Context: Turkey’s military intervention in the Syria.
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- Turkey’s military launched a cross-border operation against Kurdish-led forces in Syria in early October, after US troops who had been allied to the Kurds withdrew.
- Turkey named the military incursion as “Operation Peace Spring” which aims to create a ‘safe zone’ that is 480 km wide and upto 35 km deep inside Syria.
Who are the Kurds?
- Between 25 and 35 million ethnic Kurds inhabit a mountainous region straddling Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Iran and Armenia. But they have never had a widely recognised permanent nation state of their own.
- Kurds make up between 7% and 10% of Syria’s population. For decades, they were suppressed and denied basic rights by President Bashar al-Assad.
- Before the uprising against Mr Assad began in 2011 most Kurds lived in the cities of Damascus and Aleppo, and in three northern areas near the Turkish border – Afrin in the west, Kobane (Ain al-Arab) in the centre, and Qamishli in the east.
- When the uprising evolved into a civil war, the main Kurdish parties avoided taking sides. In 2012, government forces withdrew from Kurdish areas to concentrate on fighting rebel factions elsewhere, and Kurdish militias took control in their wake.
- In late 2014, the jihadist group Islamic State (IS) launched an assault on Kobane. The battle sparked alarm across the world and a US-led multinational coalition against IS intervened by carrying out air strikes.
- The biggest Kurdish militia, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), formed an alliance with local Arab militias called the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in 2015. With the help of coalition airpower, weaponry and advisers, SDF fighters drove IS out of a quarter of Syria and captured its last pocket of territory in the country in March 2019. They also set up an “autonomous administration” to govern the region.
Why did Turkey launch an offensive?
- Turkey had long threatened to launch an operation in SDF-held territory to create a 32km (20-mile) deep “safe zone” running for 480km (300 miles) along the Syrian side of the border.
- It wants to push back members of the YPG, which it views as an extension of a Kurdish rebel group that has been fighting in Turkey for decades and is designated a terrorist organisation – the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Turkey also hopes to resettle, in the zone, up to two million of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees it is hosting.
- In an attempt to avert an offensive, the US and Turkish militaries agreed in August to set up a “security mechanism” on the Syrian side of border, an area that would be free of YPG fighters, but pointedly avoided using the term “safe zone”.
- US and Turkish troops carried out joint patrols in the area and the YPG co-operated, withdrawing fighters and heavy weapons and dismantling fortifications.
- But on 6 October, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told US President Donald Trump that a cross-border operation would “soon be moving forward”.
- US refused to support or be involved in the operation.
- On 9th October, Mr Erdogan announced the start of “Operation Peace Spring” by the Turkish military and allied Syrian rebel factions.
What has been the humanitarian impact?
- The area falling within Turkey’s “safe zone” is fertile plain that once served as Syria’s breadbasket.
- When the Turkish offensive began, the UN said the potentially affected area included SDF-controlled territory that was home to 2.2 million people, including 1.3 million in need of humanitarian assistance, and two government-controlled cities where 450,000 people live – Qamishli and Hassakeh.
Detained IS fighters and their families in proposed ‘safe zone’:
- The area around the camps was hit by shells on 13 October as Turkish forces advanced, prompting some of the 13,000 residents to flee. SDF officials reported that dozens of women and children being held at the camps because of suspected links to IS, including British nationals, were among those who fled.
- There were reports of unrest at al-Hol camp, which is about 60km from the Turkish border and so would not be in Turkey’s proposed “safe zone”.
- Some 68,000 people linked to IS are being detained al-Hol. More than 94% of them are women and children, and 11,000 are foreign nationals.
- Some of the prisons are in areas close to the Turkish border, including Ain Issa, Qamishli and Derik.
What could be the consequences of Turkish military intervention?
It seems that Mr. Erdogan is trying to bolster popularity. Since his party lost the June mayoral elections in Istanbul. He might be hoping that a successful military campaign could bolster his popularity among Turks who are increasingly wary of Syrian refugees.
Such an intervention can have wide ranging consequences:
- It would complicate the end-game in Syria.
- It could have spillovers into Europe where a significant number of Kurds and Turks reside.
- In the past century, the Kurdish quest for an elusive Kurdistan has led to their betrayal by a number of regional and foreign powers, of which the US is the most recent one. This sudden abandonment of SDF by the US would further diminish American credibility in the region.
- SDF holds thousands of IS prisoners who may flee, taking the advantage of the conflict and unleash their abhorrent brand of terror.
- The current hostilities have begun to creating more refugees.