Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said on Wednesday that “within a few days” his military will launch an offensive targeting a border region of Syria east of the Euphrates river that is currently held by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The SDF is a group of militias commonly referred to as the People’s Protection Units or the YPG that are comprised primarily of Kurdish fighters. They are allied with both Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the U.S. in the fight against ISIS in Syria.
Up to 15,000 Syrian rebels who have been fighting to overthrow al-Assad’s government for seven years are supposedly ready to join the Turkish military offensive against the SDF, a spokesman for the main Turkish-backed Syrian opposition forces told Reuters on Thursday.
The announcement prompted a sharp rebuke from the Pentagon, which said any unilateral military action into northeast Syria would be unacceptable. On Friday U.S. President Donald Trump phoned Erdogan to discourage him from carrying out the assault. The White House later announced that Trump and Erdogan “agreed to continue coordinating to achieve our respective security objectives in Syria.”
The United States has been supporting the SDF fight ISIS in Syria since 2015. The SDF has proven to be the most effective force against ISIS on the ground in Syria. They were vital in seizing major cities from ISIS control, including Kobanî and Raqqa, the former de facto capital of ISIS. Just this week they liberated the town of Hajin in the Deir ez-Zor province of Syria from ISIS. That was ISIS’s last urban stronghold in the country.
Turkey insists that the YPG militias within the SDF are effectively terrorist organizations that function as an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has waged an insurgency against the government of Turkey from the southeastern region of the country for more than three decades. However, despite some political similarities, the YPG has gone to great efforts to officially distance itself from the PKK. The U.S., France, Russia, several regional countries, and even al-Assad’s government recognize the SDF as a legitimate ally in the war against ISIS.
Abdullah Öcalan, one of the leftist students who founded the PKK in the late 1970s, was heavily influenced by the anarchist theorist Murray Bookchin. Öcalan is currently in prison in Turkey, but the anarcho-communist ideals he advocated are still the guiding principles of the SDF.
The SDF, which attracted international attention for the large percentage of women in its ranks when compared to other contemporary fighting forces, currently controls three self-governing regions in northern Syria. The regions are collectively known as Democratic Federation of Northern Syria or Rojava.
As Edward Hunt noted in an article about the SDF for Jacobin, “Over the last several years, they’ve led remarkable social revolution in Rojava, the northern part of Syria, where they are seeking to establish an autonomous, anticapitalist territory that secures Kurdish self-determination while overturning gender-based hierarchies.”
The three regions are further divided into cantons and districts that practice direct democracy to elect officials and decide on major issues concerning their community. Meredith Tax described part of their democratic process in a 2015 article for Dissent:
Each commune has 300 members and two elected co-presidents, one male, one female. Eighteen communes make up a district, and the co-presidents of all of them are on the district people’s council, which also has directly elected members. The district people’s councils decide on matters of administration and economics like garbage collection, heating-oil distribution, land ownership, and cooperative enterprises. While all the communes and councils are at least 40 percent women, the PYD—in its determination to revolutionize traditional gender relations—has also set up parallel autonomous women’s bodies at each level. These determine policy on matters of particular concern to women, like forced marriages, honor killings, polygamy, sexual violence, and discrimination. Since domestic violence is a continuing problem, they have also set up a system of shelters. If there is conflict on an issue concerning women, the women’s councils are able to overrule the mixed councils.
The prospect of contributing to the establishment of an egalitarian, anti-capitalist federation of self-governing communities has inspired hundreds of leftists, primarily communists and anarchists, from around the world to volunteer to travel to Rojava to serve with YPG units or help develop the local infrastructure.
However, Turkey’s military interventions in Syria have caused the SDF to abandon territory in the past. For instance, earlier this year Turkey, with the help of Syrian rebel groups, took the city of Afrin from the SDF.
Following cross-border shelling from Turkey into Kurdish-controlled territory two months ago, U.S. forces have set up three military observation posts near the border.
As could be expected, Erdogan’s announcement on Wednesday has increased tensions along the border of Turkey and Rojava. On Thursday the Turkish military said one of its soldiers stationed in Syria’s Afrin region was killed by fire from YPG fighters, who were in the Tel Rifaat area. Both areas are west of the Euphrates in northern Syria.
Turkish forces returned fire, the military said.
Afrin and other areas that Turkey has pushed SDF forces out of over the past two years have all been west of the Euphrates. Turkish forces have not gone east of the river, partly to avoid direct confrontation with US forces.
But Erdogan’s patience with Washington over Syria—specifically a deal to clear the YPG from the town of Manbij, just west of the Euphrates—seems to have worn thin.
Major Youssef Hamoud, a spokesman for the National Army, a Turkish-backed opposition force aimed at unifying disparate factions in northwest Syria, said on Thursday that there was no set date for the operation, which would start from both Syrian and Turkish territory.
“The battle will be launched simultaneously from several fronts,” Hamoud told Reuters. “It will be in Manbij and Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ayn,” he added, referring to towns about 200 km (125 miles) apart near Syria’s northern border.