Behind Turkey's US-backed invasion of Rojava

August 26, 2016
Turkish troops cross Syrian border, August 24.

On the surface, it seems the war against ISIS in Syria is going well. On August 12, the town of Manbij was taken by forces of the Manbij Military Council (MMC) and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

Then on August 24, the nearby border town of Jarablus was occupied by Turkish tanks and troops. Turkish forces were joined by Syrian fighters claiming allegiance to Islamist and other groups affiliated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

In both instances, the US provided air cover. However, there the similarities end.

The liberation of Manbij was hard fought. The MMC said 4180 ISIS fighters and 264 SDF fighters were killed. In contrast, the BBC said on August 25 that Jarablus was taken with hardly a shot fired.

The MMC and SDF fighters reaching Manbij were greeted by civilians celebrating liberation from the violent and puritanical rule of ISIS. Women removed veils and defiantly posed for pictures smoking cigarettes. Men publicly shaved off their beards.

The BBC said that in Jarablus, the Turkish and FSA forces were greeted by empty streets. Many civilians had fled during two days of Turkish shelling across the border. Kurdish Question reported on August 24 that more than 3000 civilians had fled to nearby Manbij.

Manbij was captured by the MMC and SDF from ISIS, but in Jarablus ISIS withdrew, instead being replaced by Turkish forces. Derviş, a resident of Karakuyu village near Jarablus, told Firat News Agency on August 25: “I am in my front yard, there are no clashes, the construction equipment are clearing out a path for tanks and other military dispatching, and the tanks wait by the railroad. I don't see clashes.”

Local people claimed to recognise ISIS fighters among the Syrian fighters that arrived with the Turkish tanks.

Western politicians have framed the Turkish occupation of Jarablus as part of the war against ISIS. They have accepted as legitimate the Turkish framing of operations against the People's Protection Units (YPG) — the left-wing Kurdish force that is the main component of the SDF — as part of fighting terrorism.

This is despite the US recognising that the SDF are the most committed and effective military opponent of ISIS — and carrying out air strikes in support of SDF ground operations.

The reality is that collaboration between the Turkish state and ISIS has been documented for more than two years. However, the US and its Western allies have consistently taken the claims of Turkey, a NATO member, at face value.

This reflects the fact that the West's war against ISIS is a mixture of a genuine concern about the group's ability to disrupt Western interests and a pretext for imperialist military intervention in the Middle East.

Civil war

The war against ISIS is just one of several interlocking conflicts in Syria. The Syrian Civil War began after the Assad regime violently repressed a mass democratic uprising. The conflict developed as a war between the Russian and Iranian-backed Assad dictatorship and the FSA, which originated with the defection of officers and soldiers from the government army after Assad deployed it against unarmed protesters.

The FSA metamorphosed and fractured, partly as a result of the logic of protracted military conflict on a group without an ideology that was never more than a loose network of armed groups. But external influences were more significant.

The US gave political and material support, including weapons and military training. The aim was to weaken the regional influence of Russia and Iran.

Some US aid was direct, but it was mostly through local allies: Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. Indirect US aid was combined with these regional allies' own military aid, which allowed them to pursue their own agendas.

The ideological biases of the US's regional allies meant much of their aid nurtured Sunni Islamist groups. The conflict also attracted jihadi veterans from previous conflicts in the region and worldwide.

Western countries and their regional allies recognised the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) as a government-in-exile and the FSA as its armed forces. But inside Syria, the conflict became multi-sided as competing jihadi groups began eclipsing the FSA.

ISIS emerged out of this chaos as the most extreme jihadi group. It used Syria as a base to make territorial gains in Iraq and project itself globally through organising terrorist attacks in the West — and often taking credit for violence in the West that it had no part in.

Rojava Revolution

Another side in the conflict emerged in 2012 with the revolution in Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan). This began as a movement in regions where the Kurdish minority predominated but has moved beyond Rojava into Arab-majority areas.

Led by political forces ideologically aligned to the left-wing Kurdish freedom movement in Turkey and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the revolution is based on grassroots democracy, womens liberation, environmentalist and socialist development and — significantly — ethnic equality and self-rule and religious freedom.

Its military forces, the YPG and the Women's Protection Units (YPJ), have proved effective in operations against ISIS and in defending territory from attacks from the various other parties in the conflict.

All other forces in the Syrian conflict, internal and external, characterise the Rojava Revolution as “Kurdish separatist”. But its aim is actually a united, multicultural, religiously tolerant Syria based on the radical democratic forms pioneered in Rojava.

The SDF — an alliance with secular FSA groups, and other Arab, Assyrian and other non-Kurdish groups — and the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria–Rojava were created to push this goal.

Since the emergence of the Rojava Revolution, Turkey's key priority has been to contain and crush it — fearing its influence on Turkey's large Kurdish minority. This underpins its willingness to collaborate with ISIS and other Islamist groups.

The emergence of ISIS also changed the US's priorities. The rise of ISIS was viewed as damaging to Western interests and also created the pretext for direct military intervention in Syria and — to a greater extent — neighbouring Iraq.

Air strikes

The Assad regime and the mainly SNC-aligned Islamist opposition have fought a bloody war of attrition with atrocities by both sides. Air strikes by the government and its Russian allies have caused high levels of civilian casualties and displacement.

The US, in this context, formed a limited tactical alliance with the YPG and SDF that has successfully driven back ISIS. Ignoring YPG and SDF calls for heavy weapons, the US offered air strikes instead. Through its allies in Iraq, it maintains a siege-like blockade of Rojava. At the diplomatic level, the US has blocked Rojava from being represented in internationally sponsored talks.

The interests of US imperialism and the Rojava Revolution converge only to the extent that they both want to push back ISIS. But the SDF has liberated most of Rojava.

Originally, the Rojava Revolution was confined to three separate cantons. But at the start of the year, only a small piece of ISIS-controlled territory around Jarablus stopped the revolutionary forces controlling an unbroken border between Rojava and Turkey.

The Manbij campaign may prove the last time US forces and the SDF coordinate. The US has been pushing for an offensive against the ISIS capital in Syria, Raqqa. The US supported the offensive on Manbij because it cut ISIS supply lines between Raqqa and the Turkish border.

The SDF has made gains toward Raqqa, but it has been reluctant to stage an assault before carrying out more political work. The SDF's military philosophy is to only occupy areas where it enjoys popular support.

Relations between Turkey and its NATO allies have been strained by US cooperation with the SDF and Turkey's aim to destroy it. Turkey has long called for its troops to be sent into the Jarablus corridor to replace ISIS and police a “safe haven”. Until now, the US opposed this, as well as the SDF goal of liberating Jarablus.


Turkey's conflict with the Kurdish-led forces in Syria is inseparable from its war against the PKK, as well as from the Erdoğan regime's increasing authoritarianism and attacks on the Kurdish-led left-wing opposition.

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's justification for occupying Jarablus was the August 20 ISIS bombing in Gaziantep. This attack targeted the wedding of two members of the Peoples Democratic Party (HDP). This electorally successful Kurdish-led left-wing party has been a major opponent of Erdoğan's authoritarian tendencies and faced violent oppression by his regime.

The actual cause was the SDF forming a Jarablus Military Council, signalling the intention of liberating Jarablus.

The scale of Turkey's military intervention is due to the strengthening of Erdoğan's regime after a failed coup in July.

Internationally, Turkey was becoming isolated because of Erdoğan's policy in Syria. The West publicly accepted Turkey's claims it was part of the war against ISIS, but nonetheless viewed Erdoğan as an unreliable ally.

At the same time, Erdoğan's support for overthrowing Assad destroyed relations with Iran and Russia. This was intensified by the Turkish military shooting down a Russian war plane over Syria last November.

However, the Kurdish-led left-wing revolutionary forces are a common enemy shared by Erdoğan, Assad and Iran. In June, Erdoğan held talks aiming to mend relations with Russia and Iran. Secret talks were also held with the Assad regime.

Peace deal?

Turkey's overtures to Russia, Iran and the Assad regime seem to have tilted US policy towards backing its NATO ally against the Rojava forces. On August 24, US Vice President Joe Biden visited Turkey and called on the YPG to withdraw to east of the Euphrates River, giving up territory liberated since late last year. The YPG refused.

Biden also expressed optimism about US-Russia talks aimed at bringing a peace deal in Syria. This raised the spectre of an internationally-imposed settlement accommodating Assad, the FSA and other elements of the Sunni Islamist opposition — but excluding the Rojava-based forces.

Like the article? Subscribe to Green Left now! You can also like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.