The first victims on both sides of the front hadn't done anything. All they wanted was to survive. When the Turkish air force began bombing Kurdish positions in and around the Syrian town of Afrin on Jan. 20, one of their rockets struck a chicken farm near the village of Jalbara and wiped out almost the entire Hussein family. The mother and six children were killed, with only the father surviving. They were refugees from Maarat al-Numan, a city located further south in the province of Idlib, which has once again become the the target of massive bombings by the Syrian air force and has been under fire since December.
The next morning, another rocket, this time fired from the Kurdish enclave of Afrin, struck near the Turkish border town of Reyhanli, slamming into the ground only two meters away from Nadir al-Fares' car. The taxi driver was killed instantly when the razor-sharp metal shrapnel ripped his car to shreds. Fares had fled to the border region from Bashar Assad's army back in 2012. He had managed to make it into Turkey, while Hussein family's flight ended in Afrin, where they endured the stench of the chickens to at least have a roof over their heads during the cold winter.
The deaths of these civilians shows on a small scale what the larger situation in the region looks like. They show how new battle lines are constantly being drawn and new hotspots are constantly emerging in the war in Syria. A conflict that those involved aren't even trying to stop anymore.
For the last two weeks, a brand new front has encircled Afrin. The increasingly autocratic Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had repeatedly announced his intention to extend his fight against the Kurdistan Workers' Party across the border into Syria. There, the PKK offshoot YPG, or People's Protection Units, controls around a quarter of the country and has established what is effectively its own Kurdish state. The region includes areas traditionally settled by Kurds, but also places where a majority of residents are Arab.
The Kurdish party may operate under different acronyms, as the PKK, the YPG or the PYD, but it ultimately acts on behalf of the same leadership and all the various offshoots venerate party founder Abdullah Öcalan. It used to be that Kurdish officials never sought to conceal their de facto unity, but once the Kurds began trying to win the United States as a partner, they started acting as though there were serious differences. Ultimately, though, decisions are made at headquarters in the Qandil Mountains in northern Iraq.
Erdogan finally acted on his threats on Jan. 20. Turkish fighter jets flew sorties from the north and the west and conducted aerial strikes against YPG military installations and radio stations. Turkish-operated Leopard 2 tanks, made in Germany, rolled through the hilly terrain, accompanied by Arab-Syrian rebels under Turkish command. The rebels came from groups that had once been part of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and originate largely from the northern part of the province of Aleppo, where the Turkish army occupied a large area during the summer of 2016.
By the middle of that first week, the attackers claimed to have seized five villages near the border, whereas YPG announced that it had fended off every attack. It's difficult to find independent source because many of the internet connections in Afrin are provided by Turkish mobile phone company Turkcell, meaning the authorities have the ability to cut them off.
The most reliable claims are likely those made by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights in Britain, which has stated that by Feb. 1, 91 YPG fighters and 85 pro-Ankara rebels had been killed in addition to 68 civilians on the Syrian side. The Turkish government contests the civilian deaths, but it has been confirmed by hospitals in Afrin, where doctors say they receive casualties on a daily basis. Turkey claims to have lost seven soldiers. In the last days of January, storms and heavy rainfall temporarily impeded the advance, but the fighting intensified again this week.
But there's considerable danger that far more people, especially civilians, will die as a result of the fighting. Afrin is one of the few areas in northern Syria that hasn't been badly damaged in the war. More than 100,000 internally displaced, including Kurds and Arabs from Aleppo and other areas have taken refuge in the region.
Throughout the conflict, Afrin has been lucky. The Syrian Kurds never joined the insurgency against Assad's dictatorship, instead adopting a neutral position in 2011. At times they would align with Damascus, at others with the rebels, and at still others with the Russians or the U.S., or preferably both. Assad's army withdrew and Afrin was never the target of bombing. Even as the Islamic State (IS) captured one village after the other to the south of Afrin in 2013, the enclave escaped a similar fate because in a rare show of unity, rebels pushed IS out of Idlib and Aleppo province in early 2014.
When Washington changed its strategy in summer 2014, declaring Islamic State its primary enemy following the brutal IS attacks on Yazidis in Iraq and on the Kurdish city of Kobani in Syria, the Syrian Kurds proved the ideal partner. The FSA rebels, after all, rejected Washington's condition that they focus entirely on IS and abandon the fight against Assad's army, even as the Syrian troops continued to blast away at their hometowns.
With weapons and aerial support provided by the U.S., the Kurds essentially became the Americans' boots on the ground in the fight against the Islamic State "caliphate." The U.S largely provided simple technology, but did so in immense quantities, delivering munitions, Kalashnikovs and also, according to unconfirmed reports, Russian Grad rockets.
The new alliance, however, presented a problem: The PKK was still officially listed in the United States as a terrorist organization. Washington, though, managed to skirt the issue with the help of linguistic acrobatics, referring from that point on to the YPG as a valuable ally in the war on terror while continuing to consider the PKK as a terrorist organization. It's a line that Donald Trump continued to maintain in a late-January telephone conversation with Erdogan, in which the U.S. president demanded military restraint in northern Syria while at the same time pledging his support in the fight against PKK terrorists.
It was a pledge that highlights the entire absurdity of the situation: Washington has expressed its understanding of Turkey's bombardment of a militia that the U.S. only recently armed.
Erdogan's political calculation, on the other hand, is completely transparent. In 2015, he ended the peace process with the PKK that he himself had initiated -- with the intention of rallying Turks behind him in the face of the Kurdish enemy. It was a cynical ploy, but it worked.
Despite all their differences, the three main parties to this new conflict -- the U.S., Turkey and the YPG -- have one thing in common: their ignorance. Each side believes it can wage its own war in the middle of the Syrian conflagration:
- The United States only wants to wage war against the IS;
- Erdogan is only interested in fighting the Kurds;
- And YPG is seeking to gain control of as much territory as it can, even far beyond the core Kurdish areas.
None of the three can or even wants to bring the war to an end. And although the coexistence worked for as long as the common enemy, Islamic State, remained strong, that's no longer the case now that the "caliphate" has fallen.
Two statements that obviously hadn't been coordinated -- one from a Pentagon spokesperson and the other from U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson -- triggered the following chain reaction that ultimately culminated with Turkey marching into Syria. On Jan. 13, the news portal The Defense Post quoted spokesman Colonel Thomas Veale, of the Combined Joint Task Force, as saying that a "Syrian Border Security Force" with around 30,000 fighters was being established under Kurdish leadership and that the first 230 had already started training.
In a speech given at Stanford University four days later, Secretary of State Tillerson presented an ambitious Syria strategy calling for the final defeat of Islamic State and al-Qaida and for a United Nations-brokered solution to be found that would also include Assad's resignation. Iran's influence should also be pushed back, assurances should be provided for the safe return of refugees and all the chemical weapons still held in Assad's arsenal should be destroyed. Then he added something that likely made NATO partner Turkey shudder: The U.S., he said, would maintain a military presence in Syria in areas held by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
Apparently caught off guard, Erdogan could hardly contain his anger. "Our mission is to strangle it before it is even born," the Turkish president said.
Once again, the fact that Tillerson and Donald Trump don't trust their own State Department, where they've left innumerable positions unfilled, has come back to haunt them. "Why is there no American ambassador in Ankara?" Frederic Hof, the former U.S. special advisor on transition in Syria, recently wrote in a heated editorial. "Why is there no senior American special envoy being dispatched to Turkey in the absence of an ambassador?"
It doesn't appear that they do.
How Putin Is Winning
There's one person who profits most from the dispute between Turkey and the U.S.: Russian President Vladimir Putin. It provides him the opportunity to thwart Washington's plans, disavow America's Kurdish ally and to bring a NATO split that much closer. Until recently, 170 Russian soldiers had been stationed in Afrin. But Russia withdrew those troops, cleared the way for Turkish jets and simply dropped the Kurds.
During the three preceding years, YPG had maintained tactical alliances with both the U.S. and Russia. The U.S. had used the Kurds in the battle against IS, and Washington even helped establish the SDF, a force made up of Kurdish and Arabic troops under YPG command, with the YPG allowed to take control of Arab-majority towns and villages in exchange for their services.
Moscow, meanwhile, exploited YPG as a bargaining chip against Ankara after Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet at the end of 2015 and also as ground troops to be used against the rebels. With Russian air support, YPG units captured the city of Tell Rifaat north of Aleppo in addition to dozens of villages in February 2016. They drove out most residents, stole from hospitals and bakeries and made the area part of their own Afrin canton. Despite the fact that local rebels in Tell Rifaat had freed themselves from IS in heavy fighting two years before.
Months ago, an analyst with YPG's intelligence service noted that the Kurdish leadership has known for some time that the diverse web of alliances would not hold forever. He recalled a long drive with a Russian general at the beginning of 2017. "You ought to decide," he recalls the general saying. "Either us or the Americans!" Yes, you're right, came the response. "But we really want to be allies with both, with Russia and the U.S.!" The general, he said, merely shook his head with a smile.
A Russian Ultimatum
Aldar Khalil, a member of YPG leadership, says that the Russians issued an ultimatum to YPG before withdrawing from Afrin. If Afrin agreed to submit again to Damascus rule, they said, then they wouldn't be attacked. YPG refused and instead wanted to turn to the Americans for help. But Washington didn't respond, says Salih Muslim, the former chair of the Kurdish political party in northern Syria. After the start of the Turkish invasion, the Pentagon stated only that Afrin is not part of the U.S. sphere of influence.
The rockets being fired from Afrin on Turkey, however, have allegedly been supplied by the Americans. A former Arab SDF fighter from Afrin recalls that "1,200 of the Grad rockets delivered by the Americans came to Afrin and the transport was escorted by Russian military police."
By tolerating the Turkish invasion, Moscow has in turn bought Erdogan's silence on a far more devastating offensive that has been underway for a short time south of Afrin in Idlib. Russian and Syrian fighter jets are bombing the cities of Maarat al-Numan, Saraqib and Khan Shaykhun as well as dozens of villages. So far, more than 200,000 people have been forced to flee to the north.
Nationalist, Religious Hysteria in Turkey
Erdogan had sharply rebuked these attacks - in part because Turkey no longer wants to take in any more Syrian refugees -- but fell silent when Russia pulled out of Afrin. Since then, Ankara has said nothing about ongoing airstrikes by Assad's forces. In Turkey, the offensive has once again stirred up nationalist, religious hysteria. "God is with us in Afrin," Erdogan announced, praising the army's deployment as a divine mission.
The Turkish leader has said that he next intends to attack the Kurds in northeastern Syria, where likely around 1,000 American troops are stationed, in an effort to capture the city of Manbij. Kurdish troops liberated the city from IS in 2016, but kept it for themselves despite a pledge to the contrary made to the U.S.
Ultimately, though, the Turkish invasion is likely to help only one person -- Bashar Assad, whose removal Erdogan has been demanding for years. On the evening of Jan. 25, the Kurdish party leadership in Afrin demanded something it would have angrily rejected only a week before. "We call on the Syrian state to fulfil its duty as a state and defend its borders against the Turkish occupier." It was an invitation to Assad's army to please return.
The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 5/2018 (January 27th, 2018) of DER SPIEGEL.
That's what the Russians had actually been hoping for. And they may now see that wish fulfilled.
Should that happen, the outlook is going to grow far bleaker for those who once fled Assad's troops to Idlib. They can't flee south, where Assad's troops have been advancing for months. And they also can't head north now that Assad's troops have been invited there.
The lucky ones are those who have already made it to Turkey. But what does lucky really mean in this conflict?
The father of the family killed by the Turkish rocket remained in the hospital in Afrin for several days after the attack. And Hassan, the son of taxi driver killed by the Kurdish rocket, asks despairingly: "What did my father do wrong?" He will now have to care for 12 children together with his sister-in-law. "All our other relatives are dead. But how are we supposed to survive?"