Syria: Behind the great powers’ games in Afrin

Issue 
Afrin locals mobilise to resist the Turkish invasion.

On January 20, Turkey launched an invasion of Afrin, one of the three cantons that make up the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (also known as Rojava), the site of a profound, Kurdish-led social revolution based on multi-ethnic participatory democracy and women’s liberation.

The invasion has killed dozens of civilians in an area that has welcomed hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria’s conflict. Turkey’s actions would be impossible without at least passive acceptance from several great powers active in Syria. Below, Cihad Hammy looks at the motivations for various major players in a piece abridged from The Region. There is also a sign-on statement for Australians to oppose Turkey’s war that you can add your name to here.

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In 2016, after the Turkish state invaded Syria and occupied Jarablus in Syria’s north to prevent the linking of the Kobane and Afrin cantons in Rojava, Mehmet Ocalan visited his brother, Abdullah Ocalan. The latter is the ideological leader of Turkey-based left-wing revolutionary group, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), currently in a Turkish jail. 

There, Abdullah Ocalan reflected on the Turkish invasion of Syria and assessed the role of the US in the operation, saying: “The US invited the Turkish state to Rojava through Jarablus  ... They must have pursued such a strategy to weaken both the Kurds and Turks at this point.

“The Turks wouldn’t have been able to enter Jarablus if the US hadn’t wanted this to happen. Their goal is to make both parties confront each other here.”

This statement is relevant to the Turkish state’s invasion of Afrin. But this time, it was Russia that directly invited the Turkish state to invade. The Turkish state would not dare to invade Afrin if both the major powers — US and Russia — did not give the offensive the green light.

Russia

Russia’s approval for the Turkish state’s invasion of Afrin is not surprising. It is clear Russia seeks to bolster Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime to protect and advance its political and economic interests in Syria. Russia sees Syria as terrain from which to wrestle away control from the US.

After the battle of Kobane in 2014, in which the Kurdish-led revolutionaries defeated ISIS, Kurdish forces entered into a coalition with other groups in the region under the banner of the Syrian Democratic Forces. The aim was to liberate large swathes of territory from ISIS in Northern Syria.

In their quest, they received support from a US-led coalition to the chagrin of Russia. When the SDF finally gained the capacity to control crucial water and oil resources that were previously under the control of ISIS in Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor, tensions between the two world powers reached a new height.

These tensions manifested in a new rivalry between the SDF — backed by a US-led coalition — and the Syrian government, backed by Russia and Iran. To weaken the leverage that the US has in Syria, Russia entered into a detente with Turkey.

At this point, the interests of both Russia and Turkey align. Turkey wants to dismantle the Kurdish-led revolutionary project in northern Syria, Russia seeks to reduce the influence of the US in Syria by trying to remove the SDF as an on-the-ground US ally.

Moreover, by allowing Turkey to invade Afrin, Russia aims to put the US in a quandary, knowing very well that the US has trouble sustaining its juggling act in Syria.

On the one side, Washington has tried to keep Turkey, a fellow NATO member, as a close strategic ally. At the same time, gains by the SDF give the US a foot in Syria that can aid it in putting pressure on the Assad regime, and thereby shrink the influence of Iran in the region.

Turkey, which is against the Kurdish project, is unhappy. The SDF, which seeks to ensure, among other things, the safety of its population, is perpetually unsafe. And where Turkey feels betrayed, and the SDF has prepared itself for betrayal, Moscow sees an opportunity.

The Turkish state’s operation will not be limited to Afrin, but rather will extend to Manbij, where more than 2000 US military personnel are stationed. This is what Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan expressly said in a speech to provincial leaders in Ankara: “With the [Afrin invasion], we have once again thwarted the game of those sneaky forces whose interests in the region are different.”

He continued: “Starting in Manbij, we will continue to thwart their game.”

United States

If the Turkish state were to attack Manbij, the US could possibly fight back. This is what Russia hopes, for the US and Turkey to engage in combat and risk having the former country kicked out of NATO. Russia wants, among other things, to have Turkey finally fall under its ambit of influence.

This should at least partially explain why Russia allowed the Turkish state to invade Afrin.

US foreign policy, as far as it concerns the Kurds in Syria, is a doctrine that can be summed up in two words: hypocrisy and duplicity.

The US has already claimed to support the Turkish state’s right to protect itself from “terrorist elements that may be launching attacks against Turkish citizens and Turkish soil from Syria”. By doing so, the US has signed its seal of approval for the Turkish state to attack Rojava.

Turkey is still a strategic NATO partner for the US. It does not want to lose Turkey. The US simply sees Afrin as a place that is not its problem, especially considering that it does not fall under the territory of the International Coalition against the Islamic State.

Assad regime

In Syria, there are two projects that the Assad regime feels threatened by: the federalist model in northern Syria and the Islamic opposition supported by Turkey.

The Assad regime strives to keep Syria as a centralised nation-state, but the Kurdish-led project in northern Syria poses a big threat to the nation-state model. The Rojava model seeks to decentralise the country while empowering ethnic minorities and women.

The other threat to the Assad regime is the Islamic opposition — directly backed by Turkey — that seeks to topple the regime.

To weaken both the Kurds and the Islamic opposition, the Assad regime finds the invasion of Afrin by the Turkish army with its jihadist proxies as a golden opportunity to achieve its ends. Thus, the Assad regime’s warning that it would shoot down any Turkish warplanes that violated Syrian airspace should be seen as what it is: a blatant lie.

Nevertheless, even if this were to materialise, it would be a win-win situation for Russia. It would love the excuse to “protect” the Syrian government, and push Afrin under the control of the Assad regime.

The Assad regime and Russia are both preparing to launch a major offensive in Idlib, the only stronghold left for the armed Islamic opposition in Syria. Since many armed Islamic groups are directly backed by the Turkish state, Russia and the Assad regime seek to make a bargain with the Turkish state. Turkey could aid the Assad regime to transfer the Islamists to fight the Kurds in Afrin, and Idlib would be left for the Assad regime.

In short: swapping Idlib for Afrin. That is why Erdogan says that he has a deal with Russia.

And finally, we need to address how Iran benefits from the Afrin invasion.

Insofar as Tehran falsely perceives that the Kurdish-led project is an extension of the US, any threat towards it coincides with its interests in the region. And insofar as Turkish expansion is not mitigated by the Assad regime and Russia, Iran feels anxious about the expansion of Turkish-promoted Sunni fundamentalism as well.

But should a rapprochement occur, best evidenced by the joint “de-escalation zones” brokered in Idlib by Iran, Turkey and Russia, then Iran feels that it has more power to intervene in the Syrian conflict. Put simply, Iran benefits from the fight between the Turkish state and the Kurds in Syria.

Rapprochement?

So we can speak of rapprochement between Russia, the Assad regime, Iran and Turkey. It can also be said that it is the Kurdish-led project in the region that brings these unlikely foes together on the bargaining table.

But this too is ephemeral. It does not erase the many contradictions, the differences between various political projects on the ground, and the seven years of conflict between these powers. This shaky rapprochement will break down as soon as interests and battles on the ground change in Syria.  

The major and regional powers are guided in this war by their capacity to betray, their commitment to achieving their interests, their genocidal and fascist mentality. Kurdish fighters, however, are guided by the principles of self-organisation, self-defence, resistance, and freedom.

So let’s return to Imrali prison and the last words received from Abdullah Ocalan to the outside world: “I am a democrat and revolutionary. I will not surrender to the state or anyone else.”

I believe he would say the same thing to the Kurdish Freedom Movement and the people of Afrin: “Be democrats and revolutionaries. Don't surrender to nation states or anyone else.”

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