With Turkey attacking the Kurds, Syria’s world war is changing shape once again

Like the plaited, interwoven roots of an ageing tree, the rivalries and intrigues of the Syrian conflict are long and sinewy.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

The shape of the Syrian conflict is changing once again. The jihadists of Islamic State (IS) seem beaten for now. The territorial dominance the so-called caliphate once enjoyed over large swaths of Syria and Iraq has ended, and millions have been liberated from its barbaric rule. The group is on the run, having pulled back to the deserts of Syria’s Deir ez-Zour province, hiding in anonymous redoubts along the Iraqi border.

Even those are now being discovered. News emerged last week about the death of Deso Dogg, the one-time stage name of Denis Cuspert, who enjoyed a modest career as a gangster-rapper in Germany before embracing radical Islam. He joined IS in 2013, during its most zealous phase, and experienced the full spectrum of its fortunes from ascendant insurgency to proto-state to collapse.

During IS’s better days, Cuspert was among the most notorious Western foreign fighters in Syria. He appeared in numerous videos and photographs, and seemed delighted when IS engaged in some of its most heinous excesses. Then the trail went cold as IS banned its fighters from social media and warned them off instant messaging platforms too. That remained the case until news of Cuspert’s death emerged on pro-IS platforms over the weekend of 20 January, raising the question about the number of foreign fighters who remain operational within the group today.

Western intelligence agencies are carefully trying to measure exactly that, assessing how many fighters escaped from the siege of Raqqa in Syria towards the end of last year, as Cuspert did. Two Britons, Omar Hussain from Buckinghamshire, and Yaser Iqbal from Birmingham, are known to have been among those making the last stand in the city, although many more are suspected to have been there. During the final and frenzied days before IS lost control of Raqqa, Iqbal released an audio message explaining just how overwhelmed the group was.

As the threat from IS has subsided in eastern Syria, the dynamics of the conflict have become ever more acute in the north-west. The latest flashpoint is Afrin, near the border with Turkey, which became a Kurdish enclave soon after Syrian government forces withdrew in 2012. Turkish forces launched an audacious offensive over the weekend against fighters from the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, a Kurdish militia that controls significant amounts of territory inside Syria.

The YPG formed the backbone of the Syrian Democratic Forces, an American-inspired initiative that spearheaded the ground offensive against IS in Raqqa and elsewhere. The Kurds routed IS faster than anyone had anticipated, winning plaudits throughout the world – except in Ankara.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was alarmed by the growth of a nationalist movement that he insists is linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (also known as the PKK). For more than 30 years Turkey has repressed the Kurds, a small but significant minority in the country, and proclaimed the PKK a terrorist group, vowing to crush the movement. To their supporters, the PKK represents a legitimate organisation defending Kurdish rights amid heavy-handed and often draconian state action.

The exact nature of the YPG’s relationship with Turkish Kurds is irrelevant in this context. The truth is Erdogan’s government cannot abide to look across its southern border and see an armed and organised Kurdish movement capable of self-government. Enhanced control there will invariably have implications for those within Turkey.

This accounts for Turkey’s anger over Western support for the Syrian Democratic Forces and explains why Erdogan has launched an aggressive offensive in Afrin. For observers of the Syrian conflict, an attack of this kind has long been anticipated.

Turkish troops entered Idlib province, to the south-west of Afrin, last October, ostensibly to monitor a “de-escalation zone” that had been agreed with the Russian government. What captured international attention then was that Turkish forces were given an armed escort into rebel territory by fighters from Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, a Salafi-jihadist umbrella movement that contains – at least in part – some remnants from al-Qaeda.

Turkey and the jihadist group both want  to curb Kurdish ambitions. This illuminates another dimension of the conflict’s changing shape: ethnic distrust. Beyond the fighters, some Arab civilians are themselves sceptical of the YPG and its aims, accusing the Kurds of having committed violations against them.

These suspicions have proved advantageous to Ankara in the past. A similar military incursion was launched by Turkish forces into Jarablus in 2016 to drive IS fighters from the city, pre-empting an assault by the Syrian Democratic Forces. Although the stated aim of the mission was to eject IS, Erdogan was keen to ensure that it was Arab, rather than Kurdish, fighters that would control the city.

The limits of American diplomacy and power are also laid bare by events in Afrin. Turkey has co-ordinated its actions with the Russians but is largely ignoring its Nato allies in Washington.

Like the plaited, interwoven roots of an ageing tree, the rivalries and intrigues of the Syrian conflict are long and sinewy. Its antecedents stretch across the entire region, spanning different sects, ethnicities, interests and histories. Pull at one and they all begin to unravel, revealing just how intractable the Syrian conflict has become.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and deputy director of King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation

Shiraz Maher is a New Statesman contributing writer and the director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London. 

This article appears in the 26 January 2018 issue of the New Statesman, How women took power