As Turkey’s offensive against Kurds in the Afrin region continues, DW spoke with Rami Abdel Rahman, who runs the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. He sees a multifaceted conflict filled with murky alliances.
DW: Turkey’s military offensive against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria has been going on for about a week. What are the developments?
Rami Abdel Rahman: The Turkish military is attacking along 10 corridors north and west of Afrin. Turkey and the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which supports it, are making slow progress because of fierce Kurdish resistance. Over the course of six days, they only conquered two villages and parts of five others. That is not much considering the number and intensity of Turkish airstrikes and Turkey’s statements at the onset of the campaign. In reality, Turkish troops have barely advanced into the Kurdish-controlled enclave of Afrin in northern Syria. In contrast to reports from both warring parties, our sources have confirmed a total of 133 fatalities so far: 47 Kurdish fighters, 51 FSA militants, four Turkish soldiers, 31 civilians killed by Turkish fire and two by Kurdish forces.
The Kurds have declared that they are pulling fighters from the Syrian cities of Raqqa and Deir el-Zour to reinforce their troops. But how is this possible considering that Afrin is a Kurdish enclave that’s separated from other Kurdish-controlled areas?
The only route available leads through territory controlled by the Syrian regime, via two towns north of Aleppo, to be exact. There have been reports claiming Damascus is allowing Kurds to pass its road barricades, provided they are unarmed and traveling as civilians. But my contacts in the area have not noticed an increase in men traveling through the region.
How credible are the YPG’s claims that they are sending dozens of foreign YPG fighters into the battle?
These foreigners predominantly joined to fight the Islamic State (IS). According to what we know, there are no foreign YPG fighters in Afrin. And, even if there were foreigners, they would not change the battle. They only have symbolic value and help generate favorable public opinion across the world for the YPG.
And who is fighting on the Turkish side?
Mainly Arabic and Turkmen FSA fighters from Aleppo, Idlib and Deir el-Zour. There are claims that the Nusra Front has joined the campaign against the YPG. But that’s not true. According to our information, claims that Chechen forces have joined the Turkish side are also false. So far, only Syrians are fighting alongside the Turkish army.
The objective of the FSA was always to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Why are they are pulling their forces from the embattled Idlib region to join the fight against the Kurds?
That’s because none of the groups is actually fighting for Syria! They are all pursuing some foreign agenda. In this case, they’re following Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s agenda. They have neither fought against IS, nor against the Syrian regime in Deir el-Zour. But now they’ve suddenly joined Turkey’s military operation against the Kurds. Some FSA fighters were forced out of Homs by Syrian troops but are now fighting in Afrin. Last week, Damascus regained control over 320 villages in Idlib province. All fighters affected by this have also moved to Afrin. It’s true that many opposition groups want to exact revenge on the YPG for attacking the local Arab population. We have reported on these attacks. But they were not as severe as Turkish and Qatari media reports made them out to be.
Some observers claim that the Kurds are ready to cede Afrin to Assad to prevent it from falling under Turkish control. How credible is this?
In reality, that’s what the Russians are demanding. They’re putting pressure on the Kurds to hand over control over Afrin to Damascus. Russia wants all regions west of the river Euphrates to be under Syrian control. The Kurds rejected this demand. In response, Russia gave Turkey the go-ahead to attack Kurdish-controlled Afrin. They want to break the Kurdish resistance so they will relinquish control over the region. And the United States is doing nothing to stop this.
Why would Turkey want to help Russia and the Syrian regime? Turkey opposes Assad, after all.
Turkey’s only genuine enemy in Syria is the Kurds. Turkey allowed jihadi fighters to cross its border as early as 2011, as we have repeatedly reported. Turkey supports anything that harms the Kurds. Over a year ago, Turkey withdrew its armed forces from eastern Aleppo, which then was surrounded by President al-Assad’s troops to use them against the YPG and prevent Kurdish-controlled Afrin linking up with other Kurdish areas. By withdrawing its troops from Aleppo, Turkey effectively handed over the city to Damascus.
What can the Kurds now expect?
They’ll fight to the end. They have no other choice. They would have long since given in to Russian pressure if they were willing to do so. There are about 1.1 million civilians in Afrin: 600,000 Kurds and 500,000 Arab refugees. The YPG has about 10,000 fighters in the area.
Rami Abdel Rahman leads the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which is affiliated with the opposition and relies on a network of activists and informants for its reporting. Many international news organizations and experts deem the SOHR’s reports credible. The critical security situation in Syria, however, often makes it impossible to independently verify this information.