Ahmad Qermi lost his home to the Islamic State led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. He and his wife and two young children haven’t been back since IS captured their town of Kobane, in northern Syria, in 2014.
But Mr. Qermi was hardly celebrating the news of Mr. al-Baghdadi’s death in a U.S. special forces operation on Saturday. The demise of the IS leader was a positive development, Mr. Qermi said, but it meant little to the millions of refugees living in Turkey who still fear going home to Syria.
“It’s good, but what [comes] after? Everything is still destroyed. If it happened six years ago, that would have been good,” the 35-year-old teacher said, sitting on the floor of his family’s modest home in refuge in Sanliurfa, in southern Turkey. It’s a city where refugees from Syria – including many Kurds like Mr. Qermi and his family – live uncomfortably alongside a local Turkish population that has become increasingly resentful of their prolonged presence.
Several Syrian Arab refugees interviewed by The Globe and Mail in southern Turkey in the wake of Mr. al-Baghdadi’s death had similar reactions. Yes, they said, it’s good that the man who led a barbaric extremist group is dead. But with the regime of Bashar al-Assad regaining control of much of the country, IS is no longer the reason they fear going home. “We are only safe in Turkey,” said Rym Hadaf, whose husband was killed five years ago by Mr. al-Assad’s army during a battle for the central city of Homs.
For Syrian Kurds such as Mr. Qermi, the battle against IS, which was driven from Kobane in 2015, feels like it happened long ago. IS was expelled from the town by a U.S.-led coalition that included a predominantly Kurdish militia known as the YPG. But Kobane has remained on or near the front line ever since, amid frequent clashes between the YPG and Turkish-backed militias, which include jihadi groups that share ideological roots with IS.
Now the city is bracing for the arrival of the Turkish military, which is seeking to drive back the YPG, a group it considers a “terrorist” formation little different from IS.
A deadline for the YPG to pull back from a 30-kilometre zone south of Turkey’s border with Syria was set to expire on Tuesday. If the YPG didn’t depart, Turkey said it would resume a military operation that had resulted in the deaths of an estimated 500 people, while driving 180,000 others from their homes – before a pair of ceasefires covering the past 10 days.
If the YPG departs the border zone ahead of Tuesday’s deadline, the area will be jointly patrolled by the Russian and Turkish militaries, under an agreement reached last week between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Shortly before the deadline, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said the YPG withdrawal had been completed and that the area is now under the control of Mr. al-Assad’s regime and Russian military police. It was unclear if the Syrian forces would withdraw to make way for Russian-Turkish patrols.
Two Syrian Kurdish sources in the border town of Qamishli confirmed the YPG appeared to have left and that Mr. al-Assad’s forces had arrived. “People feel angry,” to see the Assad regime back in the city, but prefer the situation to Turkish military occupation, one source said.
The Globe is not revealing the identities of its sources in Qamishli out of concern for their safety.
Mr. al-Baghdadi’s death in the Syrian town of Barisha – slightly more than five kilometres from the Turkish border – was welcomed by Ankara, which highlighted in official statements that Turkey had been among the countries worst affected by IS. Mr. al-Baghdadi’s followers carried out a string of bombings in Istanbul and other Turkish cities between 2013 and 2017, killing more than 300 people. Amid fear of revenge attacks in the wake of Mr. al-Baghdadi’s death, Turkish authorities arrested 43 IS suspects across the country on Tuesday.
But the successful U.S. raid also raised awkward questions about the controversial role Turkey has played in Syria since the start of its eight-year-old civil war, as well as Turkey’s place in the NATO alliance.
Most striking was the U.S. decision not to launch its raid from NATO’s nearby air base in Incirlik, in southern Turkey. Instead, the U.S. used an air base in Erbil, hundreds of kilometres away in the Kurdish autonomous region of northern Iraq.
“Turkey also has some explaining to do,” Brett McGurk, the former U.S. envoy to the global anti-Islamic State coalition, wrote in an opinion piece for the Washington Post. He pointed out that Mr. al-Baghdadi’s hiding place was “just a few miles from Turkey’s border, and in Idlib province, which has been protected by a dozen Turkish military outposts since early 2018.”
Ilhan Tanir, a Washington-based analyst of Turkish politics, told The Globe that the decision not to use Incirlik pointed to the growing strains between the NATO allies. “If such an operation were prepared from Incirlik, the U.S. needed to give a heads-up to its Turkish counterparts some time ago that they will be flying out with eight helicopters and their flight co-ordinates etc. [The] Americans appear to have wanted to do this important op without [the] Turks’ knowledge. I think Americans do not trust their NATO ally for such a sensitive operation anymore.”
Another concern from the Turkish point of view was U.S. President Donald Trump’s public thanking of the Syrian Kurds for the role they played in tracking down Mr. al-Baghdadi. YPG commanders have taken to Twitter to declare that it was a Syrian Kurd – motivated by “vengeance” – who was able to penetrate Mr. al-Baghdadi’s inner circle and pinpoint his location to the compound in Barisha.
“All intelligence and access to Al Baghdadi as well as the identification of his place, were the result of our own work. Our intelligence source was involved in sending coordinates, directing the airdrop, participating in and making the operation a success until the last minute,” wrote Polat Can, a senior YPG commander. Mr. Can said the source was close enough to Mr. al-Baghdadi to obtain a used pair of underwear on which DNA tests were conducted to confirm his identity.
Despite the YPG’s co-operation in the hunt for the Islamic State leader, which Mr. Can said began in May, Mr. Trump effectively severed the U.S. alliance with the YPG earlier this month when he withdrew a force of 1,000 American troops that had served as de facto guarantors of Kurdish autonomy in northern and eastern Syria. As soon as the U.S. troops were withdrawn, Turkey launched a military operation aimed at driving the YPG out of a 30-kilometre zone south of the Turkey-Syria border.
By thanking the Syrian Kurds in his televised speech on Sunday, Mr. Trump provided fresh hope to the YPG that their alliance with the U.S. isn’t quite dead yet. “The joint cooperation in monitoring and targeting ISIS leaders is going strongly and soon there will be other effective operations,” YPG leader General Mazloum Abdi said via his own Twitter account, using another common acronym for the Islamic State.
The YPG lost a reported 11,000 fighters while serving as the backbone of an umbrella group called the Syrian Democratic Forces, which was the ground force – aided by coalition air power – that captured the last IS strongholds in Syria earlier this year.
Turkey, meanwhile, was left trying to beat off the suggestion that it hadn’t been a full participant in the hunt for Mr. al-Baghdadi. The government of Mr. Erdogan, which early in Syria’s civil war had a policy of backing any group opposed to Mr. al-Assad, has been accused of turning a blind eye to the initial rise of IS.
The Turkish Ministry of Defence said it had co-ordinated with the U.S. ahead of Saturday’s raid. “Prior to the U.S. Operation in Idlib Province of Syria last night, information exchange and co-ordination between the military authorities of both countries took place,” it said in a statement, without further specifying what that meant.
But Mr. Erdogan also sought to cast Turkey’s controversial military operation against the YPG in the same light as the fight against IS. “Having paid the dearest price in the fight against Daesh, PKK/YPG, and other terrorist organizations, Turkey welcomes this development,” Mr. Erdogan said in a statement after Mr. al-Baghdadi’s killing. Daesh is the Arabic acronym for IS.
The PKK is a Kurdish militia that has waged a violent decades-long battle against the Turkish army inside Turkey. Canada, the U.S. and many other Western governments support Turkey’s designation of the PKK as a “terrorist” group. Ankara sees the YPG as little more than the Syrian arm of the PKK.
Turkey’s insistence that its fight against the YPG is no different than the U.S.-led coalition’s battle to defeat IS makes clear how the war for Syria will continue long after the end of Mr. al-Baghdadi and the “caliphate” he declared.
“We are happy,” Ilham Hussein, a refugee from Damascus living in the Turkish border town of Sanliurfa, said when The Globe informed her of the IS leader’s death. But the mother of five said that while she’d like to return to her old home – particularly since anger at Syrians is rising among the local population – she saw little chance of being able to do so any time soon. “We can only go back to Syria when it is safe.”
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