Turkey and Islamist Rebels Carve Up Northern Syria
Marking a new phase in the Syrian War, Turkey is taking over cities in northern Syria, and children in occupied Afrin are being brainwashed with pro-Erdogan propaganda. We talk to Turkish-Kurdish journalist Ali Ornek
BEN NORTON: It’s the Real News. I’m Ben Norton.
The seven year war in Syria appears to be entering a whole new phase. While the Western corporate media has focused almost exclusively on battles between the Syrian army and foreign-backed Islamist rebels, NATO member Turkey has begun carving up the north of the country.
Turkey’s leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan invaded Syria in January. The Turkish army and Salafi-jihadist rebels from the so-called Free Syrian Army conquered the Kurdish majority city of Afrin, expelling roughly 200,000 of its 300,000 inhabitants. Extremist Islamist rebels subsequently looted Kurdish stores and burnt down homes in Afrin.
A few days later Turkish state media published shocking video of a school in the northern Syrian city. Children are waving Turkish flags. Teachers are making students chant pro-Erdogan and pro-Turkey slogans. And giant photos of Erdogan hang on the walls inside the Syrian school.
Now Turkey has set its sights on other border areas inside northern Syria, including Tal Rifaat and Manbij. Those are cities to the east.
Turkey has said its goal is to defeat Kurdish fighters from the People’s Protection Units, known by the acronym YPG, whom Ankara describes as terrorists.
In its fight against ISIS, the YPG has received support from the United States, which is committed to overthrowing the government in Damascus, and the U.S. has created several military bases inside sovereign Syrian territory, where there are at least 2,000 American troops.
But the U.S. also appears to have supported the Turkish invasion of Syria and the Pentagon told YPG fighters that they would lose U.S. support if they went to Afrin to fight Turkey.
Joining us to discuss these complexities and the potential for a whole new phase in the Syrian war is journalist Ali Ornek. Ali is a Turkish journalist of Kurdish origin. He previously worked for Hurriyet daily, one of the leading newspapers in Turkey, as a foreign news editor, and he spent several years reporting on the war in Syria. Thanks for joining us, Ali.
ALI ORNEK: Thank you, Ben, for having me on your program.
BEN NORTON: Of course. Ali, so let’s just start with what happened in January. I mean, of course there’s a lot to talk about with the whole war in Syria, and we’ll get to that. But can you talk about Turkey’s invasion of northern Syria, which the government in Damascus said explicitly that it opposed? This was in January of this year.
Of course, Turkey has a long history of intervention in Syria going back to the beginning of this war. It’s documented that Turkey along with the CIA, Saudi Arabia, and other foreign countries have supported extremist Islamist rebels inside the country. But this seems to be a whole new phase. What’s your take?
ALI ORNEK: Yeah. As you said, it’s a completely new phenomenon for the Turkish intervention into Syria. But there are also some, both personal reasons and also as well structural, or let’s say Turkish state reasons, behind this occupation of Afrin.
On the first level we have Erdogan, the president of Turkey, who risked his whole political career by intervening in Syria by both supplying jihadi groups with arms, intelligence, and training, and weapons to overthrow the Assad government and replace it with the Muslim Brotherhood government. So he risked his whole political career with this intervention.
And when the Afrin operation, when you look at the timing of the Afrin operation, of course, we saw that it’s some sort of reaction to Syrian army operation into Idlib, where al-Qaeda and its allied forces are holding ground. Erdogan saw this as the end of his adventure in Syria. So he had to make a new move to preserve his course.
And on the second level, of course mostly ignored by western media reporting, it’s, this is not just Erdoğan’s adventure. Actually it’s a Turkish state reaction to the U.S. plan. The U.S. plan to establish a Kurdish state in its southern border. Turkey has long, for at least 30 years, Turkey is in a war with the PKK, which is now, which has now a branch in Syria called YPG. So Turkish state, to this new establishment, new U.S. policy, has a threat to its territorial integrity. And so they act accordingly and act to crush the Kurdish entity in the north.
But as I said, the Idlib operation, I think, triggered Erdogan’s fears Also there is another aspect for his years. As we know, for a couple of years the United States formed a small so-called Syria’s friends group. It includes Britain, the United Kingdom, France, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt, and France. And they, together they discussed the, the future plans and agenda in Syria. And what we have learned, that Turkey found no seat in these closed group meetings. So Erdogan felt that he is now completely out of the table in Syria, either on the Russian side or on the United States side.
So by intervening into Afrin, by occupying Afrin, he wants to show that he’s still a powerful actor in Syria, and he couldn’t be, he shouldn’t be ignored by the United States. And the interesting point is that Erdogan used FSA forces more than ever, more than the previous operation, to capture Jabus and Al Bab from ISIS. In Afrin operation we saw FSA play actually a leading role, not just cannon fodder. And by so Erdoğan I think tries to show the United States that is a very well trained and equipped FSA force that could be used instead of PKK-linked YPG.
So what we saw, that FSA took a leading role in the capture of Afrin, and actually Turkish regular forces, armed forces, play a supportive role in capturing Afrin.
BEN NORTON: There are a few things I want to address that you mentioned. In a few minutes we’ll get to the discussion of the U.S. military bases in northern Syria and the U.S. relationship to the YPG. That’s a very important point.
Before that I want to address Idlib. Idlib is the last remaining rebel-held province inside Syria. It’s controlled largely by al-Qaeda, by HTS, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, which is just rebranded Syrian al-Qaeda. And we’ve seen videos of the Turkish military sending convoys through Idlib that are, the convoys are embedded inside HTS, Syrian al-Qaeda.
We’ve known for years that that Turkey was supporting al-Qaeda inside Syria, along with Saudi Arabia, Qatar, etc. So it’s very clear, as you mentioned, that part of this is about Idlib. We’ve even heard that that Turkey is appointing officials who might be governing parts of them.
Do you think that this means that the Syrian army might back off of Idlib out of fears that there could potentially be a war that breaks out between the Turkish and Syrian armies over Idlib?
ALI ORNEK: I think Syrian army has priorities when it comes to the battlefield. Today with U.S. occupation force al-Tanf, it borders close to Jordan border and Iraq.
BEN NORTON: That’s the southeast.
ALI ORNEK: Yes, southeast. And there, are there are Israel and Saudi Arabia-backed groups there pushing south to Damascus many times. Now, you know, this escalation period we are witnessing in Idlib. But the thing is Syrian army, or the Syrian army leadership, now the southern front is more important than the northern front, as we see Syrian army captured Ghouta, a suburb of capital Damascus.
So while Syrian army and Russia are focusing on south, I think they, you can’t ignore a little bit more Erdogan’s adventures in the north. Some of them are actually in coordination with Russia. Erdogan took some steps with Russian approval, and of course the check points that they want to, they are care of the Turkish army and Turkish armed force are currently establishing in the south in Idlib, and I think west, eastern Idlib, are actually Russian, I think Russian decision, in which they come together, reached in Astana.
So I think you, one day we will see the Syrian army march to Idlib, but it’s not, it doesn’t seem to me that it’s that close. It’s a matter of time. First the Syrian army has to secure the southern border, and cut off the Israel and Saudi Arabia proxy forces there.
BEN NORTON: Yeah, and related to this issue, you mentioned Astana and Russia’s role. We know that Russia withdrew its forces in January before Turkey invaded Afrin. And we also know that Russia under the deconfliction zone agreed to in Astana controls the airspace and allowed Turkish planes to fly. So clearly there’s an agreement there. I want to get to that point in a second.
BEN NORTON: Some critics have argued that what what Erdogan is doing is fulfilling this kind of neo-Ottoman dream that he’s discussed before, and that he’s trying to reincorporate parts of northern Syria into Turkey.
You mentioned Jarabulus. We already know that Jarabulus, al-Bab and Azaz, which were all taken in northern Syria, those are those cities inside Syria are being governed by officials who are appointed by Turkey. So do you think that there might be some attempt here by Turkey to try to eat up these cities in northern Syria, and if not annex them put them under its sphere of influence?
And do you think that in Astana this is something that Russia might agree to? Because Russia and Iran are not on the same page. Iran has, has been much more closely allied with the government of Damascus. And Russia is certainly allied with it. But Russia also has close ties to Turkey at this point.
ALI ORNEK: In the Astana agreement Turkey confirms its respect to territorial integrity of Syria. But actually this is not what we, this is not what we are seeing in Turkey, Turkish movement in Syria. Like, as you said, Jarabulus, al-Bab, and even in Afrin, they’ve sent some local district governors of Turkey which are directly reporting to Ankara. And now Turkish postal service has officers in Jarabulus and al-Bab. This is clearly a violation of Astana agreement.
But what I am trying to say, and the southern front is really important so Russia can turn a blind eye to this kind of, some actually that comes to small violations of the agreement, as long as Turkey keep jihadi groups in their front and not preventing any attacks the Free Syrian Army in northern Hama, in western Aleppo.
And so this is the, I, actually, some sort of price that they have to pay, and Erdogan wants to show his power by capturing some areas of Syria, and because Erdogan has a critical election a new future. And the Turkish flags raised over Syria n towns are part of his election campaign right now. And so I think this is some sort of lesser evil for Russia.
Yeah. The YPG site has long been saying that actually Russia betrayed their allies with YPG by allowing Turkish army, a close aide of Erdogan, adviser of Erdogan, Ilnur Cevik, has just said that without Russian approval they can’t capture Afrin, let alone talking about Manbij or other towns. And this, this is completed through Russia approved Turkey to attack Afrin.
But this is I don’t think that this will be named as a betrayal, because betrayal, you betray to your allies. Not some neutral forces. And YPG has long, for over three years YPG is solidly in alliance with the United States. So when you are in an alliance with United States you are ok with the i r plans. And according with these plans by capturing rich oil fields of Deir el-Zour and gas fields of central Syria for the sake of U.S. plans, you can’t expect Russia to come and save you from Turkey.
BEN NORTON: This is going to be the end of part one of our interview. There will be three parts in my discussion with Ali Ornek. In the next two parts we’ll be discussing the very complex U.S. relationship with the YPG and the long history of the United States allying on and off, and betraying Kurdish forces in the region. Well, Ali, thank you so much for joining us on the Real News.
ALI ORNEK: Thank you, Ben.
BEN NORTON: For the Real News, I’m Ben Norton.