In accordance with two separate agreements between Turkey and the US on October 17, and Turkey and Russia on October 22, Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) began redeploying to new positions about 30 kilometers (18.5 miles) away from the Syrian-Turkish border, to end Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring in the east of the Euphrates last month, which displaced more than 100,000 civilians and killed dozens in Syria and 20 in Turkey.
Ankara aims to block Syrian Kurdish territorial gains and has said Syrian Kurdish fighters are tied to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which Turkey has fought for more than three decades and which is designated as a terrorist group by Turkey, the European Union and the United States.
Founded in 1978 by a group of Kurdish students led by Abdullah Öcalan, the PKK was formed in an effort to establish linguistic, cultural, and political rights for Turkey's ethnic Kurdish minority and in response to growing discontent over the suppression of Turkey's ethnic Kurds.
The organization evolved into a militant group that regularly launched attacks across Turkey in the name of Kurdish nationalism. Tens of thousands of people have been killed within Turkey’s borders over the past few decades and Turkey has tried to counter the threat of the PKK for years.
PKK ties in northeast Syria
The PKK is part of an umbrella political organization known as the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK), which is committed to implementing Öcalan’s ideology of Democratic Confederalism in political parties of Greater Kurdistan. In addition to the PKK in Turkey, the KCK is represented by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), in Syria, the Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK) in Iran, and the Kurdistan Democratic Solution Party (PÇDK) in Iraq.
The KCK’s executive committee of senior staff is trained by the PKK in Qandil mountains— a base in Iraq used by the party since the 1990s— and communicates directly with the leaders of the PYD's militant arm, the People’s Protection Units (YPG).
YPG leaders make no secret of their loyalty to Öcalan and his governing ideology; they prominently display Öcalan’s image and implement his political project through a system of popularly elected administrative councils that allow local communities to exercise autonomous control.
Based on a Marxist ideology, Öcalan’s Democratic Confederalism aims to build a socialist regime meant to replace the nation-states and capitalist governments in the region and to empower monitories to transcend sectarian and nationalist parties, said Abdullah Hawaz, Kurdish affairs researcher based in London.
“PKK usually has what you could say ‘ideological indoctrination’ classes and YPG has implemented the same model,” he said. “You have to believe in Öcalan’s ideology.”
While there are certainly fighters who don’t subscribe to the ideology, the group itself aims to establish such a regime. The PYD ideology is socially progressive and more inclusive, he added, but the curtailing of political freedoms and their economic model might be problematic; its economic model is mostly based on co-operatives and ‘economic solidarity’ with strong socialist and communist leanings based on absolute control of the state.
“This model hasn’t sustained anywhere and I have no reason to believe it would have worked if they continue to build such a regime,” Hawaz added.
The link between the PKK and PYD is not merely limited to ideology but organizational structure as well.
Talat Silo, the former spokesman of the SDF who defected in 2017, said in an interview that the YPG, which dominates and leads the SDF, takes direct orders from PKK.
The PKK and its Syrian affiliates have pursued a dual objective since 2012. They aimed to improve their strategic position with regards to Turkey by establishing a “continuous militarized land belt” along the Syria-Turkey border and establishing “democratic self-administration” over the Kurdish and non-Kurdish communities that fell under their control.
As the SDF became crucial to the US mission to defeat the Islamic State (IS), Turkey grew fearful that the Kurdish forces were gaining influence close to the Turkish border, establishing institutions and gaining clout with the Americans, experts said.
“The Syrian Kurds want peace, but not the YPG,” said Dr. Ali Bakeer, Ankara-based political analyst. “There are Syrian Kurds in the Syrian National Army and the Syrian opposition and there are about 30 Kurdish political parties, most of which are not supported by the YPG agenda.”
The YPG continued receiving weapons and training from the US, including on how to use tunnels. The Turkish government had been watching the extension of the YPG grow stronger along its borders due to US military and political support, he argued.
“When Turkey launched Operation Peace Spring, YPG used tunnels on borders and civilian areas to launch mortars and shells into the Turkish side of the borders, killing and injuring many citizens,” Bakeer said. “There is always a concern that such terrorist operations might happen whether by the YPG or the mother group PKK.”
Turkey’s launch of Operation Peace Spring came at a time that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had been facing pressure from multiple directions. Since purchasing the Russian S400 Anti-Air System, Ankara was in a position to be sanctioned heavily by the US, its NATO ally.
Domestically, Erdogan received a big blow in local elections and lost major cities, including Istanbul. He was cornered and criticized, fighting divisions within his Justice and Development Party (AKP). By launching the operation, Erdogan held his base together and unified it, analysts told Syria Direct.
“In Turkey’s domestic politics, attacking Kurds always pays off. Always works fine,” Mutlu Civiroglu, Syria and Kurdish affairs analyst based in Washington D.C, said.
The vast majority of Turkish citizens supported the operation. With the exception of the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), a left-wing and pro-minority political party, all political opposition groups within Turkey supported the invasion as well, including the Republican People's Party (CHP), the AKP's main opposition party.
“One of the reasons for this operation [was] domestic politics and to console [Erdogan’s] party. Keep it together. To cut improving relations among the opposition,” Civiroglu said.
“Regretfully, in whichever state they live, the Kurds endure a perilous existence and world powers only see them as useful proxies when needed and friends to forget when not,” Hasan Hasan, a Kurdish English teacher from Afrin who was displaced in Operation Olive Branch, told Syria Direct.
Now residing in Shahba, north of the city of Aleppo, Hasan spends his days teaching English in a tent school and dreaming of the day he can return to Afrin.
“I saw with my own eyes many jihadi groups and Syrian rebels who were brought by Turkey to attack border villages and towns inside Syria. I know the YPG has close ties with the PKK ideologically at least but here in Syria, the YPG party is not everything. Other Kurds are being targeted on their historical lands,” he said.
Civiroglu echoed a similar claim, stating that another reason for the invasion was to de-Kurdify the border regions, expel Kurds from traditional ancestral lands and replace them with Syrian refugees from elsewhere.
Tal Abyad is a mixed Arabic and Kurdish city with a Kurdish population of about 40 percent and Ras al-Ain (known by Kurds as Sere Kaniya) is vastly Kurdish. By bringing this plan, Civiroglu argued, Turkey aims to rid the area of the ethnic and religious fabric of the Kurds, Christians and Yazidis and settle the Syrian refugees who are close to Turkey culturally and politically.
“The people of the region were living peacefully while power sharing. So comparatively, one of the least troublesome regions in Syria has turned into a chaotic environment because of Turkey’s operation,” Civiroglu said. “That’s one of the untold motives of the operation but is outspokenly raised among the Syrian-Kurdish population.”
But Bakeer disagreed: “What Turkey is trying to do is to reverse the re-engineering process,” he wrote in an email to Syria Direct. “It is not an easy task while Assad is still in power and the YPG is still in the north. Even if a safe zone is established, I find it hard to accept that millions of Syrians will return.”
Meanwhile, in the northwest corner of Afrin, under the rule of the Turkey-backed Syrian armed opposition, Kurdish names are being changed while the Kurdish language is being systematically removed, thousands have been expelled, and widespread human rights violations are taking place, according to human rights groups such as Amnesty International.
“My home in the village is now inhabited by a Ughur family from China. Ughur family, Turkish jihadist,” Hasan said. “Why should a jihadi from China come here and live in my home? This is not a conflict between the Kurds and Turks alone. This is a war between two ideologies.”