In 2014 Syrian Kurds helped Yazidis fleeing the Islamic State attacks by opening a corridor from central Iraq, through the Kurdish region of Syria and back into northern Iraq. Photo by Reese Erlich.
On August 23, Turkey sent troops, tanks, and artillery into the mainly Kurdish region of northern Syria, ostensibly to fight the Islamic State (IS). Turkey joins the United States, Russia, Iran, and Lebanon’s Hezbollah in stationing troops in Syria in what has become an international proxy war.
Turkey claims to be targeting the IS, which had seized the Syrian border city of Jarabulus, but quickly attacked Syrian Kurds, who had established an almost contiguous autonomous region along Syria's northern border.
Dozens of Kurdish civilians have been killed during the invasion, according to Sinam Mohamad, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Administration of Rojava, the rebel group governing the Kurdish region. She told The Progressive that Syrian Kurds and the Turkish military agreed to a ceasefire, but it could break down anytime.
“We really don’t want to fight, but when Turkey is attacking us, the people of the region will defend themselves,” Mohamad said.
Syrians rose up against the dictatorship of Bashar al Assad in massive Arab Spring demonstrations in 2011. But, within a year, civil society activists playing an important role in the uprising were pushed aside by U.S. allies Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, all of which armed various rightwing political Islamist militias such as the al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front.
The IS split off from the Nusra Front and by the summer of 2014 had seized a swath of territory in central Syria and Iraq. Turkey allowed IS fighters to cross its border into Syria and strongly supported other extremist groups such as Ahrar al Sham, which calls for establishing an Islamic state in Syria.
But in the last few months, the IS conducted large scale terrorist attacks inside Turkey, including bombing of the Istanbul airport. So the Turkish government cobbled together extremist fighters willing to oppose both the IS and the Kurds, claiming their rump militia is part of the Free Syrian Army. Says Mohamad,
“Turkey supports Islamic groups under the name of the Free Syrian Army, but everyone knows it is not true.”
Sinam Mohamad, foreign representative of the Democratic Administration of Rojava, is sharply critical of Turkey's invasion of Syria. Photo by Reese Erlich.
The Turkish invasion is only the latest effort by the United States to overthrow Assad and establish a pro-Washington regime in Syria. In September 2014, the U.S. began bombing IS positions in Syria. But it had no allies on the ground.
In 2015, Syrian Kurds led by the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its People's Protection Units (YPG) militia, fought the battle of Kobane. Impressed by that military prowess, the United States provided the YPG with arms and air support. But the PYD is affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey, a group both the United States and Turkey label as terrorist.
The United States refused to politically recognize the PYD, and earlier this year acceded to Turkey’s shelling the very YPG fighters that the U.S. was arming.
With the recent invasion, the U.S. has aligned itself even more closely with Turkey. During a visit to that country at the end of August, Vice President Joe Biden warned the Kurds to pull back their fighters east of the Euphrates, although they currently hold towns to the west. As Biden put it:
“They must move back across the river. They cannot, will not, and under no circumstances will get American support if they do not keep that commitment. Period.”
“The Kurds have been stabbed in the back,” Professor Joshua Landis told The Progressive. Landis is director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. Kurds sacrificed hundreds of lives and worked hard to develop Syrian Arab allies, says Landis. “Then they've been told to get out of Dodge.”
The United States sides with Turkey because it’s a member of NATO and a major power in the region. The Turks allow U.S. fighter jets to fly from the Incirlik air base. From Washington’s perspective, the Kurds can’t compete with Turkey for geopolitical importance, explains Landis:
“The Kurds aren’t worth it. That’s the bottom line.”
Meanwhile Syrian President Bashar al Assad and his allies have confronted their own internal problems. Last September, with Assad facing serious battlefield losses, Russian President Vladimir Putin sent ground troops and fighter jets to Syria, expanding its military base in the northwest of the country.
At first, the Russian air power proved effective. The Syrian Army retook the historic city of Palmyra and cut off supply lines to the rebel controlled areas of Aleppo, once Syria's largest city. In March, Putin announced plans to withdraw Russian planes and troops. But the withdrawal resembled Obama's promises to end U.S. fighting in Afghanistan. U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan, and Russian troops are still fighting in Syria.
Rebels opened up new supply lines to the parts of Aleppo they control and fighting continues.
In August, Russian fighter planes flew sorties from an airbase in Hamadan, Iran, thus saving time and money compared with flying from Russia. But after only one week, Iran cancelled use of the airbase, responding to popular opposition to foreign military operating from its territory.
When each foreign invader first entered Syria, it promised limited actions that would bring peace. Each has become bogged down in a quagmire. Turkey will likely share the same fate.
Reese Erlich contributes regularly to The Progressive. The updated, paperback edition of his book Inside Syria: The Backstory of Their Civil War and What the World Can Expect (Foreword by Noam Chomsky) will be available September 20.