculate his policy of containment and to send his troops to the southern neighbour. Indeed, the success of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – a Kurdish dominated coalition of Kurdish, Sunni Arab and Syriac Christian fighters that was created on October 2015 - in capturing Manbij and other surrounding towns from ISIS indicated that a de facto Kurdish state is about to occur across the Turkish borders; this is definitely Erdogan’s worse nightmare. Hence, he wasted no time to stop this in an attempt to push back the Kurds to the east of the Euphrates River and to create the long wanted buffer zone to secure the southern frontiers. To this end, he needed to cooperate with all jets in the Syrian skies and to fight with the Free Syrian army (FSA), which at some point was allying with the SDF, but, obviously, the struggle for power shifted this alliance.

Certainly, Turkey’s intervention is not brand new, it has been involved intimately since the outset of the conflict; by backing Sunni Arab militias to fight the Assad regime and the Kurds. Its repercussions had backfired on the Turkish capital several times during the past years. Nevertheless, the implications of Erdogan’s new endeavour in Syria today are not only limited to swinging the power balance on the battlefield or in the political theatre. They would play a vital role in constructing Kurdish/Arab relations in a future-Syria, if it is meant to come.

In core, political, social and cultural exclusion of the Kurds by a dominant Arabism ideology had accompanied Syria's modern history, and therefore it should not be surprising at all that the 2011 Uprising provided the Kurds with a window of opportunities to adjust their status. From the outset of the Uprising, the Assad regime manipulated the Kurds for realpolitik gains. In July 2012 Assad forces completely withdrew from Kurdish areas and henceforth granted the Kurds with a quasi-autonomy in which the Democratic Union Party (PYD) - a key Kurdish player- was allowed to fill the vacuum. The regime’s logic behind this realpolitik was twofold. First and foremost, is to contain the Kurdish threat, and secondly; to fragment the opposition as this indirect alliance (between the regime and the PYD) encouraged the growth of faction between Arabs and the Kurds. Consequently, the historical trust gap between Arabs and Kurds was widening rapidly. On the one hand, Arabs, as they always used to do, were perceiving any Kurdish move with suspicious eyes, accusing them of secessionist intentions. While on the other hand, the Kurds were fearing that Arabs were seeking hegemony over them. However, many councils, movements and initiatives emerged at the grassroots level, and seem to strengthen relations between locals of the ethnically mixed town in the Kurdish areas.

In this light, although dominated by Kurds, the Syria Democratic Forces (SDF), could be set as a good example to strengthen Arab/Kurdish ties in a post-war Syria, and could work to minimise the trust gap while reproducing a new form of bilateral relations between these two groups.

Alas, the Turkish military campaign, in which FSA is taking the frontline, might ruin this for a while since it is highlighting the line between ‘us’ and ‘them’ and inflaming ethnic clashes. After more than five years of a bloody conflict, Turkey intervened to safeguard her interests rather than to help the fragile FSA in gaining momentum. FSA soldiers and Arabs in the Syrian opposition should understand that they are being manipulated by Erdogan policies, and that they are pawns on his longstanding battle with the Kurds. Besides, they should understand that the pre-uprising status for Kurds is gone for good. Kurds cannot be excluded neither can they be hegemoniesed by the Arabs again. Establishing solid relations with Kurds would grant Arabs a winning card on the ongoing struggle and also in its aftermath. Federalism is the answer for Kurdish problems in a post war Syria. Yet, Kurds should be aware that their autonomy cannot survive in a hostile environment. Even if they were able to craft their semi state, they cannot maintain it without any form of cooperation with its context. In other words, any political entity will not survive if it was isolated and surrounded by enemies. Kurds should make their political calculation based on this fact. Hence, for mutual interest, Arabs and Kurds should work to bridge the gap of trust rather than widening it.


© 2018 Centre for Syrian Studies