The Kurds in Syria after Afrin.. Where to?
Enab Baladi’s Investigation Team
For the last five years, Afrin has been watching all the battles that took place in the North of Syria from a distance, without participating in anyone of them. Afrin limited itself only to fortifying its borders and has accordingly turned into a fortress that the mountainous landscape helped in its construction and is protected by fighters, who were guarding its loopholes and assuming very strict security tasks.
With external fortification, Afrin enclosed itself and was preoccupied with its new trades, and its “self-management” institutions which have been announced in al-Hasakah, the third province of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria or the Rojava region.
Despite the fact that the two provinces of al-Jazira and Kubani in the north-east and Afrin province in the far north-west of Syria are far away from each other, the distance between them has often constituted the place for the nascent Kurdish dream, with its western borders on the Mediterranean.
Literally, the term “Rojava” stands for “western Kurdistan”, which is supposed to include Kurdish-majority areas in Syria, regardless of the existence of non-Kurdish human masses in their districts and in the regions located between them.
The Kurdish politicians and military kept stressing their unwillingness to secede from Syria and limited their demands to the formation of a region similar to Iraqi Kurdistan (southern Kurdistan). This demand serves as the gateway to the dream of the “state of Rojava”.
Fulfilling this dream is no longer possible the way it has been before after Afrin’s exit from the “map of the yellow”, which becomes a threat to the remaining areas under the control of the Kurdish forces, and leaves several questions about its future unanswered.
Afrin is waiting for an administrator
To Afrin, the defeat of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) marked a critical shift in the control map of the north of Syria. The region got out of its calculations, due to the military operations led by both the Turkish and the Free armies since January 2018, which ended up by taking control of the whole area in mid-March.
After about four years of the institutions of self-management control over Afrin, the province nowadays is waiting for its administrative affairs to be organized given the new military situation and for the implementation of the outcomes of the “Salvation” Conference hosted by the city of Gaziantep in Turkey on Sunday, 18 March, which has resulted in a number of regulations, mainly forming a civil council to manage the province.
The economic map in the region has witnessed a radical change, with the opening of two internal crossing points, the first of which is in the village of Deir Ballut, opposite to Atme area in north Idlib and the second in the village of Azzawiyah, heading toward Darat Izza in western Aleppo countryside.
Turkey has decided to establish another external crossing which links it to Afrin, corresponding with the opening of the two crossings inside the Syrian territory, and the Turkish crossing will be located in Hamam border village affiliated to Kumlu province in eastern Hatay province. .
The process of removing the mines, which the units have left behind them, is ongoing. According to the spokesman of the “Salvation Conference” and the Kurdish oppositionist, Hassan Shendi, a number of committees were set up to start the work, most notably: the Public Relations Committee, the Relief Committee, the Follow-up Committee, the Committee for the Return of the Displaced, Education Committee, Media Committee and Judicial Committee.
During an interview with Enab Baladi Shendi stated that The Kurds represent the largest proportion of them (85 people), including independents, partisans, doctors, lawyers and artists, headed by the elders of al-Bobna and al-Amierat tribes, Yazidis and Alawites figures in Ma’abtly area.
Around 30 people were selected to be within the Council of the city of Afrin, all in Turkey. The spokesman for the conference stated that in the upcoming days, the ones who would enter to Afrin to help the people will be selected under the supervision of competent human rights and civil organizations.
There is no clear implementation of the council and most of the conference’s outputs. According to Shendi, the organizers of the conference are seeking to do so “in the near future,” while attempts have been made by other parties to form another council. However, the situation in the region is still unrestrained until today.
The main demands of the people are to open safe passageways for those who want to return to their villages and to put an end to arms use in Afrin, but Shendi acknowledged the difficulty of the situation.
The remaining regulations of the conference included respecting the specifies of all ethnic, religious and sectarian groups in the region, emphasizing the importance of education, health, judiciary and all aspects of life and respecting women’s rights, providing that well-known and influential families of Afrin and the tribal leaders will work to reconstruct the region with Turkey’s support.
Some of the regulations also included releasing all prisoners of conscience in Afrin prisons, calling for national reconciliation between the different citizens of the city, and handing over the management of the affairs of the city and its surroundings to the people of Afrin.
Syria’s Future party as an alternative to “PYD”
The same expressions have been repeated, the top of which is “decentralized pluralistic democracy”, when the “federal system” was declared in northern Syria in 2016, and during the reading of the final statement of the founding of the Conference, which led to the formation of the Syria’s Future Party on March 27, 2018. The aim behind the formation of this party, which reportedly meant to be an alternative to the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, has triggered many questions.
On October 20, 2017, the head of the party, Ibrahim al-Qaftan, read out his final statement, along with his secretary-general, Hafrin Khalaf inside Raqqa city, which has been held by the Syrian Democratic Forces. He said that he came to unite the sects of the Syrian people with their different nationalities, religions and sects.
The conference has been attended by 800 “delegates” belonging to several Syrian regions, along with 100 guests belonging to various political parties, blocs, national and social figures, institutions and civil councils, according to al-Qaftan, who read the Party’s program and internal code.
The establishment of the “progressive political” party was attributed to the fact that “the two conferees who share a common vision of the solution, saw that the Syrians have no choice but to implement the mechanisms of peaceful solution, amid the absence of national parties, which are inclusive of all sects and segments of the Syrian people belonging to different nationalities, religions and doctrines.
The Kurdish writer Adil Hanif Davut, who lives in Turkey, believed that the formation of the party is a “pointless and desperate attempt, because its reality and identity have become known to the world, Syrians and Kurds.” This step is certainly directed by the United States, which wants to address Turkey and the whole world saying: Yes, we consider the PKK as a terrorist organization but these are not. ”
“The move will not affect the course of events, but the US is exploiting everything for its own benefit and deceiving everyone,” said Davut, who stated that the US will abandon the party after making sure its goals have been achieved.
According to the analyst and expert in Turkish affairs, Nasser Turkmani, “PKK” has been establishing dozens of political and military entities under different names since its formation. He pointed out that “despite the changing names, neither the goals nor the behavior changed, they remained the same.”
During an interview with Enab Baladi, Turkmani pointed out that the recent change, which consisted of establishing “Syria’s Future” party shows the size of the US alliance with the PKK and Washington’s attempt to market this alliance under the trademark of a democratic Syria that can sell well in Ankara.
The analyst believes that US-Turkish differences are a major reason for the policy of changing the name and structure of the party. However, Washington still hopes to find a solution to convince Turkey, whether through political, military and economic incentives or even behind the scenes. The latest attempt was an offer to buy and construct “Patriot” missiles instead of the Russian S400, as he put it.
The goals of “Syria’s Future” party according to the final statement
According to the formation final statement, “Syria’s Future” party seeks to restore national cohesion and the belief in a peaceful political change which can guarantee a social contract and a constitution that help in the building of a decentralized democratic Syria based on the principles of pluralism, freedom of conscience and expression and equality between the sexes and rights and duties of the citizens.
The party rejects “all forms of chauvinism, racism and the resolution of national issues, including the Kurdish issue in accordance with international covenants and conventions,” and “believes that all segments of the Syrian people should enjoy freedom of conscience, expression, practicing religious rituals and preserving national identity.”
“It also seeks to build the best relations with neighboring countries and their peoples, including Turkey and Iraq, on the basis of mutual interests and respect, making it possible for humanitarian aids to reach the liberated areas, which have been damaged by ISIS, throughout Syria and to secure the borders with neighboring countries.”
The party stresses that the interests of the people and the unity of the Syrian territory “are favored over every national or religious and sectarian interest and rejects the quotas on these grounds and abiding by any regional or international agendas or the programs of any political parties and organizations.”
The party calls for the establishment of “the best relations” with the members of the Syrian opposition and calls for cooperation and joint action and to mobilize all efforts for the sake of stopping bloodshed, reconstruction and stability. It is also committed to the outcomes of Geneva convention and relevant UN resolutions, in particular resolution 2254.
The party believes that all sections of the Syrian people must be represented in the political process, including the drafting of a new constitution and granting free participation in presidential and parliamentary elections under the auspices of the United Nations.
Political and popular mobilization to move in the east of the Euphrates
The control over the Afrin area has opened the door for Turkey to start achieving its objectives along its border with Syria. It has started with elements that are related to the protection of its national security and the elimination of the danger that has been surrounding it for years, which is the Kurdish People’s Protection Units that is affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) which is banned by it.
The rapid achievement of the goals of Operation Olive Branch in Afrin was the biggest motivation for the Turkish side to consider controlling the other areas all along the borderline. The Free Syrian Army and the Turkish army have managed to take control over all of the Afrin area in less than two months, with the least costs, on both the military and the moral levels of the civilians. This has constituted a motive for imposing a military option that has been pending for years.
Successive threats emanating from Turkish officials have surfaced in the Syrian scene in the past days, the most recent of which is Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s claims that Turkey is preparing to control four Syrian regions along its borders (Ras al-Ayn, al-Hasakah, Tell Abyad and Kobanî). This was accompanied by the full closure of the crossings leading to Manbij and the end of commercial and civil movements to and from them.
Meanwhile, demonstrations in the northern countryside of Aleppo called on the Free Army factions and the Turkish army to make efforts to take control of the areas that are located in the east of the Euphrates. They were concentrated in the areas controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces, including Ras al-Ayn, Tell Abyad, Shuyukh and Sarrin.
Adding to that, Syrian tribal sheikhs who live in Turkey have called to engage in military operations inside Syria, most recently a call to prepare to take control over the eastern Euphrates areas, after the call of Khalid al-Khalaf, a sheikh of the Bakara tribe, with the presence of the Surrogate and Governor of the city of Urfa.
According to al-Khalaf, in an interview with Enab Baladi, the meeting was “to urge the sons and leaders of other tribes to cooperate and liberate the eastern region of Syria, which is controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces.”
More “strategic security”
Erdoğan’s warning was not new, it has rather been preceded by promises he made after taking control over the Afrin outpost, which affirmed Turkey’s intention to reach the Syrian-Iraqi borders and to “cleanse” its entire borders of “terrorism.”
Turkish political analyst, Mahmood Osman, said that Turkey feels that it has not yet been able to secure its minimum level, both in areas whose “strategic” security has been achieved, or the part in Syria in which it exerts its influence.
He added to Enab Baladi that the Syrian issue is very sensitive and highly complicated, and there are interconnected international parties. It is not easy for any party to achieve anything, and this can be linked to Turkey’s intention to move on the borders, which is governed by agreements with other regional countries.
The success of the Operation Olive Branch and the gains it has made with minimal human and material losses have given Turkey a great boost and moral support it needs to continue its actions in the same way. Osman believes that the Turks are adopting a long-term strategy, which was applied in Operation Euphrates Shield, reaching the level of the material and moral exhaustion of the opponent, and the depletion of his military forces.
Towards the south-eastern borders under international understandings
The military analyst, Col. Adib Aliwi, confirms what Osman said, considering that the Turkish plan is limited to the movement on the entire borders, however, it is governed by international understandings.
He explained to Enab Baladi that Turkey’s intention to move on its borders has not emerged recently, arguing that the financial and military support provided to the Free Army factions at high costs is linked to the advance on all areas that are controlled by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units.
According to Aliwi, ‘agreements’ is a “loose” term and the military move will not be random. He pointed out that if the US withdraws from the areas of the east of the Euphrates, Russia and Iran will fill the gap again and enter the areas of the east of the Euphrates with a different conflict.
To date, any Turkish action on the areas that are controlled by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units cannot be separated from any American agreements, on top of which the agreement that former US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has reached during his last visit to Turkey in which he affirmed Turkey’s right to secure its borders.
What confirmed the aforementioned, were the information Erdoğan pointed out in his speech in the 31st of March, saying: “When I met the US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, he said, ‘Take the North and we will take the South.’ I said to him: Why are we supposed to divide the country or seize it? This country has its own people and its original inhabitants.”
Osman considered that “what is after Operation Olive Branch is not the same as what preceded it. Turkey will move towards liberating the borders in the upcoming days. However, it will rely on the battleground of political agreements and will never engage in any conflict with the US side in particular.”
He explained that the regional acting countries in Syria have been involved on the ground in previous years through local mediators, but they now do it with their direct forces, especially Turkey, the US and Russia.
Osman pointed out that, in case “the Turks’ run out of patience,” Turkey will put pressure on Manbij in particular, which is the outermost city. However, the areas in the east of the Euphrates will give the Turks the upper hand in demands that relate to them.
Kurdish writer, Adil Hanif Davut, pointed out that “the strange fluctuations on the international political scene regarding Syria” make it difficult to predict the future of eastern Syria. Nevertheless, he believes that the region “will be temporarily controlled by Turkey after US guarantees it has been granted its right for the east of the Euphrates oil and gas, and it will later be under a unified Syrian sovereignty after the leaders would agree to share benefits.”
France steps over the kurdish doorsteps to enter the region of East Euphrates
Some Western countries, especially France and the UK, that are part of the US-led international coalition against ISIS, have started seeking a foothold in north-eastern Syria after ISIS was largely receded, with the exception of some zones, with the advance of the Turkish army, its expulsion of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units out of the city of Afrin and its threats to move eastward.
During the past weeks there has been a political debate between France and Turkey over the “lawfulness” of the military operation Ankara has launched in Afrin. Tensions between the two countries have increased following a meeting between French President Emmanuel Macron and a delegation of the Syrian Democratic Forces in which France has promised to provide support, achieve stability in north-eastern Syria, and send more French troops to the area.
Turkey has escalated its statements in an unprecedented way. On March 31, Turkish Defense Minister, Nurettin Canikli, said that France’s intention to send its troops to Syrian territories would be “a risk and could become a target for the Turkish army.” He said: “If Paris wants to have a military presence aimed at directly or indirectly supporting terrorist organizations, its presence would be illegal under international law and would be considered as an occupation.”
In addition to France, a delegation from the Labor Party in the UK House of Lords visited on Wednesday, April, 4 the city of Qamishli and promised to cooperate and stand with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units against the threat of Turkish attacks in northern Syria,” according to Reuters news agency.
Many questions have been raised by the sudden French and British moves, and the reasons for the clashes with Turkey in supporting the Kurdish forces.
The writer and political analyst, Firas Radwan Oğlu, explained that France had no presence in Syria and considered its position to be the weakest position of Western countries, because the Syrians consider it a legacy of occupation (France occupied Syria for 26 years in the thirties of the last century).
Radwan Oğlu stressed that France has entered under US permission in order to ease the pressure Turkey is imposing on it regarding the issue of supporting the Kurdish forces and their exit from some areas, especially Manbij, as the US considers Ankara a strategic ally that it does not want to lose. He pointed out that Western countries fear Turkey’s advance in the region, given that it is an Islamic advance that is popular and is welcomed by the Syrians in northern Syria.
The political researcher expected that France would enter in limited areas, because its large scale entry would be a serious challenge to Turkey that could lead to escalation in the region and clashes between the two sides.
The French statements coincided with US President Donald Trump’s announcement to withdraw from Syria soon. Radwan Oğlu ruled this out, because the US has established military bases and controls the oil wells in the region it considers as region overlooking Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria. However, it might hand over some areas to France.
Popular assumptions that Turkey would dominate the east of the Euphrates
In an opinion poll Enab Baladi has conducted on its website regarding the side the Syrian people are expecting would take control over the eastern region of the Euphrates in Syria, the majority of respondents assumed that the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army has larger opportunities.
Enab Baladi asked a question on its site “In your opinion, who will control east of the Euphrates in Syria?” 27% of the respondents in the poll, 528 in total, replied that the area would remain under the control of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
44% of the participants in the survey said that the control will be in the hands of the Syrian opposition backed by Turkey, in the light of Turkish statements, recently, whose officials have shown determination and readiness to control eastern Euphrates areas, despite the clash that the Turks may face with the United States and France.
While 29% of respondents expected that Russia, which supports the Syrian regime, will control the east of the Euphrates, and considered that the Russian-Iranian-Turkish plan is to share the Syrian north in exchange for guarantees that Turkey could get from the Russian side with regard to the Kurds.
The international coalition supports Kurdish forces east of the Euphrates, in return for Russian support for al- Assad’s forces west of the river.
The Free Army control of the city of Afrin in February under the so-called “Olive Branch” Operation announced by Turkey will outweigh Turkey to control the Syrian border in an attempt to protect its “national security,” as it said.
Six attempts to establish Kurdish states before the “Rojava”
The collapse of the Ottoman Empire played a major role in raising Kurdish military awareness in the Middle East and reawakening the attempts to establish a Kurdish state.
In 1920, after the First World War, Turkey signed with the Allies the Treaty of Sevres, a treaty of Peace, which provided for Kurdistan’s independence, but the treaty wouldn’t last long in view of strong opposition from Ankara.
Three years after it was signed, the Ataturk government worked to pass a new settlement through the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, which ignored the rights of Kurds approved by Sevres treaty, and kept them from living their dreams for a full century, during which it made seven attempts to establish Kurdish states, the last of which was the Rojava state in Syria.
The Kingdom of Kurdistan in 1922
Is an unrecognized state, declared in the Iraqi city of Sulaymaniyah, under the British Mandate, led by Sheikh Mahmud Hafid Barzanji, between 1922 and 1924.
After the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I, Sheikh Barzanji announced the handing over of the Sulaymaniyah Brigade to the British forces. The British rewarded him by appointing him governor of Sulaymaniyah, and they returned to arrest him after they felt his willingness to rebel until he was exiled to India.
In 1921, a referendum was held for the Iraqi people on the installation of Prince Faisal bin Hussein as King of Iraq, which the Kurds in Sulaymaniyah confronted with boycott. Sheikh Qadir, the brother of Sheikh Mahmud exiled in India, announced his claim for independent self-rule and rejected the idea of joining Iraq.
Turkey tried to exploit the tension in Sulaymaniyah to resolve the disputed issue of Mosul with Britain and mobilized military crowds and occupied a number of Iraqi cities.
Britain sensed the Turkish threat and was deployed to confront its old enemy, Sheikh Barzanji, and he returned from exile to Sulaymaniyah again in 1922, but Barzanji was not to trust Britain, and declared himself the king of Kurdistan in 1922.
Indeed, Britain tried to take over power in months. The central government moved in Baghdad and the Iraqi army invaded Sulaymaniyah in 1924 and ended the first Kurdish attempt to establish the state.
The Red Kurdistan Republic in Azerbaijan 1923
Also called the Soviet Kurdistan, was formed in Azerbaijan in 1923 by order of the Soviet leader, Lenin, as an autonomous republic, linked to the government of Azerbaijan, which was then subject to the Soviet Union.
The city of Lajin, located in western Azerbaijan, was chosen as the capital of the Red Kurdistan Republic. The republic was divided into four administrative units and was the first experiences of the Kurds’ self-rule.
Lenin’s gift for the Kurds did not last long in the newly born republic. The new Soviet leader, Stalin, came to power in 1924 and began his campaign against ethnic minorities, including the Kurds, according to some Kurdish historical references.
1929 saw the “tragic” end of the Red Kurdistan Republic, six years after its formation. Some historians point out that Stalin’s “incomprehensible policy towards the Kurds” led to the collapse of the first Kurdish republic, as well as the opposition of the Azerbaijan government to their state, and forced displacement of Kurds into areas beyond the borders of their Republic.
Republic of Ararat in Turkey 1927
In 1927, the Central Committee of the Kurdish “Khoibun” Party announced the Republic of Ararat in southeastern Turkey, after a military rebellion led by General Ihsan Nuri Pasha.
The village of Kurd Ava, located near the Ararat mountain, was chosen as the temporary capital of the Republic. However, Turkey was not tolerant with the birth of a Kurdish state on its territory, and faced it with several military campaigns.
The Kurds failed to obtain any international support, and sent appeals to the League of Nations to recognize the Republic of Ararat until the Turkish army succeeded in invading it in 1930.
Republic of Mahabad in Iran 1946
It was founded in the far northwest of Iran around the city of Mahabad in 1946, as a result of the Iranian crisis between the Soviet Union and the United States of America.
After the Second World War, Soviet forces entered part of Iranian territory, and claimed that Shah of Iran Raza Pahlavi was sympathetic to Adolf Hitler. In addition, Stalin aspired to indirectly expand the Soviet Union by establishing loyalist entities. He supported Qazi Muhammad with Mustafa Barzani to declare the Republic of Mahabad.
Ten months after the announcement of the new republic the Soviet troops withdrew from Iran, which allowed the Iranian government forces to completely eliminate the Kurdish rule in the region.
Iraqi Kurdistan 1979
The region represents the longest Kurdish self-rule experiences without being able to gain independence.
The region has been called the “Kurdish Autonomous Region” since 1979, the date when Saddam Hussein and representatives of Kurdish leader at that time Mustafa Barzani signed an agreement that ended years of war between Baghdad and the Kurds.
Effective control of the territory remained in the hands of Baghdad, and following the 1991 second Gulf War and the establishment of the no-fly zone, Iraq had little impact on the Kurdish Autonomous Region.
In 2005, the region became “Iraqi Kurdistan”, which had a flag, a constitution, a national anthem, a government and a parliament.
Last year, the region held a referendum on separation from Iraq, which included the three provinces of the region (Erbil, Sulaymaniyah and Dohuk), in addition to the disputed Kirkuk with Baghdad, and the voters overwhelmingly agreed to secede, but the Baghdad government refused to recognize the referendum and did not receive international acclaim, which prompted the regional government to give up the idea of independence.
Lajin Republic in Azerbaijan 1992
The Republic of Lajin is considered as the last Kurdish state to declare its independence. Like its predecessors, it had no international support, as it emerged out of the chaos that swept the Soviet Union republics.
In 1992, Wakil Mustafayev announced the new republic in the Azerbaijani city of Lajin, after being taken over by the Armenian forces. Kurdish intellectuals and youth in Armenia were transferred to it.
The republic did not withstand the campaigns of the Azerbaijani government. Turkey’s support for the government’s position and Russian silence about it helped the state collapse quickly, and its president fled to Italy.