The Russian invasion of Ukraine is producing secondary crises. Some are well publicised, such as the threat to world food supplies because the war has prevented Ukraine exporting millions of tons of grain from its Black Sea ports. The exodus of Ukrainian refugees crammed onto trains as they sought refuge in other countries was shown on every television screen in the world.
But some of the worst consequences of the war outside Ukraine remain beneath the media radar, notably Turkey’s announcement in the last few weeks that it is planning an offensive to seize Kurdish-controlled enclaves in northern Syria. Going by previous Turkish incursions over the last five years this attack will mean the ethnic cleansing of Kurds left with no choice but to flee to other parts of Syria.
Displacement, destruction, death
“We are facing displacement, destruction, death and the end of our existence in Syria,” said Shivan Ahmad, a 39-year-old Syrian Kurdish teacher of the Kurdish language, as he and his family wait for the Turkish assault. His fears are not exaggerated since Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan claims to be acting against “terrorists”, though in practice this means the step-by-step expulsion of the two million Syrian Kurds from their cities, towns and villages and into the few pockets of territory they still hold.
The Ukraine war has enabled Turkey to speed up this process of eliminating Kurdish majority areas south of the Turkish border because both the United States and Russia are vying for Turkish support. The US wants to prevent Turkey getting closer to Russia, with whom it has been in loose alliance since 2016, and to withdraw its objections to Sweden and Finland joining Nato.
Though the Syrian Kurds provided the ground troops for the successful American-led campaign against Islamic State (IS) in Syria, losing 11,000 fighters in hard-fought battles, Washington is unlikely to save its former allies from the Turkish attack. Russia, which has in the past acted both for and against the Kurds at different times, needs to conciliate Turkey and has reduced its forces on the ground who previously monitored ceasefire arrangements.
A very bloody event
The Turkish-led offensive is likely to be a very bloody event, just as savage as the Russian occupation of parts of Ukraine which has rightly attracted international outrage. “Erdogan wants to create a security belt 30 km south of the Turkish border,” says Prof Fabrice Balanche, an expert on northern Syria at the Washington Institute and Lyon 2 University in an interview with Le Figaro. “In the northeast [of Syria], this means the elimination of the Kurdish population, and not just the YPG [Kurdish] militia, replacing them with Arab populations…Actually, Erdogan wants to build an Arab and Islamist belt in northern Syria, from the Mediterranean to the Tigris.”
Turkey draws on Arab mercenaries from parts of Syria under its control to occupy and ethnically cleanse Kurdish majority districts. “Erdogan’s regime has thus reinstated the body of bashi-bazouks of the Ottoman era, known for their indiscipline and their taste for looting,” says Balanche. These pro-Turkish fighters and their families have in the past been the primary recipients of land and buildings stolen from Kurds.
Turkey has made clear that its first onslaught will fall on Tel Rifaat and Manbij in north west Syria. The latter is a bustling little city of more than 300,000 people west of the Euphrates and east of Aleppo. When I visited it four years ago, it was clearly vulnerable to Turkish-led assault launched from what were at that time somnolent trenches a short distance to the north. But it was under vague but visible American protection and I saw a convoy of American armoured vehicles displaying a large stars-and-stripes flag racing down the road on the outskirts of the city.
But the Americans no longer need the Syrian Kurds since IS was defeated and they do need Turkey because of its deft balancing act between Washington and Moscow. Turkey’s geographical position on the Black Sea gives it great military and political leverage that other powers cannot ignore.
Few places where a Syrian Kurd is truly safe
Ordinary people in places like Manbij can see the calamity heading towards them and are seeking safety wherever they can find it, though there are few places where a Syrian Kurd is truly safe. One resident in Manbij says that “in the last two weeks many families have left for Aleppo, and some whose men are wanted by [President Bashar al-Assad’s] regime” have fled eastwards to the Kurdish cities of Qamishli and Hassakeh, although these are already full of refugees.
The fate of the Syrian Kurds and the destruction by Turkey of their statelet, which grew out of the uprising against Assad in 2011, is one of the great tragedies of our era. None of it happened in secret and there are plenty of pictures available, backed up by testimony given to human rights organisations, giving proof of atrocities just as gross as anything committed by Russians against Ukrainian villagers.
Some may make the ridiculous argument that saying other armies can behave as badly as the Russian army lets the Russians off the hook. On the contrary, pretending that the Russian military has a monopoly of criminal brutality devalues accusations against them and demotes denunciations to partisan propaganda.
This bias is justified by the absurd claim that even mentioning atrocities in Yemen, Kashmir, Palestine or Turkey in the same breath as murders and destruction in Ukraine is to indulge in “what about-ism”. In reality, the use of the latter phrase always exposes the hypocrite and the propagandist who divide the world into hostile black hats and friendly white hats.
But that is what governments and their cheerleaders invariably do in times of conflict. In the original Cold War against the Soviet Union, Apartheid South Africa and General Franco’s fascist Spain were co-opted as supporters of the “free world” and the most grisly pariahs were rehabilitated as suitable allies.
Now the same thing is happening again with the outbreak of the Ukraine war and it is not only Erdogan who is being cultivated as a valued ally. President Biden, who had once described Saudi Arabia as “a pariah” and refused to phone Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is now having his own calls rejected by Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader.
Not so long ago, Biden had released a report written by the US Office of National Intelligence that said, “We assess that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey, to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.” But now the dismemberment of Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018 is forgotten, as Biden plans a visit to the kingdom and tries to persuade bin Salman to pump more oil.
The pariahs of yesterday are the allies of today but the misery of Kurdish refugees driven from their homes forever in the near future will not differ much from that of desperate Ukrainians in flight from Russian shells in the Donbas.