End of Syrian Unity

*This article is reprinted with permission from the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung.

On January 20th, the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced the beginning of a military operation, dubbed “Operation Olive Branch,” against the Kurdish-led People’s Protection Units (YPG) in the city of Efrin in northern Syria. Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım said, “The name of the operation is Olive Branch. It is an operation that aims to bring peace, serenity and tranquility.” Not only does the name imply that a military attack is an act of peace, but it also refers to the town’s main resource: olives. Nearly every Syrian household has tasted Efrin’s olive oil.

The Free Syrian Army, originally formed to fight Assad’s military, has joined Turkey in its operation against the YPG, serving as front line forces under the cover of Turkish air support. Videos shared on social media show hundreds of FSA rebels pledging loyalty to the Turkish state and chanting the name of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussain who once massacred at least 50,000 Kurdish civilians in an effort to prevent Kurdish autonomy in Iraq.

Many in the FSA believe that Syrian Kurds support the rule of Bashar al-Assad, but the reality is more complicated. Efrin, like many Syrian towns in 2011, rallied against the Syrian government. The Syrian Independence flag, which has become the symbol of the Syrian revolution, flew side by side with Kurdish flags; Kurds held demonstrations in Efrin and chanted in solidarity with besieged opposition-held cities like Deraa. They paid tribute to the activists who were killed, tortured and disappeared. Messages of solidarity and support were widely spread online. Arab activists did the same: Kurdish chants were repeated in protests in Arab towns and villages.

So why have these rebel fighters, many of whom defected from the Syrian Army in protest of its attacks on civilians, suddenly become tools for the Turkish state?

Sources of Tension

The split between Sunni Arab rebels and Kurdish fighters have largely to do with money. Turkey, which has long backed the Syrian rebels, is still the only pathway through which arms and material support flow to Syria’s armed opposition. In need of logistical support from Turkey, the Syrian opposition has been swayed by the interests of the Turkish government at the expense of the greater good of the Syrian people – Kurds and Arabs alike.

One of the greatest mistakes of the Syrian uprising was the decision, back in 2013, under pressure from Turkey, to exclude the Kurdish opposition from the Syrian National Council, which used to hold meetings in Turkey. This led to the under-representation of Kurds in the political arena, even though a robust Kurdish political opposition existed and was eager to join the council. The Syrian opposition needed a place to safely hold their meetings and Turkey was the only country to offer such space. To protect their relationship with Turkey, the Syrian Arab opposition distanced itself from the Kurdish struggle. Meanwhile the Syrian regime, while destroying cities held by the Arab opposition, neglecting to attack liberated Kurdish cities like Qamishli and Amude, created further animosity and suspicious between the Kurdish and Arab opposition.

Operation Olive Branch is not the first battle between FSA and YPG forces. Many battles have taken place throughout the years across the northern part of Syria.  The first and arguably the most significant one was in the fall of 2013, when YPG forces sized dozens of villages from rebel groups such as Ghuraba elSham.  Reports and pictures
of looted houses and the destruction that FSA left behind were broadcasted widely in local and international media. The Syrian opposition, spokesperson for FSA and Syrian national council, back in Istanbul neglected to condemn these atrocities, possibly out of fear that they might lose their biggest ally: Turkey.

Where do Syrians stand today?

Syrians Arabs’ reactions towards Operation Olive Branch are mixed. The YPG played a major role in defeating ISIS, but they also displaced thousands
of Arabs, and have detained numerous activists, according to recent human rights reports. Despite the YPG’s major role in countering ISIS forces, these abuses have led some Syrians to support Turkey’s operation against them.

Other Syrians, despite their support for the FSA, see Operation Olive Branch as nothing more than another invasion on Syrian soil, throwing the Syrian opposition into someone else’s war. They don’t understand why Syrian rebels are fighting Turkey’s war while people in besieged Eastern Ghouta continue to starve to death, and hundreds of families are being displaced in Idlib by the Syrian government Army.

Many Kurds who once supported the Syrian uprising and its armed wing, today are losing faith in it, recognizing the gap between what foreign powers want and those who marched alongside them, calling -and still calling- for Arab-Kurdish unity in Syria.

I spoke to Kevan Osy, a Kurdish activist who was detained back in 2011 by the Syrian government after a protest in Efrin. “This invasion of Efrin will mark the end of the unity of the Syrian land,” he told me. “We are divided. Myself and most Kurds grew up under the Syrian government as outcasts. Thousands of Kurds were not allowed to have an ID, and we lived stateless in our country. Today, the Syrian opposition is doing the same as the regime did.  We have condemned YPG atrocities in Arab villages. We are expecting Arabs to do the same. But at the end of the day, it is like not our fight anymore. Syria has become a battlefield for Russia, the U.S., Turkey and Iran. And the Syrian government will be the final winner.”

From the International Women’s Day Issue of The Socialist:

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Loubna Mrie

is a Syrian activist who participated in the revolution and as covered Syria as a photojournalist for Reuters. She is now studying at New York University.

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