Turkey’s challenge in Syria: Knowing who is who
A few days before the Turkish Armed Forces entered Afrin’s city center, video footage was all over the Turkish press showing how the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) was stopping civilians trying to leave the city. This was shown as evidence that the PYD, which is considered the Syrian arm of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), would use civilians as human shields in the anticipated urban warfare.
In the end, the PYD retreated from the center of Afrin and the urban warfare expected to take place with the Turkish army did not occur.
But this video footage remained as proof showing the city’s civilian Kurdish population’s wish to leave and in fact, those who found a way, left.
That brings us to the Turkish government’s first challenge. The Turkish government has been telling all regional and international actors in Syria that demographic engineering through ethnic cleansing should be avoided. Yet, while talking about “cleansing the PKK from the Turkish-Syrian border,” the Turkish government risks contradicting this position if civilian Kurds fleeing armed conflict do not return in fear of reprisal from the Free Syrian Army (FSA), or simply in fear of the presence of the Turkish army.
According to diplomatic sources, the representatives of the Kurdish population in Afrin have told the Turkish government that after having suffered for decades under the oppression of the Bashar al-Assad regime, and after having been subjected to similar oppressive rule by the PYD in the course of these last couple of years, they do not want to come under the oppressive rule of “Sunni Arabs” this time.
Therefore, the challenge for Turkey will be to make sure to separate between the People’s Protection Units (YPG)/PKK and the Syrian civilian Kurds, in addition to securing the return and guarantee of the rights of the latter.
Who is who among the Sunni groups
The second challenge is one posed by the Damascus-Moscow-Tehran trio. Supported by Russia and Iran, regime forces have been making advances against rebel fighters. The same pattern is applied each time, which we have witnessed in Aleppo and Eastern Ghouta and which we are now seeing in Douma. There is extensive bombing, including on critical infrastructure like hospitals, use of chemical attacks to further intimidate locals and then an offer to exit for those who want to leave.
Turkey undertook a cross border military incursion against the PKK in Syria, thanks to the green light from the Russians, but that came at the expense of regime attacks against the opponents, which started to flee towards regions under the control of Turkey, like Idlib and Cerablus. Ankara’s protests and numerous telephone calls between Russia and Turkey at the highest level did not stop the Russians’ strategy to push regime opponents toward Turkish controlled areas.
This brings us to the second challenge for Turkey, on identifying who is who among those fleeing towards Turkish controlled areas. You have a civilian woman whose husband is affiliated with Ahrar al-Sham, a brother who was a former member of the al-Nusra Front, an uncle with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and a brother-in-law with the FSA.
Then there is the challenge of Foreign Terrorist Fighters (FTF). From Tunisians to Germans, from Moroccans to French, all are asking their Turkish counterparts what will happen with the FTF. Where will they go? Certainly back to their country of origin? And obviously they will pass through Turkey. Already, several diplomatic missions in Turkey are busy dealing with the FTF and their families; the ones who knock on their door but also who do not knock.
Those who do not want to return, like the Chechen and the Uyghurs, what will happen to them when their room to maneuver becomes limited in Syria? Will they find it easier to penetrate Turkey and become deadly lone wolves? Thanks to the military campaign, the PKK may now have limited capacity to use Syria as a launching pad. Will it be the same for the radical jihadists?