The last month in northern Syria has been one of chaos. And disaster for the Syrian Kurds.
Numbering about 2 million, the Syrian Kurds are the largest ethnic minority of that country, living mostly in the north of Syria near Turkey. For the last several years, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been attacking them, seeking a justification to expel them from that area. It has been widely reported that he’s even been arming extremist militias of ISIS and Al Qaeda to fight the Kurds.
There is plenty of evidence that Erdogan’s antipathy toward the Syrian Kurds is based on some combination of wanting to disrupt their alliance with the US; intending to colonize their land; and being determined to discourage Turkish Kurds from seeking autonomy similar to that which the Kurds in Syria have enjoyed the last several years.
As President Erdogan’s antagonism toward the Syrian Kurds ramped up recently, the US, Turkey and the Kurdish forces entered an agreement in August 2019 that created what they called a “Northern Syria Buffer Zone” in the Kurdish Rojava area of northeastern Syria, near the Turkish border. As part of that agreement, the Kurds dismantled their defense fortifications in the area, pulled back from the buffer zone, and allowed joint US/Turkish troops to patrol. The Kurds adhered to the agreement, to the point of allowing themselves to become more vulnerable. But Erdogan still was not satisfied, and he continued threatening to attack.
On October 6th, 2019, as Erdogan’s threats to invade northern Syria were growing louder, he and US President Donald Trump had a phone call. By the end of their conversation, Donald Trump had committed to pulling the few remaining US troops out of northern Syria. Those few US troops were all that stood between America’s Kurdish allies there and the invading Turkish troops. Trump did not consult first with the US Defense Department, nor with NATO allies in the region. Nor did he warn the Kurds. He had one phone call with Erdogan, and then turned 5 years of US foreign policy on its head.
On October 9th, the Turkish incursion into Rojava began. Scores of civilians were killed, more than 300,000 displaced, with significant reports of war crimes committed by the Turkish and Turkish-backed forces.
Now, in the wake of Turkey’s violence against the Rojava Kurds, Turkish President Erdogan continues to claim that he’s protecting Turkey against Kurdish “terrorists.” But his claims are misleading, and we’d like to help correct the public narrative. Why did Turkey invade northeastern Syria? We say it had nothing to do with security guarantees — nothing to do with Turkey needing what Erdogan calls a “safe zone.”
The YPG is not the PKK
We’ll start by delineating the stark difference between the People’s Protection Units in northeastern Syria — called the YPG — and the PKK inside Turkey.
The YPG is the official military arm of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) — a Kurdish democratic confederalist party in northern Syria, established in 2004. The Democratic Union Party adopts democratic confederalism as its political system in Syria. This is a very decentralized system, with every province, city, town and neighborhood having its own administrative committee, with its own organizing power. Every ethnic and religious group has its own self-defense unit. The party’s core philosophy is “social equality, justice, and the freedom of belief.” The PYD party assumes responsibility for all administrative and political affairs of the region.
The YPG force also roots its activities in democracy and gender equality. Its main task, however, is to protect the people. The YPG, translated as the People’s Protection Units, is exactly what its name says. It was spawned by the Democratic Union Party in 2004 in order to provide protection for the self-governing Kurdish areas of northern Syria, known as Rojava, after those areas were attacked by the Syrian regime.
The YPG began organizing themselves in the Syrian city of Qamishli as a small protection group for the Kurdish people of that area. By the time the Syrian War began in 2011 and ISIS had appeared, the YPG was protecting all the cities and the people of all ethnic groups of northeastern Syria.
The YPG defeated ISIS first in the Kurdish town of Kobani, after 6 months of resistance. Kobani was a turning point in the fight against ISIS. The Kurdish fighters killed about 4,000 ISIS fighters in that city. That led to the US coalition providing the Kurdish YPG with weapons, and relying on them as its major partner in the war against ISIS. The Kurdish YPG’s effectiveness, reliability and commitment to democratic rule won them the support of Western powers, who became their allies in the battle against ISIS in the region.
Having begun as the official protection force for Rojava, the YPG in 2015 — at the encouragement of the US — then became the largest component of the Syrian Democratic Forces, the SDF, which since then has so successfully fought the ISIS terrorist militants. The YPG killed tens of thousands of ISIS fighters, though in doing so it also lost 11,000 of its own young men and women.
But while the world was grateful to the YPG for saving them from ISIS, Turkey’s President Erdogan continued to call the YPG a terrorist organization, claiming that it’s aligned with the militant PKK inside Turkey. His claim is misleading to the point of being untruthful.
First, we want to mention here that “terrorist” is a very vague term. We do not have a clear working definition for what defines a terrorist, and governments use it in whatever way suits their political interests. What we do know is that the YPG has not launched or attempted attacks on Turkey, except in self defense when Turkey attacked them.
More accurately, the YPG was established to protect and defend the values, inheritance, and interests of all of Rojava’s people — Kurds, Yazidis, Armenians, Assyrians, and Arabs as well. The purpose, function and activities of the YPG are firmly based in the principles of democracy, ecological preservation and women’s freedom. In fact, the Women’s Protection Units, the YPJ, fights alongside the YPG with full rights and military capability. You certainly would never see that kind of equality in Turkey.
The Kurdistan Workers Party or PKK, on the other hand, is a military and political organization based inside Turkey that has used strong militant and guerilla tactics in their fight for civil rights and autonomy. It was founded in 1978 by Abdullah Ocalan, with the original motivation being Turkey’s extreme oppression of ethnic Kurds in Turkey. Kurdish names and all Kurdish culture had been banned, as was the mere mention of the word “Kurd.” Later, even the Kurdish language was outlawed.
The PKK originally adopted a Marxist-Leninist ideology, and they demanded an independent Kurdish state in the predominantly Kurdish areas of Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran. While their ideology and demands have since been modified, the PKK has still been engaged since 1984 in a political and armed battle with the Turkish regime.
Both the YPG and PKK are secular, and both share the common goals of striving for democratic confederalism and Kurdish rights. But that’s just about where the similarities end. The YPG and the PKK are very different in kind. While the PKK has been engaged in armed conflict with Turkey for the last 35 years, the YPG is an entirely different animal — defensive in both nature and purpose. However, Erdogan serves his political purposes by muddying the difference between them.
In the last several years, when the YPG in northern Syria has been a neighbor to Turkey, there have been no YPG attacks on Turkey, except in self defense. Turkey, on the other hand, has launched two military operations against the Syrian Kurds — invading the territory of the Syrian Kurds, taking over many Kurdish cities, expelling the Kurdish population, and resettling Arabs in those areas.
And yet, Turkish President Erdogan continues to justify his attacks on the Syrian Kurds with his claim that the presence of Kurds on the Turkish border presents a “security concern” for Turkey. In reality, his desire is not one of creating a “safe zone,” but rather an effort toward demographic engineering. In expelling Kurds from their homes on the border, and repopulating the area with Arabs, Erdogan’s project is looking very similar to the Syrian government’s “Arab Belt” project of 1965.
The Kurds’ struggle for a state
So let’s back up. It will be helpful to understand the reasons that the Kurdish people are still without a state of their own. Kurdish historians believe that they have not had a state since the Medes empire, all the way back to the 7th century BC. That territory included what’s known today as Kurdistan in Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran. But across history, Kurds were nomadic people in the mountains, divided among many different tribes. They were occupied with agricultural activity, and they moved from one place to another.
During the rule of Islamic empires in the Middle East, the Kurds had many leaders and principalities, including during the Ottoman empire. They had their own administration and army, but were never united, as the idea of nationalism was not popular among the Kurdish people.
But then the Ottomans lost World War I. And the victorious Western allies signed the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement, which identified the sphere of influence for each of them in the Middle East. It also began the process of dissolving the Ottoman empire and dividing it into small nation-states. The subsequent Treaty of Sèvres in 1920 between the victorious allies and Ottoman Turkey provided for the Kurdish state within one year. But the Turkish leader at that time, Mustafa Kamal Ataturk, refused to agree. The Turkish War of Independence followed, and the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne then led to the establishment of the modern Turkish republic — without any provision for a Kurdish state. Kurdish dreams of a state had collapsed.
Numerous Kurdish rebellions against the Turkish authorities followed, as they fought for independence. But the Turkish state always fought them, and then executed Kurdish leaders as traitors.
In the four Kurdish areas located inside the borders of today’s Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq, the struggle for Kurdish autonomy has continued. All efforts have been repelled by those states, with the exception of the 1991 Kurdish uprising in Iraq. That led to the creation of the autonomous Kurdish region now known as Iraqi Kurdistan. In fact, in the fight for their rights, the most success has been achieved by the Kurds of Iraq and the Rojava Kurds of Syria. Until the recent Turkish offensive, that is.
Ethnic Kurds are often said to be the largest ethnic group without a state of their own. Today, there are an estimated 30-45 million ethnic Kurds in the world. More than half of those live in Turkey. To varying degrees, Kurdish identity and the Kurdish democratic model of governance are a threat to the four countries in which the Kurds are distributed. The Kurdish system is secular, democratic and decentralized, based on gender equality and religious tolerance. In contrast, the four countries in which they live — Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq — have systems that are based on Turkish, Arab and Iranian nationalism. And three of the four countries are authoritarian.
History of Turkey’s oppression of minorities
Turkey is one of those authoritarian states. The last decade has seen Turkey’s President Erdogan grow increasingly authoritarian. He has crushed any opposition, even to the point of securing Interpol arrest warrants on basketball players who speak out against him on Twitter. He imposed Islamic requirements on what was previously a very secular society. And for three years running, he has held the world record for imprisoning more journalists than any other country. He crushes all dissent — from academics, journalists, human rights activists, politicians, basketball players, Kurds or anyone else.
Erdogan’s actions in Rojava are just the most recent chapter in a long history of genocide and oppression by the Ottoman empire and modern day Turkey against ethnic and religious minorities living under its rule. In the effort to understand Turkey’s relationship with the Kurds, it’s worth a look.
Here’s a sampling. Between 1913 and 1922, the Ottoman Empire systematically slaughtered around 900,000 Greeks. Between 1914 and 1918, they killed more than 500,000 Assyrians. Between 1915 and 1918, they carried out their infamous genocide against the Armenians, killing nearly one and a half million after expelling them from Anatolia, in a systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing.
When Armenian Christians were facing genocide by the Ottoman Turks in 1915, 20,000 managed to escape to Mount Sinjar/Shingal, where the Yazidis are now settled. The Ottomans demanded that the Yazidi leader there hand over the Armenians who had escaped to Sinjar. When the Yazidi leader refused, the Ottoman Turkish military launched a brutal genocidal campaign also against the Yazidis. Enormous suffering was inflicted on Yazidi families, including women and children.
The Turks continued in their oppression and elimination of other religious and ethnic minorities. In 1930, the Turkish state slaughtered more than 10,000 Kurdish Sunnis in Van province in Turkey — half of them women, children and the elderly. Between 1937 and 1938, they systematically killed 10,000 Kurdish Alevis in Dersim province. In the early 1990s, Turkey punished Kurdish civilians who had supported the PKK by destroying more than 3,000 Kurdish villages, displacing more than 2 million civilians. All of these genocides, massacres and other war crimes have been denied by the Turkish authorities, and the Turks have been held to account for none of them — until recently, when the US House of Representatives passed a bi-partisan resolution recognizing Turkey’s genocide of the 1.5 million Armenians.
In modern day military operations against Kurdish independence groups, thousands have been killed. Casualties of the Turkish war on the PKK is thought to number 40,000 deaths in the last 40 years, most of those being Kurdish civilians.
Syrian Kurds in Rojava
And that brings us to the recent events in Rojava. Turkey’s military offensive against the Kurds of northeastern Syria, code-named “Operation Peace Spring,” has brought anything but peace. It’s caused a global outcry, but Turkey’s strategic geopolitical positioning has protected it thus far from any meaningful consequences. Turkish President Recep Erdogan is well-aware of Turkey’s leverage over NATO, and has used it to his advantage.
Turkey has the second-largest army in the NATO alliance and is well-trained in Middle Eastern military operations. Turkey’s location is also of undeniable strategic importance for other NATO members, as it sits between Europe, Central Asia and the Middle East. This makes it possible for Erdogan to take advantage of Turkey’s NATO membership in order to advance his geopolitical interests in northern Syria, with no obstacles in his way.
On the contrary, with the shocking support of US President Donald Trump, Erdogan has now managed to consolidate Turkey’s power in the region. Trump’s October 6th decision to withdraw US troops from northern Syria essentially greenlit Turkey’s attack on the Rojava Kurds of northeastern Syria. Only after achieving his aims, did Erdogan then agree to a temporary ceasefire, which led to a mutually beneficial deal between Erdogan and Putin. They established what Erdogan likes to call a “safe zone” in Syria — his long-standing goal of pushing the Syrian Kurds far away from the Turkish Kurds, who are still struggling for autonomy in Turkey. With the support of Russian and Syrian troops, the Turkish military has not only eliminated Kurdish forces at the Syrian-Turkish border, but has emptied and even destroyed Kurdish villages, creating hundreds of thousands of Kurdish refugees. And Erdogan announced his plans to move millions of Syrian refugees, now living in Turkey, into the Kurdish areas. This plan has bolstered his popularity with the Turkish electorate at a time when it has been very weak.
The recent crisis has exposed NATO’s lack of power over members who act contrary to its rules and guiding principles. Joint Russian and American support for Turkey’s attack on the Kurds is especially disturbing if you consider that the initial purpose of NATO, formed during the Cold War, was mutual defence against aggression by the Soviet Union. The fact that Turkey, a NATO member, now collaborates with Russia on a military conflict in the Middle East — and against the strategic interests of other NATO members — completely undermines NATO’s credibility. But NATO’s hand is weak. Unlike the EU or UN, it has no mechanism for terminating a state’s membership.
To complicate matters further, the US currently stores nuclear weapons at an airbase in Turkey, close to the Syrian border. The New York Times reported that officials from the State and Energy departments reviewed plans to evacuate the nuclear bombs there. But the US finds itself in a dilemma. Removing them would end America’s alliance with Turkey, while keeping them there leaves them vulnerable. According to one senior official, the weapons are “now essentially Erdogan’s hostages.”
Western NATO members also rely on that airbase as an important military access point to the Middle East. All in all, NATO has a very weak hand, which Turkey has exploited.
Donald Trump’s lack of knowledge and understanding of the inherent complexities and risks in the region got him “rolled” by Erdogan, as one US National Security Council source put it. His betrayal of America’s Kurdish allies allowed the Turkish president to launch a campaign of ethnic cleansing in order to strengthen his political position and bolster his popularity at home. It has allowed the Syrian regime to re-enter areas of the country where they have not been in over 5 years. It heightens greatly the chances of a resurgence of ISIS. And it will almost certainly increase Russian and Iranian influence in the region.
And yet, Erdogan continues in his effort to confuse the public narrative about Turkey’s incursion into Syria against the Kurds. He speaks of his need to create what he calls a “safe zone” from those he says are terrorists. He has said it often enough that much of the media now makes the mistake of repeating Erdogan’s misleading phrase. The fact is, the Syrian Kurdish YPG have not been a threat to Turkey. They have not launched attacks across the border into Turkey. Rather, Turkey has regularly attacked them.
Not surprisingly, after Turkish military operations in Rojava began in early October, the 30 kilometer “safe zone” that Erdogan claimed he needed has been expanding. Turkey’s ethnic cleansing of the Syrian Kurds is well underway.
Turkey, Russia, Syria and Iran all profit massively from that one knee-jerk decision by President Trump. For the moment, the Kurds are those who suffer. Time will tell what else the recent power shift brings to the region.