Syria’s Kurds brace for Turkish assault
TUNIS - In northern Syria, close to the Turkish border, the country’s Kurdish population looks nervously to the frontier, worried about an assault that could come from Turkey at any time.
Ankara views the broadly autonomous regions of northern Syria, guarded by the People’s Protection Units (YPG), as a potential base for hostile action against Turkey and an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an organisation branded as terrorist by Turkey and its NATO allies.
“This whole part of Syria is mostly populated by age-old Kurdish towns with around 2 million people,” said David Pollock, a fellow at the Washington Institute. “Turkey says it’s controlled by a hostile Kurdish terrorist organisation, the [Democratic Union Party] PYD, and its YPG militia, which it says are PKK fronts. The US government and I disagree.”
For those in the affected area, many of whom have returned after fleeing Islamic State (ISIS) control, such distinctions matter little.
Chimo Osman, 38, has a house in the village of Ashma, nestled in olive groves in the region of Kobane, that was damaged by Turkish shelling. “We can’t even venture on the roof anymore,” Osman told France 24. “We don’t leave the house. The kids are scared,” he said, his five children huddled around him.
Complicating matters is the presence of the United States, Turkey’s NATO ally and the principal partner of the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the battle against the last vestiges of ISIS from Syria. However, the potential for a Turkish incursion into Kurdish territory has frustrated that plan. The SDF halted offensive operations, though their defensive capabilities remain formidable, on October 31.
“Turkey’s larger goal is to press, with or without US cooperation, to remove the YPG militias from positions all along their southern border,” said Stephen Flanagan, senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation. “[Turkish President
Recep Tayyip] Erdogan has frequently threatened to drive the YPG from all along the [500km] border.
“At a minimum, the Turks want the YPG driven further inland into Syria so they can’t support attacks into Turkey at some point,” he said, pointing to the groups’ shared supply lines as a common thread.
Fuelling Turkish concerns is the US commitment to remain in Syria until Iran and its axillaries have withdrawn.
“The Turks also fear that US forces are deepening their cooperation with the YPG in order to sustain a military foothold in northern Syria,” Flanagan said. “The Turks would have mixed feelings about this. They don’t want the Iranians to maintain a military presence in Syria but they also don’t want a confrontation with Iran, which is an important gas supplier.”
Opposing any Turkish incursion into northern Syria is the YPG, which was instrumental in turning the tide against ISIS and is now defending the fighters’ and their families’ homes.
“These are experienced YPG fighters who successfully defeated ISIS,” Flanagan said.
While there is uncertainty over their weaponry, that they have small arms, mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and anti-tank armaments is commonly agreed. They are also said to have a small number of tanks and armoured vehicles captured from Syrian forces, none of which is likely to be a match against the Turkish Army and its allied militias.
Seemingly aware of the odds against them, many along the Syrian border look to the United States for help.
At the funeral for a YPG fighter killed during the fighting against ISIS, local resident Hamo Masibkeradi pointed to the rows of marble tombstones that mark the graves of those who died fighting ISIS.
“These martyrs fell for humanity. The international community should help us,” he told Agence France-Presse. “Erdogan wants to wipe us out. The US cannot allow this injustice.”