Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party. He runs Brexit Analytics.
After seven years of civil war, none of the factions in Syria makes an ideal ally. But Turkey’s assault against territory held by US-backed Syrian Kurds in Afrin, North West Syria, is directed against the faction most deserving of the West’s support.
First, some context. Out of the fighting, the Syrian Kurds have constructed an autonomous authority they call the ‘Democratic Self-Administration’, defended by a force called the YPG, which forms the core of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The American-created SDF, backed by Western air power and special forces, has inflicted decisive defeats on IS and removed them from their one-time capital of Raqqa.
The men and women of the YPG – their ideology is explicitly feminist, and, as an organisation, take their ideology seriously – are effective fighters and disciplined administrators. Their propaganda excels at building sympathy for a movement that is excitingly radical, but much more attractive than the theocratic misogyny of IS. They affect to have moved beyond the old-fashioned Marxism of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), though they derive inspiration from the PKK’s leader, Abdullah Öcalan, now in prison in Turkey.
That the PKK have waged a bloody insurgency against Ankara is the root of the current Turkish intervention. Turkey considers them (with every reason) a terrorist organisation, and considers the Syrian Kurd political party the PYD as an offshoot under PKK control. Having the PYD control of most of the border between Turkey and Syria would pose a major security risk. In this respect, the US decision to term their support for the PYD the creation of an “Border Security Force” was a clumsy mistake that gave Turkey a pretext to invade. It is an issue Turkey takes seriously: its army has previously intervened to prevent Afrin being linked up with in other Kurdish-controlled territory to its East. Now, it’s hoping to drive the PYD out of Afrin, which is already surrounded by Turkish or pro-Turkish forces, itself.
This is not, however, a case of an authoritarian Turkey trampling on democratic Kurdish self-government. The Syrian Kurdish territory lives up to the rule that anywhere that calls itself “democratic” in fact isn’t. Here is Noah Bonsey from the International Crisis Group:
‘I generally make a point of meeting with opposition figures during our visits,..Upon arrival in Qamishli [a town in Rojava], however, I learn that most of the figures I’ve met on previous trips have either been arrested, or departed the country fearing detention.’
Theirs is a dictatorial regime as might be constructed by the soixante-huitard left (environmentalism also features heavily in Öcalan’s ideology). It is not by any means pluralist or governed by the rule of law (while civilian judges must obtain arrest warrants, the security police can round people up without judicial oversight). Yet, there are important strategic reasons to provide them with support. Unlike Assad they don’t have strong ties to Iran: in fact they provide territory from which Iranian ambitions can be constrained. Unlike the various Sunni religious factions now in Turkey’s sphere of influence, they are not only marginally less extreme than IS. They are well-organised, and the fact that they are driven by an ideological state-building project gives them coherence and institutional strength.
Internally, they are divided between a faction that puts the struggle against Turkey first, and one that would concentrate its efforts in Syria. The anti-Turkish struggle is one they would lose; but a Syria-focused YPG would be an important partner that will enable the West to maintain influence in Syria to counter Moscow and preserve an element of pluralism in Syrian politics.
There is a reasonable bargain to be struck: Western support in exchange for downgrading, and eventually abandoning, the armed struggle against Turkey. This will also have the advantage of improving relations with the Kurdish Democratic Party in Northern Iraq (which is sympathetic to Ankara and is currently blockading Rojava). In this way, Turkey’s offensive in Afrin could be turned into something beneficial to the long term interests of both Syria’s Kurds and the West, and restore influence the West lost through its failure to apply pressure on Assad when it could have drawn him into negotiations to create a more freer and more pluralist Syria. In time such influence might even be used to help bring about a more sustainable and legitimate peace in Syria than an Iran-and-Russia-backed Assad regime could ever provide.