Patrice Franceschi is an independent actor who has been working alongside the Kurds in Syria and Iraq for a long time. Following the Turkish offensive of 9 October in north-eastern Syria after the American withdrawal, and the agreement between Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, we asked him questions about the current situation as well as the medium-term future.
Alain Boinet : After the attack on Turkey and its Syrian Islamist deputies on 9 October last in north-eastern Syria, what is the situation today, who controls what, what is happening on the battle front and where can this lead?
Patrice Franceschi : Turkey has attacked Syria three times, particularly Syrian Kurdistan: first in September 2016 and January 2018 in the west in Afrin and now in October 2019 in the Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain region over an area 120 kilometres long and 30 kilometres deep. Since this last attack, there has been confusion. During the previous five years, the Kurds had gradually liberated an area four times the size of Lebanon, which was a real anti-Islamist shield. They had established peace in these regions by amalgamating all populations, including Christian minorities and Arabs.
Until 9 October 2019, there were only three types of soldiers installed on this territory with the help of the Kurds: Americans, French and British. Due to the Turkish attack in this region, there are now Turkish, Russian and Syrian soldiers, but also Hezbollah militias, Iraqi militias and, to a lesser extent, American, French and British soldiers. In short, the Turkish attack generated growing insecurity and general confusion.
This is a real step backwards in relation to the work done by the International Coalition. In the wake of the Turkish offensive, jihadist groups set up. Groups known by other names: Syrian National Army composed of former Al Qaeda, Al Nosra, or Daech fighters.
Finally, Turkey, its allies and jihadist militias have gone beyond the 30-kilometre perimeter to the Tal Tamir and Khabur region, a region that is often overlooked as being populated by Christians. There is a feeling that the Turks and their jihadist auxiliaries are focusing on Christians in these early battles. Despite Kurdish support and that of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the call for help from front-line Christians is not heard. As the Kurds know very well, the current military lull is only a break for Erdoğan before rebounding a fourth time towards the Kurdish and Christian regions in the eastern Rojava, Kurdish territory of Syria.
AB : The International Coalition Against Daech met on November 14 in Washington. In the final declaration, it is mentioned that it was remobilised in both Iraq and Syria, and in particular in the north-east of Syria, alongside the Kurds of the FDS. The Coalition therefore calls for continued support for its allies, calls on all actors in the North-East to refrain from any measures that could change the demographic structure and calls for full, safe and unhindered access for humanitarian organizations to all areas in the region. What about these statements?
PF : This meeting had been requested for more than a month, it came too late to have a real impact. We must get out of illusions: Erdoğan has stated that the objective is to resettle 2.5 million Syrian refugees currently in Turkey in the Syrian North-East and it will do so. The objective is to replace one population with another, in other words ethnic cleansing. According to international rules, this is called a crime against humanity. The International Coalition, as the United Nations has said: they will not facilitate this project. However, they have not stated that they will oppose it and we do not see how they could do so other than by entering into a conflict with Turkey. Of all the meetings that have been held to settle the conflict, the states of this coalition rise up, revolt, delude themselves and then quickly fall asleep. Erdoğan is aware of this, which is why, when it decides to do so, there will be a fourth offensive to seize the Syrian North-East. After the population replacement has been carried out and in agreement with Russia, it can be expected that the region will be returned to Damascus at a later date.
AB : A lull has been underway in recent weeks, what can we expect from it and how will the Idilb areas, under the control of Syrian jihadist groups, and the north-eastern region interact?
PF: The Kurds fear that this lull stage is a preparation for new territorial exchanges between Russia and Turkey. Already, in January 2018, a first exchange had taken place: Afrin in the west of the country was under Russian protectorate while the east was under the protectorate of France, the United States and Great Britain. Russia ceded Afrin to Turkey in exchange for the Ghouta region east of Damascus, which had been emptied of jihadists. These groups of fighters left Ghouta for Idlib in return for the Turkish entry to Afrin.
A new exchange could take place between Idlib and part of Syrian Kurdistan, which is the first fear of the people. Turkey would agree to leave Idlib and send jihadist groups, between 20,000 and 25,000 fighters, to Syrian Kurdistan to “beat up the Kurds”. In exchange, Russia would allow Turkey to seize the Djezirah basin in the far east, a land populated by Christians and Kurds.
AB : As early as October 10, France, through Jean-Yves le Drian, requested an emergency meeting of the International Coalition Against Daech in Washington to clarify the Coalition’s positions and actions following the withdrawal of American troops decided by Donald Trump. How do you understand the Coalition’s attitude?
PF: We always fight wars halfway and that’s how we lose them. In northeastern Syria, from a logistical point of view we depended on the United States, we were totally the Americans’ substitutes. As soon as they left, the French special forces no longer had any logistical support. We must put an end to the culture of military dependence on the US military. From the beginning of the operations, France should have set up its own logistics for its armies or not to commit itself. With no military means on the ground, what diplomatic or political means can France still deploy? None, it’s all about agitation!
We must look at the clash of wills: it is not in our favour when Ankara has obtained what it wanted. Erdoğan is determined and unlike us, it has time to achieve its final goal: the annihilation of the Kurds and the complete alliance of the Muslim brothers in the area it wants to settle in this region. It is from there that they will prepare attacks against France, it is from there that they were born and it is from there that they will be reborn. We no longer have sufficient defence capabilities to fight the resettlement of the jihadist forces we fought against for five years. Nor do we want to relive mass attacks in France, but we have abandoned the very idea of defending ourselves. Then the powerlessness is masked by diplomatic and political unrest.
AB: The risk would therefore be that of an annexation of northeastern Syria by Turkey as well as the expulsion of the Kurdish and Christian populations from their territory and consequently a new influx of displaced persons. Can the international community accept this “ethnic cleansing” you mentioned? Is a reversal of the situation conceivable?
PF: The United States has returned to the Arab region of Deir El Zor in eastern Syria only to secure oil activities and not for the Kurds. The previous one already exists: 1.5 million Kurds have been thrown out over the past year and a half in Afrin where ethnic cleansing continues. Having suffered no reprimand from the international community Erdoğan understood that it could displace 2.5 million Kurds and Christians from northeastern Syria.
AB: The Turkish army occupies a strip 120 kilometres long and 30 kilometres deep. If there were a new Turkish attack beyond this perimeter, what reaction could we expect from the Kurds and their Christian and Arab allies?
PF: The Kurdish military apparatus is relatively intact. He suffered a forced withdrawal but without much loss. On the other hand, the operational capabilities of the Kurdish army against a conventional army remain weak. The Turkish army has considerable aviation and artillery with long-range guns. When Erdoğan decides, the tanks and air force will liquidate the small Kurdish infantry in the north-eastern plains. The Kurds have always been refused additional heavy weapons to defend themselves, and they will then be cornered.
The fighting in urban areas such as Raqqa will not be able to recur in the Kurdish and Christian regions without unbearable consequences for the populations. Cities offer the possibility of defeating a conventional army, but collateral damage to civilians is still very high. The Kurds will refuse to impose it on their families and will retreat so as not to see their own population destroyed.
The only remaining option is a military return of the Americans or a start for the United Nations. Why is it that in the face of Turkish actions, there is not an intervention by the United Nations as in Lebanon, Bosnia and so many other places? Under Turkish, Russian and Chinese influence, the United Nations remained totally silent. In short, Erdoğan has influential allies against whom neither the European Union nor the international community is mobilising. The situation will continue to deteriorate for the Kurds as well as for our security and influence.
AB: If this scenario were to happen, what would happen to the Kurdish and Christian populations in the region?
PF: Those who resist will be killed. The Tal Tamir region and Khabur Valley had not seen such wild attacks in a long time. In the worst-case scenario, when Erdoğan launches the fourth offensive, there is a risk of massive influxes of Syrian Kurds and Christians to Iraqi Kurdistan. As in 1991 at the end of the first Gulf War, when we witnessed the flight of more than two million Kurds crossing the mountains under the threat of being exterminated by Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi army. What happened in Afrin, which no one wanted to talk about, was 800,000 to 1 million displaced people. Soon, east of Qamechli, this is what is likely to happen. The only positive factor remains the morale of the population despite the awareness of the imminent danger and betrayal of the Americans.
Patrice Franceschi, writer and humanitarian:
Corsican adventurer, political philosopher, and French writer – Goncourt Prize for the new year 2015 – Patrice Franceschi is also an aviator and sailor. He has always shared his life between writing and adventure. He has multiplied land, air and sea expeditions around the world. He has also led numerous humanitarian missions to countries at war, from Bosnia to Somalia, lived among the indigenous peoples of the most remote countries, Papua, Indians, Pygmies, Nilotics, and enlisted for many years in the ranks of the Afghan resistance fighting the Soviet army. It has also been an active support of the Kurds of Syria on the ground since the beginning of their struggle against the Islamic state. His novels, narratives, poetry or essays are inseparable from a committed, free and tumultuous existence in which he tries to “exhaust the field of the possible”. A reserve officer, he also belongs to the prestigious group of naval writers.