Turkey’s operation against Kurds in Syria risks reviving the IS group

Turkey’s operation against Kurds in Syria risks reviving the IS group

Turkey is threatening to send group troops into northeastern Syria in retaliation for a deadly bomb in Istanbul on November 13 that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attributed to the Syrian Kurdish YPG (Kurdish People’s Protection Unit). The group has firmly denied responsibility for the attack. But Erdogan now plans to escalate the offensive in the region, building on the air operation that began on November 20, in a move that experts say risks destabilizing the region and reviving the Islamic State (IS) group.

The noose tightens around the Syrian Kurds. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan launched air operation “Claw-Sword” in northeastern Syria on November 20 in retaliation for the fatal attack in Istanbul on November 13.

Ankara blamed the attack, which killed six and injured dozens, on the Syrian Kurdish YPG (Kurdish People’s Protection Unit), which has strongly denied responsibility for the bombing.

But Erdogan has said the strikes were “just the beginning” and that he will order a ground offensive in the northeast Syria “at the most convenient time for us”.

Washington has urged Ankara to exercise restraint while conceding the legitimacy of Turkey’s “security claims about terrorist attacks”.

“Continued conflict, especially a ground invasion, would seriously jeopardize the hard-fought gains the world has made against ISIS [using another acronym for the IS group]and would destabilize the region, USA Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters on Nov. 29.

Moscow, an ally of the Syrian regime, has also urged restraint.

The Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a US-backed militia alliance dominated by the YPG, has accused Turkey of using the bombing as a pretext to launch a long-planned cross-border offensive, and called on Russia to put pressure on Turkey.

If Turkey carry out their threats, “we will be forced to expand the scope of this war” to include the entire border area, said Mazloum Abdi, commander-in-chief of the SDF.

The SDF, backed by the United States, led the fight against the IS group between 2015 and drove them out of key strategic areas, including their de facto capital of Raqqa.

But Turkey considers the YPG a terrorist group and views it as the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

Between 2016 and 2019, Turkey conducted three major operations in northern Syria against Kurdish militias and organizations.

The Turkish president, who has been in power since 2002 and faces re-election in June 2023, has repeatedly said he wants to create a 30km wide “security zone” along the country’s southern border.

Professor Fabrice Balanchelecturer in geography at France’s Lumière Lyon 2 University, believes Erdogan is exploiting Turkish nationalism in hopes of securing his re-election in June 2023. He also expressed concern that a Turkish-led ground operation in northeastern Syria could create a new generation of IS jihadists in Syria.

FRANCE 24: What could prevent a Turkish ground offensive in Syria?

Fabrice Balanche: If the Russians and Americans are determined to oppose it, they only need to deploy troops on the Turkish-Syrian border to prevent Turkey from attacking. But the opposite happens. The Russians have stopped conducting joint patrols with Turkey in areas vulnerable to attack. The same goes for the Americans, who have exfiltrated their civilian personnel from northeastern Syria.

The question is therefore not “if”, but “when”, the offensive will be launched?

Erdogan has gone too far with his words and actions to back down now. He has been threatening to attack for more than a year and has demanded that Turkey’s safe zone be extended. And now is the right time to do it. Both the Russians and the Americans need the Turkish president in connection with the Ukrainian crisis; no one wants to alienate him. He therefore trades his services so that he can annex a new Kurdish territory in northern Syria. In the spring, Erdogan vetoed Finland’s and Sweden’s NATO membership offers because the two countries’ connections to the Kurds in Syria were too strong. Sweden promised to stop supporting them. In June 2023, Turkey will hold parliamentary and presidential elections. Erdogan has been in office since 2002, but his grip on power may be weakening. However, the opposition is divided, with Kemalists on one side and the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) on the other. The Kemalists will support an attack in northern Syria. The HDP, on the other hand, will not. This situation will prevent the formation of an electoral alliance of the opposition against the Justice and Development Party (AKP) [President Erdogan’s Islamo-conservative party]. Erdogan wants to launch this ground offensive for domestic reasons, to strengthen Turkish nationalism. Beating the Kurds always helps rally the population behind him.

How is the situation in northeastern Syria?

I spent a month in the region in January 2022, in Kobane, Raqqa, Deir-Ezzor. It is a disaster for the population. They barely survive. There was a shortage of fuel, electricity and bread – which is made from bad flour – all of which is rationed. This region used to be Syria’s breadbasket. Due to the lack of fertilizers, irrigation, drought, mismanagement and war, they are forced to import wheat. It is unbearable. The population is frustrated and no longer believes that northeastern Syria can become independent and autonomous. The Arabs have never believed in it and do not want it. The Kurds, even those who work in the local administration, do not believe in it anymore. The Turks know they will not fight.

Do the Kurds feel abandoned or betrayed by the West?

It is hard for them to admit it and it took them a long time to do so. The Kurds don’t trust the US anymore. The US did not help them when Turkey took Afrin in 2018 and even less in October 2019, when it captured Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain. On each occasion, the Turkish army’s Arab and Turkmen auxiliaries ethnically cleansed the Kurdish population. The West provides emergency aid to the region, but it is not enough for a reconstruction process, which is not on the donors’ agenda. Moreover, humanitarian and economic aid generates shameless corruption, just like in Afghanistan and Mali. The population is frustrated that aid is siphoned off by a self-enriching minority. This serves as fuel for the IS group.

Could this current situation lead to the return of the IS group to Syria?

The IS group was never truly eradicated. Fighters are either in maquis [guerilla groups] or dormant cells. In January, there was an attack on the Al-Sinaa prison in Hassake to free the prisoners [3,500 jihadists belonging to the IS group were held there, including leaders]. The city of Hassake is divided in two. In the north there are the Kurds and in the south the Arabs. The prison is in the south. The hunters had been infiltrating the southern districts for months. They rented apartments. Then they came out of the woodwork and began the beating. Kurdish intelligence saw nothing coming. The Arab zone was enthusiastic about what was happening. There is nostalgia for the IS group. They say: “With them it was better. We had oil, electricity, there was trade with Iraq.” We know that the IS group is recruiting a new generation of fighters. They are teenagers, frustrated people whose only choice is to either turn to drugs that contain Captagon [an amphetamine derived from a drug used to treat narcolepsy or attention deficit disorder], wreaking havoc in this region, or join the IS group, where they can feel useful, have an identity and make some money. You can easily buy people for $50 a month. There has been no reconciliation in the region. The massacres have been so enormous that tribal regulation no longer works. People are slow to forgive. There are thousands of people in hiding who do not dare to return home for fear of reprisals. They form the base of the IS group.

What form could the IS group take when they returned?

The IS group is also present in Iraq, in the Mosul region and Al-Anbar province in Iraqi Kurdistan. There are cells that regularly carry out attacks. However, reconstructing the “caliphate” with a territorial grip, as under Emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is no longer a good strategy. The IS group understood that managing territory meant managing people’s discontent and that this created easy targets for foreign intervention. Today, the IS group prefers to remain underground and harass any regime.

What is the position of the Syrian regime towards the Turks and the IS group?

The regime in Damascus believes it has won and objectively it has. Northern Syria still needs to be recaptured. The areas under Turkish control, especially the Idlib region, will not be easy to reintegrate. Damascus has regained control of two-thirds of the territory thanks in part to Turkey’s benevolent neutrality, which is in accordance with the secret Putin-Erdogan pact of August 2016: “You give me a piece of the Kurds, I’ll give you a piece of the rebels. ” Turkey controls 4 million Sunni Arabs who have fled the Damascus regime and do not want to be under the control of the Syrian army. Damascus also does not want to reintegrate these displaced people in the north, as it would pose a security problem. Then there is the problem of the Kurds in the northeast who are supported by the Americans and control 30% of the territory, including the oil resources. Damascus is waiting for the fruit to ripen. The Turkish offensive is imminent. The Syrian regime will not fight the Syrian Democratic Forces. It will wait for the Turks to attack and the SDF to collapse. The IS group is not a threat to Damascus. The group’s presence allows Syrians to unite behind the regime. That’s how it was saved in 2014. The West’s priority at that time was to eliminate the IS group rather than working for the fall of Bashar al-Assad.

This article has been translated from original in French.

Originally published on France24

Turkey's operation against Kurds in Syria risks reviving the IS group

Source: sn.dk

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