Kurds caught in Russo-Turkish game... again
Turkey is threatening to boycott UN-backed peace talks on Syria scheduled for later this week if the main Syrian Kurdish party is invited. Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said "of course we will boycott" the Geneva talks if the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its military wing the People's Protection Units (YPG) are at the table, Cavusoglu said in a TV interview, saying it was a "terror group" like ISIS. "There cannot be PYD elements in the negotiating team. There cannot be terrorist organizations. Turkey has a clear stance." He added: "A table without Kurds will be lacking. However, we are against the YPG and the PYD, who repress Kurds, being at the table..." (Hurriyet Daily News, AFP, Jan. 26) Of course, he didn't say which Kurds should be at the table, and in fact there is no other significant Kurdish force in Syria. We've noted before the Turkish state's sinister game of equating the militantly secular and democratic PYD-YPG—the most effective anti-ISIS force in Syria—with their bitter enemy ISIS. But complicating the situation is that Russia, once again, has come to the defense of the Kurds. Moscow's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov blasted Cavusoglu's boycott threat as "blackmail," warning that it would be a "grave mistake" not to invite the PYD. "How can you talk about political reforms in Syria if you ignore a leading Kurdish party?" (ABC, Jan. 26)
These developments come as Russia continues its horrific aerial carnage in Syria. Hours after Lavrov spoke in defense of the Kurds, Russian warplanes struck a British-funded bakery in Hazano, Idlib governorate—on the same day the facility was due to start providing food for 18,000 people in the rebel-held town. The UK's Department for International Development acknowledged the bakery was severely damaged and would not be able to open. Hundreds of civilians have been killed by Russian air-strikes since the Kremlin launched its Syrian intervention in September. The targets of Russian bombs have included mosques, schools—and field hospitals. (The Telegraph, Jan. 27)
Physicians for Human Rights recorded 23 attacks on medical facilities in Syria in October and November last year—all but one by Syrian government or Russian forces. The UN Office for Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs also reports that 20 health facilities were struck or damaged by bombs dropped by the Assad regime or its Russian allies in October and November, and that many aid organizations have had to scale back or suspend operations as a result of increasing attacks. In December, Amnesty International said Russian air strikes had killed hundreds of civilians—and hit medical facilities. (The Independent, Jan. 24)
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reports the death of 471 civilians—including 127 children and 56 women—in Russian air-strikes just since the beginning of the year. The Observatory reports a further 211 civilians—including 30 children and 20 women—killed in Assad regime air-strikes in the same period. (SOHR, Jan. 27)
And the US is essentially acquiescing in this carnage, with an increasingly blatant tilt to Assad. Once again we have reports from Syrian rebels that the US is pressuring them not to fight the regime. Lebanese daily Al Akhbar reported Jan. 20 that the Jordan-based Military Operations Center (MOC), established by the US and Arab governments to coordinate aid to the Free Syrian Army (FSA), has ordered the FSA's Southern Front to stop attacking regime forces and instead focus their efforts against the Nusra Front, Syria's al-Qaeda affiliate. The orders apparently came at a Jan. 8 meeting with Southern Front commanders in Amman. (Syrian Revolution Commentary and Analysis, Jan. 26; Now, Lebanon, Jan. 20)
Turkey's own internal counter-insurgency against guerillas of Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in the country's east is meanwhile beginning to reach similar levels of brutality. The general command of the PKK's armed wing, the People's Defense Forces (HPG), issued a statement Jan. 24 accusing the Turkish military of inflating the number of guerillas killed in combat by adding in civilians illegally slain by security forces—a practice known in Colombia as "false positives." The statement came in response to the armed forces' boast the previous day of 711 PKK fighters killed in the cities of Cizre, Silopi and Sur over the past days. Said the HPG statement: "First and foremost, we as PKK’s armed force HPG have no units instructed for urban warfare in cities. Those portrayed as PKK members are therefore not HPG guerrillas, but could be civilians murdered while defending their streets and neighborhoods. The Turkish state is waging a war against civilian population in Cizre, Nusaybin, Sur, Silopi and many other places; murdering children and elderly, and spreading a lie that it has killed PKK members." (Firat News Agency, Jan. 27; YeniSafak, Jan. 24)
The European Union has taken note of the increasingly grim situation in eastern Turkey. EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini said Jan. 25 in a joint press conference with Turkish ministers in Ankara: "We call for an immediate ceasefire in the southeast and strongly condemn all kinds of terrorism." But this statement implies that the PKK is "terrorist," failing to draw a distinction between "terrorism" and guerilla warfare. It also implicitly exculpates Turkish security forces of state terror. (AFP, Jan. 25)
A sign of hope amid all this is the formation last month of a Syrian Democratic Council (SDC, or MSD by its Kurdish acronym), launched as the political wing of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the new armed alliance that brings together the YPG with secular and progressive elements of the FSA. The SDC was formally announced at a meeting in the town of Derîk, within the Kurdish region of Rojava, attended by over 100 delegates representing Syrian political, military and civil opposition organizations. The move was apparently taken by the decision to bar the PYD-YPG and allied organization from last month's meeting in Riyadh, where rebel groups sought to hash out a common position ahead of the Geneva talks. This makes clear a growing division between more Islamist elements of the rebel forces, being backed by Turkey and Saudi Arabia, and more progressive elements that maintain their independence from foreign powers. (Middle East Online, Dec. 18; ANF, Dec. 11)
However, it will be a challenge for the PYD-YPG and its allies to maintain their independence. US forces have now taken control of Rmeilan airfield in Syria's northern province of Hasakah, a part of Rojava region, to support the SDF in its campaigns against ISIS. The base was previously controlled by the YPG. An SDF representative said: "Under a deal with the YPG, the US was given control of the airport. The purpose of this deal is to back up the SDF, by providing weapons and an airbase for US warplanes." (Al Jazeera, Jan. 20)
But while the US tilt to Assad is costing Washington good will with the FSA, any Kurdish alliance with Russia would be viewed as a serious betrayal. And the FSA (contrary to widepread disinformation from "anti-war" sources in the US) is also fighting ISIS. Earlier this month, FSA commanders announced their their forces had regained control over the ISIS-occupied village of Baghedeen in northern Aleppo governorate, as part of ongoing operations against the "Islamic State" in the area. (Syrian Observer, Jan. 14)
Osama Abu Zeid, the FSA's legal adviser, said in an interview: "IS cannot be eliminated without the FSA. We have a history of struggle against all of those who killed Syrians. Therefore, no one can question the FSA's objectives when it fights IS, because its project is purely Syrian, and it aims to protect Syrians rather than serve other agendas." He also had harsh words for the Pentagon's aborted plan to create a Syrian rebel proxy force: "Although the US gave us some support, we refused its offer and confirmed that this program would fail, and it ultimately did, since it is a US project that does not meet the aspirations of the Syrians. We have a Syrian project to combat all forms of terrorism, including IS and Assad, and we accept any offer of help." (Al Monitor, Jan. 11)
For the Kurds, however, accepting Russian aid (military or diplomatic) could mean squandering an alliance with their own Arab neighbors—the very people they will need to get along with in the long run if there is to be any hope for a democratic, secular and multi-ethnic Syria when this long nightmare is over.
Ironically, both Turkey and Russia are playing a divide-and-rule card to shatter the nascent Arab-Kurdish alliance. Can cross-ethnic solidarity prevail over Great Power intrigues? We ask again: Where are the principled voices that will protest the state terror now being carried out by Russia and Turkey alike?