To many people in the United States, Europe and Australia, the Kurds of northern Syria are known for being the frontline fighters in the battle to defeat the terrorist group Islamic State.
Their victory against IS in the battle of Kobane stopped the group’s terrifying advance across Syria. Eventually, it was the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces — supported by US air power — who overran the last part of Islamic State’s “caliphate” in March this year.
So why does Turkey now want to invade northern Syria and force the Kurdish groups out?
Basically, Turkey says Kurdish forces are terrorists themselves. The bulk of the units in the Syrian Democratic Forces came from the Kurdish “People’s Protection Units”, or YPG.
Turkey says the YPG is the Syrian arm of the Kurdish nationalist movement, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a listed terrorist group in Turkey, the United States, European Union and Australia.
“There is no difference, (they have) the same ideology, the same political aim,” retired Turkish Army Brigadier-General Nejat Eslen told the ABC.
“The same man who is a terrorist if he’s in Turkey, he’s a member of the PKK. If he passes himself to Syria he becomes YPG. The main security threat against Turkey is the PKK.”
Bloody insurgency has left thousands dead
Turkey has been fighting a Kurdish insurgency led by the PKK, in which an estimated 40,000 people have died, since 1984.
Between 2015 and 2016, the PKK fought a bloody urban warfare campaign in Kurdish-dominated cities against Turkish security forces that left more than 4,000 people dead, according to the International Crisis Group.
There are about 30 million Kurds living in the Middle East, with half of them living in Turkey. The PKK wants greater cultural and political rights for them and was formed with the goal of creating an independent Kurdish state in the region.
The PKK says it wants an autonomous Kurdish region within Turkey.
“They want to rip off an essential part of Turkey away from Turkey,” said Ömer Özkizilcik, a Syria specialist at the SETA Foundation, a Turkish think-tank.
“The Turkish population have lost tens of thousands of people against the PKK. They have killed many Turkish civilians in terrorist attacks and… it’s more Kurds killed by the PKK then Turkish Turks.”
Turkey trying to ‘distort’ who the Kurds are
Kurdish political groups in the region have long claimed that Kurdish ethnic identity, language and culture have been suppressed and that Kurds have been the victims of ethnic cleansing and human rights abuses.
The Kurdish groups in northern Syria took advantage of the Syrian civil war and their victories against Islamic State to create a self-governing region — which they call Rojava — that spans the border region with Turkey.
Gharib Hessu, a member of the Kurdish Movement for a Democratic Society in North Syria, denied any links between terrorist acts in Turkey and Rojava.
“The reason for (Turkey to say) that is to delegitimise these parties … and to enter the Kurdistan region in order to target the Kurdish people’s achievements,” he said.
“The Turkish Government is always trying to distort the image of the Kurdish people, and its political parties, and everything else belonging to the Kurdish, including the history and culture, too.”
The Kurdish groups in Syria accuse Turkey of supporting terrorists that are fighting the Kurds and the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Turkey is backing the Free Syrian Army, the major opposition force in Syria that was formerly supported by the US.
But the Free Syrian Army is accused by the United Nations of committing human rights abuses when it and Turkish forces invaded the Kurdish-held, Syrian city of Afrin in early 2018.
Turkey was also accused of forcing demographic change in Afrin by allowing Syrian Arab refugees to move into Kurdish areas after it pushed the YPG out.
Deployment will ‘help Syrian refugees to return home’
Now Turkey is saying its invasion of other Kurdish areas will help Syrian Arab refugees return to places that have been taken over by Kurds.
Another key reason Turkey wants to weaken Kurdish control of northern Syria is its experience with another Kurdish-governed region in neighbouring Iraq.
The area the Kurds call Rojava borders an autonomous region of Iraq known as the Kurdistan Regional Government, which Turkey says is used by the PKK to base its militants and launch attacks.
Turkey does not want Rojava to become an internationally accepted and entrenched part of the region like its Iraqi neighbour.
“This is one of the main fears of the Turkish Government and the Turkish society,” Syria analyst Ömer Özkizilcik said.
“We know that in this area many weapons and many fighters from the YPG went via northern Iraq to Turkey and they have infiltrated the area and they have caused massive destruction.”
Kurds from northern Syria are likely to flee to Iraq when Turkey invades.
The United Nations and human rights groups are warning of grave humanitarian consequences while security analysts say a Turkish offensive could allow the Islamic State to re-emerge as a serious threat.
But to Turkey those consequences are less frightening than the prospect of an enduring, internationally-accepted Kurdish state on its border, one that strengthens the prospect of a wider Kurdish homeland in the Middle East.