The Political and Military Mess in Syria Just Got Much Worse

Turkish forces are continuing their offensive in Northern Syria in spite of agreeing to a ceasefire. The offensive is part of what Erdogan now says is his plan to establish what he calls a 30km safe zone between Kurds in northeast Syria (known as “Rojava”) and Turkey. He also speaks of his intention to move into that zone some of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees currently residing in Turkey. 

What Erdogan doesn’t say so loudly is that one of his greatest political concerns is the desire of Kurds everywhere — including in Turkey — to have a state of their own. If he succeeds in his demand for a “safe zone” on the border, it would effectively eliminate the Syrian Kurdish government and community there. 

Erdogan’s attempt to resettle Syrian refugees can be interpreted in two major ways. It may reflect the growing resentment towards refugees seen in Turkey in recent years. If successful, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan will appear as a leader, taking both the needs of Syrians and Turks into consideration.

But on an even larger scale, Erdogan’s efforts can be seen in light of a decades long conflict between Turkish nationalists and Kurds fighting for autonomy in Turkey.

Erdogan claims that the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or the YPG, is a terrorist organization. He considers them an extension of the militant Kurdistan’s Workers Party, the PKK, which has led numerous attacks in Turkey over the past three decades in their fight for autonomy. 

The YPG, however, is different. It was formed in 2004 as  the military wing of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party of Syria, a Kurdish democratic confederalist political party. The YPG differs greatly from the Turkish PKK in terms of both raison d’être and methods.  

The Turkish offensive is widely seen as rooted in Erdogan’s concern that the Turkish Kurds will try to join the Kurds in autonomous Rojava. The Kurds are considered “the world’s largest stateless nation”. Given the vast territory that they inhabit, the Kurds also represent different religions, dialects — and even political ideologies. The Rojava has become known as an autonomous region with democratic governance and a feminist-driven society.

Erdogan’s vigorous PR offensive, and Trump’s efforts to justify his abrupt action in withdrawing US troops, have created a confused public narrative. Good foreign policy analysts have struggled to be heard, as they work to help people understand the difference between the YPG, long allies of the US, and the militant PKK.

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