Turkish military operations in North-East Syria, named “Operation Peace Spring” and launched on October 9th, 2019, have caused the exodus of over 200,000 people and the death of about 90 civilians according to data provided by the Kurdish Red Crescent operating in Syria. Tens of thousands of Kurdish-Syrian farmers and their families from Rojava have taken refuge in northern Iraq. Over 12,000 Kurdish Syrians, almost all of them children, victims of the Turkish offensive, are currently housed in the Bardarash Camp. Bardarash is a city situated in the Iraqi Kurdistan region, in the Dohuk Governorate, 70 km north of Erbil and 32 km northeast of Mosul. Its population is mainly Kurdish and Sunni.
The Barzani Charity Foundation, a local NGO founded by Masrour Barzani, former prime minister of Kurdistan’s regional government, manages this camp together with the UNHCR. New arrivals are provided with hot meals, kerosene, and blankets. Letizia Gualdoni, a nurse working for Médecins sans frontières which runs the camp, has reported the lack of medical staff and the inefficiency of health care and hygienic facilities. With winter’s arrival and the heating problems this involves, she says, the camp’s refugees are showing clear signs of mental instability. The Iraqi Kurdistan region is still greatly at risk of infiltration by Daesh representatives and the camp’s director, Botan Salahaddin, has denounced the fact that ISIS sleeper cells could infiltrate the camp and hide among the refugees. The camp’s guests accuse Turkey, and in particular President Erdoğan, of having inflicted inhuman suffering on the inhabitants of Rojava, obliging them to abandon their homes and lands to live in cramped temporary tents, exposed to strong wind and rain. Most of the refugees have had to pay traffickers $400 to cross the Iraqi border and save themselves. Many of them have said that they lost everything and fled only taking their children and relatives.
A process gone wrong
Erdoğan was the first Turkish leader, over a decade ago, to open to the Kurds and start direct peace talks with Abdullah Öcalan, the detained charismatic leader of the outlawed Kurdistan’s Workers Party (PKK). From Syria, Öcalan had led a guerrilla warfare campaign against the Turkish army since 1998, initially fighting for Kurdish independence and later for autonomy, until he was expelled by the regime in Damascus and then recaptured in 1999 in Nairobi, Kenya. This group is now branded as a terrorist organisation by both the United States and the European Union.
The collapse of the peace process for resolving the Kurdish issue started in the summer of 2015 by the Turkish government and the leaders of the PKK is at the origin of the violent turmoil of recent months, with the United States redeploying its soldiers to the southern part of north-eastern Syria that Kurds call Rojava. By abandoning north-eastern Syria, the United States have allowed the Turks to embark on their military offensive. Since then the Kurds have entered an agreement with Russia and with Assad’s regime, accepting to withdraw to 30 km south of the Turkish border, thereby managing to preserve an albeit reduced level of control over that territory thanks, in particular, to the presence of American basis in the Deir Ez-Zor area.
However, the stability that once prevailed in the north-eastern part of Syria protected by the United States and the Kurds has now been compromised and ISIS’ sleeper cells are taking advantage of this by reorganising so as to carry out isolated but deadly attacks.
Security or uprooting?
The Turkish offensive is aimed at uprooting from north-eastern Syria the Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG) that enjoyed support from the U.S. in order to establish a so-called safe zone along Turkey’s south-eastern border, to which at least one of the 4.5 million Syrian refugees hosted in the country could be moved. The majority of Kurdish-Syrians in the Rojava area are convinced that Turkey’s objective is to totally uproot Kurds from the region, repeating the horrifying ethnic cleansing campaign called “Arab Belt” carried out by Hafiz al-Asad, leader of Syria’s Baath Party during the 1970s and current president Bashar al-Asad’s father.
That campaign was part of an Arabisation project that envisaged the creation of a 275 km long and 15 km wide safe zone along the Turkish border and one that Turkey now wants to expand to a width of 30 km. So Kurdish lands were seized by the regime and handed over to thousands of Arab inhabitants. That was a real ethnic replacement project. One must add that the current president, Bashar al-Assad, although he shares the same position as Erdoğan regards to Kurdish irredentism, does not approve of the Turkish president’s intentions to bring back to his country hundreds of thousands of Sunni Arabs, most of which have fought against his government.
Until the Turkish offensive took place, the YPG had never openly attacked Turkey. While the peace process was still underway, a number of Kurdish Syrian leaders, such as Ilham Ahmed and Saleh Muslim, of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), whose armed wing consists of the YPG, were frequently in touch with the Turkish authorities. Now Ankara is applying pressure on the United States and the EU so that they will classify the YPG as a terrorist organisation just as happened with the PKK. The YPG’s alliance with the Americans started in 2014 due to Turkey’s reluctance to fight Islamic State, since Ankara’s priority was to prevent the creation of a Kurdish state supported by the West along its southeastern border.
Human Rights Watch has confirmed that during the Turkish offensive in north-eastern Syria, jihadist groups belonging to the so-called Syrian National Army (SNA), Turkey’s ally, “have summarily executed civilians and failed to account for aid workers who disappeared while working in the ‘safe zone’.” In a report dated November 2019, the HRW’s monitoring group based in New York denounced that the SNA “refused to allow the return of Kurdish families displaced by Turkish military operations and looted and unlawfully appropriated or occupied their property.”
According to HRW, many Kurds who had tried to return to their homes in Serekaniye were reportedly killed by SNA fighters. “Executing individuals, pillaging property, and blocking displaced people from returning to their homes is damning evidence of why Turkey’s proposed ‘safe zones’ will not be safe,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. Hence, contrary to Turkey’s narrative, according to which their operation will create a stable safe zone, it is feared that those representatives of the SNA who will be appointed to manage that territory, may inflict discrimination for ethnic reasons. YPG officials have said that the SNA includes groups of radicalised jihadists, including former ISIS fighters. This statement has been confirmed by the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights as well as by important Iraqi Kurdish officials.
Before the 2011 civil war broke out in Syria, Erdoğan had paved the way for an open border policy with Kurdish and Arab families, divided since the fall of the Ottoman Empire, crossing Turkey on foot to travel to Syria for celebrations held at the end of Ramadan and at the time it was possible to watch episodes of brotherhood along the border. Syrians threw packages of tea from the border into Turkey and the Turks reciprocated with boxes of Turkish Delight (the famous lokum). The border was open. Trade was intense. Turkish became the lingua franca for Syrians who became addicted to Turkish soap operas and enrolled in Turkish universities. Now there is a 764 km long wall aimed at keeping out the YPG.
Photo: Zaid Al-Obeidi / AFP