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Turkey, which happens to be one of the oldest allies of NATO
sent in ground troops and more than 70 bomber planes to Northwestern Syria to fight the US backed Kurdish militia.
The objective of this force is to wrest the control of the area from Syrian Kurds and establish a 19 mile long safe zone between the Kurdish controlled territory and the Turkish border.
The Syrian Kurds have played a pivotal role in assisting the US to fight ISIS. In fact, last October Syrian Kurdish fighters helped the US to recapture Raqqa in Syria, which the ISIS claimed to be the capital city of its so called Caliphate.
The military invasion by Turkey of the Syrian regions of Afrin in the northwest, Kobani in the north-central and Qamishli in the northeast, adds a new dimension to the ongoing ruckus seen in the Middle East.
Who are Kurds?
The Kurds are an ethnic group of about 40 million, who are culturally and linguistically said to be of Iranian origin. They are one of the major minorities in four Arab countries and occupy Southeastern Turkey, Northwestern Iran, Northern Iraq and Northern Syria.
The Northern part of Iraq has a majority of Kurds and is called the Autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan. Similarly, in all the other three countries mentioned above, the Kurds are continuing to pursue a nationalist movement for greater autonomy and cultural rights.
It may be noted that the aspirations for an independent Kurdish nation are not universal amongst the Kurds of these four countries. In fact, the leadership of the largely autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq has close economic ties with Turkey and is skeptical of the Syrian Kurds.
Reasons for Recent Military Incursion by Turkey into Syria
The Kurds form one-fifth of the total population in Turkey. The rulers of Turkey deliberately made laws to remove the traces of Kurdish identity from their history books, banned speaking of Kurdish in public and mercilessly put behind bars any violators with utter disregard to human rights.
A militant group founded in 1978 called the PKK, or the Kurdistan Workers’ Party has been fighting for independence from Turkey. The organization’s leader, Abdullah Ocalan aspires to establish a separate homeland for the country of 14 million Kurds.
The above said effort of PKK has already led to the death of 40,000 militant cadres and thousands of civilians. The Group’s leader, Ocalan was caught and imprisoned by Turkey in 1999. Also, US State Department had declared PKK as a terrorist organization in 1997.
In Syria too, where 10% of the total population are Kurds, policies were framed to curb aspirations for Kurdish autonomy. The Syrian President, Bashar al- Asad and previously his father, Hafez, forbade Syrian Kurds for many years to get educated.
Thousands of Kurds fleeing the Islamic State massacre congregated in the far north of Syria in a place called Rojava or “land where the sun sets”.
Since 2012, the Kurds have an effective control over Rojava, which has served as a firm base from where the Syrian Kurds have helped the NATO forces to invert the rule of the ISIS caliphate.
Rojava is contiguous to the other areas of northern Syria, like Afrin, Kobani, Manbiji and Qamishili, which have been taken back from ISIS control.
Turkey feels that if Kurds are able to gain control over these contiguous areas with Rojava, they will be strongly entrenched and PKK will draw strength from the Syrian Kurds to forge its struggle for independence.
Complication of Alliances
The United States is an important supplier of arms and military aid to Turkey, and has used Turkey’s Incirlik air base as part of its campaign against the Islamic State in neighboring Syria.
US-Turkey ties deteriorated after the failed coup attempt in 2016 against the present authoritarian ruler of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, allegedly by the cleric Fethullah Gulen, a former US ally, now living in exile in Pennsylvania, United States.
The major complication of the alliances are marked by the fact that United States has armed a Syrian Kurdish militia, the ‘People’s Protection Units’ or YPG that has played a crucial role in battling ISIS. This militia was founded as the armed wing of a leftist party that grew out of the PKK.
Turkey fear that as the fight against ISIS is nearing its end, the militia will turn its attention towards helping its Kurdish allies in Turkey.
It may be noted that Abdullah Ocalan, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party leader, before his imprisonment was based in Kurdish Syria for nearly two decades, from where he sponsored terrorism into Turkey.
Aggravating the situation further, the US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson announced last week that US would support a new 30,000 strong Kurdish led border force in northern Syria to precipitate the Turkish military assault.
The above statement raises skepticism of an attempt by the United States to help the Kurds to cement an autonomous Kurdish enclave. The same is being also seen as a hidden agenda of the US to continue to maintain its foothold in Syria even after the fall of ISIS.
Finally, the summary of the matrix of the ongoing imbroglio can be best described as thus:
Turkey is fighting against the ‘Kurdistan Workers’ Party’ or PKK on its soil who are demanding for an independent Kurd State.
Syrian Kurds are putting in relentless efforts to carve out a self-declared autonomous region known as Rojava.
Rojava, which will include a sizable sliver of land in northern Syria including, Afrin, Kobani, Manbiji and Qamishili.
Meanwhile, ‘People’s Protection Units’ or YPG has gained the trust of Turkey’s international allies (USA & NATO) in the fight against ISIS.
Turkey fears that YPG will align with PKK once ISIS is fully neutralized and must be immediately nipped in the bud.
The United States seems to be creating grounds to continue to stay in Syria even after the threat of ISIS is removed by offering its support to YPG/ PKK.