Britain and the US have fought alongside the Kurds in Syria. Now they are leaving them to the mercy of a Turkish President vowed to “cleanse” them from their homes. The last time they were left in such peril, they were massacred in Kobane. This time the consequences could be even worse.
With the first Turkish bodybags returning from Syria, Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s latest drive against the Kurdish people is officially underway. But the grand plan has Russian chess manoeuvres written all over it, and taking the fight wilfully to where the U.S. has troops could force a capitulation that leaves the Kurds well and truly stranded.
Not that any of this should come as a surprise. There’s no mistaking intentions when the Turkish President vows to “cleanse” an area of a foreign country. Even if the mission has been given the miserably ironic codename of “Operation Olive Branch” since, that sinister pledge came three months ago.
Russia, which controls the air-space in which Turkish jets now fly with impunity, has signed off on the plan; Bashar al-Assad, busy launching chemical attacks on his own people elsewhere in Syria, is happy to see Turks and Kurds fight it out; the US is protesting, though ambivalently and with some incoherence; Britain does even less: “Turkey is right to want to keep its borders secure”, tweeted Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson as the first shots were fired.
Erdogan’s war on the Kurds has two fronts now. An increasingly dictatorial Islamist President is old hat when it comes to clamping down on political activity against his own lawmakers, bureaucrats and journalists, and reserves special treatment for the Kurds. In Syria, limited to Afrin for now – though in his own words, inevitably the campaign will spread to wherever Kurds can be found – the gloves are off.
On the grounds, he said, addressing a rally in Ankara, that “the PKK, the YPG, the PYD are all the same”. That might be Erdogan’s stance, but it categorically isn’t the view the West. Britain and the US have not only declared the YPG to be a separate entity from the PKK, and not a terrorist organisation, they have and are fighting alongside them against ISIS in Syria. So why not help them when they most need it, if only to keep a valuable ally alive?
Appealing to Boris Johnson’s conscience would be more than naive. So putting to one side the case that Britain and the US have a duty to defend the Kurdish people, the largest people in the world without a state, who are kicked around from Turkey to Iran to Syria to Iraq; it is not in the UK’s interest to allow them to be wiped out here and now. Especially not just to put a smile on the face of Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Britain and Turkey have good relations – trade, diplomacy, arms sales – and Johnson want to keep it that way. But if the Syrian war flares up again, as this assault by Turkey could easily cause, the long term consequences could be dire. Russia is playing the game very well; it supports the Syrian regime, even allegedly helping out with the odd airstrike on a crowded market where necessary, and Iran’s interests in the region.
But Putin is not interested in sharing influence in the country, and will do all he can to keep the West a long way from the table. If this means an increasing predominance of Shia Iran, even Shia militias, so be it. The YPG was invaluable in the fight against ISIS. The Kurdish Democratic Union Party (YPD), for its flaws, is a democratic, secular, oasis in a very harsh desert political desert. With them over a barrel, and Kurdish, US and UK influence reduced to zero, there’s not much to stop another militant group, as a contact on the ground put it, an “ISIS 3.0”, from rising up in the chaos that could ensue from an escalated war.
Turkey would like a short sharp campaign against the YPG, but it’s not going to get it. The YPG is a formidable fighting force. If ISIS couldn’t be defeated by airstrikes alone, the YPG certainly won’t be. So when more boots starting hitting the ground and the trickle of bodybags home becomes a flow, both Turkey and, in turn, the UK will be forced to think again.
When civilian casualties start to mount up, as they inevitably will, can Boris Johnson really continue to condone Turkey’s actions? When woman and children start dying, patently posing no threat to Turkey’s border security, he will have to choose his words far more carefully. He would be wiser to act now, before that dreadful chapter begins.
Once again the Kurds are being left to twist in the wind. When they were left at the mercy of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, they were gassed and murdered by the thousand; when they were left undefended in Kobane in 2015, they were massacred by ISIS: men, women and children. Once again, they are in a precarious position, which Noam Chomsky and a long list of academics warned could become another Kobane.
Hard-nosed diplomatic realpolitik might dictate there’s not much that could or should be done for the YPG. Not least with Vladimir Putin watching from the shadows. But history is not kind to governments and foreign secretaries who stand by while massacres happen; nor will anyone be safer, in Syria or the region, if Turkey is allowed to keep marching on over the Kurds’ dead bodies.