Just as the Syrian has been winding down in key areas, Turkey has opened a new front with an attack on U.S.-backed Kurdish forces in Afrin. Syrian-American writer Ehsani joins us to discuss the offensive and the shifting alliances in Syria’s 7-year war
AARON MATÉ: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. Just as the Syrian war has been winding down in key areas, Turkey has opened up a brand new front. Over the weekend, Turkish forces launched airstrikes and a ground offensive over the border against the Syrian Kurdish enclave of Afrin. The attack follows a U.S. announcement that it would back a border force consisting of Kurdish militias and also stay in Syria indefinitely. Ankara sees the Syrian Kurds as allies of the PKK, the Kurdish group waging a longtime struggle for freedom in Turkey.
Joining me is Ehsani, a Syrian-American writer and analyst. Ehsani is a pseudonym to protect his identity. Welcome, Ehsani. We have this new front, Turkey, invading across the border, attacking Afrin. What do you think is important for people to know about what’s going on?
EHSANI: Good evening. What is important is to rewind the clock a little bit, back to I believe it was May of 2017, when the so-called campaign to defeat ISIS was announced at a briefing by Secretary Mattis, General Dunford, and Special Envoy Brett McGurk. The three gentlemen essentially talked about what was called at the time the policy of annihilation of ISIS. It was described as it was already taking place in Mosul. Obviously the attacks were very heavy on the Iraqi side. They wanted to take the fight to ISIS in Raqqa in Syria.
The key decision that led to the events that you are asking about started really at the time, when the indication was made that the Americans were going to team up with the Kurds and not with the Turks in the fight against ISIS. That was the very, very key decision. The Turks, even back then, immediately started raising alarms in Washington about this. They were very uncomfortable because fighting ISIS alongside the Kurds would mean that the Americans would have to arm the Kurds. Turkey was very uncomfortable with this idea.
Brett McGurk, who is our special envoy to fight ISIS, was the man put in charge of this operation. He made numerous trips to the region. He assembled, or he was essentially the envoy of the new administration that was now essentially going to take the fight to ISIS in a much more aggressive manner than the previous administration. At least, that’s the way it was described.
Consequently, what happened was Turkey obviously … As I said, it started to get very concerned. What you saw this week is really the culmination of the constant refusal of Turkey to really accept that American decision to team up with the Kurds to defeat ISIS.
What had happened in the meantime, as we know, is that it was announced recently that America has 2,500 soldiers stationed in the northeast of Syria. Now, what listeners need to know is that these forces are east of the Euphrates River that essentially comes across Syria from Turkey. Why that is important is because Erdogan, the president of Turkey, had asked on numerous occasions that the Kurds do not really have any presence on the western side of the Euphrates. He felt that if they stayed on the eastern side of the Euphrates, he might possibly accept the decision that had already been made.
AARON MATÉ: Ehsani, let me ask you.
AARON MATÉ: Ehsani, let me ask you, why does Erdogan care what happens on the Syrian side of the border with the Kurds?
AARON MATÉ: What is his concern there?
EHSANI: No, that’s a good question. Let’s not forget that it’s been about three decades that the Turkish state has been fighting with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party in their own southern part of Turkey. It’s been a very bloody fight. Turkey obviously refers to them as terrorists. They look at it, it was led by Ocalan, who was based in Syria. This is a very long, three-decade-old essentially confrontation that the Turkish state sees really as an insurgency against the state.
The way Erdogan, prior to the attack on Afrin, he had stated the number that there were about 10,000 armed men in the town of Afrin. By implication, what he’s saying is that those were armed either … He didn’t really make the distinction whether they were armed by the Americans or they were armed by the Syrian state from before, but he just didn’t accept them being as close as they are to the Turkish border, and the decision was made to attack the town.
Now, the attack, from my perspective, serves two purposes for Erdogan. First, it obviously clears out the western Euphrates presence of the Kurds that he sees as a risk, as a national security risk as he calls it, to the Turkish state. But what it also does is it opens up for him the possibility or the chance of installing, in Afrin, groups that are fighting on behalf of Turkey that he calls Syrian armed groups, Free Syrian Army units. That essentially gives him an opportunity to put essentially the Syrian opposition back in the northern part of Syria, because what is really critical is that at the first hours of the attack, he continuously wanted to confirm to everyone that Turkey had no plans to stay in Syria. He even claimed that the history of Afrin was Arab and not Kurd, and that he was effectively returning Afrin to its Arab inhabitants, original Arab civilians and inhabitants.
What he meant by that, I believe, is that he was going to be the facilitator for Syrian FSA units that would come and replace the Kurds from Afrin. He consequently defined that as a zone that he believed was going to be about 30 kilometers, and that zone was going to provide that security that he had been demanding along his southern border.
AARON MATÉ: Okay.
EHSANI: Go ahead.
AARON MATÉ: No, go ahead.
EHSANI: So, where are we in this? My understanding is that the Kurdish leadership in Afrin perhaps had felt all along that in spite of the rhetoric coming out of Ankara, that this attack wouldn’t actually take place because the Americans just wouldn’t allow it, A. B, if it did take place, I’m led to believe that they had assurances from the American side that there would be a UN Security Council meeting that would effectively call on the immediate halting of these attacks, and they could effectively withstand the early days of the invasion and attack by the UN Security Council, by American pressure on Ankara.
That calculation has seemingly been misplaced given the comments that we’ve received since the attack from both General Mattis and Secretary Tillerson. Both have come out essentially confirming the security concerns of Turkey and effectively asking that the Kurdish leaders and Turkey do not escalate the situation. Of course, the response of Erdogan was very swift. He countered by saying, “We will continue with the operations until our goals are achieved.” He kept that open-ended. He did not say what these goals were, and he indeed, prior to the attack and on the cusp of the attack, referred to cleansing the area and getting the Kurds out of [inaudible 00:09:59].
While he is effectively saying, “I’m going to cleanse this area of any Kurds,” he is countering the U.S. request to be measured and to protect civilians by saying, “Listen, I’m just going to conclude this when I conclude this, and when I feel that my objectives have been achieved.” He even today … This morning, I had heard a report of him making an analogy with Afghanistan. He said, “Well, America has been talking about pulling out of Afghanistan, but their goals have not been achieved after so many years in Afghanistan.” He refuses to really play along the sort of timid and very diplomatic language that came out of Washington.
The last point I want to make is that effectively, General Mattis’s comments and Tillerson’s comments were led by observers as telling the Kurds that this is not the area really the American army operates. They really pulled the rug from underneath the hopes of the Kurds in Afrin that America would come to their defense. America effectively said, “We’re on the eastern side of the Mediterranean. We’re in the northeast of Syria. We’re not in the northwest of Syria, and all of you guys, just take the rhetoric down and please cool this thing off.” That’s kind of the extent of where the United States has been at, at this stage of the game.
AARON MATÉ: This would not be the first time that the U.S. has not come to the aid or even abandoned the Kurds. There’s a long history of that.
EHSANI: It’s an excellent point you raise, because let’s not forget what happened just now in Iraq. You had the Kurds go for an independence vote. They’re significantly stronger in Iraq, I would say, since the fall of Saddam in 2003. They’ve had ample time. They’ve had their own Kirkuk oil revenues. Indeed, given the significant advances they’ve made in establishing their presence in Iraq, they went for an actual independence vote against the advice of the United States, that is true, but they did go with the vote. When the vote was made, the Iraqi government literally attacked them overnight, and attacked Kirkuk, and took over the oil bases, and they lost quite significantly that whole thing they’ve been building there.
Erdogan had been watching this very closely, there’s no doubt. Indeed, what the president of Turkey has done is almost called the bluff of the American presence in Syria as a deterrent to him. He escalated the verbal attack. In fact, as you recall, Secretary Tillerson gave a very long speech at Stanford University about the new Syria policy. During this talk, he tried … That was I believe a day or two before the attack started. He tried his best to be nice to Turkey, and he offered some complimentary remark about understanding, hoping that that would probably escalate the situation and Erdogan would actually not go ahead with the attack, even though the language coming out of Ankara was very loud and clear that something was imminent.
With 20/20 hindsight, of course with retrospect, the attack did take place. Where are we now? I think at this stage, let’s just see. The Russians, it was clear that in order for the attack to take place, the Russians had to offer the Syrian airspace that they control. We do know now, and it was confirmed by sources from Turkey and my own personal sources, that the response of the Russians was when … Just before the attack, the Turkish generals flew to Moscow. In Moscow, they were given the green light essentially to use Syrian airspace. That opened the last hurdle that Erdogan faced with this operation. When the Russians offered the Syrian airspace to them, it was essentially 48 hours later that the attack took place.
AARON MATÉ: Right. Ehsani, as we wrap, it’s very complicated, and it’s hard to get one’s head around the shifting alliances in the Syrian war. Given that all these outside forces have been so pivotal in shaping it in the seven years so far, let’s talk a bit about what we can expect now. You’ve talked about how the U.S. is in the position where it supports Turkey. It’s an ally of Turkey. Turkey is in NATO, but yet Turkey is now attacking U.S. allies in the Kurdish area. Meanwhile, Russia has effectively given Turkey its blessing to attack Afrin, because Russia controls the airspace. If I have it right, in exchange, Turkey has tacitly agreed to let Russia step up its offensive against Al Qaeda-linked rebels in Idlib province, which also borders Turkey.
Meanwhile, you also mention that the Free Syrian Army, that they have joined with the Turkish fight against the Kurds in Afrin. If that’s the case, does that bring the Kurds and the Assad regime closer together, since of course the Free Syrian Army and the Assad regime are bitter enemies?
EHSANI: You asked a number of questions, and I will address the last one first. I had put out the thread on Twitter actually only an hour ago describing or answering exactly that point. The conclusion of it is that indeed Assad in Damascus had tried his best to have a rapprochement of some sort with the Kurds in Syria. He has been trying that for months. That rapprochement has failed because the Kurds feel that the Americans are there. They feel that they’ve heard enough to guarantee that the Americans would come to their defense, and therefore they felt that they don’t need to go to Assad, who they consider as weak at the moment.
As the attacks on Afrin were approaching and becoming almost a certainty, I would say, given the rhetoric of the last 48 hours, Kurdish leaders tried one last time themselves now to go to Damascus and offered very limited presence of Syrian army units. They would put up Syrian flags in return for having symbolic presence of the Syrian state in Afrin to deter, to act as a deterrence to Turkey, in that case. Presumably Russia also would be then changing its mind.
The way Assad calculated that, he saw that as too little, too late. He felt that having a small presence of his army units in Afrin would serve him little against what he saw as an imminent attack by Turkey with all its air force. That, what he considered as a limited offer or late offer by the Kurds, was essentially rebuffed almost 24 hours or 48 hours before the actual attack.
So in the long run, however, you are absolutely right that it would presumably serve both the Kurds and Assad if there was a rapprochement of some sort. I find that a little difficult right now for all the reasons that we know about, but at least very, very important is the fact that the Kurds continue to believe that putting their eggs in the American basket is the way to go for now. Will they now change their mind after being disappointed, presumably, with the American response? This is going to be a long ordeal. We shall continue to be fixated on the shifting alliances, as you called, and this is not over. We will await and be in contact soon, I’m sure.
AARON MATÉ: I look forward to it, Ehsani. We thank you for helping us make some sense of what’s going on. Ehsani is a Syrian-American writer and analyst. Thank you.
EHSANI: Thank you.
AARON MATÉ: Thank you for joining us on The Real News.