Kurds fear worst – no mat­ter re­sult of US talks with Tur­key

The Herald - - INTERNATIONAL -

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.

Pic: Akram Saleh/getty

„ 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

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