After Trump’s go-ahead for Turkey to invade Syria, the Kurdish population is in for even more upheaval
I spent time with residents of the ‘safe zone’, who have known relative peace until now. As well as a return to Syria’s policy of Arabisation, many fear a repeat of Turkey’s invasion of Afrin last year
It stretches for more than 200 miles through Turkey’s proposed “safe zone”. To travel along it is to experience the complexities of an area that may soon become a new frontline in Syria’s war.
The road leads east from Jarablus, where Turkish troops and their Syrian rebel allies are currently preparing for battle. It crosses the Euphrates River, hugging the border until it reaches Kobani, a town where Kurdish fighters faced down one of the most intensive Isis assaults of the entire war. A giant statue stands in the main square as a monument to that resistance.
It goes on to Tal Abyad, a majority Arab town before the war that was occupied by Isis for nearly a year. Further on, before the town of Ras al-Ayn, to where the US and Turkey recently started conducting joint patrols. Finally it arrives at Qamishli, a city of some 250,000 people and the heart of the Kurdish north east.
Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has called this stretch of road a “terrorist corridor” and argued that a Turkish-run safe zone is necessary to bring order. But to many of those who live within it, this zone is already safe.
The Syrian conflict presented the country’s Kurdish population with something of a paradox: they were threatened with annihilation, but they also won new freedoms. For decades, the minority population had been treated as second class citizens by the Syrian government.
When the war came, they armed themselves and kicked government forces out. They faced down a series of attacks from jihadists groups, Syrian rebels and eventually Isis.
Under Turkey’s plans, all of these towns and villages along the border would be taken over by its armed forces and allied Syrian rebel groups. Ankara has justified its impending operation as a necessary measure to protect its border from the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) – the largest contingent of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which allied with the US to defeat Isis.
It argues that the group is little more than a branch of an outlawed Kurdish separatist group with whom the Turkish state has been at war for decades.
The safe zone may be aimed at weakening the SDF, but civilians who have endured years of war will also be in the firing line.
Over the past few years, people in the towns and villages in the proposed safe zone have lived in relative peace. The YPG has not been without its critics in the areas it controls, and has been accused of forced recruitment into its ranks, but the cover given to it by the US military’s backing afforded people in the region the space to build the foundations of an autonomous administration. And yet the project has always been on borrowed time. Even before the battle against Isis finished, Turkey was threatening to cross the border.
In November last year, a resident of Tal Abyad named Ahmed Taufik told me he had fled when Isis came to his hometown and was getting ready to leave again should Turkey cross over.
“I have two cars ready to go at all times in case we have to run,” he said.
Back then, as today, Turkish forces had amassed on the other side of the border. Gunfire had been exchanged between Kurdish forces and Turkish positions.
At that time, SDF positions sat a few hundred metres away from the border. Today, many of them have now been dismantled.
A few months later I was in Qamishli, the largest Kurdish majority city Syria, where residents said they too are preparing for a Turkish incursion.
“Right now we are trying to save our money in case of an invasion,” a man named Abu Amar said, shortly after Donald Trump announced that he would be withdrawing US troops. “If the Turks come here, it will be like when Isis controlled these areas. I will leave everything behind and go.”
Some said they feared a repeat of what happened in the mostly Kurdish enclave of Afrin, which Turkey invaded to force out Kurdish fighters. The rebel groups it left behind to control the area have been accused of a litany of human rights abuses since.
“In Afrin, the people suffered massacres. That’s what will happen here,” said Sardar Khalil, a 60-year-old technician. “Right now there is peace for us. But in Afrin no one is allowed to move.”
The United Nations, which currently delivers aid to 700,000 people in the densely-populated north-east region, said it had already drawn up contingency plans to reach people who might flee the fighting. On Monday, it issued a stark warning of what lies ahead.
“For us as the United Nations, the safe zone concept is one that we have a bitter history with and actually we never promote or encourage. We don’t think it is something that had worked for the United Nations, keeping in mind Srebrenica and what had happened in the past,” said Panos Moumtzis, UN regional humanitarian coordinator for the Syria crisis.
Beyond the crisis, there are fears that Turkey plans to permanently alter the demographic balance of the area. Ankara has said it plans to resettle some two million Syrian refugees currently living in Turkey to the area. Many fear a repeat of a 1970s government policy of Arabisation under president Hafez al-Assad, which saw Kurdish farmland confiscated and handed to Arabs relocated from other provinces.
Even if a deal is reached on the safe zone, the SDF faces another powerful foe in the form of the Syrian government, and its ally Russia. Damascus has made it clear that it intends to reassert its control over the entire country.
Trump’s announcement that the US would not stand in the way of a Turkish operation to attack the SDF was just the latest sign that the White House was losing interest.
And so, after years of conflict, Kurds in north-east Syria could soon face their biggest upheaval yet.