Despite the landmark deal reached by Presidents Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin in Sochi last week, guns have yet to go silent between the Turkish army and SDF Kurdish fighters in northeastern Syria. Over the past couple of days only, Turkish forces and their Syrian National Army proxy militia have taken over a number of Kurdish villages and continued to shell many others in violation of the agreement and before the deadline given to SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) and their affiliate YPG fighters to pull back some 20 miles (32 kilometers) from the Turkish borders. Throughout the day, Turkish artillery shells have mainly targeted the town of Tal Tamr and neighboring villages along the Ras Al ain-Derbassiyya highway. Later tonight, Turkish forces and their SNA mercenaries have waged a fierce attack on the Abu Rasein in suburban Ras Al Ain, close to the Syrian-Turkish border line.
Erdogan rolls the fire ball of extradition
Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s call for SDF Commander’s extradition came as Kurds were holding talks with both the US and Russia mainly to stave off Turkey’s advance across northeastern Syria. Turkey’s political escalation with Syrian Kurds followed the Sochi Memorandum of Understanding detailed in a previous article, with President Erdogan – in almost an exact replica of the decades-long Gulen saga with the USA- is now asking Washington to extradite the SDF leader Mazloum Abdi on charges of terrorism, citing an ‘extradition agreement’ that exists between the two nations. Such a step bound to further aggravate the already tense situation in Kurdish areas, and further encourage Kurdish opposition to the Russian-Turkish deal, widely viewed among many Kurds as a political knock out to the Kurdish dream of an independent entity in northern Syria. Turkey itself has over 20 million Kurdish citizens among its population, and such a step will almost definitely generate extra problems with an already uneasy and feeling-oppressed and discriminated-against community.
As both General Abdi and President Trump confirmed they have discussed over the phone Thursday, recent developments, the protection of Syrian Kurds, the presence of US troops in some key positions and the need for Kurds to recover towns and villages they have lost to the Turkish army and his proxy militia since the start of operation ‘Peace Spring’ less than 20 days ago, President Erdogan said in an interview with state-run TRT on Thursday night that he instructed his justice minister to take the “necessary steps” for Abdi’s extradition. “With the US, we have an extradition agreement. The US should hand this man to us,” he said.
SDF, Trump and Erdogan’s conflicting messages
General Abdi told a news conference in Kurdish-led Qamishli that the SDF was in talks with both Russia and the US to “protect the Kurdish people against the Turkish assault”, launched on October 9 but now suspended in truces brokered indirectly by Washington, and directly by President Putin during Erdogan’s last visit to Sochi, Russia 5 days ago. A defiant Erdogan vowed yesterday that Turkey will clear YPG ‘terrorists’ from the Syrian border zone if the Sochi deal fails.
Despite a strongly-worded letter from President Trump handed to him by Vice President Mike Pence on 18th October, Erdogan’s extradition plea was in a sharp rebuke of the United States’ call for negotiations between Ankara and the Syrian Kurds. The BBC reported that Erdogan was so angry when he read that letter that he threw it in “the bin”. Trump told his Turkish counterpart “Don’t be a tough guy! Don’t be a fool! The Kurdish commander was willing to negotiate and make concessions that they would have never made in the past,” Trump told Erdogan.
Mazloum Abdi, also known as Ferhat Abdi Shahin and Mazloum Kobane, is the Commander of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces which include YPG militia Ankara brands at ‘terrorists’ and an arm of the outlawed PKK in Syria and should be eliminated by force. On his part, Trump says Kurds are ‘not angels’, and claims that the PKK are ‘worse than ISIL’. However. SDF are – or at least were up to the US troops withdrawal from Syria- Washington’s main Syrian ally in the fight against Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS).
The Gulen extradition fiasco revisited
It is not utterly surprising to many observers of the Turkish leader’s behaviors and dealings with the US administration, that he does not seem to have learned the lessons of futile extradition pleas of political opponents. Erdogan is repeating with Abdi the same hopeless scenario he had deployed with Washington regarding handing over Fathallah Gulen, whom he accuses of masterminding the failed 2016 coup in Turkey from thousands of miles away in the USA.
The timing and reverberations of Erdogan’s remarks could hardly have been any worse, as calls by US legislators on the Trump administration to fast track a visa for Abdi to travel to Washington and brief the Congress on the situation in northeast Syria. US senators explained in a letter to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last Wednesday, that “it would be very beneficial for Congress and the administration to hear directly from the military leadership of the SDF about the situation on the ground and the fight against ISIS. Therefore, should General Mazloum Abdi – who is responsible for everyday operations against ISIS – request to visit the United States, we ask you to expedite his visa and issue any applicable waiver that might be required,” the senators maintained.
Approximately 200,000 civilians have been displaced in northeastern Syria since the Turkish offensive began October 9, and scores have been killed on both sides of the borders. Despite US, Russian assurances and international outrage and threats of crippling economic sanctions and arms export freezing against Ankara, it is not totally clear nor certain how much and for how long the ceasefire will stand firm in view of recurrent Turkish violations and Erdogan’s moves and messages that reek of intransigent megalomania.