On October 9, after receiving the green light from President Donald Trump, Turkey realized its long-standing ambition of invading northeastern Syria (Rojava). Spearheaded by up to fifteen thousand jihadist fighters operating under names like the “Syrian National Army” (SNA), the offensive has been bolstered by heavy artillery shelling and air support from the Turkish army all along the Turkish-Syrian border line. While the jihadist forces serve as a sort of cannon fodder for the Turkish Armed Forces (TAF), more soldiers in the regular army are expected to be deployed as the war progresses.
As Turkey’s autocratic president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has stated, the operation seeks to “cleanse” an area in Northern Syria 30 kilometers deep and 400 kilometers long from “terrorist elements” and resettle up to 2 million Syrian refugees from Turkey. Since the area encapsulates nearly all of the bigger cities under the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, what began as the leftist “Rojava uprising” in 2011 stands on the brink of destruction.
The news on the ground is dire: multiple civilian casualties, damaged civilian infrastructure, reports of destroyed or hijacked ambulances, bombed-out or abandoned hospitals. Already, up to 130,000 people have fled their homes, and a humanitarian disaster seems imminent. Horrendous pictures and videos of atrocities at the hands of Turkey and allied forces are circulating on social media. The Turkish army appears to have deliberately bombed Kurdish-controlled prisons holding up to fifteen thousand ISIS suspects in a bid to help them escape. According to local reports, several hundred ISIS suspects already have. If things continue as they are, we might even witness the revival of ISIS.
Much attention has (rightly) been paid to Trump’s approval of the invasion, as well as the United States’ about-face with regard to the Kurds. But here, we want to focus on how Turkey’s internal political dynamics gave rise to the invasion.
There are multiple reasons for Turkey’s incursion, the first of which is obvious: the Turkish government has wanted to destroy Rojava’s autonomy since its inception in 2011 — first by tolerating and supporting ISIS (which Kurdish forces played a central role in wiping out) and later by launching limited military invasions in 2016 (in the cities of Jarabulus and al-Bab) and 2018 (in Afrîn).
For the dominant powers in Turkey, the mere existence of Rojava is seen as a danger in that it strengthens pro-Kurdish and pro-democratic forces in Turkey. It is also seen as a model of organizing the state and society that is antithetical to Turkey’s autocratic, hyper-nationalist neoliberalism — and, as such, constitutes an existential threat. In fact, war against the Kurds was one of the main elements that brought Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) together with some of its nationalist rivals following the strong showing of the leftist, pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) in the June 2015 elections.