Last week, US Army Rangers drove around the Syrian town of Manbij with the American flags flying high. They were sending a message to all the armies that are gathered around that they would not like to see any "accidental" bombing of their positions. The message was heard loud and clear. It came just as US President Donald Trump’s government announced that the United States would send hundreds of US Marines into northern Syria as part of the impending battle against the city of Raqqa, where the Islamic State has control.
The United States has been training and working alongside the Syrian Democratic Forces – a largely Syrian Kurdish group – that has made significant gains against ISIS in northern Syria. These victories have come largely thanks to close air support from the United States and military training from a military force that both the Turkish and US governments define as a terrorist group, the PKK (Kurdish Workers’ Party). The Turkish government is loath to allow the Syrian Democratic Forces, which they see as a proxy of the PKK, to take Raqqa even though the United States has fully backed this operation. For the Turks, such an outcome would be catastrophic.
Turkey has long wanted to suppress the ambitions of the Kurdish people for self-determination, not only inside Turkey but also across its borders. When Syrian Kurds began to move towards the creation of Rojava – the province of Western Kurdistan – inside northern Syria, the Turkish intelligence services did everything possible to block its emergence. Syrian Kurdish officials told me two years ago that they felt that the growth of ISIS was largely allowed as a check on Syrian Kurdish designs for Rojava. It is clear that until a few years ago the Turkish intelligence services allowed their border to be porous for extremist fighters. These fighters joined the al-Qaeda proxy, the Turkish proxy and of course ISIS. That license on the border only ended when ISIS began to target Turkish cities in retaliation for the Turks allowing the US to use Turkish airfields to bomb ISIS.
Turkey’s President - Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – found that two of his goals had been unmet: the overthrow of Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad and the creation of a presidential system of rule inside Turkey which would make him above parliamentary control. The strange coup of last year came in the middle of these failures. It is unclear who attempted the coup, but it is certainly plain that Erdoğan has used the coup to mop up the messes that he has made.
Erdoğan pivoted from his fealty to the NATO and Gulf Arab position on Syria to a new rapprochement with Russia – whose entry into Syria ended Erdoğan’s hopes of removing Assad. Just after the American show of force in Manbij, Erdoğan went to Moscow to meet with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. Turkey wanted assurances that Syrian government forces – the Syrian Arab Army – would not leave Aleppo and move towards Raqqa. Turkey wants to ensure that it controls the region of northern Syria that is west of the Euphrates River. That is why Turkish operations in northern Syria go by the name Operation Euphrates Shield. The Russian armed forces created a buffer between the Syrian army and the Turkish army outside Aleppo. It was their way of ensuring that there would be no clash between these two volatile powers. The pivot to Russia has enabled Erdoğan to try and clean up his mess in Syria.
One of the reasons why Erdoğan’s bid to create the presidential system failed was the rise of the HDP (People’s Democratic Party). This party is an amalgam of sections of the Turkish socialist and the Kurdish nationalist movement. In two elections in 2015, the HDP was able to block Erdoğan’s attempt to dominate the parliament. Since then, the Turkish state has opened up a war against Turkey’s Kurdish population. This war has enabled Turkey to damage the PKK – and its ally in Syria – as well as to deeply hurt the HDP. In fact, the HDP’s leaders - Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ – have lost their parliamentary seats through a dubious judicial maneuver. Close to nine thousand HDP party workers have been detained by the government. Mayors in the southeast have been set aside for government appointed trustees (It is important to note that in Turkey’s southeast each mayoralty is shared by a man and a woman. The point of this is to increase the participation of women in political life. The new trustees are mostly male). The ruling party hopes that the war in southeastern Turkey and the arrests of the HDP leaders will paralyze the party and lead to a massive victory for Erdoğan in the referendum to be held in April. If Erdoğan wins this vote, he would have wiped away the two losses in 2015.
A week ago, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights released a scathing report on Turkey’s violations of human rights, particularly in the country’s southeast. The report shows that Turkey’s armed forces conducted its war against the largely Kurdish populations with ‘reckless disregard for human lives’. The UN suggests that at least two thousand people were killed between July 2015 and December 2016, but acknowledges that this is a very low estimate. The report notes, ‘The most serious human rights violations occurred during periods of curfew, when entire residential areas were cut off and movement restricted around-the-clock for several days at a time’. Most dramatic was the assault on the town of Cizre, one of the epicenters of the HDP. Aerial bombardment came alongside a siege by armored units of the Turkish forces. Heavy machinery was brought into the town – as in others – to ‘raze entire city quarters to the ground, including lightly damaged buildings and cultural heritage’. In Diyarbakir, residents could not return home, while the construction rubble ‘which may still contain mortal remains of victims, has reportedly been dumped onto the banks of the nearby Tigris River’. This war against the Kurds and against dissenters in Turkey – including academics who signed a peace petition – is unrelenting. It is as if Erdoğan wants to wipe out anyone who opposes him.
War on ISIS
The Iraqi army has now substantially taken most of eastern Mosul back from ISIS. There are still snipers and booby traps, fighters and bombs, hidden in the rubble and on rooftops. Battles will continue in this largely destroyed part of the city, from where about two hundred thousand people have fled into UN camps. Nonetheless, sections of Mosul’s western half and other neighborhoods remain in the hands of ISIS fighters, whose escape has begun to seem impossible. It is likely that they will either fight to the end or hide amongst the civilians. Surrender is not really something that one has seen from the hardened ISIS combatants. The real murderous battle will take place inside the Old City, where the Bab al-Tob area will present ISIS many opportunities for guerrilla warfare. Half a million civilians remain in the city.
If Mosul goes, and then Raqqa follows, ISIS will have lost its main urban footholds in the region. No end is in sight yet. Raqqa remains with ISIS, and the regional complexity of that battle will have to be sorted out before the gunfire begins. Pandemonium shall be the method for the rush to Raqqa. It is easy to imagine Turkish and Syrian Kurdish forces fighting each other before they would collaborate to fight ISIS together. The Syrian government is upset that the United States forces are on its territory without permission. This might be more theater than reality, since – as one Syrian official told me – the government feels that if the US defeats ISIS it would prefer – under Turkish pressure – to return Raqqa to Damascus than to allow the Syrian Kurds to hold it. No Syrian Kurdish official is pleased with these suggestions.
Mosul will fall, but the battle for Raqqa might not even begin. The defeat of ISIS in Raqqa is nobody’s priority. The entanglements of Turkey will continue to sabotage any direct way forward.
Disclaimer: The views expressed here are the author's personal views, and do not necessarily represent the views of Newsclick.