After firing a series of strikes against Kurdish armed groups in both Syria and Iraq, Turkish President, Recep Tayip Erdogan, has threatened a ground invasion into north-eastern Syria. The strikes have been painted as a response to a terrorist attack in central Istanbul, but what else factors into this decision?
On Sunday, the Turkish military announced that it had destroyed 89 targets in both Iraq and Syria, belonging to Kurdish armed groups, which has been followed by threats of a ground invasion by Turkey’s President. It is unclear how many Kurdish militants were killed in the strikes, with claims ranging from tens to hundreds. According to the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), 11 civilians were killed in the strikes.
Turkey’s defense ministry says that its latest air campaign, labelled ‘Operation Claw-Sword’, aimed to “neutralize PKK/KCK/YPG and other terrorist elements [and] eliminate terrorist attacks on our people and security forces from northern Syria.” Ankara has blamed the Kurdish YPG group of engineering a terrorist attack that killed 6 and injured 80 in the heart of Istanbul’s Taksim area. There were also initial claims that the attack may have been conducted by other Kurdish groups, classified as terrorist organizations by Turkey, such as the PKK, of which a female suspect was initially accused of being involved.
The terrorist attack in central Istanbul seems to be the justification for the latest attack on a multitude of Kurdish groups, which Ankara has linked together and collectively punished. Despite this, so far there has been some doubt about who was actually behind the Istanbul terrorist attack, with initial claims from the Turkish authorities ranging from blaming Daesh to Kurdish militia groups. All the above mentioned Kurdish groups have rejected claims of their own involvement, as for Daesh, they have not claimed the attack. Whoever carried out the brutal bombing attack, it is clear that they were targeting civilians and the purpose of the attack would have likely been to instill fear in the Turkish public.
President Erdogan has clearly set his eyes on a strong response to the attack, now vowing to follow his aerial assaults, in Iraq and Syria, with a ground invasion. Whilst it is possible that Turkish troops could run incursions into northern Iraq, in order to combat Kurdish forces there, it is more likely that the Turkish military will enter north-east Syria. The Turkish military may choose to continue what they started with Operation Olive Branch in 2018 and Operation Peace Spring in 2019, during which they occupied strips of Syrian land along the country’s border, after driving out the US-backed SDF.
Such a ground operation in north-eastern Syria would likely be limited and there would be various considerations that Ankara would have to take before committing to such an attack. The US Government is the principle backer of the SDF in north-east Syria, so any incursion would have to somewhat satisfy Turkey’s NATO ally. During both past invasions, the US completely abandoned its Kurdish allies, making sure to secure the most important lands only. Washington wants to maintain its control, through its Kurdish proxies, of the most arable land in Syria, as well as the locations which make up 90% of what should be the oil resources of the Syrian people. Therefore, it is conceivable that the US will allow another limited ground incursion, damaging the military capabilities of their Kurdish allies.
“According to the Syrian Oil Ministry, US forces have stolen more than 80 percent of the country’s daily oil output, amounting to around 66,000 barrels of oil every single day.” https://t.co/mQeVGcqcpG
— sarah (@sahouraxo) November 14, 2022
Another aspect is the way that both the Russian and the Syrian governments will react, it does seem like Ankara and Damascus are nearing a formal re-opening of diplomatic ties. Any invasion of Syrian territory, beyond the current lands that the Turkish military and their Syrian proxies have occupied, could put relations in jeopardy. On the flip side, however, such an invasion could also present opportunities for the Syrian Government as Turkey could prove a much easier party to do business with than the SDF. The Kurdish SDF maintains an ethno-nationalist character and calls north-eastern Syria “Rojava”, while armed groups like the YPG and PKK seek to liberate the land that they consider to be within a wider Kurdish State that would ideally span throughout modern Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and Iran.
Kurdish militant groups in both Iraq and Syria are also close allies with the United States, many even maintaining close ties with Israel. For the US and Israel, the Kurdish groups are a tool to use against their enemies and, whenever the Kurdish movements begin to confront tough opposition, are routinely left to die. Despite this, many Kurdish movements continue to ally themselves with the US Government, like is the pattern with many abusive relationships.
Turkish President Recip Tayyip Erdogan has other considerations too; he will face off against opponents in next year’s Presidential elections, set for June 18, 2023. In order to garner support, uniting against a common enemy may well be a tactic he is now employing. That enemy is the Kurds. Turkish authorities have a long history of violence with the nation’s Kurdish community, spanning from issues regarding rights abuses against the minority group and political issues. Ankara often lumps in Kurdish groups, even non-violent political organizations, with armed movements that are disconnected and are regarded as terrorist groups by the Turkish government. The narrative that Erdogan is protecting Turks from their Kurdish terrorist enemies may well work to bolster his standing in the run-up to next year’s elections.
Another added element to the recent strikes against Kurdish armed separatist groups in Syria and Iraq, are the strikes also launched this Sunday by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The IRGC announced that it had struck targets in northern Iraq, targeting the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (PDKI) and the Komala Party, in two separate attacks. Both missiles and kamikaze drones were said to have been used, with some local Kurdish sources claiming that over 20 people were killed in the strikes.
Iranian missile strikes over the past months have targeted Kurdish separatist groups in Iraq, which have participated in the ongoing unrest inside Iran. For months there has been talk of a possible regional Kurdish uprising, which had the potential to cause great instability. This may have been pre-empted by both Turkey and Iran.
Despite Tehran often coming to blows with NATO’s interests, Iran and Turkey have maintained working diplomatic ties, recently strengthening their relationship. Prior to this weekend’s attacks from Turkey and Iran on a wide number of Kurdish armed groups, US officials had, interestingly enough, called upon their own citizens to exit northern Iraq, stating that an offensive could be imminent. This would indicate that the US had received prior warning from Ankara about its upcoming operation, one that, according to the Turkish military, was well planned for.
Tehran is in a position where it faces a country-wide threat that it has accused of amounting to a Western and Israeli plot to cause civil war in Iran. The Kurdish armed separatist groups represent a clear threat to the security of Iran (especially at this time) which is why the IRGC has clamped down on them so hard. It is conceivable that in this context both Ankara and Tehran have come to an agreement. Keeping Turkey on side is important, not because of its ability to aid in containing Kurdish armed movements in Iraq, but most importantly its influence over Azerbaijan and its position of power when it comes to Azerbaijani separatist groups inside Iran. The Azerbaijani separatists are a much bigger threat to the stability of Iran than the Kurdish separatist groups, and Turkey could pull many strings if they chose to help create chaos in Iran.
What the latest attacks against Kurdish armed groups tell, is a story that repeats itself every few years. Kurdish groups trust the US Government; the US see them as nothing more than pawns; Turkey comes up with a reason to crush the Kurdish groups; the US leaves and/or allows for it to happen. The conclusion will be that the Kurdish groups will again return to being the proxies of the US, then the cycle will likely repeat. The biggest losers here are the Kurdish people who live under the rule and/or influence of these armed movements and parties.