Syrian Kurdish political coalition breaks rank with mainstream opposition to condemn Turkish attack on Afrin

AMMAN: Ankara’s offensive against Kurdish forces in northwestern Syria appears to be driving a wedge between opposition Kurdish parties and their traditional allies within the Turkey-based Syrian National Coalition.

The spat began when the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), a league of Syrian political parties opposed to the Assad government and headquartered out of Istanbul, issued a statement on Sunday announcing its support for an ongoing Turkish-backed assault on the isolated, Kurdish-majority Afrin canton.

Turkey launched a major military operation on Saturday with the aim of driving out Kurdish military forces from Afrin, which lies just across the Turkish border in northwestern Aleppo province. Within “Operation Olive Branch,” Free Syrian Army (FSA) brigades backed by Turkish troops, artillery and airstrikes have since reportedly captured a handful of villages in Afrin.

Sunday’s SNC statement described the Turkish-backed operation as a campaign to “liberate” Afrin from Kurdish forces there and “purge Syria of terrorism.”

Turkish army tanks near the Syrian border on Sunday. Photo by Bulent Kilic/AFP.

Afrin canton is governed by the Kurdish-led Self-Administration, which is led by the powerful Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG). Turkey views the YPG—which has received US support elsewhere in Syria—as a terrorist group.

Sunday’s SNC statement of support for Turkey’s Afrin operation reportedly came as a surprise to the Kurdish National Council (KNC), a Syrian-Kurdish political coalition and member of the SNC. The KNC released its own counter-statement on Monday condemning Turkey’s operation and asserting its members had not been consulted before the SNC announced its support for the attack.

“We call for a halt to the bombardment and [Turkish] military operations,” read the KNC statement. The written notice also called upon the SNC to condemn the Turkish attack so as not to bring “more suffering and danger” to the Kurds of Afrin.

Syria Direct reached out to the SNC for comment, but did not receive a response by the time of publication.

The KNC’s sharp criticism of Turkey’s attack on PYD-affiliated forces in Afrin comes despite long-standing tensions between the two Kurdish groups.

The KNC has long criticized the PYD and YPG for what it views as authoritarian policies implemented in Rojava, the collection of territories in northern Syria governed by Self-Administration that includes Afrin canton. The PYD closed down the KNC’s headquarters and offices in Rojava last spring for being an unlicensed political party, Syria Direct reported at the time.

“Politically, we differ from the PYD,” KNC member Yashar Haj Ali told Syria Direct on Monday. However, those differences do “not mean that [the KNC] will stand behind these violent attacks on civilians,” he said.

Turkish shelling and airstrikes on the city of Afrin and its surrounding countryside killed at least 14 civilians over the weekend, Syria Direct reported.

The KNC “expresses its solidarity with the Kurdish people and condemns the Turkish intervention, as well as those groups participating in it,” Ali told Syria Direct.

Ali said that the KNC had called upon another one of its rivals in Rojava, the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), most of whose fighters belong to the YPG, to put pressure on Turkish forces to leave Afrin and “protect civilians there.”

An SDF spokesman told reporters at a televised press conference near the city of Raqqa on Monday that the SDF is considering sending forces to support the YPG in Afrin.

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SDF press conference in Ain Eissa on Monday. Photo courtesy of Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images.

While the United States supports YPG forces as part of the SDF currently battling the Islamic State in Syria’s eastern desert, the US-led coalition has not intervened so far during the attack on Afrin.

The US State Department has, however, called on Turkey to exercise “restraint” in its campaign on Afrin to minimize civilian casualties there. In a January 19 press briefing, a senior State Department official told reporters that the US supports Turkey “in their concerns about a safe and secure Turkish-Syrian border,” but is concerned that Ankara’s Afrin operation could be “destabilizing.”

“We must stand with the isolated civilians of Afrin and defend them,” Shirval al-Kurdi, a member of the KNC-aligned Kurdistan Democratic Party (PDKS), told Syria Direct on Sunday.

Al-Kurdi claims he has been arrested “several times” by the SDF for political reasons, but opposes the Turkish incursion into Afrin because it “threatens the safety of civilians” there.

“We must all stand against this campaign,” he said, “And refuse this militant, Turkish incursion into Syria.”

Ammar Hamou

Ammar Hammou is from Douma city in outer Damascus. He studied journalism at Damascus University and left Syria in 2011.

Justin Clark

Justin studied Arabic at Western Michigan University. He continued his studies at Bethlehem University in the West Bank and the Qasid Institute in Jordan. Justin's work and studies have taken him to Jordan, the West Bank, Egypt and Greece.