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Attacking the most effective anti-IS force

Kersten Knipp
Kersten Knipp
January 22, 2018

By launching an offensive against Kurdish YPG militias in northern Syria, Turkey is again proving itself to be an unpredictable actor. The failure of Turkey's partners to speak up smacks of cynicism, says Kersten Knipp.

Turkey's Offensive Operation Afrin in Syria
Image: picture alliance/AA/E. Bozkurt

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has reported civilian fatalities in Turkey's invasion of Kurdish-controlled enclave Afrin, in northern Syria. Turkey has dismissed these reports as "black propaganda," saying it only killed armed militants in its airstrikes. The government in Ankara insists it only targets "terrorists."

The myth of "clean" warfare is just that, a myth. The seven years of war that have raged in Syria make this abundantly clear. And the myth that Kurdish People's Protection Unit (YPG) fighters are terrorists through and through is similarly baseless. Sure, the YPG does have close ties to the Kurdish PKK, which Turkey and the EU classify as a terrorist organization. But the YPG and PKK are not identical organizations. And the former did not attack Turkey. Rockets were only fired into southern Turkey in retaliation for its incursion into Syria.

Cynicism and world politics

For the last 100 years, the Kurds have been opportunistically used by others in world politics. The latest chapter in this cynical treatment of the Kurds was the fight against the so-called Islamic State (IS) and other extremists in Syria. The Kurds proved themselves to be one of the most efficient weapons against the terrorist militia. They received support and arms from the United States and were instrumental in preventing IS from gaining a permanent foothold in northern Syria. The 2014 battle over Kobani and against IS in northern Syria would have never been won without them. In Iraq too, the Kurds warded off IS and thereby helped save thousands of fleeing Yazidis.

Knipp Kersten photo for App
DW's Kersten Knipp

Granted, Kurdish controlled northern Syria is no shining beacon of democratic governance. But it does set a good standard in comparison to the wider region.

National interest and foreign policy

So it is a disgrace Syria's Kurds are being let down once more. The US, which equipped the Kurds militarily and even planned to help establish a 30,000-strong border force to protect against the possibility of a resurgent IS, have not condemned Turkey's invasion. They apparently fear open conflict with their NATO ally with whom they share hopes of a Syria without President Bashar al-Assad. To achieve this goal, the US is apparently willing to betray the Kurds.

It is not clear if Russia, as reported, has withdrawn its troops from the Afrin region. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov recently denied this. What is for certain is that Russia will welcome growing tensions between the US and Turkey. Russia will be pleased to see the US appears disloyal towards its allies, in this instance the Kurds. That could, in contrast, boost Russia's reputation. 

And so far, European leaders are expressing muted criticism of Turkey's invasion. Only French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves le Drian has called for the UN security council to convene. Germany's government has not commented at all, and has not reacted to reports claiming Turkey is using German-built Leopard 2 tanks in its offensive.

Turkey: An aggressive and unreliable partner

The West's failure to condemn Turkey is disgraceful. And it's risky, because it lets the Turkish government go about its aggressive domestic and foreign policy unhindered. According to Turkish media reports, Ankara has arrested 30 individuals for speaking out against the country's military offensive. 

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is continuing his distinctly heavy-handed foreign policy. First, he targeted Russia, then Israel, then the US and Germany. Now, his verbal attacks against Kurds have escalated into military action in Syria. In short: Turkey is an unpredictable and an unreliable global partner.

Kersten Knipp
Kersten Knipp Political editor with a focus on the Middle East