Middle East

Kurds Say Damascus Gave an Ultimatum Before Turkish Strikes

Turkey, Iran, Russia and the Syrian regime are coordinating their actions more than either side is letting on.

Turkish troops advance on a Kurdish hold in Syria.

Photographer: Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images

Syrian Kurdish forces were given an ultimatum over the weekend: Leave your positions to the Syrian regime or face the wrath of Ankara. They chose to stay. Then came Turkey's assault, on the northwestern city of Afrin.

That is what Nobahar Musrafa, a representative of the foreign relations committee for the Syrian Democratic Council, told me in an interview Monday from Washington. The council is the political wing of the Kurdish-dominated forces fighting in northern Syria.

She said representatives of the Kurdish "people's protection group," known as the YPG, met with Syrian regime officials at the Russian airbase of Hmeimim on Saturday.

There the Syrians conveyed the threat. "They offered to hold our areas and let YPG surrender the area to protect Afrin from Turkey," Musrafa said. "We told them, 'We will not save our people from the Turkish butchers to give them to the Syrian and Iranian butchers.'"

The backstory on the latest conflict within the Syrian war shows that Turkey, Iran, Russia and the Syrian regime are coordinating their actions more than either side is letting on. A U.S. official on Monday told me that the Turks were aware of the demand the Syrian regime made of the Kurds on Saturday at a Russian airbase, despite public statements from Damascus that Turkish aircraft may be shot down if Afrin is attacked.

The incident also illuminates Turkey's decline from a NATO ally to rogue status. The U.S. aligned with elements of the YPG in and around Raqqa to help destroy the Islamic State's capital. Since 2014, the U.S. has armed and equipped Syrian Kurdish militias fighting against the Islamic State, even though it has provided no such support for the Kurdish fighters in and around Afrin. Turkey's latest move is similar to Russia's bombing of Syrian rebels supported by the U.S. and its allies in 2015 and 2016.

Turkey's incursion over the weekend into Syria could also not come at a worse time for the broader goal of fighting terrorists there. Syrian and Iranian proxies are currently fighting in Idlib to rid the city of al Qaeda elements. That campaign has already displaced more than 200,000 people already in the last month.   The Turkish attack will further complicate this humanitarian disaster.

The Turks claim that they were responding to cross-border attacks from within Syria. But both U.S. and Kurdish officials said there is no evidence that YPG forces attacked Turkey. Musrafa told me she suspects the attacks on Turkey were spurred by other foreign powers to foment a conflict.

There are deep ideological connections between Syria's Kurds and Kurdish separatists in Turkey known as the PKK, but they are not one and the same.

Behind the scenes, the U.S. has tried to get the Turks to back off. On Monday however Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson succumbed to the temptation of neutrality. Speaking to reporters with his British counterpart Monday, he said: "We recognize and fully appreciate Turkey’s legitimate right to protect its own citizens from terrorist elements that may be launching attacks against Turkish citizens and Turkish soil from Syria." He then went on to urge restraint on both sides.

Musrafa told me Tillerson disappointed her. "You cannot blame the victim and the butcher at the same time," she said. "We made assurances to the Turks and America that there are no PKK in Syria. We assured them many times. We would never give the Turks an excuse to invade us."

It turns out Turkey didn't need such an excuse.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net

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