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The ceasefire that never was: betrayal in Rojava

  • October 19, 2019

Land & Liberation

After being stabbed in the back by the US — twice — the Rojava administration is left with little choice but to turn to Assad in the face of Turkey’s invasion.

Since October 9, Turkey has been engaged in a large-scale offensive against the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, threatening the future of the Rojava revolution.

After 10 days of fierce battles between the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Turkish army, mass displacement of Kurdish civilians and reports of roadside executions by Turkish-backed proxies, the Trump administration negotiated a ceasefire that is nothing short of a total surrender and capitulation to Ankara’s demands.

The temporary ceasefire agreed by US Vice President Mike Pence and President Erdoğan’s administration proposes a halt to fighting to allow for the SDF to withdraw from the 32km safe zone running along Turkey’s southern border. Once the withdrawal has been completed over a period of 120 hours, Ankara will supposedly implement a permanent ceasefire.

Mazloum Kobani, the SDF commander, announced that they will accept the ceasefire, but made no mention of the proposed withdrawal and implementation of a “safe zone.”

In contrast to the Turkish government that wants a safe zone across the entire 444km long border, Kobani said the ceasefire is only between Tal Abyad and Serekaniye and does not allow for any demographic changes in the area. It remains to be seen whether the SDF will agree to a complete withdrawal from the area.

While the exact implementation of the deal remains murky, the terms represent an unconditional surrender to Ankara, with the Trump administration failing to get a single concession from Turkey. In the words of one Turkish official: “We got everything we wanted… It was as easy a negotiation as we’ve ever had.”

Given that it was Trump who green-lighted the operation in the first place by abruptly announcing the withdrawal of US forces from the border region, this ceasefire announcement should be seen as confirmation of the US president’s intent on facilitating the destruction of the Rojava revolution.

Furthermore, although the ceasefire implied an immediate cessation of Turkey’s military invasion, Turkey continues to bombard the besieged border city of Serekaniye with air and artillery strikes. The center remains under the control of Kurdish forces who have put up a remarkable resistance over the last 10 days.

The bombardment continued well into Friday, with one report stating that a Turkish air strike killed five more civilians close to the city while a medical convoy that attempted to reach the city to evacuate wounded civilians was also targeted.

Prior to the announcement of the ceasefire, the Kurds had negotiated a deal with the Assad regime in an attempt to stave off the Turkish invasion. Such a deal will likely lead to major concessions for the Rojava revolution, but the SDF reasoned that such a price is a matter of necessity with the Turkish invasion threatening the lives and livelihoods of Kurds and other minorities in Syria’s northeast.

While such a deal has led to the deployment of regime forces (the Syrian Arab Army, or SAA) in areas such an Manbij and Kobane, thereby preventing a Turkish attack on the symbolically important Kurdish town, to date such an agreement has failed to prevent the continued bombardment in border towns such as Serekaniye.

Despite the SDF’s deal with Assad and the apparent “ceasefire” arrangement, Turkey’s assault on Rojava has not ceased. The sudden change of allegiance from the US to the Syrian regime by the Rojava administration represents a seismic shift in region’s geopolitical dynamics.

While the Turkish threat remains, we should also be vigilant to the threat of an absolute betrayal of the Kurds by a coalition of state actors. The next few weeks will likely decide the future of the Rojava revolution.

The threat of ethnic cleansing

Trump’s decision to cede to all of Ankara’s major demands in the ceasefire agreement should not be seen in isolation. Last December, Trump decided to withdraw troops, only to change his mind after pressure from within his own administration.

Prior to his recent announcement of withdrawal, the US oversaw a “security mechanism” whereby the SDF destroyed their defenses across the border in an attempt to appease Turkish concerns. The SDF agreed to such conditions on the promise that the US had pledged to protect the SDF against Turkish invasion.

The SDF knew that Trump was not a reliable partner against Turkish threats and had been busy all year preparing a network of tunnels and defense infrastructure in anticipation of the looming Turkish invasion. But the US reneging on its promise in such circumstances was a betrayal nobody could have predicted.

Turkey’s invasion of Rojava and the proposed “safe zone” will have dire consequences for the region. Not only will it put an end to the radical political experiment that has thrived in Rojava since 2012, but it will undoubtedly lead to a resurgence of ISIS. Turkey has a history of turning a blind eye to ISIS and have always considered Kurdish autonomy as more of a threat than the so-called Islamic State. The numerous reports of jail breakouts from ISIS internment camps after Turkish airstrikes have hit the vicinity gives us a taste of how little Turkey prioritizes the continued detention of ISIS prisoners.

Aside from the resurgence of ISIS, the experience of Afrin offers clearer evidence of the threat a Turkish invasion poses. The radically democratic rule implemented by the Rojava administration has been destroyed as Islamist factions impose their ideological footprint, while widespread displacement of Kurds continues to alter the demographics of what was once a Kurdish-majority region.

After Turkey seized control of Afrin province after a fierce two-month battle with Kurdish forces in 2018, investigations have revealed how Turkish-backed mercenaries have engaged in war crimes such as looting, extortion, rape and the widespread confiscation of property. While the atrocities were primarily committed by Syrian rebel groups, Amnesty reported how Turkish forces were turning a blind eye to the series of human rights atrocities.

The horrors inflicted on Afrin were widely seen an attempt to alter the demographics of the predominately Kurdish region. According to a report published by the Rojava Information Centre, nearly half of the 300,000 former residents of Afrin have been forcibly displaced, while thousands of Arabs from other parts of Syria moved in. On the eve of the Turkey’s invasion of Afrin, Erdoğan himself claimed that Afrin was a majority Arab city.

Turkey has weakened pro-Kurdish activism in Turkey through the mass detention of Kurdish activists and authoritarian measures for the time being, but Ankara knows too well that any form of Kurdish autonomy on its southern border will always strengthen demands for democratic autonomy back home.

Despite seeking to frame the plan to resettle over two million Syrian Arab refugees in the proposed “safe zone” on humanitarian grounds, Turkey has a history of ethnic cleansing to assert control over Kurdish areas in Turkey’s south-east. Turkey’s real aim is to ethnically cleanse the border region to prevent any form of Kurdish autonomy ever taking shape.

While the area around Tal Abyad has an Arab majority, most of the proposed “safe zone” includes areas with substantial Kurdish majorities. Turkey’s decision to target the Kurdish heartlands east of Serekaniye should be seen as an intentional plan to re-engineer the demographics on their border.

Serekaniye, a new Kobane

Since launching the offensive on October 9, the Turkish government has tended not to engage in direct clashes themselves, preferring to support the Syrian National Army on the front line with constant bombardment and air strikes on SDF positions.

However, Turkish airstrikes and artillery attacks have already inflicted a series of civilian casualties. An airstrike on October 13 killed 12 when it hit a protest convoy that had traveled to the city of Serekaniye to show their opposition to the military offensive. Amnesty have said that the airstrike, which hit the 100 protesters shortly after they arrived in the city, is one of many examples of Turkish forces displaying “an utterly callous disregard for civilian lives’.

Kurdish authorities have said that 218 civilians, including 18 children, have died while a further 650 have been wounded in the first eight days alone, many as a result of Turkish bombardments.

The operation began with a two-pronged assault on the cities of Tal Abyad and Serekaniye from the Turkish border. Both are situated right on the Turkish border and were the expected starting point of attack partly due to the complex local dynamics and the mixed Arab-Kurdish composition.

Serekaniye remains under SDF control despite being surrounded by Turkish-backed forces, while relentless airstrikes against both military and civilian targets continue unabated. The city itself has a mixed Arab-Kurdish population and is strategically important as the area to the city’s east has a substantial Kurdish-majority. It is therefore considered a gateway to the Kurdish heartlands.

As civilian convoys seek to break the blockade and open a humanitarian corridor to the trapped civilians and fighters, the city is quickly becoming a symbol of Kurdish resistance against all odds, similar to Kobane back in 2014.

Local Arab opposition

Tal Abyad, a city that lies directly between Serekaniye and Kobane, fell to Turkish forces last week after four days of resistance. The Arab majority city and surrounding district — which is roughly 70 percent Arab — has continuously been a headache for the Kurdish forces. Turkey hopes that their plans of a safe zone — which constitutes a thorough Arabization of the border areas — will resonate with local Arab tribes in Tal Abyad who have often resented Kurdish rule.

Many powerful Arab tribes in the area have opposed Kurdish rule. When the YPG first entered Tal Abyad for a few days in 2013, Arab tribes in the region sought the help of Al-Nusra to push Kurdish forces out of the city. One of the most powerful tribes in the area is the Jays tribe, who have historically had close ties with Turkey and have often clashed with the Kurds from neighboring Kobane.

Such animosity towards the SDF from local Arab tribes made the area the easiest point of entry for Turkey-backed forces. Turkey’s propaganda rests on the false claim that YPG and the SDF are deeply unpopular with the local population, and unlike other regions across Rojava, Tal Abyad represents the only area where this may partially be true.

The other importance of Tal Abyad is its vicinity to Kobane and strategically crucial M4 highway. The highway is the lifeline for the region as it connects Qamishlo in the east to Kobane and Manbij in the west, allowing Kurdish forces to redeploy their forces with ease. Turkey’s capture of Tal Abyad gives them a direct route to the highway further south, which would also cut off Kobane from Kurdish-controlled territory in the east.

The SDF have effectively fought back control of much of the highway, thereby linking Kobane to the rest of Rojava again. But Turkish forces have clearly targeted the area to isolate Kobane.

The deal struck with Assad last Sunday and the subsequent deployment of regime forces have eased the threats of Turkish invasion from the western front. Despite rumors that US forces were preventing regime soldiers from entering Kobane, SAA forces have now been deployed in both Kobane and Manbij.

In Manbij this has led to joint Russian and SAA patrols along the front line north of the city, thereby preventing an offensive by Turkish-backed Syrian forces. Likewise, in Kobane, fears of an imminent Turkish attack on the city have dissipated in recent days after the arrival of regime soldiers.

The regime has also deployed soldiers alongside SDF on the strategic M4 highway in crucial towns such as Ayn Issa and Tell Tamer. There have been some attempts to retake the highway in the area below Serekaniye and Tal Abyad, but to date the SAA-SDF partnership has secured the strategic highway.

Thus, despite the uncertainty of whether the ceasefire proposal will lead to the implementation of Turkey’s “safe zone,” through a partnership with the regime, SDF and Kurdish forces have successfully reduced Turkey’s ambitions. While Ankara imagined seizing control of the entire border stretching from Kobane until the Iraqi border, the area currently under control of Turkish forces is reduced to the region stretching between Tal Abyad and Serekaniye.

Despite public statements for joint SDF-SAA military cooperation to push Turkish forces out of the Tel Abyad and Serekaniye areas, the SDF have defended Serekaniye without regime support so far. The extent to which Assad’s forces are willing to engage in direct confrontations with the Turkish-backed forces in Serekaniye and Tal Abyad thus remains to be seen. If a safe zone is implemented, it is likely that it will be limited to this stretch of territory between Serekaniye and Tal Abyad.

Mercenaries, Islamists and opportunists

While Turkey has resorted to indiscriminate bombing from the sky, numerous atrocities have been carried out by Turkish-backed Syrian fighters who were recently reorganized under the banner of the Syrian National Army (SNA).

Three days after launching the operation, fighters belonging to the Islamist Ahrar Al-Sharqiya — a group formed by fighters who had previously served Jabhat Al-Nusra in eastern Syria — committed a series of summary executions. Videos circulated on social media, which have been verified by the UN, which showed the execution of three Kurdish captives on the M4 highway.

On the same day, the Kurdish politician Hevrin Khalaf, a leading figure within the Future Syria Party, was also killed on the highway. According to reports by Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, she was dragged out of her car and shot in cold blood on the road. Disturbing videos shows one Ahrar Al-Sharqiya fighter stamping on her body after she was executed. Her autopsy reveals she was shot, beaten with heavy objects and dragged by her hair until the skin on her scalp came off.

Moreover, a report published by Foreign Policy appear to confirm accusations that these Turkish-backed mercenaries have been using chemical weapons against civilians in Serekaniye. Children with chemical burns across their body consistent with white phosphorus have been admitted to a hospital in the region, and a US official has admitted to knowledge of such claims.

Most of the Syrian fighters are battle-hardened fighters who see themselves as the heirs to the uprising against Bashar Assad. While there are a considerable number of groups with extreme Islamist persuasions, such as Ahrar Al-Sharqiya and Jaysh Al-Islam, there are also various Arab and Turkmen groups who hail from the north-eastern region of Syria.

Since 2016, these groups have been funded by Turkey, and despite claims of being the heirs to the Syrian revolution, have tended not to engage in clashes with regime forces. Instead, they resemble a mercenary force motivated by money rather than a specific ideology. “The main problem with these forces is their criminality,” Elizabeth Tsurkov, an expert who has interviewed many of the fighters, explained. “Hatred of Kurds, a sense of Arab chauvinism, complete intolerance for any dissent, and just a desire to make a profit is what’s driving most of the abuses.”

Given the many atrocities committed by the Turkish-backed SNA — ranging from summary roadside executions to the use of chemical weapons against Kurdish civilians — it was expected that any ceasefire agreement negotiated by the Trump administration would have, at a minimum, prevented the continued presence of such forces.

But the wording only goes as far as stating that the safe zone will “primarily” be enforced by the Turkish Army — meaning Turkish proxies will still have free rein to continue their war crimes against the Kurdish population of Rojava.

A painful compromise

Turkey’s advance and the US’ betrayal have forced the Rojava administration into Assad’s fold. The sheer brutality of much of these mercenary forces, and Turkey’s clear intentions to ethnically cleanse the border area, means the people of Rojava have little choice but to resist.

Turkey claims this is a fight against the “terrorist elements,” and as a result, are more than happy to fight dirty. Much like Afrin, rather than suffering casualties on their own military, and thereby dialing up the pressure on Erdoğan domestically, Ankara has chosen to employ their own mercenary forces to terrorize the local Kurdish population.

With such an existential threat to Rojava, ceding control to Turkey and their mercenary forces was and remains unthinkable. In this, reaching an agreement with the Assad regime appeared to be the “least bad option.” While the finer details of the agreement are yet to be flushed out, the hope is that the Kurds will continue to retain some degree of self-rule.

Some reports suggest that the Kurds secured a guarantee of full Kurdish rights in a new Syrian constitution with some form of autonomy, in return for the integration of the Kurdish forces into a legion of the Syrian army under Russian patronage.

Others have portrayed the deal with the regime as the end of the autonomy enjoyed by the Rojava administration, although the SDF have been quick to point out that the agreement reached is purely on a military basis only.

According to a statement released by the SDF on Sunday night, the deal was made to prevent the Turkish attack and would lead to the Syrian army being deployed across the length of the Syrian-Turkish border. As mentioned earlier, while the area between Tal Abyad and Serekaniye remains uncertain, the deployment of regime forces appears to have successfully limited the scope of Turkey’s invasion to this area.

However, despite SDF claims, allowing regime forces the ability to deploy across Rojava will undoubtedly lead to certain unpleasant compromises for the administration. In an article in Foreign Policy, the SDF commander Mazloum Kobane, acknowledged this reality when he said “we know that we would have to make painful compromises with Moscow and Bashar al-Assad if we go down the road of working with them,” but insisted that they would have to choose such compromises over the genocide of Kurds that the Turkish invasion threatened.

Rojava’s preference was for a continuation of their partnership with the US in order to avoid such painful compromises, but Trump’s betrayal have forced the hands of the autonomous administration.

Exploiting ethnic tensions

The future of the SDF is more uncertain than ever. They are often painted as Kurdish allies in western media, but the SDF was envisioned as a multi-ethnic force and includes Arabs, Christians, Yezidis and Turkmen in their ranks alongside Kurds.

The SDF may have been born out of the predominately Kurdish YPG/J, but as the battle against ISIS led to the liberation of Arab regions such as Raqqa and Deir Ezzor, the SDF have succeeded in enlisting a greater number of Arabs into the fold. According to research conducted on the ground, Arabs make up more than 50 percent of the entire ethnic composition of the group.

Partly due to the perceived cooperation between Assad and the Syrian Kurds, the participation of Arabs and broader FSA forces within the SDF is often underreported. For example, during the defense of Tal Abyad prior to its capture by Turkish-backed forces last week, the groups primarily engaged with resisting Turkish advances were well known FSA groups such as Liwa al-Tahrir (Liberation Brigade) and Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa (Raqqa Revolutionaries Brigade).

There have certainly been tensions with the YPG over the years, but the presence of such groups underlines the cooperation with which opposition Arab groups have cooperated and actively worked alongside Kurdish forces. However, now that a deal with the regime has been reached, it appears likely that Assad will attempt to break up such cooperation and flush out known FSA elements.

Another battleground where this dynamic is materializing is in Manbij. While regime and Russian forces have prevented Turkish-backed rebel groups from launching an offensive by placing themselves on the front line north of the city, reports have suggested that the city’s residents and the Manbij Military Council (MMC) have been uneasy with the presence of the SAA. The MMC, who control the city and are allied to the SDF, have their roots in FSA battalions that took up arms against the regime in the early days of the revolution.

Allying with Assad will certainly have unfortunate repercussions. Aside from militias who have their roots in an anti-authoritarian uprising against Assad, there are thousands of civilians living in Rojava that are wanted by the regime.

There have been rumors of protest against SDF’s decision to partner with Assad in Deir Ezzor and Raqqa provinces. The fear is that sectarianism could come to the fore as the Turkish offensive has laid bare the different priorities of the various ethnic groups in the region. Considering that the Turkish operation has shown an absolute disregard for Kurdish lives, the reality for Kurds is that allying with Assad was a necessity to prevent a massacre.

Nonetheless, a disconnect remains where many Arabs in the region may have preferred a Turkish occupation over ceding control to the regime.

The Rojava administration has proven remarkably adept at reducing ethnic tensions through the establishment of the SDF and offering a political platform for other minorities. Much like Turkey, Assad will likely pursue a sectarian agenda to weaken such cooperation. But in the end, Trump’s decision to cave to all of Ankara’s demands has left the Rojava administration with little choice. Cooperation with the Assad regime is all that remains.

Yvo Fitzherbert

Yvo Fitzherbert is a freelance journalist. He writes for a number of different publications, with a particular focus on Kurdish politics.

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