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Turkey’s Syria offensive could displace over a million Kurds

The intensifying Turkish military campaign in northern Syria could lead to the forced displacement of more than a million Kurds and to the killing of scores of Kurdish civilians, according to a leading analyst who has spent considerable time in the area.

“It depends on how far the Turks want to go,” said Jonathan Spyer, a research fellow at the Middle East Forum and at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security. “Up to a million could potentially be displaced, at the very least. And [the likelihood of] an outcome that is probably worse, given the nature of some of the people the Turks are working with in this campaign, is very high indeed.”

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said the military intends to move 30 kilometers (19 miles) into northern Syria and that its operation will last until all “terrorists are neutralized,” referring to the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

While Turkey’s army is unlikely to carry out deliberate massacres, Ankara’s allies from the so-called Syrian National Army — a motley crew of jihadist militiamen who Erdogan is asking to do much of the legwork of the offensive — can be expected to act brutally with Kurdish civilians it comes in contact with, Spyer said.

Right now, there’s been shelling all the way across the border, from Tell Abiad in the west, all the way to a place called Derik, which is right on the Syrian-Iraqi border.

If the intention of the Turks is, as President Erdogan stated at the UN General Assembly, genuinely to push forward and create a 20-mile deep buffer area all the way across that border, then the potential for the displacement of population, at the very least, is extremely high. Because that would basically involve the Turks conquering more or less the entirety of the main Kurdish population areas in northern Syria.

The Turks were claiming to make territorial advances and to have conquered villages close to Tell Abiad. And the Observatory was saying that’s not accurate. There’s a lot of disinformation right now, that’s part of war.

The Turkish army itself, the regular forces of Erdogan, I think will be under pretty clear orders not to carry out massacres. But they’re carrying out indiscriminate shelling right now against populated areas. There has been a hospital in Ras al-Ayn that was struck.

What is that in fact? It’s an amalgamation of a whole bunch of the remnants of the Syrian-Arab rebellion from northern Syria, including very extreme Sunni-jihadi elements, who in their own propaganda regularly refer to the PKK [Kurdistan Workers’ Party] and the Kurds as apostates, atheists and communists and all that kind of stuff. This is not a particularly disciplined force. It’s a deeply sectarian, and Sunni-Islamist force with a deep and verifiable hostility to the Kurdish population.

People talk about Turkey as a NATO member. We should not imagine this as a disciplined NATO army about to walk into these places

So if those guys get to interact with the Kurdish population, then the results could be deeply worrying. And we know about that because we kind of have a precedent, which is Operation Olive Branch [which Turkey and the Ankara-backed Syrian National Army carried out in early 2018], when the Turks destroyed the Kurdish Afrin Canton.

This resulted in the displacement of 200,000 people. There wasn’t a huge massacre, because the population left in time. But there was widespread looting and cases of civilians being murdered.

Even though we saw those very distressing scenes that CNN filmed, of civilians leaving and so on, this is a population that is used to war. They’re familiar with war. They’ve been through the experience of ISIS heading towards them, and then being stopped in 2014.

So I don’t think there’s panic or despair. But I do think, based on what I am hearing from the people I know who are involved in the military, media and political sides of things, there’s a great deal of anger, frankly, against the West and against the United States. And a very profound sense of betrayal. That really comes through.

In the summer of 2014, the YPG [the mainly Kurdish People’s Protection Units, the most important component of the Syrian Democratic Forces] were burying fighters five at a time. There wasn’t time to give everyone their own funeral. Around 11,000 people were killed. So they remember that; it was only a few years ago. They do have a very profound sense of having been betrayed, frankly, by their key ally.

There are no official relations of any kind between Israel and the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, as they currently call themselves, which is the de-facto authority there.

There may be some kind of unofficial communication, but there isn’t the kind of traditional close relations that did pertain and do pertain between Israel and the [Masoud] Barzani-dominated Kurdish regional government in northern Iraq. The Israelis and the Barzanis go back a long way to the 1960s, in terms of cooperation. And that’s not the case with the particular Kurds who control the Syrian Kurdistan entity now.

There is a warm sentiment there, but I don’t think anybody expects the Israeli air force to come by and enforce a no-fly zone or anything like that.

But I would think that the hope, at least, is that Israeli officials use whatever influence they might have on the United States administration and on the US legislature — Congress — in order to try to leverage a changed American position, to change or even reverse the position that came out on Sunday.

Back to a much tougher position, [that says] “Turkey has to stop, we don’t support this operation, and if Turkey goes too far, and things we discussed earlier happen, there will be severe consequences for Turkey.” Obviously the demand for a no-fly zone is the most immediate demand.

So I would have thought that the Kurdish hope would be that, insofar as Israel has a voice in the important forums in Washington, this voice would be raised at this time. I would think that will probably happen, because my sense is that Israeli officials are deeply concerned about this.

It’s something much more concrete: the area of control of the Autonomous Administration [is located] in Eastern Syria and is basically an American-Kurdish protectorate right now. That means it’s a de-facto barrier against the Iranians. It’s not a 100 percent sealed one, because down in the South there is Abu Kamal, but it basically cuts off the greater part of eastern Syria from the prospect of Iranian penetration.

It’s something much more concrete: the area of control of the Autonomous Administration [is located] in Eastern Syria and is basically an American-Kurdish protectorate right now. That means it’s a de-facto barrier against the Iranians. It’s not a 100 percent sealed one, because down in the South there is Abu Kamal, but it basically cuts off the greater part of eastern Syria from the prospect of Iranian penetration.

The statement by Netanyahu joins similar statements by a number of world leaders. It will no doubt be welcomed by the Kurds in Syria, though I would think that the offer of humanitarian assistance will not be taken up at the present time. It is the latest evidence of a growing international consensus against the Turkish operation. It remains to be seen how this will impact on the situation on the ground.

Header image: Syrian Arab and Kurdish civilians flee with their belongings amid Turkish bombardment on Syria’s northeastern town of Ras al-Ain on October 9, 2019. (Delil SOULEIMAN / AFP)