SULAYMANIYAH, Iraq – In a rare statement released on Thursday, the local administration in Efrin called on the Syrian government to protect its borders from Turkish attacks launched against the Kurdish enclave. However, there are still doubts about whether the statement is real. Kurdish officials say they demanding that Syria shoot down Turkish jets, and are not calling for the Syrian army to return to Efrin.
The Turkish government has sought to legitimize Operation Olive Branch, which killed dozens of civilians in its first week, by suggesting that the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) that controls northern Syria is linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a designated terrorist group in Turkey.
The YPG itself denies any link to the PKK and has accused Turkey of supported the terrorist group Islamic State and others for years to attack the Kurds in northern Syria.
“I think all of Europe is aware that ISIS entered Syrian territory through Turkey. Turkey supports terrorism, and its attacks on us are aimed to stop our fight against terrorism,” Abdulkarim Omer, head of Foreign Relations for the Jazira canton told The Defense Post on Friday.
The Coalition has said there is no link between the PKK and YPG, and the U.S. government has praised the group’s resilience in its fight against ISIS.
The website of the local administration in Efrin said on Thursday that “this part of Syria is being exposed to evil foreign aggression by the Turkish state, which threatens the unity of Syrian lands and the security and life of the civilians who live in the Afrin area.”
“In the time that we affirm that we will continue to defend the Afrin area before the foreign attacks that have begun and we will resist the attempts by Turkey to occupy Afrin, we call on the Syrian state to undertake its sovereign obligations and protect its borders with Turkey from the attacks of the Turkish occupier,” the statement added.
The declaration confused many Syria observers. Was it a call to restore Syrian government authority in Efrin? That would have been strange. After all, the Kurds seem to have resisted most of the Turkish attacks on Efrin, and rejected a Russian proposal to hand control of the canton back to the Syrian government before the attack. Why would they ask the Syrian army to come back now, while rejecting such a thing a week earlier? Some sources now say the statement posted on the website could be fake.
“Russia told us the regime would come to Afrin, or Turkey would attack it,” Omer said. “We did not accept the return of the regime to Afrin.”
Two days before the attack on Efrin began, the Syrian government threatened to shoot down Turkish planes in its airspace.
Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad said any incursion into Efrin would be considered an act of aggression.
“Faisal Mekdad said if Turkey attacks Afrin by its planes, they would resist it, but they did not [do] so,” Omer said. “The Turkish attacks were in agreement between Turkey, Russia, Iran and the regime,” he added.
‘Afrin is still part of Syria’
Kurdish officials suggest that Turkey is trying to give the Syrian government control of Idlib governorate in exchange for allowing Turkey to attack Efrin. They accuse accusing Turkey of making a similar deal for Aleppo in 2016.
“Turkey aims to replace Afrin by Idlib, and on this basis the Turkish minister went to Russia to complete this process and take instructions from Russia,” YPG spokesperson Nouri Mahmoud told The Defense Post last week.
Turkish officials such as Ibrahim Kalin, spokesperson for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, deny this selling-out of the Syrian opposition.
Kurdish officials told The Defense Post that they do not call for the return to the regime, but say they are calling on the Syrian government to protect Syrian airspace against assault by a foreign country.
The Turkish attacks have already cost the lives of 59 civilians, while over 130 have been injured, the SDF said on Friday.
“Afrin province belongs to Syria and Syria is a member in the United Nations, which can pressure on Turkey and stop its attacks that targeting Syrian sovereignty,” Omer said.
“Afrin is still part of Syria. We announced a federal system not to divide Syria. Our federation is still inside the state and this state is still in the United Nations so it must stop the attacks by another country,” Omer argued.
Cemil Suliman, a foreign affairs official of the local administration in Efrin, agreed with Omer.
“We want the world to know that we are Syrian and we do not want to divide Syria and we do not want to establish a state in Afrin,” he said. “Therefore, the Syrian government must protect its borders.”
“The Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister said that if the Turkish government attacked by planes our borders, they will confront it, but the Turkish planes are still bombing Afrin, and we did not hear anything from the Syrian government,” Suliman said.
Another observer and local journalist in Efrin, Jihad Abdo, said the Syrian Kurds are challenging the Syrian government to protect its land.
“The Syrian government for years have been saying that it wants to save it lands, but until now the Assad government did nothing about the Turkish occupation of Syrian land,” Abdo told The Defense Post.
‘We are ready for negotiations’ with the regime
After all the Kurds say Assad not only failed to stop the Turkish bombing of Efrin, but also failed to stop the Turkish army and its Islamist proxies from taking control of a large part of northern Aleppo during the Euphrates Shield operation in August 2016 that also came from an agreement with Russia.
The operation aimed to stop Kurdish plans to link up the local enclave of Kobani with Efrin and create a contiguous territory along the border of Syria. And now Turkey also wants to take Efrin, incorporating it into a 30-kilometer (19-mile) buffer zone along the Turkey-Syria border.
Jawidan Hasan, representative of the local administrations in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, told The Defense Post that it’s about international law.
“Another country tried to occupy another country. We ask all of the world to stop Turkey – at least their airstrikes. They already killed many civilians in Afrin. In one day, they killed seven members of the same family. This is a war crime,” he said.
But he denied that the Syrian Kurds want the Syrian government back in control.
“The Assad regime is not ready to let us build our system or to speak with us and accept our federation system. If they get power, they will attack us also,” he said.
Last October, the Syrian Kurds called on the Syrian government to negotiate, in order to “save the blood of Syrians.”
According to Hassan, the regime still “didn’t accept any project we give our people for their rights.” Syrian government officials reportedly say they only want the full “restoration of sovereignty.”
The Kurdish official said that if the Assad government is willing to accept a federation in northern Syria with an international guarantee, there would be no problem talking to the Syrian government.
“If they respect our view, we are ready for negotiations,” he said. “We fight for peace, and try to build our peace for the Kurds and other people living with us.”
Moreover, Hassan said even if the U.S. leaves northern Syria, the Kurds would still want the Syrian government to recognize their federal system.
“[If the Americans leave], it will be like before. We will continue to build our system and depend on our own people,” he said.
But so far, the Kurds aren’t worried about the U.S. leaving. Despite Turkey’s calls for American troops to pull out, Washington has made it clear that it will stay for now, at least, and called on Turkey to limit the attack on Efrin.
“As Secretary Tillerson discussed last week, the U.S. will stay in Syria to ensure the enduring defeat of ISIS and help stabilize liberated areas,” Brett McGurk, the Special Presidential Envoy for Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS tweeted on January 24.
“We cannot afford a vacuum for ISIS to exploit, particularly in notorious safe havens along Iraq-Syria border,” McGurk said.
It still remains a question what Syria will look like once the conflict is settled. Meanwhile, the war in Efrin is likely to continue for some time.
On Saturday, Turkey again said U.S. troops should leave Manbij and cut ties with the YPG.
Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said it was “necessary for them [the U.S.] to immediately withdraw from Manbij,” where U.S. troops are on the ground, adding that Turkey “now wanted to see concrete steps taken.”
But it seems that the U.S.-Led coalition is not pulling out from Manbij anytime soon.