What better day than Christmas to target Kurds in Syria as the western world tucks into turkey dinners and tunes out misery unfolding elsewhere across the globe? Could that have been what Turkish military planners were thinking when they unleashed an armed drone on a house full of youth activists in the town of Kobani on Dec. 25, killing three young women and two men?
The United States and European governments rarely say anything when Turkey selectively targets its perceived Kurdish enemies. But the attack on members of the Syrian Revolutionary Youth, or Ciwanen Soresger, as they are known in Kurdish, marks a new level of escalation in Turkey’s ongoing military campaign against Kurdish groups linked to the US-supported autonomous administration in northeast Syria; one that is squarely aimed at deepening divisions between the Kurds.
Mazlum Kobane, the commander in chief of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), condemned the attack in a series of tweets, calling on the United Nations “to stop the Turkish policy of intimidation against civilians and to stop hostilities, which undermine stability efforts.”
Two of the victims of the Christmas day attack were sisters from a small village near Kobani. Both of the men were Arabs. None were known to have been engaged in any acts of violence against Turkey, according to Salih Muslim, a veteran Syrian Kurdish leader and member of the executive council of the Democratic Unity Party (PYD) which shares power in the autonomous administration. “The victims were all civilians. They were young people who organized campaigns to keep our youth off drugs and crime,” Muslim told Al-Monitor.
The autonomous administration draws its inspiration from Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been fighting the Turkish army since 1984, initially for independence and now for autonomy.
Many of the administration’s senior cadres are drawn from the PKK. The Revolutionary Youth is tasked with spreading Ocalan’s ideology and drawing recruits to his movement, much like its sister organizations in Turkey. But its members have also been linked to acts of vandalism against the opposition Kurdish National Council (KNC) and other disruptive actions including intimidating journalists as documented by Syrians for Truth and Justice, an independent group monitoring rights abuses in Syria.
Turkey claims they are “all PKK” which is designated as a terrorist organization by the United States and the EU. Turkey has justified its continuing military assaults, including three large-scale invasions against the Syrian Kurdish administration on these grounds.
Now, by picking on the Syrian Revolutionary Youth, Turkey may be hoping to exploit growing tensions between the autonomous administration and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in neighboring Iraq, which it helped to sow through its continued attacks against the PKK in Iraqi Kurdistan. At the same time, Turkey has been seeking to foment distrust between Kobane and the PKK, with pro-government Turkish media spreading unfounded rumors that he’d been replaced as the SDF commander in chief. Turkey's continued targeting of the town of Kobani, where the US-SDF military alliance against the Islamic State was born and where the SDF commander is from, carries additional symbolism, showcasing Ankara's ability to gather intelligence there.
Members of the Revolutionary Youth staged a demonstration earlier this month on the suspension bridge connecting the Semalka border crossing on the Syrian side with the Fish Khabur crossing on the Iraqi side. They were protesting KRG authorities’ failure to hand over the bodies of three Syrian Kurdish PKK fighters who were killed in clashes with KDP Peshmerga forces over the summer. The mothers of the slain militants have been staging a sit-in at the border for the past several months.
The demonstration turned violent when, by Muslim’s account, KRG security officials at the border began pelting the youths with rocks and firing tear gas. The youths threw the rocks back and chanted slogans against the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iraq, which dominates the KRG and is closely allied with Ankara. KRG officials speaking off the record gave a different account, saying the youths instigated the violence. A video published by the pro-PYD ANHA agency shows masked youths throwing rocks at the KRG side, but it’s unclear who flung them first.
Either way, the KRG’s response was inexplicably disproportionate. It shut Fish Khabur and the only other crossing from Iraq to Syria, the nearby al-Walid, which carries most commercial traffic to northeast Syria.
Washington was forced to intervene. A senior US official called the KRG prime minister, Masrour Barzani, last week. Some 38 trucks carrying humanitarian aid were allowed to cross from Iraqi Kurdistan into northeast Syria following that call. But the ban on all traffic, save for trucks carrying supplies to coalition forces in northeast Syria, remains in place. It’s unclear when or on what terms the KRG will re-open the border. A KRG spokesman had not responded to Al-Monitor’s request for comment as of publication time.
A State Department spokesman told Al-Monitor, “We have heard the reports of a drone strike near Kobani on Dec. 25. We continue to urge all sides to de-escalate.”
As for the border crossing closures, the spokesman added, “We call on authorities to allow and facilitate safe, timely and unhindered humanitarian access for all those in need."
The closure may harm the humanitarian operation in Northeast Syria assisting 1.8 million people, the UN said in a statement. Western diplomats are privately furious at the KRG’s stance, which compounds the existing restrictions on aid to Syria due to Russia's and China's continued stonewalling at the UN Security Council.
The KRG had sealed Fishkhabur soon after the PYD declared the autonomous administration in 2012. This was partly due to pressure from Turkey but also because of the KDP’s historic aversion to Ocalan and the PKK and its conviction that most Syrian Kurds are natural followers of the KDP’s founder, the late Mullah Mustafa Barzani.
US mediation amid the Islamic State’s rampage across Iraq and Syria saved the day, all greased by backdoor deals which saw the autonomous administration sell oil produced in its region (that is most of Syria’s oil) at rock bottom prices to the KRG.
The return to the status quo ante chimes with Ankara’s strategy of keeping the KRG and the PYD at loggerheads and the Syrian Kurdish enclave isolated and under maximum pressure.
By Amberin Zaman