How Turkey’s latest incursion in northeast Syria helped Syrian Kurds

While the Kurdish political movement in Turkey has suffered considerably of late from persistent government persecution, Kurds in northeast Syria appear to have made significant gains as a result of Turkey’s recent military invasion.

In October 2019, President Donald Trump announced that U.S. forces would pull out of northeast Syria to enable Turkey to clear from its border areas the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which Ankara sees as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

The PKK has waged an insurgency in Turkey for more than three decades and is labelled a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States and the European Union. The Pentagon thus angered Turkey in 2015, when it partnered with the SDF in the fight against the Islamic State.

When Ahval spoke with Kurdish affairs analyst Abdulla Hawez in November, he described the global spotlight on Kurds as a result of Turkey’s invasion of northeast Syria as an opportunity for both Syrian and Turkish Kurds. Six months on, the two groups appear to be headed in opposite directions.

In February, the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) chose Mithat Sancar and Pervin Buldan as its new co-leaders, a move observers saw as an effort to seem less hostile to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the AKP government. The move failed. A month later, Turkish authorities dismissed eight HDP mayors for alleged links to terrorism. Six weeks after that, authorities dismissed and detained four more HDP mayors

Since the HDP became the first pro-Kurdish party to break the 10-percent threshold and enter parliament in 2015, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government has dismissed more than 120 HDP-affiliated mayors across Turkey’s east and southeast, including 45 of the 65 HDP mayors elected in Turkey’s March 2019 local elections.

Former HDP co-leaders Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksedağ have been in prison for more than three years, along with dozens of other Kurdish politicians.

Just last week, Erdogan again linked the HDP to the PKK and said in an election the AKP would crush the HDP as it had the Kurdish militia. In response, the HDP called for new elections in the municipalities where HDP mayors had been dismissed - which is the same response the party gave last November.

“The statements we see from HDP leaders are really weak,” Hawez told Ahval in a podcast. “It seems they are giving up and they are not trying anymore.”

Prominent HDP parliamentarian Ahmet Şık, a well-known Turkish journalist who has been jailed for his reporting, resigned from the party early this month, citing an approach that was contrary to democratic practices and moving the party further from its strengths and values.  

Veteran Turkish columnist Cengiz Aktar has urged the HDP to make bolder moves, such as pulling out of parliament or organising protest actions like boycotts. The party is losing ground because it has been unable or unwilling to provide the kind of broad denunciations and bold criticism the situation requires, according to Hawez. 

“This is alienating more and more of the HDP base in Kurdish areas,” he said. “I personally have lots Turkish Kurd friends who are very angry at the HDP and how they are dealing with the situation.”

In northeast Syria, meanwhile, Kurdish communities suffered considerably from Turkey’s October 2019 Operation Peace Spring, which gave rise to reports of war crimes and ethnic cleansing.

Yet they have also gained ground in numerous ways. For starters, due to considerable supportive media attention in the first weeks of Turkey’s military operation - in addition to bipartisan opposition to Trump’s plan to abandon the SDF - a contingent of U.S. troops stayed in northeast Syria and continued to cooperate with the SDF.

“The global solidarity for Syrian Kurds helped them a lot,” said Hawez. “It was partially because of all this international solidarity that pushed the U.S. administration to halt their full withdrawal.”

If U.S. forces had fully withdrawn, the SDF would likely have been crushed and turned to Syrian President Bashar Assad for protection, as many analysts had predicted. Instead, the SDF’s strong defence of northeast Syria, coupled with its defeat of ISIS and the many soldiers it lost in that fight, enhanced its reputation to the point that up to 65 percent of Syrian Kurds now support it, according to Hawez.

Also, because U.S. forces remained, Syrian Kurds now have an opportunity to unite and strengthen. The United States and France have been sending delegations to the region to encourage a union between the two main Kurdish groups, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is the political arm of the SDF, and the Kurdish National Council (KNC), which is more connected to Iraqi Kurdistan.

“The only way I think for Syrian Kurds to survive the Turkish anger is somehow try to get the Kurds together, first of all, and try to somehow distance the SDF from PKK,” said Hawez. “How much that would work depends on how much both the SDF and KNC are willing to make concessions.”

Hawez did not expect the KNC to sacrifice its ties with Turkey in order to make a deal with the SDF. Yet he pointed to another benefit of the Turkish invasion: by putting SDF leader Mazloum Abdi in the global spotlight, it had enabled him to shape much of the group’s policy and curb PKK influence.

“Syrian Kurds now have a figure they look to as their leader, which is an important point for any group,” said Hawez. “The SDF’s link with the PKK is not as strong as it used to be.”

Of course, Syrian Kurds still face significant hurdles.

Last week the United Nations bowed to pressure from Russia and Assad and halted funding for aid groups delivering medical relief to northeast Syria. Hawez saw this having minimal impact as the Kurdish-administered area known as Rojava had responded well to the pandemic and the region faced little risk of a major outbreak or humanitarian crisis in the months ahead.

But the threat of another Turkish incursion, following Jarablus, Afrin, and Ras al Ayn, remained high, said Hawez. And in recent weeks, Russia and Assad have been offering attractive salaries to Arab youth in the area to renounce the SDF and join a new militia.

“They know at some point the U.S. is going to withdraw, so they are trying to build these militias to use as leverage against SDF in the future,” said Hawez.

This may explain the latest project of the Pentagon, which has reportedly allocated funding to help build an elite SDF force of up to 10,000 soldiers under Abdi’s command.

“I have read at least two reports about this,” said Hawez, adding that the news appeared in the Iraqi Kurdish news network Rudaw. “Probably the purpose of this force would be to protect this area in the future and consolidate SDF’s gains versus Turks and Assad.”

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.