Kurds in Syria fear threatened Turkish offensive following Erdogan’s re-election

President stoked ethnic Turkish nationalism during campaign, and many are worried he may reconcile with Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad

Syrian Kurds have expressed fear that newly re-elected Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan could launch a threatened offensive against them or expand enclaves held by Ankara’s Syrian surrogates.

In this month’s two-phase presidential election, Turkish Kurds, who amount to 20 per cent of the population, voted overwhelmingly for Mr Erdogan’s closest rival, Kemal Kilicdaroglu.

During his campaign, Mr Erdogan stoked ethnic Turkish nationalism by warning of the “terrorist” connection of Mr Kilicdaroglu, who was supported by the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party, which Mr Erdogan claims is tied to the rebel Turkish Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

Syrian Kurdish political leader Salih Muslim said Kurds “must be ready for all possible scenarios. Erdogan’s plan is based on wiping out Kurds everywhere, including the Syrian Kurds if he finds the means.”


Mr Erdogan has repeatedly declared his intention of attacking the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) which he claims are an offshoot of the PKK.

Armed and trained by the US, the YPG provided ground troops for the 2017-2019 campaign to drive Islamic State from northern Syria.

Since then, under the protection of 900 US troops, the YPG has established an autonomous administration in an area making up 25 per cent of Syrian territory, where Kurds constitute a narrow majority. This area contains oil and gas fields which, before war began in 2011, provided Syria with its energy needs and petroleum products for export.

Mr Erdogan has also pledged to establish a 30km-wide “safe zone” along the Syrian side of the border where he wants to resettle a million of the 3.5 million Syrian refugees living in Turkey. Kurds fear that Turkish military operations will drive YPG forces from the border and that Kurdish civilians will be replaced by Syrian Arab refugees.

Syria’s Kurds also fear Mr Erdogan could reconcile with Syrian president Bashar al-Assad who could be persuaded to clamp down on the YPG in exchange for full Turkish withdrawal from Syria.

In advance of the Turkish elections, Mr Erdogan pressed for a summit with Mr Assad.

The Syrian leader has refused to hold talks until Turkey’s departure is guaranteed but has authorised his defence and foreign affairs ministers to meet their Turkish counterparts. For Mr Assad, reconciliation could be difficult as Turkey was the first among external powers to recruit, train and arm militias to overthrow the Syrian Government.

Seeking to pre-empt a potential deal between the two leaders, Syria’s Kurds have called for talks with Mr Assad.

His hand in talks with both Mr Erdogan and the Kurds has been strengthened by Syria’s rehabilitation this spring by Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Egypt, and Tunisia, all of which had cut or reduced diplomatic relations in response to Mr Assad’s 2011 crackdown on protests and war against a collection of armed groups.

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen contributes news from and analysis of the Middle East to The Irish Times