The Syrian North-East is a collateral victim of the war in Gaza

By Fabrice Balanche

In recent days, Turkey has systematically destroyed the energy sources of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES). The paralysis of the electricity network leads to the paralysis of water distribution and the entire economic fabric. Cereal silos were even affected, jeopardizing the supply of bread. This is the third wave of Turkish bombings on civilian infrastructure since October 2023. Each time, Ankara uses an attack or a conflict with the PKK in Iraq as a pretext to target the Kurdish populations of Northern Syria.

Turkey wants to suffocate the economy of northeast Syria to destabilize the AANES by provoking the discontent of the inhabitants and the loss of confidence in the autonomist project. Is Ankara acting in consultation with Moscow, Tehran and Damascus? We can assume so when Iran launched an offensive against the Kurds in both Deir al-Zor and Kirkuk in September 2023. While Turkey strikes in the North, Iran harasses American troops to push them to leave. Damascus only dreams of putting an end to AANES and recovering the oil wells of Jezire [a local name for northeast Syria region] to relieve its economy. Bashar al-Assad promised the Arab tribes of the Euphrates to give them power once the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) were dissolved if they supported the return of the Syrian army. Until now the standard of living in the AANES areas remained a little better than in government ones, and the Arab populations do not want to see the mukhabarat [intelligence] again, but if economic chaos sets in, many may change their minds.

The Turkish bombings also have the objective of dissuading donors who intervene in ANNES (European Union and United States) from continuing to support it by making their action too costly and ineffective. Thus, the cost of the destruction amounts to hundreds of millions of euros, which they can hardly bear, especially since they refuse to intervene in reconstruction, but simply in rehabilitation or humanitarian support and emergency aid. The refusal to finance reconstruction until Resolution 2254 is implemented (a political transition in Syria) unfortunately concerns all of Syria. Neither Paris, Brussels nor Washington want to deviate from this. The AANES simply obtained from the United States that it would not be impacted by international sanctions against Damascus.

Even if the West wanted to rebuild the destroyed infrastructure, the repetition of Turkish strikes on the same objectives makes this useless until a political agreement with Turkey has been reached. However, the latter is taking advantage of the fact that the West is busy with the war between Israel and Hamas, Ukraine and freedom of movement in the Red Sea to crush the AANES under the same deluge of bombs that it denounces when it falls on Gaza. Western diplomats do not officially condemn Turkish actions. I searched in vain on the website of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs for the slightest condemnation of Turkey. On October 6, 2023, I only found a simple press release:

“France is concerned by the recent escalation of violence in Syria which has left more than a hundred dead, including dozens of civilians, and damaged numerous civilian infrastructure. France calls on all parties to exercise restraint and protect civilian populations.”

There is no mention of Turkey, because France avoids provoking Erdogan, which the West needs so that Finland and Sweden can join NATO. It must also be managed so that it continues to keep on its territory six million Syrian, Iraqi, Afghan and other refugees who would like to come and settle in Europe. The United States does not denounce Turkish actions either. The European Union, the main donor to the Syrian northeast, also remains silent. Are Western diplomats working behind the scenes to dissuade Erdogan from striking? Do they realize the deplorable living conditions of the population and the permanent anxiety that reigns there? Do they understand that if we abandon the AANES this will not stop Erdogan’s Turkey from continuing its shift towards Moscow and Tehran? Unfortunately, all eyes are elsewhere. The fear of a regional extension of the Israel-Hamas conflict and a Russian victory in Ukraine even outweighs the resurgence of Daesh, which only support for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) can prevent.

Fabrice Balanche is associate professor and research director at the University of Lyon 2, France. @FabriceBalanche