Lord Hylton – Turkish Invasion of Syria, The Background

To understand this, it helps to know the origins of the Kurdish people and some recent history in Turkey, Syria and nearby.

The Kurds are an ancient national and cultural group, not Arab and not Turkish.  They claim descent from the Medes, who were well-known to the classical Greeks and Israelites as allies of the Persians.  Their language is akin to modern Iranian or Dari, but divides into several main dialects. Their traditional villages were built back to back against cliffs or mountains, with pale blue as the favourite house colour.  This is a physical reflection of the old saying “The mountain is the only friend of the Kurds.”

The total Kurdish population of Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria may exceed 30 million.  (There are no reliable census figures.)  They constitute the world’s largest national group, without a state to protect them.  Many émigré Kurds live in Germany and Scandinavia, with a substantial group in Britain, mainly in London and the south-east.

Ancient History:

In history, the Kurds, along with the Armenians, often found themselves squeezed between the rival empires of Rome (later Byzantium) and Persia.  This pressure continued after the Ottoman Turks came to power in Istanbul, and later Iranian dynasties ruled in Isfahan or Tehran.  The Kurds never developed a royal family, but were ruled by powerful tribal chieftains.

Modern Era:

The end of the First World War saw the emergence of a republican Turkey under Ataturk, with new artificial states in Syria and Iraq, under French and British short-term control.  Iran fell under the sway of the new Pahlevi dynasty.  In all of these countries the educated, commercial and ruling class was relatively small, with a large mainly illiterate rural population.

After 1945 secular Arab national governments emerged in Syria and Iraq, led by Baath parties, while Turkey swung between parliamentary and military rule.  Ataturk had succeeded in establishing a centralized unitary state, where all inhabitants were considered to be Turks, who must use and be educated in the national language.  This attempted suppression of Kurdish identity led to frequent but unsuccessful revolts in the 1920s and 1930s.  There was also a failed attempt to set up a republic of Madabah in western Iran in the late 1940s.

Kurdistan Peoples’ Party

By 1980 a new player had appeared in the form of a left-wing, somewhat Marxist political party, the PKK, or Kurdish Workers’ Party, with a strong armed wing.  When attempts at political progress failed, they took to physical force.  With the connivance of President Assad senior, they mounted armed attacks from Syria into Turkey.  They established cells in mountain villages and in the main cities of south-east Turkey, where the bulk of the Kurdish population lived.  The Government responded with martial law in ten provinces, together with much alleged torture of prisoners.  A brutal counter-insurgency policy included concentrating country people into villages protected by armed guards, barbed wire and land mines.  As a result many fled to Diyarbakir, Mardin and other towns, while large numbers moved to Ankara, Istanbul and Smyrna.  Others were accepted as refugees in Western Europe.  Much of the countryside was left barren and fears were evident in the towns.

South-East Turkey

When I first went with the late Lord Avebury to Turkish elections in 1994, the situation was quiescent, though with sporadic guerrilla fighting in spring, summer and autumn.  The PKK were guilty of murdering some Turkish teachers and other officials drafted into the south-east.  They also set off bombs in Turkish sea-side tourist resorts.  It was therefore not unreasonable to list them as a terrorist organization. This label was all the more convincing, when the PKK attempted bank robberies and extortion from businesses in Europe.

Abdullah Oçalan

In 1999 the situation changed again, when Abdullah Oçalan, the founder and leader of the PKK was captured in Nairobi and sent back to Turkey.  There he was sentenced to life imprisonment and held on Imrali, a small island in the sea of Marmara, usually in solitary confinement.  In this harsh environment, he appears to have dropped his Marxism (which had by then lost power in the former Soviet Union).  Instead he developed a new brand of political thought, based on local and regional communities, common citizenship and full rights and participation by women.  To my mind this new thinking, sometimes called “democratic confederalism” is neither Marxist nor Islamist, even though the great majority of Kurds belong to the Sunni Muslim tradition.  It could provide a model for the many mixed cultures and ethnicities of the Middle East.

Oçalan has clearly influenced the PKK.  Between 2000 and 2010 they tried hard to achieve ceasefires inside Turkey, which would allow the return of their combatants, who had taken cover in the predominantly Kurdish area of the Candil mountains, in northern Iraq.  Before and after 2000 the Turkish army launched cross-border attacks, in not very successful attempts to root out the would-be insurgents.  The fact that these attacks were hardly criticized by the outside world, may now encourage Turkey to expect that it can disregard the recognized frontiers of Syria, by setting up a so-called “buffer zone” on the south side of the international border.

Syria

In Syria, Oçalan’s new thinking has had a major impact on the Kurdish people, concentrated in the north-east and north of the country.  They had suffered severely under the rule of the Assads, rather and son.  Many had been deprived of full citizenship, while Arab families had been settled on some of the best farmland near the frontier with Turkey.  There were restrictions on the Kurdish language, and any Kurd who was not a member of the Baath party had poor career prospects in Syria.  This allowed the Kurds, in partnership with the local Arabs, Assyrians, Turkmen etc to take over most of Jazeera Canton in the far north-east, the “island” between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.  They also took control, partly by agreement with and partly in opposition to the Assad Government, of Kobane, on the frontier with Turkey at the western end of Jazeera.  (Kobane got its name from the depot of the German-Turkish company building the Berlin to Baghdad railway before 1914).

Jazeera Canton

When I made a brief visit to Jazeera in May 2015 I had the impression that the local Kurds were genuinely trying to put Oçalan’s new thoughts into practice.  For example, every senior position in their administration and elected assembly was jointly held by a man and a woman.  Their many political parties all subscribed to the concept of common citizenship with equal rights and responsibilities.  I had an enjoyable evening with a group of young men and women, who were being trained in the practice and procedures of democracy.  I also visited refugees, who had fled the onslaught of ISIS from the adjoining areas of Iraq.

Kobane Canton

Kobane had by then been furiously attacked by ISIS. The siege of the town in 2014/15 (with echoes of Stalingrad and Sarajevo) left most of the towns in ruins.  Large forces of the Turkish Army stood by inactive on their side of the frontier, while ISIS did its worst.  The defence was only successful thanks to the USA supplying some weapons and ammunition, and a limited amount of air support.

It seems important to note that the international coalition against ISIS, of which the UK is a member, has so far refused to help the reconstruction of Kobane or of other war-damaged parts of Jazeera.  By contract, the coalition has promised funds for rebuilding Mosul in Iraq, which suffered complete occupation by ISIS.

Turkish Policy on Syria

There are other details which throw light on current Turkish policy in Syria.  Following earlier negotiations, the non-violent parliamentary Turkish political party, HDP (Popular Democratic Party) had, by January 2015, reached a written agreement with the Turkish Government on such matters as regional devolution and autonomy, language and cultural issues etc.  This had the tacit backing and approval of the PKK.  The Agreement, known as “Dolmabache” from the name of a palace in Istanbul, has since been repudiated by President Erdogan, who won two general elections in 2015.  Following the unsuccessful coup d’état against him in July 2016 he now enjoys almost complete powers.  Using Emergency Law, he has imprisoned many elected mayors, members of Parliament, journalists, lawyers etc.  His control over the media is almost total, with Zaman, a main opposition newspaper, effectively nationalized.

Erdogan and Syria

The President and his government have long been concerned to prevent the linking up of Jazeera and Kobane Cantons with a mainly Kurdish area further to the west, centred on the town of Afrin, and sharing a frontier with Turkey (north-west of Aleppo).  For this reason, Turkey has already occupied by military force a border region stretching westwards from Jarabulus to Jawban Baik with a depth of some 19 miles.  Afrin Canton had a small population before the civil war began.  This has been approximately doubled by people displaced from the reset of Syria, in particular from Aleppo, where the Government-held part of the city was long besieged by Al Nusra and other Islamist groups (up until May 2017).

Turkish Attack

In mid-January of this year, the Turkish army, with air support, launched a long-forecast but completely unprovoked attack on Afrin Canton.  This attack has moved slowly and cautiously, perhaps with the intention of limiting its own casualties and of allowing civilians to escape.  Nevertheless, hundreds of civilians have already been killed or wounded, while the Turkish army has also sustained losses from the defending YPG, mainly Kurdish militia.  This attack, ironically labelled Operation Oliver Branch, seems to me al the more indefensible, given that there was no attempt to negotiate what Turkey hoped to achieve, before fighting began.

6000 men of the regular Turkish army are reported to have been accompanied by some 10,000 members of the so-called Free Syrian Army.  These have always been opposed to the Assad Government, and have had some European support, as well as free access in and out of Turkey.  These men are said to include former ISIS members, as well as fighters from al-Qaeda and its off-shoots.  A former ISIS man, named as Faraj, aged 32, an Arab from the mixed area of Hasakeh, was quoted as saying “I dislike the YPG but suspect Turkey, which I believe is manipulating ISIS.  We are treated like tissue papers, to be discarded after use.”

Turkish War Crimes

Meanwhile there is no sign of an end to the attack, or of any point at which the Turkish army will halt its offensive.  In the background is the brutal repression inside Turkey, which followed the abandonment of the Dolmabache Agreement.  In Diyarbakir, the capital city of the south-east, the historic suburb of Sur, next to the old Byzantine walls, has been largely flattened.  The beautiful Fatih Paşa 16th century mosque by the architect Sinan, was burnt out.  (I saw its façade marked by bullets, before the fire.)  Elsewhere, significant areas in towns such as Cizre etc have been destroyed, when insurgents rashly tried to declare “autonomous areas”.  The Turkish authorities even went to the length of bulldozing cemeteries, where the bodies of dead PKK fighters had been interred.

Turkey’s behaviour, both internal and external, seems to me to deserve investigation for possible war-crimes.  It has hardly been what one might expect from a member of the NATO alliance.

External Reactions

The Swedish Parliament observed a minute’s silence for the dead and wounded of Afrin.  In France, Mr Le Drian, the foreign minister, in a TV interview, called for “the withdrawal of all forces that ought not to be in Syria, including Iranian militias, and Hezbollah”.  He went on to say that international law “is being violated by Turkey, by the Damascus régime, by Iran and by those attacking eastern Ghouta and Idlib”.  President Macron criticized “Operation Olive Branch” and questioned Turkey’s motives.

In Spain political parties in the Basque Parliament issued a joint statement.  It called for the EU and the UN to stop the attacks on Afrin and emphasized the key role of the Kurds in the struggle against ISIS and terrorism.

In the USA, Congressman David Cicilline described Operation Olive Branch as “the brutal attack that is underway against the Kurdish people of Afrin”.  He continued “the military campaign has had a devastating impact on civilians.  We cannot stand by on the side-lines as these atrocities continue”.  He urged the US to convey to NATO ally Turkey “that it must abide by international conventions, protect civilians and allow humanitarian and medical aid”.

In reaction to what he said was a threat to US troops in Syria, the Congressman called for official recognition of the Armenian Genocide of 1915-16.

Parallel Event

Some desperate Syrian and Kurdish people from Afrin attempted to escape into Turkey, away from the fighting.  Human Rights Watch reported that they had been shot at by border guards, while some were beaten and detained on arrival.  All were denied medical assistance, and some were forced back. Children were said to be among those shot.  One witness told Human Rights Watch that a woman had given birth at the border, but she and the baby were forced back.

Concern in Germany about Weapons

The Administration in Berlin came under popular and parliamentary pressure, when it became known that Turkey was using German weapons and machinery to attack Afrin.

The Monitor broadcast on state television ARD pointed out that the Turkish army was using German Leopold tanks and rifles manufactured under licence from Heckler and Koch.  Mercedes engines were powering Unimog vehicles, while MTU motors were used by Turkish artillery.

Inside Turkey

The Ministry of the Interior announced that 573 people had been detained for posting comments on the Afrin war on social media, or for joining protests against it.  The detainees were charged with “terrorist propaganda” according to the Ministry.

The detained included doctors, journalists, trades-union leaders, politicians and writers.

Al-Bab on the Turkish/Syrian frontier – non-violent protest.

The people of Tal Battal, a Kurdish village nearby, declared a general strike and closed all shops, to protest against the kidnapping and torturing of young people by the Turkish army and associated militias.

Kurdish Women

These have an organization named Congress Star.  They set out their perception of the Turkish attacks as a threat to all Kurdish women.  They expressed their concern that the attacks would not be limited to Afrin, but might extend to Idlib province or to Kobane and Jazeera Cantons.

Conclusion

The current Turkish action, brutal as it is, has to be seen against a centuries-old military tradition.  This is compounded by a centralized authoritarian state, willing to deny the identity of local and religious minorities.  The governing party comes from a moderate Islamic background, but it seeks to undermine the more tolerant Sufi tradition.  The current military action is driven by underlying fears of terrorism and subversion.  Electoral calculations also play a large part.

What is happening may, therefore, be understandable, but it is deeply unacceptable, coming from a country with aspirations to be considered European and to take its full part in NATO.  That alliance, it should be remembered, was formed to uphold democracy and human rights.

Hylton