What is Syria about
The conflict in Syria, which has cost the lives of an estimated 500,000 people and has been going on for more than eight years, has long been a complicated network with different actors, each pursuing their own interests. This is no different with the current chapter of the conflict, which is focused on the north of the country. After the US announced the withdrawal of its troops from northern Syria, Turkey launched a military offensive to drive out the Kurds living there. But what exactly does the construct of the various interests look like? An overview.
The Kurdish People's Protection Units, or YPG for short, are the dominant force in north and east Syria, where they were able to take control of a large area on the borders with Turkey and Iraq over the course of more than eight years of civil war. There the Kurds have set up self-government with cantons. The militia and its political arm, the PYD, maintain close contacts with the Kurdish Workers' Party PKK, which is banned in Germany and classifies Turkey as a terrorist organization.
The YPG militia leads the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), whose ranks also include Sunni-Arab and Christian-Assyrian units. In Syria, the SDF were the USA's most important partner in the fight against the terrorist militia Islamic State (IS). This spring, SDF troops captured the last Islamist stronghold in eastern Syria. They are well trained, including by the USA, which also armed them with weapons. Ultimately, however, they have little chance against the Turkish military due to a lack of air defense and heavy weapons.
The aim of Kurdish nationalism is to found their own state, as the Kurds had promised the Allies after the fall of the Ottoman Empire - even if the Kurds in Syria are striving for autonomy within Syria. The Kurds' desire for autonomy repeatedly leads to conflicts in the states on whose territories they live today. This also includes Turkey.
Turkey sees the YPG militia as an offshoot of the banned Kurdish Workers' Party PKK and thus a terrorist organization. The structures that the Kurds have built up along the border in northern Syria are a thorn in the side of the government. One will not allow a "terror state" to emerge on the Turkish border, it is said regularly from Ankara. Turkey fears that a Kurdish-controlled area in Syria could strengthen the Kurds in Turkey in their separatist efforts. Ultimately, Ankara is afraid of losing territory to a newly emerging Kurdish state that is breaking old borders.
The aim of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's military offensive in Syria is therefore a so-called security zone, in which the government also wants to accommodate millions of Syrian refugees who are currently living in Turkey. In a negotiation with Russian President Vladimir Putin, his Turkish counterpart Erdoğan once again had the right granted in a 1998 agreement to take action against the PKK offshoots up to 15 kilometers on Syrian soil. In return, Erdoğan accepted the integrity of Syria. He is therefore not allowed to permanently occupy areas conquered by the Turkish army. Turkey thus de facto recognizes that Bashar al-Assad will remain in power in Syria. At the beginning of the war, Ankara's goal was to overthrow the regime in Damascus and replace it with a leadership more friendly to Turkey.
The Syrian rebels
They have lost most of their former territories after eight years of civil war and are heavily dependent on their ally Turkey. The last major rebel area is the region around the city of Idlib in northwest Syria. In addition, government opponents are also active in a smaller border area further north, into which Turkey had moved in earlier offensives in order to drive the IS and the YPG from there. Under Turkish leadership, the rebels there called themselves the Syrian National Army.
The Syrian government
In the past, the regime also suppressed the Kurds in Syria, but occasionally cooperated with them during the civil war. Assad left large areas in the north to the Kurds. Earlier there were talks on the Kurdish side about closer cooperation with Damascus and also with Moscow. At the beginning of the Turkish offensive, the Syrian government responded to calls for help from the Kurdish militias, who feared being crushed by Ankara's military strength. The "Turkish aggression on Syrian soil will be countered," it said. Now that Turkey and Syria's ally Russia have reached an agreement that supports the Assad government, open fighting between Syrian and Turkish troops will probably be a thing of the past - if the YPG withdraws as requested.
Moscow was an ally of the Assad regime from the beginning of the war. It is now paying off. Russia has managed to establish itself as an inevitable power factor in the Middle East, without whose consent no decisions of great importance can be made in Syria. Putin has satisfied Turkey's security interests through his deal with Erdoğan, which includes joint patrols by Turkish and Russian units in the Syrian border area. Ankara no longer has to pursue the goal of a major upheaval in Syria in its own favor. The decision to keep Assad in power for the foreseeable future has given Russia strategically important access to the Mediterranean. Long-term contracts for the port in Tartus and the air force base in Khmeimim near Latakia will ensure that Moscow can maintain its presence in the area even after the war.
Russia's current triumph was made possible by US President Donald Trump. He paved the way for the Turkish invasion of northern Syria by withdrawing US troops from the border area after a phone call with Erdoğan. Trump always replies with the same argument to the harsh criticism of the move, including from his own republican ranks, that it would abandon the Kurds as US allies: He has always made it clear "that I do not want to fight these endless, senseless wars - especially those who are of no use to the United States ".
Trump did not want the troop withdrawal to be understood as a free ticket for Erdoğan and imposed sanctions on the country after the advance of the Turkish troops. He lifted this, however, after Turkey had assured him that the ceasefire agreed in Sochi was permanent. Trump booked this as a great success for himself. "This is a result that has not been achieved by us, the United States, and any other nation," he said. Although Trump's decision to withdraw the US military put the Kurds in a difficult position, he has now received praise from them. They thanked him for his "tireless efforts" in stopping Turkey's "brutal attack", the SDF said. Trump had promised the Kurds that they would hold on to the partnership.
It is questionable whether the Kurds will really continue to regard the USA as a reliable partner or whether they simply do not want to further annoy the US president, who is known to be thin-headed.
From the outset, the European Union condemned Turkey's advance in northern Syria. Much more than that could not be heard from Brussels on the subject. The EU Council President criticized the "so-called" ceasefire that Turkey and the USA had negotiated. "In truth, it is not a ceasefire, it is a call for the Kurds to surrender," he said. The French President Emmanuel Macron described the Turkish military operation as "madness". France, Germany and the UK should organize a meeting with Erdoğan "in the coming weeks," he said. The three countries restricted their arms deliveries to Turkey, but an EU-wide arms embargo as demanded by Sweden does not yet exist.
Like the EU, Germany has spoken out against the Turkish military offensive. Chancellor Merkel called the operation "a humanitarian drama with major geopolitical consequences". A move by Defense Minister Annegret-Kramp Karrenbauer was probably coordinated with the Chancellor, but it caused irritation in the coalition and among Germany's allies. The SPD only informed Foreign Minister Heiko Maas about the plans via SMS.
Since the founding of the Federal Republic of Germany, a German government has never initiated a military operation, especially outside the NATO area. Kramp-Karrenbauer has proposed setting up an internationally controlled protection zone under a UN mandate. The aim of the mission should be to continue fighting against IS and at the same time to begin reconstruction. The Bundestag would have to decide whether the Bundeswehr would participate, she said. The mission should separate the conflicting parties, monitor a ceasefire, create situation reports and punish violations of the rules applicable there.
Such a mission under a UN mandate would require the approval of Russia in the Security Council. And after the agreement with Ankara, Moscow is unlikely to have any interest in admitting an international troop of soldiers in Syria that could undermine its power. According to a report, Russia has already described the idea as superfluous. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, however, welcomed the proposal. The US ambassador to NATO, Kay Bailey Hutchinson, also called the initiative positive, but indicated that the Europeans and not the USA should take action. From France, however, it was said that the proposal was certainly "well-intentioned", but that it was not coordinated with the allies and did not match the "dynamics" on the ground.
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