Why is Turkey attacking Syria right now?

15 questions and answers on the Turkish attack on northern Syria


Why is Turkey attacking northern Syria?

The official answer is: The Turkish President Recep Tayip Erdoğan wants to prevent a "terror corridor" from developing in northern Syria. But the background is: Erdoğan has been fighting against Kurdish aspirations for autonomy for years. The PKK, the Kurdistan Workers' Party, has repeatedly carried out attacks against Turkish institutions in the past few decades. Two Kurdish armies are fighting in northern Syria People's Defense Units (YPG) and the Women's Defense Units (YPJ). Erdoğan calls them "PKK terrorists". With the ground attacks, he wants to establish a 30-kilometer-wide "security zone" in Syria, which should protect Turkey from terrorist attacks from the Kurdish areas.

Why now?

It's an opportunity. The United States pull currently withdraw their troops from Syria. After a phone call with Ankara, the American President Donald Trump justified the withdrawal in a press release by stating that the Islamic State (IS) Was "defeated". His undiplomatic Twitter version: They don't want to wage “senseless endless wars” anymore. In the press release, the US also announced a "long-planned" military offensive by Turkey into northern Syria. Again Guardian reports, Turkey and the USA originally planned to set up the "protection zone" together. However, the White House has not given a reason why the United States is leaving the implementation of this plan entirely to Turkey. The US has since condemned the Turkish attack on Syria. Vice President Mike Pence said on October 14th that the US would "simply no longer tolerate Turkey's invasion of Syria."

And what is the truth of Erdoğan's terror allegations?

The last Kurdish attack in Turkey took place in 2017, so Erdoğan's allegations are not entirely unfounded. However, the situation is not as bad as it was a few decades ago. The PKK, at that time still a revolutionary, Marxist-Leninist party, led the 1980s and 1990s carried out many attacks and sabotage actions against Turkish institutions.

Its leader Abdallah Öcalan, who was first expelled from Syria in 1999 and then later arrested by the Turkish secret service, plays a central role in coordinating the various PKK splinter groups. From prison, Öcalan published in year 2013 a declaration of non-violence in which he called on the PKK fighters to withdraw from Turkey and urged them not to carry out any more violent actions. But the PKK is still attacking Turkish targets.

Öcalan changed his ideology in prison. After moving away from Marxism-Leninism, the leader of the PKK developed his own system of coexistence, democratic confederalism. What exactly this ideology is and why it is so interesting for the European left in particular, I wrote down in my Kurdistan article here at Krautreporter.

Why do the Kurds control their own area in Syria?

From 2014 could the US-run International military coalition against IS push back the terrorist militia. Germany supplied weapons to Kurdish forces in the neighboring area Northern Iraq, sent instructors to the Iraqi capital Baghdad and used tornado fighter planes to clear up the positions of the IS. The syrian army had largely withdrawn from northern Syria at this point, with Kurdish units fighting on the front line. They took control where the IS withdrew. For six years they have been controlling a constantly growing area of ​​now 50,000 square kilometers - a bit larger than Lower Saxony. An estimated four million people live there.

After the victory against the jihadist militia, the Kurds established self-government in northern Syria. (I will explain more about the complicated relationship between Assad and the Kurds later in the text. Western Kurdistan - or Rojavaas the area is called in Kurdish - was one of the safest regions in Syria until the Turkish attack). And until the start of the Turkish offensive against Kurdistan, Kurdish units did not launch a coordinated attack against Turkey. How the war in Northern Syria is progressing and where battles are taking place is regularly updated on this portal.

What is Erdoğan's planning in northern Syria if his offensive is successful?

the beginning of October Erdoğan held up a map of Syria in front of the UN General Assembly. It showed plans for new settlements. He announced that at least one million refugee Syrians who are currently still in Turkey will be resettled in the planned “buffer zone” in northern Syria. An unnamed employee of the US State Department described this to the news agency Reuters as "probably the craziest idea I've ever heard of". Because the settlement areas are hundreds of kilometers away from the home areas of the refugees. It would dramatically change the composition of the population in northern Syria.

Presumably that is exactly Erdoğan's plan. A look into the Kurdish province of Afrîn, which has been occupied by Turkey for over a year, shows how the demographics have changed: When Turkey occupied the former Kurdish province in January 2018 (how exactly the occupation of Afrîn took place, Lars Hauch and Pawel Pieniazek for Krautreporter written down), the Turkish government targeted Turkish refugees from other parts of Syria to settle. The Society for Threatened Peoples describes it as follows: “One year after the occupation began, all Armenians and around 1,200 Kurdish Christians fled. The proportion of Kurds in the population fell from 96 to less than 35 percent. "

Who is actually fighting whom in Syria?

Warning, this is getting a little complicated. When the Arab Spring reached Syria in 2011, the army of the ruler Assad first fought against them Free Syrian Army (FSA): It consists of civilians and deserted soldiers. Jihadists soon joined in too.

Everything becomes even more complicated when the Islamic State conquers large areas of northern Syria in 2014. IS is not fighting primarily against Assad, but against Kurdish armies and other rebels: inside. The Kurdish armies YPG and YPJ join forces with Arab tribal units and rebel groups: The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) arise. They are pushing back the IS - with the help of the USA, which no longer sees Assad as its main opponent, but the Islamic State. Anyone who wants to better understand the early history of the Syrian war should read this text: "The Syrian War, explained in an understandable way."

After the victory against IS, Kurdish troops fight dispersed IS units. Assad's troops withdraw from the Kurdish areas. Supported by Russia and the Iran Assad recaptured large parts of the country in the south and east from the FSA. In August 2016 Turkey intervenes in the conflict. Your main opponent: the Kurd: inside.

In 2016 the “Autonomous Federation of North and East Syria” was proclaimed - in Kurdish: Rojava. Assad tolerates this, but only to avoid a two-front war. Because he was still fighting the other rebel groups at the same time. Of course, he does not support the aspirations for a Kurdish state. After all, that would mean that he would lose parts of his land.

So Assad is a kind of “forced ally” of the Kurds?

Yes. He does help the Kurds in the fight against Turkey, but at the price of Kurdish autonomy. For the Kurdish sections of the SDF this is a severe blow, but the alliance with Assad seems to be the lesser of two evils. "If we have to choose between compromise and genocide of our people, we will of course choose the compromise," said SDF commander Mazloum Kobani Abdi, the British telegraph.

Can the Kurds win this fight within?

Since October 13th the Kurds have powerful allies within. The SDF concluded an agreement with the Assad regime and Russia. As a first measure, Russia has set up a no-fly zone in northern Syrian airspace to prevent further bombing of Syrian and Kurdish villages.

So they face each other: a coalition of SDF, Assad troops and Russia against Turkey and the Free Syrian Army (which is still quite jihadistically influenced).

In a coalition with Russia and Syria, the SDF has at least a much better negotiating position to de-escalate in talks with Turkey.

Why should Russia and Assad suddenly ally with the Kurds? What do you expect from it?

The agreement has a number of advantages for Assad. The SDF is to be completely subordinated to the Syrian army, as the journalist Danny Makki reports. The SDF is slated to become part of the 5th Legion, which is currently under Russian control. Assad is thus gaining significant military influence. For the first time in six years, Assad's army could gain control of the former Kurdish areas. In return, according to Makki, he grants them partial autonomy in their areas, which is to be laid down in a new Syrian constitution.

That should also please Russia, which is closely allied with the Syrian government and has an interest in Syria continuing to exist as a united and sovereign state. After the withdrawal of US troops, Russia's influence in Syria has once again increased significantly. Putin's influence on Erdoğan and Assad could also ensure that both rulers have to negotiate a peaceful solution to the conflict, writes Susanne Güsten in Tagesspiegel.

How did the rest of the world react to the Turkish attack?

To put it briefly: shocked. Chancellor Angela Merkel telephoned President Erdoğan on October 13 and demanded an "immediate end" of the military offensive. The Netherlands, Norway, Finland and France also condemned the attack and stopped all arms deliveries to Turkey with immediate effect.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg called on Turkey to act “cautiously” in Syria and not to further destabilize the region. However, according to Stoltenberg, Turkey has “well-founded security concerns”, which should not lead to further suffering. Many people demonstrated around the world to express their solidarity with Rojava. 4,000 people took to the streets in Berlin and 10,000 in Cologne.

Politicians such as Federal Foreign Minister Heiko Maas and the Belgian European politician Guy Verhofstad also warned that the Islamic State could regain strength in the turmoil of the war.

Is there anything to these worries?

The SDF guard many prisons in which IS fighters and supporters are trapped. In the first few days, the Turkish armed forces deliberately bombed prisons, causing several hundred ISIS fighters to flee, according to the Turkish news agency Ahval reported.

Jihadist groups also support the Turkish army in its offensive. Groups like Jaysh al-Islam (Army of Islam) or Ahrar al-Sharqiya (Free Men of the East), those from jihadist-Islamist groups like the al-Nusra front have arisen. They could take the escaped IS prisoners into their ranks - because parts of the Free Syrian Army are already fighting with terrorist means: During the first days of the Turkish attack on Syria, jihadists filmed themselves executing and torturing their opponents.

Do the escaped prisoners also pose a threat to Europe?

Not at first - at the moment they are primarily a danger to the Kurds and their allies. When the Turkish armed forces took the border town of Qamishli under artillery fire on October 11, 2019, a car bomb exploded in the city center at the same time. A few hours later, ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack. The escaped prisoners open a new front line in the war between Kurds and Turkey. Should the Kurdish forces lose the war, however, there is a risk that IS will conquer new areas in the long term and develop new terror cells there, which in turn could spread terror in Europe.

How high is the risk that the situation in northern Syria will escalate?

With the announced intervention of Russia, there are several possibilities. Either the heads of state of the two countries and the international anti-IS coalition can dissuade the Turkish president from carrying out his offensive as planned. Then there is a chance the conflict will subside.

If Erdoğan, Assad and Putin do not shy away from a military confrontation, Syria could face a major war. The Turkish armed forces want to quickly capture Kurdish strongholds such as Kobanê or Manbij to prevent protracted house-to-house fights - Syria and Russia have also announced that they will be sending units to these cities. A direct confrontation between Turkey (a NATO member) and Russia could induce other regional forces like Iran to intervene in the war.

If Turkey is attacked as a NATO member, it means that the other NATO countries must stand by it. Should Germany intervene in the war?

Probably not. Article 5 of the NATO treaty states that an alliance case only occurs when a NATO member has been attacked. Since the attack on Syria originated in Turkey, there is no case of an alliance.

And even if the Syrian army were to attack Turkish targets across the border, the NATO partners would have to unanimously decide on the alliance case, explains Nils Schmid, the SPD's foreign policy spokesman, in an interview with Deutschlandfunk. Schmid believes that the unanimous decision of the other member states to support Turkey militarily is out of the question.

Are there any ways to resolve the conflict?

A solution is hardly possible without Russia's President Putin, because the country is a powerful player in Syria: The country has a military port in Tartus and an air force base not far from it; according to the Russian government, at least 63,000 Russian soldiers have had at least 63,000 soldiers over the past four years fought in Syria. How many are there at the moment cannot be said.

In order to increase his influence in the region, Putin is determined to keep Syrian President Assad in power. For the Kurds in the region, a military alliance with Assad and Russia would probably be the best option. But Russia will probably not play itself as the military protective power of the Kurds. There is too great a risk that the war from Syria will conflagrate the entire region. However, in an alliance with Assad, the Kurds would have to give up parts of their autonomy - as so often in their history.


13 readers from the KR community sent me their questions about the Turkish military offensive. Thanks to Inka, Sara, Jan, Alexandra, Resit, Jen, Julie, Kim, Anne, Jakob, Marius, Sasch and Bi.

Editing: Philipp Daum / Rico Grimm; Final editing: Vera Fröhlich; Photo editing: Verena Meyer.