Report

Turkey Capitalizes on Afghanistan Distraction to Attack Kurdish Forces in Syria

Turkish airstrikes in Syria have escalated over the last month as the world concentrates on a different crisis.

By , an Emmy Award-winning journalist, author, and documentary filmmaker who focuses on gender and justice. Her forthcoming book, Conversations with Athena, is about female self-defense.
Zeynab Serekaniye’s grave
Zeynab Serekaniye’s grave is seen in Tal Tamr, Syria on Sept. 4 after she was killed by a Turkish drone strike on Sept. 1. Her mother placed a bride’s veil on the grave, saying: “I did not imagine that I would bury my daughter with her unfulfilled dreams. I wanted my daughter to wear this veil at her wedding, not to bury her underground.” Solin Muhammed Amin for Foreign Policy

Zeynab Serekaniye was not a hardened soldier. The 26-year-old joined the all-female, Kurdish-led Women’s Protection Units, or YPJ, just nine months ago. Since the Islamic State was largely defeated in Syria in 2019, daily combat had ceased, so Serekaniye spent much of her time at her base in Tal Tamr in northeast Syria making tea for the other female fighters or reading their fortunes from leftover coffee grounds. But at night, one of the women always stayed awake to listen for the buzz of drones in the sky from their main adversary, Turkey.

When I interviewed Serekaniye for a piece about the YPJ published in the Guardian in July, she said she’d been a tomboy, growing up with four brothers. She said she never planned to join a militia, but that living in a country with increasing conflict and a growing occupation by Turkey had made it a necessity.

“It’s very difficult to see your country occupied by someone else,” Serekaniye said. She wore utilitarian clothing and liked to carry her Kalashnikov slung over her shoulder. She walked with a limp from an injury she’d gotten during training. But her earnest, often goofy manner betrayed any sense of toughness. She never saw battle.

Zeynab Serekaniye was not a hardened soldier. The 26-year-old joined the all-female, Kurdish-led Women’s Protection Units, or YPJ, just nine months ago. Since the Islamic State was largely defeated in Syria in 2019, daily combat had ceased, so Serekaniye spent much of her time at her base in Tal Tamr in northeast Syria making tea for the other female fighters or reading their fortunes from leftover coffee grounds. But at night, one of the women always stayed awake to listen for the buzz of drones in the sky from their main adversary, Turkey.

When I interviewed Serekaniye for a piece about the YPJ published in the Guardian in July, she said she’d been a tomboy, growing up with four brothers. She said she never planned to join a militia, but that living in a country with increasing conflict and a growing occupation by Turkey had made it a necessity.

“It’s very difficult to see your country occupied by someone else,” Serekaniye said. She wore utilitarian clothing and liked to carry her Kalashnikov slung over her shoulder. She walked with a limp from an injury she’d gotten during training. But her earnest, often goofy manner betrayed any sense of toughness. She never saw battle.

On Sept. 1, Serekaniye was killed by a Turkish drone strike while making tea in Tal Tamr. The strike was part of a recent wave of Turkish attacks on Kurdish forces that have killed at least a dozen civilians in Iraq and Syria, as well as high-level militia members—including Serekaniye’s commander, Sosin Birhat, whose funeral Serekaniye attended a week before her own death.

Serekaniye’s life in the YPJ was bookended by U.S. troop withdrawals from the Middle East and Central Asia. In October 2019, Turkey bombed her hometown of Ras al-Ayn, days after U.S. troops pulled out of northeast Syria; she and her family then moved to Tel Tamr, where she joined up with the YPJ in December 2020. She was killed two days after the United States pulled the last of its troops out of Afghanistan.

Serekaniye attends the funeral of her commander, Sosin Ahmed, in northeast Syria in Aug. 22. Ahmed was killed in a drone strike about a week before Serekaniye was killed.

Serekaniye attends the funeral of her commander, Sosin Birhat, in northeast Syria on Aug. 22. Birhat was killed in a drone strike about a week before Serekaniye was killed. Solin Muhammed Amin for Foreign Policy

Analysts say the recent attacks mark a significant escalation by Turkey, and were made possible in part by the current crisis in Afghanistan. “Turkey has had ambition to expand its territorial control of Syria for several years now,” said Amy Austin Holmes, a Wilson Center fellow who studies the region. “This recent escalation is pretty significant. They’re doing this while the world is distracted by what’s happening in Afghanistan.”

Soner Cagaptay, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, in late August similarly told news outlet Rudaw that “[so] long as Afghanistan is in the game, I think Turkey has quite a bit of leverage at this moment,” because Turkey had been assisting with security at the Kabul airport as the United States worked to evacuate Afghans.

The Turkish Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.

Turkey is bombing the Kurds because it views the YPJ as an extension of the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, an insurgent group with whom it has been in conflict for nearly four decades. The Kurds, a stateless ethnic group, have long fought for self-rule.

Both Turkey and the United States consider the PKK a terrorist group, but the United States has partnered with Kurdish forces in Syria for years. Turkey also says the YPJ is abducting children to serve in its militia, which the YPJ denies. A 2021 report by the United Nations found that nearly 100 girls served in the YPJ’s ranks, which number in the thousands.

Turkey has been launching intermittent attacks on Kurdish forces in northeast Syria for years. In 2017, it described strikes on Kurdish fighters there as an attempt to root out “terror hubs” that might send weapons to the PKK to use for attacks in Turkey. (The United States condemned the strikes.)

In October 2019, the United States announced it would withdraw its forces from northeast Syria, a move many described as a marked betrayal of the Kurds; a ground assault by Turkish troops on border towns soon followed. Among those towns was Serekaniye’s birth city of Ras al-Ayn. Turkey dubbed the offensive “Operation Peace Spring.”

According to the United Nations, Operation Peace Spring displaced thousands of people and exacerbated a humanitarian crisis in the area. The human rights group Amnesty International also published a report alleging that, during the week-long offensive, the Turkish military and Turkish-backed groups “displayed a shameful disregard for civilian life, carrying out serious violations and war crimes.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, however, maintained that the operation had been launched to “prevent the creation of a terror corridor across our southern border and to bring peace to the area.” This has continued to be the rationale for attacks, including the airstrikes of the past month.

But research by the Wilson Center’s Holmes disputes that justification. In a May report, Holmes examined over 3,500 incidents of fighting in northeast Syria from January 2017 to August 2020. She found that Turkey or Turkish-backed militias attacked Kurdish forces or civilians 3,319 times; during the same period, the YPJ and other Kurdish forces launched 22 cross-border attacks, just 12 of which Holmes could independently verify. And, she noted, “All 12 of those happened after Turkey launched the October 2019 interventions, so they were in self-defense.”

“To put it bluntly,” Holmes added, “Turkish intervention [in northeast Syria] was based on a lie.”

(Back in Turkey, violence between state security forces and the PKK continues; by last count, from January to July, deaths of PKK militants outnumbered state security members by a more than four-to-one ratio, according to the nonprofit International Crisis Group.)

In her report, Holmes also sounded the alarm that the conflict between Turkey and the Kurdish forces had once been confined to southeastern Turkey and the Qandil Mountains in Iraq, but “now impacts civilians of every ethnic and religious group across a large region of northern Syria.”

Turkish airstrikes over the last month and a half have hit a region in northeast Syria inhabited by Assyrian Christians, an ethnic minority previously targeted by the Islamic State, and killed eight Yazidis, a Kurdish religious minority, in northern Iraq, four of whom were civilians.

In mid-August, Turkish shelling of the northeastern Syrian town of Zargan, where Kurds, Arabs, and Syriac Christians reside, killed a woman and child, injured more than a dozen others, and displaced more than 5,000 people, according to Ezz El Din Saleh, a local monitor with Syrians for Truth and Justice, an independent nonprofit supported by the U.S.-based National Endowment for Democracy.

Joey Hood, the U.S. State Department’s acting assistant secretary for Near Eastern affairs, was not available for an interview with Foreign Policy. But he recently told Rudaw that the United States was “very concerned about military activity in northern Syria, northern Iraq,” and reports of civilian casualties. However, Hood added that the United States understood “that Turkey needs to take actions in its own national defense against terrorist activity.”

Washington is caught in a balancing act: Turkey is a key NATO ally, and also assisted with evacuations from Afghanistan, yet the United States also backs Kurdish forces in northeast Syria. Serekaniye’s death is just one casualty of that precarious balancing act.

Serekaniye’s mother and other family members sit at home in Tal Tamr on Sept. 4 under a framed image of Serekaniye, who the YPJ has honored as a “sehid,” or martyr.

Serekaniye’s mother and other family members sit at home in Tal Tamr on Sept. 4 under a framed image of Serekaniye, whom the YPJ has honored as a sehid, or martyr. Solin Muhammed Amin for Foreign Policy

Serekaniye’s mother, Zulekha Juma Rashid, sobbed as she looked through photos of her daughter at home in Tal Tamr several days after Serekaniye’s death. Rashid said that she had supported her daughter’s decision to join the YPJ although she understood the risk, and had seen Serekaniye regularly because her base was nearby. The week before her death, Serekaniye had come to gather grape leaves from their garden to make a meal.

“I don’t know what Erdogan wants from us,” Rashid said, crying. “We lost our home; we lost our city. We live in very difficult conditions, we want to return to our city, we want safety, we lost many young men and girls.” The losses included five members of Rashid’s extended family killed during the October 2019 Turkish offensive, she said.

“And today my beautiful daughter Zeynab. What is this injustice? We are tired.”

More than a week after Serekaniye’s death, Turkish airstrikes continued on multiple villages in Afrin, a district renowned for its fields of olive trees. Turkey and Turkish-backed militias invaded Afrin in March 2018 and now largely occupy it alongside rebel groups. That occupation has displaced hundreds of thousands of people and left at least hundreds dead. Strikes continued as of Sept. 16, with two more villages in Afrin reporting bombings.

With additional reporting by Solin Muhammed Amin and Kamiran Sadoun.

Elizabeth Flock is an Emmy Award-winning journalist, author, and documentary filmmaker who focuses on gender and justice. Her forthcoming book, Conversations with Athena, is about female self-defense. Twitter: @lizflock

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