Last week, Islamist extremist group Tahrir al-Sham descended on the city of Afrin in northwest Syria, seizing control of the town from the Turkish proxies of the Syrian National Army.
The prospect of a takeover by Tahrir al-Sham extremists sent shockwaves across the region around Afrin, with the inhabitants of nearby Azaz setting up roadblocks to obstruct the jihadists.
Some observers have called this a significant blow to the prestige of Turkey, which took control of the Afrin enclave from Kurdish-led organisations in 2018’s Operation Olive Branch. Turkish-backed groups, including some with a heavy jihadist presence, had been in control of the area, but Tahrir al-Sham is not under Ankara’s direct control and in fact is on Turkey’s terror list.
But for Rauf Karakoçan of the northern Syrian ANHA news agency, the Tahrir al-Sham takeover could not have come without Turkish assent, and in fact could be a part of Turkey’s broader plans to normalise relations with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Read our summary of Karakoçan’s analysis of events in Afrin below:
It is difficult to get reliable news from places under Turkish control … Islamic terrorist organisations swarm around the occupied areas committing all kinds of crimes, under the wing of the Turkish state, all with the full knowledge of the International Coalition forces deployed in Syria.
In the meantime, there is extraordinary activity among Islamist gangs. The entry of the Tahrir al-Sham gangs into areas that Turkey controls did not happen by itself. It is apparent that the Turkish state came to some agreement with the group and opened up Afrin for them, and the absence of Turkish state comment on the matter goes to confirm that it is their own plan.
It must be a good sign that Tahrir al-Sham is settling in Afrin in a time when the Turkish state is trying to resume dialogue with Syria. In the Syrian civil war Afrin avoided clashes and was an area of relative stability. But after Turkey took control, the people of Afrin became refugees, condemned to the poor living conditions of the camps. The city’s demographics were manipulated and its nature pillaged. Right down to the olive trees, everything became war booty to be plundered, and kidnappings, murders and rape became part of daily life.
There is no calamity that has not befallen Afrin. Now that the last drops have been squeezed from it, it has been passed into the control of Tahrir al-Sham. Could this be a prior condition for Turkey–Syria talks? The resumption of talks between the two states will naturally awaken concern among the Kurds. The very existence of Rojava (West Kurdistan), the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) and its institutions is intolerable to the Syrian administration. It would prefer a return to the situation before the 2011 civil war. It refuses to recognise the achievements of the Kurds and insists on the sovereignty of the state, and here, with regard to the Kurds, the Turkish state coincides with Syria. But what they cannot agree on is the Islamist gangs.
The Syrian government and the Turkish state coming together under Russian mediation means sacrificing the Kurds. Turkey’s policy of mollifying Russia in the Ukraine war means that Russia can be expected to take steps to please Turkey in Rojava. These dirty political relations are intended to engulf the Kurds, who are in any case subjected to daily attacks and massacres. Executions are taking place in the streets in South (Iraqi) Kurdistan and both South and West (Syrian) Kurdistan have become targets of aggression.
Russia wants to bring Turkey and Syria together, but it is also looking for ways to achieve the maximum benefit to itself from Turkey under the leadership of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, to the extent of intervening in Turkey’s domestic politics. It will use all its trump cards to help Erdoğan win in the coming elections in order to preserve the two-way relations it has established with him. One piece of political ammunition it can use in favour of Erdoğan is to pave the way for his further ingress into Rojava.
Russia is well aware of the latest situation in Afrin. Tahrir al-Sham is currently dominant in Idlib. Being positioned in Afrin expands their field of influence and gives them legitimacy. The United States and Russia have divided up Rojava. The United States is in Rojava with the aim of fighting Da’esh (the Islamic State) and may well remain disinterested in the al-Qaeda-linked Tahrir al-Sham. The US has no plans to fight against the Islamist gangs nurtured by Turkey. They know full well that the ringleaders of these gangs are under Turkey’s protection, and they play the four monkeys in the face of the Islamist gangs in the regions under Turkey’s control.
There is no doubt the Kurds are the most active players against Da’esh, and they have paid a heavy price. Today Afrin and the other areas under Turkish control have become places of shelter for the Da’esh gangs, places where they can play. This is such a grave contradiction that the US says not a word against the Turkish incursions into Rojava and the Islamic terrorist organisations there. Likewise, Russia, in its own interests, remains silent on the massacres of the Turkish state, and is even willing to hand the Kurds to Turkey.
The goings-on in Afrin may be the start of fresh attacks on Rojava. The people of North and East Syria have the right to do whatever is necessary to protect their achievements against pressure from the Syrian government, Turkey’s occupying attacks, Russia’s policies of sacrificing the people of Rojava, and the self-interested, self-centred approach of the United States.
Rauf Karakoçan is a Kurdish journalist working with the Hawar news agency (ANHA).