Syrian Democratic Forces and Bashar al-Assad government join hands against Turkey

If the Turkish army continues its push southwards, there is a chance of conflict breaking out between them and the Syrian army, which has advanced into the region

October 14, 2019 by Peoples Dispatch
Turkish invasion
Turkish invasion of north-east Syria (Photo: Reuters)

The Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) announced a deal with the Syrian government of president Bashar al-Assad to resist the ongoing Turkish invasion. Syrian forces have already moved into Kobane and Manbij. If Turkey continues with its push southwards into Syria, a war between the Turkish and Syrian forces seems imminent.  

As per the deal signed on October 13, the SDF will dissolve its Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, also known as Rojava, and hand over the control of cities, such as Kobane and Manbij to the Syrian government. Talks between the SDF and the Syrian government were facilitated by the Russians at their Syrian base at Hmeimim in Latakia.

Turkey and its ally, the Free Syrian Army – many of whose members were directly affiliated to Al Qaeda and other extremist groups – continue their offensive and atrocities. The FSA has reportedly already illegally executed 13 people. The victims include Hervin Khalaf, leader of the Future Syria Party, and her two drivers.Turkey launched ‘Operation Peace Spring’ on October 9. The operation has already led to the death of around 60 Kurdish and 18 Turkish fighters. It has already caused the displacement of more than 130,000 people.

Fighting between the invading Turkish forces and the SDF for the control of the crucial 30-kim-long highway, M4, which runs  parallel to the border, entered its fifth day. Turkey claimed to have captured the border towns of Tell Abyad and Ras al-Ayn.

On October 13, the US announced a complete withdrawal of its 1,000 troops from the region, providing a further boost to the Turks. 

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan is slated to meet Donald Trump on November 13. It is gradually becoming clear that the Turkish plans inside Syria are coordinated with the US, notwithstanding the vague threats of economic sanctions issued by the Trump administration against Turkey following the invasion.

Syrian Refugees

According to the initial declarations by Turkey, the main objective behind the operation was to create a limited 30 km-deep “safe zone” inside the Syrian territories. This was the result of an agreement signed with the US in August, which was heavily opposed by the SDF. 

The SDF is linked to Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). Turkey alleges that the YPG is affiliated to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has been waging a struggle for self-determination inside Turkey. 

At the same time, Turkey also wants to resettle around 2 million of its 3.6 million Syrian refugees in the region. Emboldened by initial successes, the Turkish prime minister has now announced the extension of the “safe zone” further south, to include even cities like Hasakah and Qamishli.

This is the third such Turkish offensive inside Syria in the past couple of years. Turkey took control of the Kurdish city of Afrin in 2018, and backs the Syrian rebels controlling Idlib and nearby territories. However, its earlier attempt to create a “safe zone” in Idlib and settle a part of the Syrian refugees there was met with failure. Most of the refugees do not belong to Idlib and therefore, did not want to go there.

Islamic State

Meanwhile, as per statements issued by the SDF, more than 700 fighters belonging to Islamic State (IS) have fled the prisons where they were being held, following the confusion and chaos caused by the Turkish invasion. The Turkish bombing helped the IS prisoners escape from the Al-Hol prison camp.

This has strengthened the possibility of the revival of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS). There are around 10,000 such ISIS fighters currently lodged in prisons run by the SDF.  

Domestic Politics in Turkey

Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring is also rooted in the domestic politics of the country. Electoral setbacks in March, amidst the economic problems faced by common Turks, have left Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) with little option but to rile up sentiments on nationality and identity-based issues. The AKP is also negatively affected by the hostility towards the Syrian refugees inside Turkey, and thus wants to resettle them in Syrian occupied territories.

Erdogan is also facing a tough challenge from within the party, perhaps for the first time since his ascent to power. There are talks of a split within the AKP. Two prominent AKP leaders, ex-prime minister and current foreign minister Ahmet Dovutoglu, and Ali Babacan are expected to form their own parties soon.

In the current context, Erdogan sees a limited war against the Kurds with a promise of resolving “the refugee problem” a safe bet. Even if Trump remains true to his promise of sanctions against Turkey, Erdogan can benefit by blaming the US for the country’s economic problems.

The government has already used the pretext of war to curb freedom in Turkey. Editors of independent media organizations, such as the BirGun Daily (Hakan Demir) and Diken News (Fatih Gokhan Diler), have been detained for their critical coverage of the operation in Syria. Leaders of the Peoples’ Democratic Party are also facing investigations for “spreading terrorist propaganda” and insulting the nation, due to their opposition to the invasion. In the Turkish parliament, the party opposed the move to extend the government’s authority to launch operations inside Syria and Iraq for another year and called the plans to resettle Syrian refugees inside Kurdish regions as “demographic engineering” and a criminal act.  

The Turkish Communist Party has given a call for “Hands off Syria” and issued a statement on October 10, according to which the “AKP’s operation today against a country, whose sovereignty it disregards under the pretext of Turkey’s security, is unacceptable.”