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New poll shows strong local support in northern Syria for Turkish operation

  • 13 Nov 2019

A new Gallup International survey of Arabs and Kurds in Syria finds that intra-Kurdish opinion is divided and that people would rather live under Daesh than the Syrian regime.

Turkish soldiers in military vehicles return from the Syrian town of Tal Abyad, as they are pictured on the Turkish-Syrian border in Akcakale, Turkey, October 24, 2019. ( Huseyin Aldemir / Reuters )

A recent Gallup International poll found that the majority of those surveyed in northeastern Syria support Ankara’s military action. Turkey recently launched anti-terror Operation Peace Spring against the YPG, the Syrian wing of the PKK.

The poll was conducted in two northeastern Syrian provinces, Raqqa and Hasakah, which are not under Turkish control, sampling 600 adults including Arabs and Kurds.

The report’s authors state: “While unable to access those towns and villages currently under attack from the Turkish intervention, we have also included 100 Kurds who fled these villages within the last week.”

According to the poll, 57 percent of those polled support the Turkish operation. Among the Arabs, the support stands at 64 percent while 23 percent of Kurdish respondents are in support. 

Locals see Ankara’s Peace Spring positively, preferring Turkish authority over other countries, including the Assad regime, the poll findings say. 

“For many years now, public opinion has consistently shown that Turkey is considered the only country that has a positive influence on affairs inside Syria,” the survey’s report said.  

“And many in Raqqa and Hasakah speak about wanting to live under Turkish control, envious of their relative prosperity no doubt, a strong nation that can stand up to Assad,” the report continued.  

The Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS (also known as Daesh) has not fared well in the poll, nor have Syrian regime leader Bashar al Assad’s backers.

“Our survey shows 55 percent of those across the two governorates believe Turkey is having a positive influence in the region which compares favourably to the International Coalition against ISIS [Daesh] (24 percent), Russia (14 percent), the US (10 percent) and Iran (6 percent),” the survey indicated. 

Since the beginning of the civil war in 2011, Turkey has hosted 3.5 million Syrian refugees.

Turkey-backed Syrian National Army ride in their military tank near the border town of Tal Abyad, Syria October 24, 2019.(Reuters)

Kurdish split

The Gallup International report supports the widespread Turkish assertion that the YPG/PKK does not represent all Kurds. The PKK, which has waged a decades-long terror campaign against Ankara, leading to tens of thousands of deaths across the country, is recognised as a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the US and the EU.  

“Firstly, there is a deep intra-Kurdish divide. Many Kurds in Syria are ideologically at odds with the PYD [the political arm of the YPG] - a left-wing affiliate of the PKK with non-Syrian leadership. Many of these people are currently displaced and await the successful conclusion of the Turkish operation so they can return home,” the report said. 

Like the report, Ankara has repeatedly said that the YPG is part of the PKK structure, which has reportedly suppressed the Syrian Kurds and other ethnicities in their strongholds.

But Washington and other Western capitals have demonstrated a lack of interest in Turkey’s concerns and warnings, supporting the YPG in the name of fighting Daesh, leading to fraught relations with Ankara. 

A US general (C) walks with YPG commanders near the northeastern Syrian town of Derik on April 25, 2017.(Reuters Archive)

Turkey has continuously hosted hundreds of thousands of Syrian Kurdish refugees on its borders, fleeing from the YPG suppression. 

“A number of young Kurds fled to Turkey and the ‘olive branch’ zones to avoid PYD conscription. Turkish intervention designed to defeat the PYD/SDF is in their interest, yet these people also do not welcome the Assad regime taking control of their territories because they will also force people to fight with them,” the report viewed. 

“Turkish control is the safest means of avoiding personal engagement in violence,” the report said, rationalising why the operation might enjoy support among respondents. 

The report also sheds light on the elusive links between the YPG/PKK and the Assad regime, going back to the late 1970s, when Damascus allowed Abdullah Ocalan, the founder of the terror group, to run its training camps in the then-Syrian-occupied Bekaa Valley. 

“(M)any Kurds who joined the beginning of the Syrian revolution view the PYD as collaborators with Assad and a group that has previously handed over many activists to the regime. Turkey is now considered to be less close to the Assad regime than the PYD,” the report said. 

Daesh option is still alive
The report has also given fresh breath to the status of Daesh in northern Syria, where the group first claimed territory in 2014, declaring Raqqa as the capital of its self-proclaimed caliphate.

In 2017, Raqqa was taken over by the YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) backed by the US-led anti-Daesh international coalition. 

But apparently, local Sunni Arab populations, who have long been in the majority in areas like Raqqa and Deir Zor, are not happy about both the SDF rule and the prospects of the Assad regime’s comeback to their regions, according to the survey. 

People walk near a road to the city of Raqqa, at the border town of Tal Abyad, Syria, October 17, 2019.(Reuters)

“Almost three in four (69 percent) agree that 'if Assad gains more territory in the region then I support the use of violence to defend our rights,'” the survey results showed. 

“But of more concern to seasoned observers will be the 57 percent of the population who agree that ’living under Daesh would be preferable to living under the control of Assad,’” the survey said, indicating the potential for the re-emergence of Daesh. 

Turkey has long warned Washington and its allies that supporting an organisation with strong links to the PKK is not a good idea in its effort to defeat Daesh, arguing that the SDF’s strategy could alienate both Arab and conservative Kurdish populations. 

Despite Ankara’s offer of assistance to defeat Daesh by creating safe zones in northern Syria with forces composed from those regions, the US-led alliance chose to ally with the YPG, allowing them to lead large formerly Daesh-occupied territories populated by Arabs. 

“Many in the West argue that Daesh has been defeated – militarily for sure, but ideologically there seems there is more to do. With 62 percent in the survey saying it is ‘very/somewhat likely’ that Daesh will increase their control again in the coming months, we would be naive to suggest Syria has rid themselves of Daesh,” the report concluded.

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