Turkey’s Syria offensive could displace over a million Kurds, top analyst warns
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Interview'There’s no panic or despair. But a deep sense of betrayal'

Turkey’s Syria offensive could displace over a million Kurds, top analyst warns

Jonathan Spyer says Erdogan’s army indiscriminately shelling civilian areas, though unlikely to carry out massacres; believes Kurds will reject Israeli offer of humanitarian aid

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Syrian Arab and Kurdish civilians flee with their belongings amid Turkish bombardment on Syria's northeastern town of Ras al-Ain on October 9, 2019. (Delil SOULEIMAN / AFP)
Syrian Arab and Kurdish civilians flee with their belongings amid Turkish bombardment on Syria's northeastern town of Ras al-Ain on October 9, 2019. (Delil SOULEIMAN / AFP)

The intensifying Turkish military campaign in northern Syria could lead to the forced displacement of more than a million Kurds and to the killing of scores of Kurdish civilians, according to a leading analyst who has spent considerable time in the area.

“It depends on how far the Turks want to go,” said Jonathan Spyer, a research fellow at the Middle East Forum and at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security. “Up to a million could potentially be displaced, at the very least. And [the likelihood of] an outcome that is probably worse, given the nature of some of the people the Turks are working with in this campaign, is very high indeed.”

Turkey launched an offensive Wednesday against Kurdish-held areas of northwest Syria, carrying out an intense bombing campaign and sending tens of thousands of people fleeing. Days earlier, President Donald Trump announced the US would remove troops from the area, essentially green-lighting the operation, which has drawn widespread condemnation. The Syrian Kurdish militia under attack was the only US ally in the campaign that brought down the Islamic State group in Syria.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said the military intends to move 30 kilometers (19 miles) into northern Syria and that its operation will last until all “terrorists are neutralized,” referring to the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

While Turkey’s army is unlikely to carry out deliberate massacres, Ankara’s allies from the so-called Syrian National Army — a motley crew of jihadist militiamen who Erdogan is asking to do much of the legwork of the offensive — can be expected to act brutally with Kurdish civilians it comes in contact with, Spyer said.

“The Turkish army itself, the regular forces of Erdogan, I think will be under pretty clear orders not to carry out massacres,” he said. However, Ankara is indiscriminately shelling populated areas, he added.

“Without wishing to be unfair to the Turks, in the usual Turkish fashion they’re kind of not taking that much care as to where the ordinances are landing. And that’s going to have an effect on the civilian population.”

Born in the UK and living today in Jerusalem, Spyer is one of Israel’s leading experts on the Kurdish nation, having spent much time on the ground, including during the period of the Syrian civil war during which 11,000 Kurds were killed. He has created an extensive network of Kurdish contacts throughout Turkey, Iraq and Syria.

In an interview conducted on Thursday, Spyer discussed not only the potential casualties of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s cynically named Operation Peace Spring, but also how Kurds in northern Syria feel about being abandoned, once again, by their major ally, the United States.

He also talked about what the Kurds expect from Israel, and explained Jerusalem’s strong tactical interest in preserving the status quo, which prevents Iran from penetrating eastern Syria.

The Times of Israel: How dangerous is Turkey’s current military operation for the Kurdish population in the area?

Jonathan Spyer: It depends on how far the Turks want to go. Right now, there’s been shelling all the way across the border, from Tell Abiad in the west, all the way to a place called Derik, which is right on the Syrian-Iraqi border.

If the intention of the Turks is, as President Erdogan stated at the UN General Assembly, genuinely to push forward and create a 20-mile deep buffer area all the way across that border, then the potential for the displacement of population, at the very least, is extremely high. Because that would basically involve the Turks conquering more or less the entirety of the main Kurdish population areas in northern Syria.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks during the 74th Session of the United Nations General Assembly at UN Headquarters in New York, September 24, 2019. (Don Emmert / AFP)

That is to say, Tell Abiad and Derik and also Kobani and the city of Qamishli. Up to a million could potentially be displaced, at the very least. And [the likelihood of] an outcome that is probably worse, given the nature of some of the people the Turks are working with in this campaign, is very high indeed.

But we don’t yet know the intentions of the Turks, and indeed the Turks themselves may not yet know. It seems that Erdogan chose to act very quickly, following Trump’s announcement on Sunday, presumably with the intention of testing American and international resolve.

If there is now very strong international reaction against the Turks, they may have to settle for a more limited set of goals. They may have to settle, for example, for just taking control of an area between Tell Abiad and Ras al-Ayn. And if that’s the case, then we’re talking of course about a much smaller threat to the Kurdish population. We already saw Kurdish civilians leaving those areas since the commencement of the Turkish shelling.

We also saw the killing of 109 Kurdish fighters on Wednesday ad Thursday, according to the Turks.

Jonathan Spyer (courtesy)

That’s Turkish information. The Kurdish information talks about much fewer casualties. They’re talking about 16 Kurds killed at the present time, and 33 wounded. This is really a kind of fog of war situation right now, because there’s very little international reporting possible in the area.

CNN’s Clarissa Ward is in there, but I don’t think any other international crews are. So we’re basically dependent on information coming from the SDF or the Turkish army, and that’s obviously a very difficult situation in terms of information. I’d recommend to be very skeptical about all the figures right now.

Syrian Observatory of Human Rights are always worth checking for that stuff. They seem to be skeptical about some of the Turkish claims so far. The Turks were claiming to make territorial advances and to have conquered villages close to Tell Abiad. And the Observatory was saying that’s not accurate. There’s a lot of disinformation right now, that’s part of war.

There are concerns not only about displacement of Kurds but about a potential massacre if Erdogan’s army aggressively tries to capture territory.

The Turkish army itself, the regular forces of Erdogan, I think will be under pretty clear orders not to carry out massacres. But they’re carrying out indiscriminate shelling right now against populated areas. There has been a hospital in Ras al-Ayn that was struck.

Secondly, the Syrian-Turkish allies the Turks are working with, and who look to be providing a lot of the ground fighters for this mission, is a thing they call the Syrian National Army [which is also known as Free Syrian Army].

Turkish-backed fighters from the Free Syrian Army stand in the Tal Malid area, north of Aleppo, as they fire towards Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) positions in the village of Um al-Hosh, in the area of Afrin, on January 20, 2018. (AFP Photo/Nazeer al-Khatib)

What is that in fact? It’s an amalgamation of a whole bunch of the remnants of the Syrian-Arab rebellion from northern Syria, including very extreme Sunni-jihadi elements, who in their own propaganda regularly refer to the PKK [Kurdistan Workers’ Party] and the Kurds as apostates, atheists and communists and all that kind of stuff. This is not a particularly disciplined force. It’s a deeply sectarian, and Sunni-Islamist force with a deep and verifiable hostility to the Kurdish population.

People talk about Turkey as a NATO member. We should not imagine this as a disciplined NATO army about to walk into these places

So if those guys get to interact with the Kurdish population, then the results could be deeply worrying. And we know about that because we kind of have a precedent, which is Operation Olive Branch [which Turkey and the Ankara-backed Syrian National Army carried out in early 2018], when the Turks destroyed the Kurdish Afrin Canton.

This resulted in the displacement of 200,000 people. There wasn’t a huge massacre, because the population left in time. But there was widespread looting and cases of civilians being murdered.

This photo released by the press office of the Kurdish militia, People’s Protection Units or YPG, shows protesters waving giant flags of the YPG and other parties and militias, during a demonstration against Turkish threats, in Afrin, Aleppo province, north Syria on Thursday, Jan 18, 2018. (YPG Press Office via AP)

People talk about Turkey as a NATO member. We should not imagine this as a disciplined NATO army about to walk into these places. It’s not that. They [Erdogan’s troops] will be the artillery and the air power, but the guys on the ground will be Syrian Sunni-Islamist militiamen, with all the potential that that contains.

Do you expect the current Operation Peace Spring to be worse in terms of casualties?

It’s much more widespread; it’s a much bigger area and it’s taken in a potentially much larger Kurdish population in the area that they apparently want to conquer. So in that sense it has the potential for being much worse.

But as I said, it depends very much on the actual dimensions that the operation ends up consisting of. Everything is still wide open. And there is a possibility that, as a result of international pressure and of SDF resistance, [things could play out in a different way].

It’s absolutely crucial for them to hold fast across the border until the international mood changes against Turkey. If they hold fast and the international diplomats turn against Turkey, which they may; and if the Americans move to talking about a no-fly zone over the area, keeping the Turkish aircraft out, then Turkey will have to start thinking again about the dimensions of the operation.

A picture taken in Akcakale at the Turkish border with Syria on October 10, 2019 shows smokes rising from the Syrian town of Tal Abyad after a mortar landed in the garden of a Turkish government building in Akcakale. (BULENT KILIC / AFP)

If they’re allowed to keep pushing on ahead, then it’s going to be a lot bigger than what took place in Afrin, and what took place there was by no means small. It was under-reported, but the movement of 200,000 people from their homes as refugees is no small thing.

Let’s talk about the Kurds in northern Syria, who must be feeling terribly abandoned. How are they dealing with the developments of the last few days?

I am in touch with people there; I was chatting with some people last night in Kobani and elsewhere. And even though we saw those very distressing scenes that CNN filmed, of civilians leaving and so on, this is a population that is used to war. They’re familiar with war. They’ve been through the experience of ISIS heading towards them, and then being stopped in 2014.

So I don’t think there’s panic or despair. But I do think, based on what I am hearing from the people I know who are involved in the military, media and political sides of things, there’s a great deal of anger, frankly, against the West and against the United States. And a very profound sense of betrayal. That really comes through.

I reported a lot from the ground during the Syrian war and also from that area. And I remember, in the summer of 2014, the YPG [the mainly Kurdish People’s Protection Units, the most important component of the Syrian Democratic Forces] were burying fighters five at a time. There wasn’t time to give everyone their own funeral. Around 11,000 people were killed. So they remember that; it was only a few years ago. They do have a very profound sense of having been betrayed, frankly, by their key ally.

What’s Israel’s role in all this? And what do you make of the statements of Israeli politicians, some of whom [including New Right MK Ayelet Shaked] are calling for Kurdish statehood or want to send humanitarian aid there? [Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday praised the “gallant” Kurdish people and offered humanitarian aid.]

As far as I am aware, there are no official relations of any kind between Israel and the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, as they currently call themselves, which is the de-facto authority there.

There may be some kind of unofficial communication, but there isn’t the kind of traditional close relations that did pertain and do pertain between Israel and the [Masoud] Barzani-dominated Kurdish regional government in northern Iraq. The Israelis and the Barzanis go back a long way to the 1960s, in terms of cooperation. And that’s not the case with the particular Kurds who control the Syrian Kurdistan entity now.

I don’t think anybody expects the Israeli air force to come by and enforce a no-fly zone

Having said that, having spent a lot of time in the area and knowing many of the people well, the people’s sentiments are broadly pro-Israeli. People are broadly, in their sentiments, pro-Israeli. And that actually includes a lot of the officials there, even though they probably wouldn’t want to say it publicly.

So there is a warm sentiment there, but I don’t think anybody expects the Israeli air force to come by and enforce a no-fly zone or anything like that.

But I would think that the hope, at least, is that Israeli officials use whatever influence they might have on the United States administration and on the US legislature — Congress — in order to try to leverage a changed American position, to change or even reverse the position that came out on Sunday.

Back to a much tougher position, [that says] “Turkey has to stop, we don’t support this operation, and if Turkey goes too far, and things we discussed earlier happen, there will be severe consequences for Turkey.” Obviously the demand for a no-fly zone is the most immediate demand.

So I would have thought that the Kurdish hope would be that, insofar as Israel has a voice in the important forums in Washington, this voice would be raised at this time. I would think that will probably happen, because my sense is that Israeli officials are deeply concerned about this.

US President Donald Trump, right, and visiting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu walk along the Colonnade of the White House in Washington, March 25, 2019. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

Not only because it raises the issue of, “Well, the Americans are not going to stand by their Kurdish friends, what does that mean for their other friends?” It’s not anything quite as nebulous as that, actually.

It’s something much more concrete: the area of control of the Autonomous Administration [is located] in Eastern Syria and is basically an American-Kurdish protectorate right now. That means it’s a de-facto barrier against the Iranians. It’s not a 100 percent sealed one, because down in the South there is Abu Kamal, but it basically cuts off the greater part of eastern Syria from the prospect of Iranian penetration.

Syrian Kurds gather around a US armored vehicle during a demonstration against Turkish threats, next to a US-led international coalition base on the outskirts of Ras al-Ain town in Syria’s Hasakeh province near the Turkish border, on October 6, 2019. (Delil Souleiman/AFP)

And if the result of the current situation is that the Americans abandon the Kurds, the Kurds are terrified of the Turkish advance, and the Assad regime and the Russians and the Iranians then come east of the Euphrates to try to resist any kind of Turkish advance, and the Kurds surrender to them, then the de-facto result is that this area will become open to Iran. And that’s directly against the interest of Israel.

So Israel has a very concrete and clear tactical interest in the preservation of this area in its current from. And I would have thought that that point would have been made by Israelis in the relevant forums now.

What did you think of Netanyahu’s condemnation of the Turkish invasion and his offer of humanitarian assistance to the Kurds?

The statement by Netanyahu joins similar statements by a number of world leaders. It will no doubt be welcomed by the Kurds in Syria, though I would think that the offer of humanitarian assistance will not be taken up at the present time. It is the latest evidence of a growing international consensus against the Turkish operation. It remains to be seen how this will impact on the situation on the ground.

In his statement, Netanyahu warned the Turks against “ethnic cleansing.” These are strong words.

I guess he means potential displacement of populations, which is a genuine threat. And I guess he found no reason to mince words.

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