On January 20, Turkey and its allied Syrian Islamist rebels began an unprovoked military offensive on Syria’s predominantly Kurdish region of Afrin paradoxically codenamed ‘Operation Olive Branch’. Despite its sheer size the operation has made very slow progress and there are independent reports of significant civilian casualties as a result of Turkish army’s indiscriminate aerial bombing, artillery shelling, and reported use of illegal ‘napalm’ bombs.
Turkey claims that its attack on Afrin aims at securing its borders from ‘terrorist’ operations by the ‘People’s Protection Units’ (YPG). Turkey considers YPG an extension of the ‘Kurdistan Worker Party (PKK), which has been in armed conflict with Turkish state since the mid-1980s. Unlike Turkey, US and other Western governments do not consider YPG a terrorist organisation.
However, there has never been any independent reports on any anti-Turkish attack launched from Afrin. In fact, Afrin has been one of the most peaceful regions of Syria throughout its six years old catastrophic civil war. It is also host to nearly half a million refugees from other parts of Syria especially Idlib and Aleppo regions.
Turkey has been hostile towards Syrian Kurds ever since they carved out an autonomous region in north-eastern Syria amidst the civil war. But its current war on Afrin is the first large-scale direct military action against them. The reasons behind this violent gear-change lies in a particular conjunction of domestic politics and regional geopolitics.
Blood for Votes
Domestically, Erdoğan and his ‘Justice and Development Party’ (AKP) pursue a strategy of political entrenchment that has increasingly come to centre on winning elections through fanning nationalist fervour against the Kurds and religious sentiments against the secular dissent and foreign powers.
The first trial of this strategy occurred in 2015 following the electoral success of the pro-Kurdish rights ‘Peoples’ Democratic Party’ (HDP) and the brilliant performance by its co-chair Selahattin Demirtaş, which deprived the AKP lost from its parliamentary majority. Shortly afterwards Turkey resumed war against the PKK, unilaterally terminating peace talks it had been holding with the PKK since 2012. AKP’s resumption of war against the PKK aimed at attracting Turkish ultra-nationalists’ votes and suppressing HDP in the November 2015 snap elections.
In the ensuing conflict hundreds of Kurdish civilians were killed, large parts of several cities were destroyed and historic sites were gentrified, pro-Kurdish politicians (including co-chairs, deputies, and mayors from the HDP) were suspended or detained, and a large number of journalists and human rights activists were jailed. Even academics were not spared. Several hundred of Turkey’s academics who signed the peace petition have been purged on terrorism charges.
AKP recovered its parliamentary majority but political violence continued. It even expanded. Following the attempted military coup in the summer of 2016, Erdoğan orchestrated an extreme and nation-wide campaign of purge and persecution. His motive was twofold. He wanted to destroy once for all his erstwhile Gulenists allies, who had failed to agree with Erdogan over power-sharing, and to win the popular referendum on a revised constitution that would enshrine an executive system with widespread powers for himself as Turkey’s life-time president.
Erdoğan intensified the policy of social polarisation he had started in 2014. He not only demonised the Kurds but also stigmatised the Alevis, Zazas, and non-Muslims, and promoting antisemitism. In fact, in his ‘new Turkey’ Erdoğan made a clear distinction between the virtuous people with a religiously cemented national identity and impious ‘others’ including Kurds, Alevis, leftists, seculars, liberals and Gulenists. Today, even mild criticism is not tolerated as Erdoğan labels all those who do not support his open-ended autocracy collectively as ‘terrorists’.
The final act of Erdogan’s political entrenchment will be the 2019 presidential election in line with the new constitution. And some recent polls suggest that AKP’s popularity has significantly declined standing well below 50%. This can be chiefly attributed to a sustained economic downturn, which has eroded AKP’s petit-bourgeois social-base and disillusioned some sections of Turkey’s conservative capitalist class known as ‘Anatolian tigers’, with the status-quo. A recent split in AKP’s ultra-nationalist allies in the ‘National Movement Party’ (MHP) and the continued popularity of HDP have further reduced AKP’s popular support.
Against this background, Turkey’s war on Afrin is Erdoğan’s attempt to re-stage the ‘blood for votes’ tactic that he successfully tried following the electoral failure in the summer of 2015. And just like 2015, the main instrument to mobilise Turkish ultra-nationalism is an anti-Kurdish war overlain with opposition to the US which Erdogan accuses of the orchestrating the 2016 coup and supporting the Syrian Kurds with the aim of partitioning Turkey.
Erdogan’s pursuit of relevancy in post-ISIS Syria
Erdoğan’s ‘blood for votes’ electoral strategy at home has a mutually reinforcing geopolitical dimension abroad in Syria. Russia’s foray into Syrian civil war killed any hope for Turkey’s strategy of replacing the Assad regime with a friendly Sunni-Islamist government aligned with its ‘neo-Ottomanist’ project of regional hegemony.
At the same time, Syrian Kurds’ effective resistance against ISIS won them international sympathy and Western support. Erdoğan’s Syria policy therefore duly shifted from the overthrow of Assad towards the containment of Syrian Kurds. For any form of autonomy or political recognition of Syrian Kurds would diminish Turkey’s influence in Syria and weaken the AKP’s position vis-a-vis the HDP and the PKK domestically.
Erdoğan’s new anti-Kurdish policy in Syria was initially pursued through ‘active neutrality’ towards ISIS allowing its recruits reach Syria via Turkey and use Turkish soil for staging attacks against YPG and its female-only counterpart ‘Women’s Protection Units’ (YPJ). This circumstance reached a climax during the siege of Kobani by ISIS when Turkeys’ mighty army silently stood by across the border while Erdoğan himself gleefully declared Kobani will fall.
Syrian Kurds’ determined resistance and eventual defeat of ISIS in Kobani paved the way for US’s tactical military partnership with Syrian Kurds. This was vehemently opposed by Turkey. US was able to allay Turkish fears by emphasising the temporary, tactical and anti-ISIS focus of its partnership with the Syrian Kurds, who came to dominate the new multi-ethnic ‘Syrian Democratic Forces’ (SDF). Turkey therefore expected an end to US support for Syrian Kurds after the fall of Raqqa and ISIS’s strategic defeat.
However, Russian and Iranian entrenchment in Syria and the lack of any other effective military-political force with or through which US could affect the eventual political settlement in Syria have led the US to keep its roughly 2000-strong force in north-eastern Syria and continue its military partnership with SDF. This has seriously concerned Turkey, which views this as a prelude to the international recognition and political consolidation of the ‘Democratic Federal System of Northern Syria’ dominated by Syrian Kurds.
Continuing US support for Syrian Kurds have also set the alarm bells off for Russia, Iran and Assad’s regime. Russia and its Syrian and Iranian allies fear that US will try to use the Kurds to direct the peace talks towards a new Assad-free Syria. Iran has its own restive Kurdish minority and fears that Kurdish political consolidation in Syria will have ripple effects reaching Iran across Iraqi Kurdistan where with Turkey’s vocal support and US’s tacit approval it intervened to reverse the results of a Kurdish independence referendum last October. Iran is also concerned that its Syria-based ‘strategic depth’ doctrine will be undermined by Syrian Kurds, who currently control much of Syria’s most fertile agricultural lands and oil fields.
Russia’s rationale for allowing Turkish attack on Afrin is also twofold. It seeks to remind the Syrian Kurds of their vulnerability and therefore force them into compromise with the Assad regime and moving away from the US. In this way, Russia seeks to cement its military success in Syria with a political victory at peace settlement favouring Assad.
At the same time by facilitating Turkish attack on US’s key partner in Syria, Russia is further undermining the strategic alliance between US and Turkey and hence NATO. Russia therefore views Turkey’s war on Afrin as a win-win game. US on the other hand is mindful of Turkey’s irreversible drift towards Russia; a trend that has gathered pace after the 2016 failed coup and the ruthless purges in Turkey’s armed forces. The purges have led to the domination of pro-Russian ‘Euroasianist’ faction of Turkish military and marginalised pro-Western ‘Atlanticists’. This is why US has consistently maintained that it understands Turkish security concerns and at times seems to have made concessions regarding the scale and nature of its support for Syrian Kurds. The US failure to take any meaningful action against Turkey’s current offensive on Afrin is a case in point, one which has expectedly angered the Kurds. However, the zero-sum nature of Turkey’s approach to Syrian Kurds is seriously testing American commitment to supporting them.
All the major actors in the Syrian war therefore see some benefit in Turkey’s war on Afrin. For Syrian Kurds in the firing line, however, the picture is radically different. War has so far brought great loss of civilian life, destruction of cultural and historic sites, and damage to economic infrastructure; a perplexing reward for their heroic and successful resistance against IS. But in resisting Turkey’s aggression, they also see another historic opportunity to affirm their collective existence, cultural recognition, and political autonomy after decades of political and cultural denial and suppression. They deserve support and solidarity from the left.