Kurds fear worst – no matter result of US talks with Turkey
the northern Syrian town of Kobane lies the Martyr’s Cemetery. Late last year, when I last visited, there were more than 1,300 headstones.
Almost all of those buried there are Kurds who died fighting the Islamic State (IS) group as the Jihadists bore down on the town in 2014 and 2015.
Since then the Kurds have continued the fight to push the last remnants of IS out of the region. They have fought also to thwart the advance of Turkish forces and their militia allies from taking territory around the city of Afrin.
Turkey’s militia allies, who have been at the forefront of the assault, have much in common with the Jihadists of IS and reports of atrocities against Kurds in the region are commonplace.
Hardly surprising then that when news of the US withdrawal from northern Syria was announced by Donald Trump in December, Kurds felt both betrayed by Washington and understandably vulnerable in the face of a promised Turkish onslaught.
Yesterday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he was optimistic an agreement can be reached with Turkey to protect Kurdish fighters after US troops leave.
“We had this conversation. Many details are still to be worked out, but I am optimistic we can achieve a good outcome,” Mr Pompeo said of his call with Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu from Abu Dhabi, where he was on the fourth leg of a nine-nation Middle East trip.
Last week US special envoy for Syria and the anti-is coalition, Jim Jeffrey, was reported to have travelled to northern Syria to work on the issue and would be returning to Turkey to continue talks.
The Kurds, however, remain cautious and have every right to be. Not only have they been promised much in the past only to be let down, Turkish threats of late suggest Ankara has little intention of easing up on its onslaught against them.
For the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which have taken the fight to IS, remain the devil incarnate.
Turkey considers the YPG an extension of the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has fought for Kurdish autonomy in Turkey for three decades. The YPG, meanwhile, denies any direct organisational links to the PKK.
Despite Mr Pompeo’s cause for optimism over a deal to protect Kurds from Turkey once US troops leave, most Kurds are not holding their breath. They point to Ankara’s campaign in Afrin as proof that Turkey is targeting them and will most likely continue to do so.
Kurdish sources in cities like Kobane and Manbij, which are under control of the YPG, say any deal the US can broker with Turkey would be welcome but they continue to prepare for an intensified military campaign by Ankara and its militia allies.
“Afrin is the living example of the protection that Turkey can offer Kurds – the Kurdish language and identity are completely forbidden now,” said a Syrian Kurd now living in Europe and using the pseudonym Azad to protect relatives still in Afrin.
Last year, while in Kobane, I interviewed many Kurds who had fled Afrin who described in detail what they faced when Turkish forces and their militia allies overran the city.
“Our family’s ancestors have been living in Afrin for over 200 years,” said one man named Nuri, 45, who was forced to flee the city along with his family and thousands of others and now lives in Kobane.
“The whole journey was traumatic with the constant bombing but the moment that we left Afrin was the worst,” Nuri recalled of the day when he and his family fled. “Nobody remained in the village – everyone left.”
Last week, Turkey’s presidential spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin insisted it was “irrational to say that Turkey targets Kurds”.
His remarks were instantly rounded on by many Kurds including Polat Can, a Kurdish commander in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Can, according to Wladimir van Wilgenburg, an analyst of Kurdish politics and freelance journalist with news station Kurdistan 24, questioned why Turkey had imposed the raising of its flags, its language, and changed street names in Afrin from Kurdish to Turkish in
March if it is not against the Kurds.
“Why do you change the Kurdish names to Turkish in Afrin? Why did you destroy statue of Kurdish national symbol Kawa?” Mr Van Wilgenburg quoted Mr Can as posting on Twitter.
While observers wait to see whether Mr Pompeo’s diplomatic negotiations with the Turkish government ultimately deliver the reassurances the Kurds seek, Ankara continues to send out mixed messages.
On a visit last Friday to Turkish troops stationed near the Syrian border, Turkish defence minister Hulusi Akar said his country was “determined” to fight Kurdish militias it considers terrorists and insisted that military preparations were ongoing. While the uncertainty continues, many regional observers stress that their remains much to be done to ensure IS is not able to regroup.
They correctly point out that the Syrian Kurds and the YPG have a vital role in tackling these last remnants of IS and ensuring the Jihadists are unable to regroup to mount another insurgency campaign.
The measure of the job still to be done and the vital role the Kurds have to play in that operation were highlighted again recently when two British SAS soldiers were reported seriously injured by an IS missile strike in Syria while taking part in a joint operation with the Kurds. A Kurdish fighter was killed in the missile attack.
For the moment Washington’s request for assurances that the Kurds will not be subjected to Turkish aggression is a big ask for Ankara.
To date, initial responses from President Erdogan have been far from encouraging, with warnings he would “not make concessions” to the Kurds.
In light of this, Mr Pompeo’s “optimism” may yet prove misplaced. Either way the Kurds will doubtless be preparing for the worst.
US withdrawal from Syria is now at an impasse due to threats to its Kurdish allies.
Mike Pompeo believes a deal can be struck with Turkey to protect Kurds.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo may be optimistica deal with Ankara can be brokered to protect YPG forces after American troops leave Syria but, as Foreign Editor DAVID PRATT reports, they arefar from reassured onslaught does not loom