What was discussed at the Elysée Palace? What do the Kurds expect after Afrin?

By | April 6, 2018

When it comes to Syria, France has a ‘unique’ relevance. As an old colonial power, it is an actor that had a hand in setting the foundation stones of the country. Even after closing the book of colonisation it has maintained interest in Syria. This same hand, just as in the case of Libya in 2011, came to prominence through an act of destruction. When the ‘new generation jihadist weapon’ they exported turned into a boomerang that attacked them, they decided to take a step backward.

Fehim Taştekin

The French, as a colonialist power, pursued a policy of supporting minorities against Arab nationalism, which they saw as a threat, and within this framework for a while they opened the path to the Kurds. To retain control of the borders it once drew-up with Turkey, the French were the ones that encouraged the population of the region to adopt a settled life and take up agriculture. The cities were shaped in this period. However, when the Kurds started asking for autonomy, the French were the ones who rejected the demands and even suppressed the rebellions. It was a double-edged politics. The French, who proclaimed the ‘Lebanon State’, ‘Sham State’, ‘Aleppo State’, ‘Alawi State’, ‘Druze State’ in the Greater Syria in 1920, gave neither a state nor autonomy for the Kurdish regions in the North.

The Kurds were also used as a card in its relations with Turkey. While France allowed for the political and cultural activities of the Kurds and the movement of Kurdish movement’s leaders from North to the South of Kurdistan, when the relations between Ankara and Paris became tense due to the Kurds, the preferred side was always Turkey. This period remained as a dark page in the memory of the Kurds.Macron sought a new begging in the relationship with Erdogan – and despite Turkey’s attacks and invasion in Afrin. This reception can have many different motives. One initial reason could be that the US President Donald Trump, who is talking about withdrawal from Syria, has pushed France, a country never too distant from Middle Eastern affairs, into the front of Turkey. After all, it is in the interest of Paris to take initiative on the decisions in the region, through.

After a many decades, France is beginning to take a closer interest in the Kurds. In 2015, when the Kurds came into prominence with their success against the so called Islamic State (ISIS/DAES), Womens’ Protection Units (YPJ) Commander Nesrin Abdullah and the Democratic Union Party’s (PYDs) ex-Co-Chairperson Asya Abdullah were welcomed to the Elysée Palace by President François Hollande. The acceptance of PYD and YPG/YPJ (YPG are the People’s Protection Units) in a European capital was an important step for ‘political recognition’. It was a period when Ankara waged war against the PYD through proxy organizations, had not declared direct hostility yet, and even kept the channels of dialogue and cooperation open as seen in the moving operation of the Süleyman Shah Tomb. That meeting did not receive much public scrutiny even if it caused discomfort for Turkey.

The current President, Emmanuel Macron, after a long time of silence followed in the footsteps of his predecessor: On 29 March, he hosted a delegation of representatives of the Kurds at Elysée Palace, this time accompanying the co-president of TEV-DEM Aysa Abdullah and YPJ spokesperson Nesrin Abdullah, were Democratic Syrian Forces’ (SDFs) External Relations Officer Redur Halil , Coordinator of the Afrin Canton Executive Committee Hevin Rashid, Co-Chairman of the Council of Foreign Relations of the Canton of Cezire Siham Kiryo, Member of the Executive Committee of the Cezire Region, Faner Gaet, and the Representative of the Northern Syrian Autonomous Administration to France, Khalid Jesus. A meeting held precisely at a time when engagements with the Kurds.

It has been reported that at a meeting held a while back, Tump told Macron that “to overcome strategic challenges in Syria, there is a need to strengthen the cooperation with Tukey”. In this regard, one would think that France is playing the role of a mediator between Ankara and the YPG, however there has been signs in Manbij and Euphrates (in North Syria) of France acting as a shielding force for the Kurds. The demonstration of courage by Macron, despite Trump’s announced retreat from Syria, is something the Kurds are not able to explain also.

When it comes to Syria, France has a ‘unique’ relevance. As an old colonial power, it is an actor that had a hand in setting the foundation stones of the country. Even after closing the book of colonisation it has maintained interest in Syria. This same hand, just as in the case of Libya in 2011, came to prominence through an act of destruction. When the ‘new generation jihadist weapon’ they exported turned into a boomerang that attacked them, they decided to take a step backward.

This new role France is taking on, naturally, raises thousands of questions. Given France’s historical record, it is necessary to ask the question: are the Kurds an element of balance between Damascus and Ankara, as in the past, or a valuable partner for the French?

I met the members of the delegation attending the meeting with Macron in Paris. Redur Halil answered my questions. I leave my analysis to my next post, for now I will provide a summary of the conversation:

What was spoken at the Elysée Palace? What did the Kurds want, what did Emmanuel Macron pledge?

Redur Halil: We did not go with list of demands. We explained the situation. France is very interested in developments in Turkey and concerned with their actions. As you know, France is already a partner of the international coalition in the war against ISIS. Macron did not say ‘we will deploy troops to Menbic’ but said they would increase their role in the international coalition. He stressed that not only in Menbic, but France would be more active in all regions the coalition has military operations in.

How do you interpret France’s prominence when Trump says, “We will withdraw from Syria as soon as possible”?

Redur Halil: There are things happening behind the scenes that we are also unaware of. While Trump is talking about withdrawing, the Americans are increasing their military presence on the ground. As far as we understand, Trump wants the coalition partners to come to the fore; somewhat due to tensions with Turkey, Trump wants Europe to play a larger role. He may want to remove the notion of Turkish-American tensions with regards to recent tensions with Turkey. France knows this region better than all the other coalition partners. It’s normal for it to come, or to be encouraged to come, to the fore.

What change can France’s recent attitude cause?

Redur Halil: France is an important country within the EU. Paris’s position also affects other countries. In this way, a larger block may be formed against Turkey. I think Ankara has received the message sent by Paris.

After the unexpected withdrawal from Raco and Jindiras, it was announced that the YPG was preparing for a city war in Afrin. However, with a sudden withdrawal from Afrin, the control of the city was left to the Turkish army and other armed groups. In fact, only a day before the Kurdish sources I spoke to had said “We will resist until the end”. It appears something happened out there. Now, three different scenarios are being mentioned. The first is that the Turkish state may have made an agreement Abdullah Öcalan. The message of ‘withdraw’ may have been sent to Afrin from İmralı (the Turkish island where the Kurdish Leader Abdullah Öcalan is in prison in solitary confinement). Did Ocalan send a message to YPG (People’s Defence Forces)?

Redur Halil: No. Certainly no message from Ocalan came. Neither ‘resist’ nor ‘withdraw’, we never received such a message.

The second scenario is; The US, to appease Turkey and to protect the current situation in the east of the Euphrates may have advised the Kurds to withdraw from Afrin. Did the US play a role here?

Redur Halil: No. With regards to the decisions made on Afrin, the United States has made no contributions or played any roles.

The USA did not enter a position to discourage Turkey from undertaking the Olive Branch operation (the name given by the Turkish state to its military invasion and bombing campaign on Afrin). For the Kurds, it did not establish pressure on Ankara either.

Redur Halil: As you know, the USA has not made any commitments regarding Afrin since the beginning. They were saying they would not be involved here. They were saying that clearly.

They have not made any suggestions to us about Afrin whatsoever.

The third scenario is; Kandil wanted resistance till the end, but the local command in Afrin wanted the withdrawal. Has there been such a division between the KCK (Kurdistan Communities Union) and the YPG?

Redur Halil: No, there is no contradiction, no conflict, as suggested. Of course, Qandil naturally wanted strong resistance. But local conditions were very different. Nobody can ignore this. We have seen Turkey’s determination to tear down the city, its targeting of innocent people, to get control of Afrin. The decision to withdraw was not only the decision of the local command line, but that of the whole of the Democratic Forces of Syria (SDF). The SDF decided to withdraw from the city to protect cities from destruction and to prevent civilian massacres. We decided to take a different strategic approach. We did not put up the surrender flag in Afrin, in many places our resistance continues. This will continue until we liberate Afrin.

With regards Menbic. Do you think that the commitment of the United States is sound? Again, to carry out the plans it has established to the east of Euphrates, could it reach a settlement with Ankara?

Redur Halil: We were told that the support provided to the SDF in Menbic and in the east of Euphrates will continue.

Is this a definite commitment?

Redur Halil: Yes, it is a definite commitment. The US is making Menbic a bit of a prestige issue. It does not want to lose control of the territories saved from the ISIS. What we’re told is that they will not withdraw from Menbic. This is also what we see in practice.

But the US may go on to share control with the Turkish army without leaving Menbic. What will happen to the Kurds in such a situation? Afrin was a very symbolic place for the Kurdish movement. It has been said that Afrin has been a special place for many years. After the withdrawal from Afrin, the YPG could potentially withdraw from Tel Rifat and Menbic, which do not have a predominantly Kurdish population. This can be done to protect the YPG held position in the eastern regions of the Euphrates.

Redur Halil: It is the response of the international coalition, not ours, that will be determinative in this case. The US has its own calculations.

What about Tel Rifat?

Redur Halil: There are more civilians evacuated from Afrin than in Tel Rifat. There is not much YPG presence there. In the case of Tel Rifat, Iran is the obstacle in from of Turkey.

In this case Iran is an important factor. Because in that region there are Shiite towns: Zehra and Nubbul. Iran is interested in this area, and does not want Turkey to enter.

There was some hearsay about the Syrian army entering this region. Then, just as in the case of Afrin, there were suggestions that Russia and Turkey had an agreement regarding Tel Rifat.

Redur Halil: The regime has no role. The Russians are the ones that have the say. It is Russia which prevents the Syrian army from deploying forces in these regions.

Meanwhile, Syria’s Future Party was established. It is seen as a project of the USA wanting to overcome objections to the PYD. Why is this party established, what is it an alternative to?

Redur Halil: This is not an American project. It is a project we have developed on behalf of the SDF’s control zones. It is the project of SDF. Of course, the Americans also supported it. In fact, we established this party in Geneva to get representation of this region. In other words, it is an activity towards the future of Syria. PYD is the party of the Kurds. The new formation is a party representing different ethnic groups from all regions, including Rakka, Menbic and Deyr el Zor (predominantly non-Kurdish regions). This alternative party is for the construction of the future of Syria. It has nothing to do with the US’s intention of calming Turkey. And it will not replace the PYD. The PYD will continue to pursue its own activities.

In Gaziantep, an alternative management is being established for Afrin. Do they have a counterpart in Afrin? This, of course, also has a resurgent effect on the former tensions between the Kurds. How do you see it?

Redur Halil: No, these people have nothing to do with Afrin. They cannot gain support from the people.  Their ethnicity being Kurdish does not change anything.


Source: Gacete Duvar