On October 11, the Turkish military along with their allies in the Turkish Free Syrian Army (now called the Syrian National Army) invaded northeastern Syria as part of what they call Operation Peace Spring. The stated aim of Turkey was to create a 30-kilometer buffer zone in the north of the country, pushing out the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), led by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), which Turkey considers to be part of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK). The PKK is officially recognized as a terrorist group in Turkey and has also been so recognized by a number of other countries including the U.S. The PYD, along with its armed wing the YPG/YPJ, were founded by the PKK and they express support for the jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. The U.S. intelligence community, in its 2018 and 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessments, described the PYD’s armed wing as the PKK’s militia force in Syria. However, there is debate as to the level of operational involvement the YPG/YPJ have with PKK activities in Turkey.
In an interview with the Turkish state-owned Anadolu Agency, the head of the Turkish Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee Volkan Bozkir said that Turkey’s objective in Syria was to “ensure our border security” and “neutralize terrorists.” He accused the Kurdish PYD of “oppression and cruelty” toward the people living in their territory.
While the PYD has certainly been credibly accused of human rights abuses, Bozkir spoke of their “oppression and cruelty” and even compared their activity with the terrorists of the Islamic State (IS).While Human Rights Watch details “a range of human rights abuses” by the PYD, it also states some of the abuses by the Syrian government and “non-state actors” in the country “amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.”
Moreover, if Turkey’s aim is “neutralizing terrorists” as Bozkir claims, the invasion appears to be having the opposite effect. For months the SDF had warned about the burden they faced in housing thousands of Islamic State prisoners, both fighters and their family members. In order to relieve that burden, they asked European countries to take back the foreign fighters that were their citizens. Many of those countries either refused to take back their citizens, or preferred to decide repatriation on a case-by-case basis, leaving many still in captivity in Syria. With the Turkish invasion, the poorly-equipped, thinly stretched SDF forces have lost the ability to control their prisoners and there have been multiple reports of IS escapes and in the few days following the start of the operation.
Bozkir is also quoted as saying:
"Turkey does not seek conflict with the Kurdish people. Kurds make up a significant portion of the Turkish population. They serve in our military, in our Parliament, they are business leaders in Turkey. In addition, Turkey has no ambition to occupy northeastern Syria. We remain committed to the territorial integrity of Syria. Turkey also has no interest in changing the demographics of the region, as some have alleged."
This statement lacks critical context. First, while the SDF was founded and led by the Kurdish PYD, it was never entirely Kurdish in composition. Other ethnic groups, mainly Arabs but also Assyrians, Armenians, and Turkmen also fought with the group. Moreover, Turkey has vowed to create a “safe zone” within northern Syria, and thus it not entirely clear how Turkey will ensure that safety without an ongoing occupation. European Union leaders have said the EU will not pay for a safe zone.
On the topic of changing demographics in the region, Bozkir spoke in his interview of making a safe zone for the voluntary return and resettlement of Syrian refugees, 3.6 million of which are currently living within Turkey according to him. Even if they go voluntarily to the new territory, their arrival could fit one of several definitions of ethnic cleansing if Turkey is replacing the current residents, especially Kurdish ones. According to the United Nations, ethnic cleansing may include “a purposeful policy designed by one ethnic or religious group to remove by violent and terror-inspiring means the civilian population of another ethnic or religious group from certain geographic areas.” Fears of ethnic cleansing may be raised further by reports that Turkey’s Syrian allies in the current operation have killed SDF fighters who surrendered.
As for claims about Kurds being citizens of Turkey, serving in the army, etc., it should be noted that the protection of Kurdish civil rights, including the right to use their language in public life, is a relatively recent development in Turkey, and Kurds are still prevented from fully participating in Turkish politics.
“The government continued its repressive measures against elected parliamentarians, mayors and municipalities from pro-Kurdish parties, although the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) secured 67 parliamentary seats (11.9 percent of the vote) in the June election,” Human Rights Watch noted in a 2019 report on Turkey.
“In the southeast, the suspension of local democracy continued as the government maintained control of 94 municipalities won in the 2014 local elections by the HDP’s sister party, the Democratic Regions Party (DBP). At time of writing, 50 co-mayors remained jailed on politically motivated terrorism charges after their removal from elected office and the assignment of government appointees to their positions,” HRW added.