The Turkish Army has invaded Afrin, the Kurdish enclave on its border with Syria. The Turkish military announced it launched Operation Olive Branch in Syria's north-western Afrin region on Saturday 20 January 2018.� The Turkish General Staff announced that the objective of the mission was to �establish security and stability on our borders and region, to eliminate terrorists of PKK/KCK/PYD-YPG and Daesh.� The statement also said the operation also aims to �save our friends and brothers� from the oppression and cruelty of terrorist groups, adding the operation only targets terrorists and their shelters, weapons and material belonging to them. It said the operation will also take sensitivity into account and no civilian or innocent person would be harmed.
As evidence of its humanitarian purposes Turkish fighter jets hit 108 out of 113 targets in the region shortly after the operation started. The Minnigh military airbase was among the targets hit by Turkish jets, as well as YPG observation points in the villages of Jalama, Himdia, Hajlar, Fraria and Tal Sallur. There were hundreds of civilian casualties.
Turkey�cited�the right to self-defence in Article 51 of the United Nations Charter as a legal justification for its operation. Turkey�s immediate�objective�is to extend its buffer zone to sever the YPG�s access to the Turkish border northwest of Aleppo City. Turkey previously�seized�and secured a buffer zone from the outskirts of Afrin to the east bank of the Euphrates River in northern Aleppo Province beginning on August 24th, 2016. Turkey secured Russia�s permission for the current operation and has likely negotiated a new �de-escalation� line north of Aleppo City.�Turkish Chief of the General Staff Hulusi Akar and Turkey�s National Intelligence Organization, (Mille Istihbarat Teskilat -MIT) head Hakan Fidan�met�with Russian Chief of the General Staff General Valery Gerasimov and Russian Minister of Defence Sergey Shoigu in Moscow on January 18th to coordinate the operation. Turkey�s air operations on January 20th demonstrate that Turkey secured Russian�permission�to conduct close air support in Syrian airspace. against possible future attack. � Erdogan may next attack Manbij, where U.S. forces operate.�Erdogan demanded a �handover� of Manbij on January 14th and reiterated his intent to�take the city by force�after operations in Afrin conclude on January 20th. [i]
The fundamental problem with this Turkish military offensive is that it is being conducted against the YPG Kurdish fighters, as a part of the Syrian Democratic Forces (�SDF�) who have served as U.S. surrogate forces in Northern Syria; a policy which was to be augmented by the U.S. creation of a 30,000-strong border security force along the Turkish border, with a significant YPG component. Although the U.S. waffled about this commitment the Trump administration has warned the Turks that their continued military offensive would be detrimental to U.S. policies in the area and its continuing battle against Daesh.
Today, primarily Kurdish forces control an expanse of territory that includes almost the entirety of the country�s northern border with Turkey, major oil fields in the Arab-majority eastern desert and villages 20km from the Syrian-Iraqi border in the country�s southeast. During the ongoing civil war, Syrian government forces withdrew from several Kurdish regions in northern Syria in early 2012. As a result, existing local Kurdish parties� including the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD)�moved to fill the ensuing power vacuum. These territories, commonly known as Rojava (Western Kurdistan), are part of the semi-autonomous Democratic Federation of Northern Syria governed by the Self-Administration, an executive governing body composed of a number of local political parties including Arab tribes and other minorities. The Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (DFNS) is made up of three cantons, running from west to east along Syria�s northern border with Turkey: Afrin, Kobani and Jazirah. The PYD is a leading voice in the Self-Administration. The PYD�s armed wing, the YPG, makes up the bulk of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the official army of the federation. It is they who are supported by U.S. trainers and suppliers of military equipment. Except for a small pocket of land occupied by the Turkish Army and some Syrian rebel factions controlled by the Turks, the SDF control the entire southern border of Turkey. This is what angers Turkey.
On 17 March 2016 the Kurds announced the formation of this Democratic Federation of Northern Syria. Salih Muslim Mohammed,�the co-leader of the�Democratic Union Party (PYD), the largest Kurdish�party in Syria, said the federation should not be seen as an autonomous Kurdistan region, but rather a blueprint for a future decentralised and democratic country, where everyone is represented in government in their respective cantons.
�There is no autonomous Kurdish region, so there is no question of recognising it or not," he said.��It is part of a democratic Syria, and it might expand all over Syria. We want to decentralise Syria, in which everyone has their rights. That same day, two hundred�members, delegates and party members including Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen, and Christians from the Kurdish areas of Syria and Syrian towns including Manbij, Aleppo, and al-Shahbaa elected a council of 31 members for the Democratic Federal System for Rojava and Northern Syria.[ii]
There are two major reasons for the anger which the presence of the SDF and its YPG forces on its southern border has agitated Turkey. The first is that Rojava is in fact a proto-Kurdish state which adjoins the Kurdish regions of Turkey to the north. Turkey fears that he contagion of self-rule by Kurds will bring forward the demand for the creation of a Kurdish state carved from the Kurdish sections of Turkey, Iran and Iraq as well as Rojava. The Turks say that independence has been the aim of the Kurds, especially the PKK groups which have been battling Turkish troops inside Turkey for years; which is why they classify the PKK as a terrorist organisation. That is the �hook� on which Turkey asserts its legitimacy in fighting against all Kurds, not only the PKK.
The other reason for Turkish anger at the creation of Rojava is that, since the beginning of the Syrian civil war, Turkey has been profiteering from the battles. Turkey has supported Daesh with money, advice and supplies. It provide the several �Al-Qaeda and Daesh bands with a safe haven inside Turkey and takes Syrian oil in Turkish trucks and markets the oil internationally. This trade was conducted by Erdogan himself and his sons. The Russians published the details of this trade and showed pictures of the oil theft on videos. The Turkish national intelligence agency has bought and sold oil from Syria and provided the rebels with chemical weapons, explosives and medical supplies as well as a safe passage across the Turkish border when they needed rest or training inside Turkey. The rise of a border with Syria which is controlled by the SDF has severely cramped the illegal trade with the terrorists by the Turkish Government and this is a source of the anger against the SDF and the Kurds.
In addition to their military efforts the Turks have maintained their support for the Al-Nusra front (�Jabhat al-Nusra�) an erstwhile al-Qaeda affiliate, and several other Salafist forces opposed to Assad as well as opposed to the Kurds. The Turks have also supported several Arab tribes in the region. Sheikh al-Bashir, leader of the Baggara tribe in Syria's eastern Deir ez-Zor Governorate and a former member of the Syrian Parliament, has organized several armed groups that have actively sought to attack Kurds in and around the ethnically mixed city of Ras al- �Ayn in the north-eastern area of al-Hasakah governance, along the Turkish border. Pro-government Baggara fighters, without links to Sheikh al-Bashir, have also participated in attacks against the Kurdish PYD.� The participation of Baggara tribal fighters in attacks against Kurds demonstrates the continuingly fragile state of Kurdish and Arab tribal relations in ethnically mixed regions such as Aleppo and al-Jazirah. Many of the tribes lost control of the oil wells in their region to Daesh and to Al-Nusra. These oil facilities are now in the hands of the PYD Kurds and the local tribesmen., as well as Al-Assad want them back. Turkey is supporting both in the efforts around Deir ez-Zor in the notional �peace processes� in Geneva and, currently, in Sochi. With the Kurdish loss of the oil facilities around Kirkuk by the Iraqi reaction to the Kurdish Referendum, the loss of the Deir ez-Zor facilities would have a major impact on Kurdish economic plans.
The Turks have enlisted the support of these groups in Turkey�s assault on Afrin. Turkey�s local partners in the Afrin campaign include jihadis, Salafists and those looking to settle scores with the YPG. It worries many people that even as Erdogan claims to be ridding Afrin of �terrorists�, they are the very people he wants to move into the area -� former al-Qaeda members, Salafi jihadis, a variety of Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood, mercenaries and some volunteers controlled by Turkey's National Intelligence Organization (MIT). �Among the groups besieging Afrin and participating in the operations under [Turkish Armed Forces] and MIT guidance are Faylaq al-Sham, Jaish al-Nasr, Jabhat al-Shamiya, Ahrar al-Sham, Nureddin Zengi Brigades, Suqour al-Jaber, Sultan Murad Brigade, Samarkand Brigade, Muntasir Billah Brigade, Sultan Mourad Division, Fatih Sultan Mehmet Brigade, Hamza Company, Northern Storm, Turkistan Islamic Party and Salahaddin Brigade.�[iii]
Erdogan has apparently succeeded in gaining support inside Turkey from opposition parties as well as from his AKP. �The Turkish Parliament�s second- and third-biggest parties, the centre-left Republican People�s Party (CHP) and the far-right Nationalist Action Party (MHP), both offered their nationalist support to the Turkish military and, publicly, threw their weight behind the military�s cause. The only major party in opposition to Turkey�s effort at restoring its Ottoman hegemony in the region is the Peoples' Democratic Party (Halkların Demokratik Partisi �HDP�), a minority Kurdish-led group heavily suppressed and jailed by Erdogan.
The Russians, Iranians and the Assad Syrians are supporting Turkey in this assault. The only allies of the Kurds appear to be their pusillanimous and duplicitous American allies whose weak-willed support of the SDF is a constant threat to the security of the region and the safety of the SDF forces.
What Can The Kurds Do?
It is clear that the YPG finds itself ranged among the stronger forces in the region in Syria, intent on driving them out. Despite the victories of the Peshmerga (Kurdish armed forces) in the battle for Mosul in Iraq and the routing of Daesh in most of Syria the Kurds have suffered some heavy blows in both Iraq and Iran after the Kurdish Referendum.
On the 15th of October 2017 the Iraqi Army forced its way into the Kurdish stronghold of Kirkuk. U.S.-armed and trained Iraqi government forces clashed with U.S.-armed and -trained Kurdish forces in Kirkuk. By Monday, Iraqi forces had reclaimed the city, a military base, the airport, and major oil fields nearby while thousands of Kirkuk Kurdish residents fled north. This was a direct result of including Kurdish voters in Kirkuk to participate in the Kurdistan independence referendum when the �official� control of Kirkuk (and its oil wells) had not been agreed with the Iraqi central government or with the many ethnic groups which inhabit Kirkuk; especially the Turkmen.� Kurdish forces affiliated with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (�PUK�) had gained full security and military control over Kirkuk after June 2014, when the Iraqi army�s 12th division withdrew in the face of the Islamic State's overwhelming advance, but lost that control in October 2017.
Elements from a combined force of Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), Counterterrorism Services (CTS), Federal Police, and Iranian-backed popular mobilization forces (PMF) south of Kirkuk City launched a probing attack against Peshmerga forces southwest of Kirkuk at 2:00 a.m. on October 15th. The Iranian-backed units include the Badr Organization�s Turkmen Brigade (the 16th PMU brigade) and three brigades from Asai�b Ahl al-Haq (the 41st, 42nd and 43rd PMU brigades). Barzani, the erstwhile Kurdish Region�s President, ordered the outmatched Kurdish Peshmerga forces not to engage with the Iraqi troops but to move out of Kirkuk. The Kurds lost control of the area and the oil.
Beyond that The Turks used the Kurdish referendum to expand its co-operation with the Iranians, whose Revolutionary Guard played such an important role in Shia-dominated Iran. As a result of the joint opposition to Kurdish independence the Turks have established close military and intelligence ties to Iran. The Sept. 25 independence referendum held by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq has resulted in the Ankara-Tehran relationship quickly assuming features of an informal military-security cooperation. Three meetings provide insight into the rapprochement and its future direction: the Aug. 14-15 visit of Iranian Chief of Staff Gen. Mohammad Bagheri to Ankara; the Oct. 1-4 visit to Tehran by Turkish Chief of the General Staff Gen. Hulusi Akar; and the Oct. 4 visit to Tehran by Erdogan.
After Bagheri�s visit, the two countries decided to augment cooperation in securing borders, coordinating intelligence and conducting counterterrorism operations. The primary objective is to physically sever connections between the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which Turkey considers a terrorist group, and its Iranian affiliate, the Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK), and then marginalize them.� Security sources have said that the two countries have signed a protocol to carry out joint border security exercises at the platoon and company levels and to conduct joint border patrols targeting cross-border smuggling, from which the PKK and PJAK have been profiting. Iran has reacted favourably to Turkey�s construction of a 90-mile security wall along their 310-mile common border. Military sources said they have discussed how Iran might contribute to border security, perhaps through a joint drone surveillance system or constructing surveillance towers along critical routes on Iran's side of the border.
Of more importance, the countries signed a protocol for intelligence sharing between the Turkish Gendarmerie Command and border security units of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) at the tactical level. Iran and Turkey also agreed to friendly visits of their naval vessels to each other�s ports and signed three separate protocols for exchanging war academy cadets and military medical students to cooperate on education. Both countries seem eager to formalize intelligence sharing on border security and surveillance of Kurdish movements by mobilizing permanent outposts with drones and aircrafts and perhaps, in the coming months, by establishing �fusion centres� for intelligence sharing in Tehran and Ankara. It is also possible that institutionalizing military-to-military bilateral relations will result in a trust being built that accelerates diplomatic normalization.
Most importantly, the Turkish-Iranian joint military adventure in Iraq has spread to Turkish-Iranian co-operation in Syria. Iran�s Revolutionary Guard have a stake in resupplying both Hezbollah and Hamas and in keeping Assad in power. The Turkish offensive in Afrin assists in the Russian-Syrian-Iranian push in adjoining Idlib Province against the last remaining Syrian rebel forces.
Although the Peshmerga forces in the region are strong, well- equipped and disciplined they lack the air cover that an energised U.S. assistance could have provided them The U.S. seems unwilling to confront Turkey as a NATO member. It refuses to supply air cover for the SDF in any meaningful way. It supplies only light equipment for the SDF forces and vacillates wildly on policies emanating from the White House, the State Department, the Pentagon and from McDill (SOCOM headquarters). That is not a reliable way to make progress. However, the Kurds have a far more devastating weapon in hand; one it has never really used in any major way previously (although there have been threats of its use). The nations of Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria are vulnerable to a devastating Kurdish weapon � the weaponization of water. A look at a map which show the vulnerabilities. The waters of the region mainly rise and pass through the lands of the Kurds.
The waters of the Tigris Euphrates Basins
The watershed of the Tigris-Euphrates Region is an area where water wars have long been expected. The twin rivers rise in the high mountains of north-eastern Anatolia and flow through Turkey, Syria and Iraq before eventually merging to form the Shatt al- �Arab, which empties into the Gulf. Turkey, the upstream country, has a powerful military and has always dominated the flow of water to Iraq, Iran and Syria; but, these rivers rise and flow through Kurdish Turkey.
One of the precipitating causes of the civil war in Syria was the increasing scarcity of water in the Tigris-Euphrates Basin as a result of climate change and the deliberate policies of weaponization of water supplies by Turkey and its neighbour states. Drought has had a firm grip on the region since 1998 and the recent dry spell is likely the driest period on record in 900 years and almost certainly the worst drought in 500 years.
The drought during 2005 caused 75 percent of Syria's farms to fail and 85 percent of livestock to die between 2006 and 2011, according to the United Nations. The collapse in crop yields forced as many as 1.5 million Syrians to migrate to urban centres, like Homs and Damascus.
It was the continuing crisis over water which provided the backdrop to the Syrian Crisis. By 2011, drought-related crop failure in Syria had pushed up to�1.5 million displaced�farmers to abandon their land; those displaced farmers became a wellspring of recruits for the Free Syrian Army and for such groups as the Islamic State (also called ISIS or Daesh) and al Qaeda. Testimonies gathered by reporters and activists in conflict zones suggested that the lack of government help during the drought was a central motivating factor in the anti-government rebellion in Syria. Moreover, a 2011�study�shows that the former Daesh strongholds of Aleppo, Deir ez-Zor, and Raqqa were among the areas hardest hit by crop failure.
In other words, drought changed the economic, social, and political landscape of Syria. Iraq, already reeling from Daesh and sectarian tension, was next. In 2006, a leaked U.S. State Department cable forecast�that Syria�s �emerging water crisis carries the potential for severe economic volatility and even socio-political unrest.��This�cable was a clear warning about Iraq as well. By 2011, Iraqi wheat yields had fallen by over 50 percent. Much of the country�s livestock had died, affecting hundreds of thousands of fieldworkers and farmers. Despite losing 1.6 million tons of grain to Daesh and consuming 2.5 million tons more than it can produce, Iraq had planned to become�a grain exporter by 2017. This closely mirrored Syria�s ambition at the time of the 2006 cable. In those years, Damascus hoped to dramatically increase agricultural production as a part of an economic diversification plan.�Syria had already doubled its irrigated land in the preceding 15 years, and its 2006 five-year plan projected further increases.
The Turks only use about 35% of the water flow and this is largely because it manages the flow through an elaborate system of dams. The pièce de résistance of the program of dam-building in Turkey was the gigantic Southern Anatolian Project (known by its Turkish acronym, GAP), which commenced in the 1970s and encompasses 22 dams, 19 hydroelectric power plants and several irrigation networks. GAP remains the second biggest integrated water development project in the world, covering approximately 10 percent of Turkey�s population and an equivalent surface area.[iv]
As can be seen from the map, almost all of the GAP water system on which Turkey depends is entirely in Turkish Kurdistan. The rivers which flow into Syria and Iraq are integrated in these dams and rely on Turkey�s management of the water supply. This gives the Turks a great deal of power in negotiating with its neighbours on the supply of water; but it also depends on the security of these dams, pumping stations and water courses from a military challenge by Kurds in their homelands in Turkey and the homelands of Rojava.
The effect is particularly noted in the Euphrates system
One of the most important elements in the Euphrates flow is the Khabur (�Source of Fertility�) River. It has a total length of about 200 miles (320 km).� The river has long been important for irrigating the fertile Al-Hasakah region of north-eastern Syria. Following World War II, the construction of new dams and an improved canal network increased the total cultivated area to more than 4,000,000 acres (1,600,000 hectares). The Khabur River valley, until the war, was Syria�s leading wheat-producing district and an important source of cotton, barley, rice, sesame, and vegetables. A major portion of Syria�s ability to feed itself depends on the Khabur. A little further north of the Khabur-Euphrates confluence are the oil wells and installations around Deir-ez-Azor which require large supplies of water.
Assad�s forces, with Russian help, and now with the support of Turkey are attempting to follow-up the defeat of Daesh in the region to drive out the SDF forces from Rojava This the root of the pressure for negotiations in places like Sochi where the attendees hope to divide Syria among them. The reject a Federal System for Syria but want �sphere of influence�. None of these spheres include Kurds. The fundamental problem with Kurds is that they cannot agree on a unitary leadership for an independent Kurdistan. The fighting between Barzani and Talibani Kurds is the curse of the Kurd Nation.
Although autonomy in Iraqi Kurdistan had been created in 1970 (as the Kurdish Autonomous Region) the two Kurdish opponents could not agree on a common policy or leadership. There were Kurdish factions in the governorates of Erbil, Dahuk and As-Suleymaniyah which supported the Iraqi government and others who supported a separate autonomous Kurdish state. In the 1992 Kurdish election to the Legislative Assembly power was shared almost equally between the Barzanis and the Talabani. That was unwelcome to both sides and tensions grew.
The Iraqi Kurdish Civil War began in May 1994 when fighting broke out between the two factions. The clashes left around 300 people dead. Over the next year, around 2,000 people were killed on both sides. Members of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps provided limited support to the KDP and allowed the KDP to launch attacks from Iranian territory. This fighting among the Kurds and the involvement of the Iranians in supporting the civil war deeply divided he Kurdish unity and battles, betrayals and a fight for hegemony became the rule.
Complicating even further the politics of the Kurds has been the formation in 1978 of the Kurdish Workers� Party (PKK), a party which merged revolutionary socialism with support for Kurdish nationalism. Its leader was Abdullah �calan. Its principal enemy was not Iraq or the Barzani KRG. It concentrated on operations in neighbouring Turkey which had been suppressing Kurdish nationalism. The PKK engaged in a large number of what Turkey called �terrorist acts� and the PKK was recognised internationally as a terrorist group. When Abdullah �calan was captured and jailed in 1999 the PKK began a period of negotiation in search of a truce with Turkey, a process which resulted, in 2013, with a ceasefire with Turkey. This lasted until June 2015 when Erdogan�s Turkey unilaterally broke the truce and attacked PKK bases in Iraq with continuous bombing raids. Turkey continues to engage in punitive bombings and terror inside the Kurdish areas of Turkey.
However, now that both the Barzanis and the Talebani have new leaders there is some hope that the Kurds can act together as a united force, expanding its reach across all of Kurdistan (in Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria). In recent days the Kurds, including the representatives of the PKK have been openly receiving support from regional powers anxious to prevent Assad from controlling Syria and seeking to block further Russian and Iranian acquisition of power in the region. The Turks have been complaining that Saudi, Emirati and Egyptian forces have provided aid and supplies to the YPG and the PKK. This support for the outlawed Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) , especially, threaten to turn Turkey�s military offensive against Syrian Kurds aligned with the PKK into a regional crisis. Iran�s Intelligence Ministry said it had recently seized two large caches of weapons and explosives in separate operations in Kurdish areas in the west of the country and a Baloch region on the eastern border with Pakistan. It said the Kurdish cache seized in the town of Marivan included bomb-making material, electronic detonators, and rocket propelled grenades while the one in the east contained two dozen remote-controlled bombs. They claim these originated in Saudi Arabia. This support has not yet expanded beyond the Turkish-SDF battle in Syria but has the potential to become a regional conflict along the lines of the Sunni-Shia divide and the Saudi-Iranian clash.
In the meantime, the effect of the Turkish assault has been to demonstrate, clearly, to the Kurds that their old song �We have no friends but the mountains� is true. No one is yet willing to assist in creating an independent Kurdish independent state. However, the waters of the region rise in the Kurdish homeland. It is these waters from the Kurdish mountains on which the Turks, Iranians, Iraqi and Syrians depend on for survival. It is possible to use these waters as a lever to finally achieve an independent Kurdistan. The attack on Afrin may prove a blessing for Kurdish nationalism.