Turkey’s army will operate under the protection of fighter bombers or howitzers

Poised to invade Rojava

Esen Uslu examines Erdoğan’s plans for establishing protectorates in Kurdish areas in Syria and Iraq.

The Turkish government has amassed a corps-sized military force along Syrian border, alongside the Kurdish towns of Kobanî, Tell Abyad and Ain-Issa. This includes 30,000-40,000 soldiers in two armoured brigades, two mechanised brigades, and two commando brigades, basing them between the Turkish towns of Suruç and Akçakale.

The minister of defence, Hulusi Akar, who was formerly the head of general staff, had several meetings with the US Syrian special envoy, James Jeffrey, to seek his blessing. Foreign minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu is quite open about what is planned: “We have gone into Jarablus, Al-Bab and Afrin [provinces of Syria]. Now we are going to the east of the Euphrates river.” He claimed that both Russia and the US had been informed beforehand.

As for the minister of the interior, Süleyman Soylu, he has been fanning up anti-refugee sentiment in inflammatory speeches. That is his way of drumming up support for the imminent attack on Syria. The provincial governors under his control have started swooping on “irregular” immigrants in drag-net operations in Turkey’s major cities. Those detained are being sent to camps in the border area where they had first sought refuge.

Undocumented refugees are being deported unceremoniously back to where they came from. Within 24 hours scores of Syrian refugees living and working in Istanbul found themselves back in the Idlib province of Syria, where the Syrian and Russian airforces have maintained an unrelenting bombing campaign.

As Turkey has only signed up to the 1951 Geneva Convention with significant reservations, it is not obliged to comply with any of its provisions. The government grants various types of arbitrarily defined permits to refugees, and claims the right to play with their freedom at will. Now it has clearly indicated its intention, following an invasion into north-eastern Syria, to send Syrian refugees to the villages and towns that would be available after the Kurds there are displaced. It is also to bolster the ranks of the Free Syrian Army, which it hopes to use as an ancillary force for the Turkish army of occupation.

Since last spring military preparations have been underway. Yes, the S-400 affair, when Turkey struck a deal to buy missiles from Russia, attracted public attention across the world while military preparations were being completed. All leave has been cancelled in the military units stationed in south-eastern Turkey. A number of infamous Fırtına (Storm) self-propelled howitzers have been stationed in firing bases along the border. This long-range artillery will provide cover up to 40 kilometres into Syrian territory.

These are the trump cards being deployed by the Turkish armed forces - if the USA declines to permit the Turkish airforce to operate in Syrian airspace, which is partially controlled by the Americans, its long-range artillery will provide the necessary accurate firepower to pummel Kurdish defences. The Turkish government’s proposal for a 40-kilometre-deep “buffer zone”, controlled by Turkish armed forces, fit with this technical reality.

Now the US is trying to stop what appears to be an unstoppable development by engaging in a set of last-minute talks. The US wants to hold things back, but the Turkish side has been persistent in trying to force Washington to make up its mind: will the US stand by their Kurdish partners in the fight against Islamic State, or would they force the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to give more concessions then they had been prepared to?

The US offer is of a 10-kilometre-deep security zone controlled jointly by Turkish and US in the rural areas, while leaving the towns and cities under the control of SDF. Turkey is considering this proposal only as a starting point in the bargaining process, and seems to be going for broke. It is making overtures towards Russia - a new-found ally in the region - as well as bargaining hard with the Americans and European Union by putting all sorts of pressure on their foreign policies in the region, including towards Cyprus and offshore drilling.

Kurdish infighting

While Turkey seems poised to thwart US and EU objections and attack deep into Syrian territory, its campaign in the Kurdish areas in Iraq has already been going on for more than three months now. The ‘Claw’ operations around the Harkuk and Metina regions of Iraqi Kurdistan are aiming to open up the way to the Qandil mountains, which is where the headquarters of the Kurdish freedom movement are believed to be, and to cut off the supply route from Iraqi Kurdistan into Rojava.

In order to deny freedom of movement and winter bases to the Kurdish guerrilla groups in the region, the surveillance and armed drones are maintaining a constant watch. The airforce is carrying out almost daily bombing raids. Guarded by helicopter gunships, army construction teams are opening up new roads capable of carrying tanks and supply vehicles to Turkey’s newly built ‘permanent’ bases in the Hakurk and Metina regions. These are intended to maintain a presence throughout the harsh winter months in the region’s high altitude.

If these operations achieve their objectives and these bases are ready by the winter, then they would be used as stepping stones in next spring’s proposed offensive into the Qandil mountains. That has been the holy grail of Turkish interventions in the region for the last 40 years. Several previous attempts have been thwarted, so we will see what happens this time. But it has to be said that conditions are not conducive for the operations of the Kurdish freedom movement.

The Iraqi Kurdish government is closely cooperating with Turkey, as it also stands to benefit from the suppression of the Kurdish freedom movement. And it has attempted to make use of the current Turkish operations to suppress its own historical adversaries, the Baradosti clan. Following the assassination of a Turkish intelligence officer in Erbil, a leader of the Baradostis was detained as a prime suspect who had allegedly instigated the attack. The Baradostis have benefited greatly from their position in the supply chain of the US armed forces in Iraq. As oil revenue has been lost by Baghdad, Masoud Barzani’s Kurdish Democratic Party aims to take over the business.

The approaching Eid al-Adha - the feast of sacrifice - could be very bloody indeed.