Donald Trump has been under attack from both sides of the American political establishment after the announcement of his plan to withdraw troops from Kurdish-controlled areas of Syria. This move comes after a phone call with Turkish President Erdogan (who has continued his country’s decades old war against the Kurdish rebels who call for independence/autonomy from alleged repression) and may lead to the slaughter of USA allies and the resurgence of ISIS.
Today’s announcement is really quite startling and breaks with the entirety of USA policy in Syria since it entered the war in 2014. Beyond being surprising, it is downright duplicitous to have had the Kurdish forces lead the USA proxy force, the Syrian Democratic Forces, only to turn around and abandon them to the cruelty of a hostile government once the shared goal of battling ISIS was, according to Trump, taken care of.
While it is unclear whether Trump will have the troops brought home or simply moved to another area nearby, it is understood that Turkey has the intent to invade areas along the northern border of Syria and wage war against the Kurdish forces there, the YPG and YPJ. The Turks propose to take control of the northeast portion of Syria, an area that has been held by the Syrian Democratic Forces and has been an allied stronghold against ISIS.
The SDF is also responsible for holding ISIS detainees and refugee camps of some 60,000 people. Turkey has no ambition and little resources to continue to hold these people and with the SDF being forced to redirect its efforts toward fighting Turkey, they may not be able to hold them either, potentially allowing for these people to regroup with ISIS.
Beyond damaging the ability for the SDF to maintain its hold over captured ISIS fighters and their families, forcing the Kurds to fight a war on two fronts will only allow ISIS greater mobility in regrouping and orchestrating attacks again as attentions are diverted to the Turkish military.
It is already clear that the Turkish government sees no distinction between the PKK (the rebel Turkish Kurds) and the SDF. It is also clear that they will take military action against the Kurds where they are allowed. In fact, they already have. One example of this was when the Turks crossed into Syria last year to Afrin (one of the few peaceful areas of Syria at the time) where they drove out the largely Kurdish population, stating that this was in order to allow Arabs resume living there.
Erdogan stated halfway through the offensive: “We aim to give Afrin back to its rightful owners”. His words were a thinly veiled statement of intent to ethnically cleanse Kurdish dominated areas.
While the Turkish state has been waging war against the PKK (which was originally a Marxist-Leninist organization that waged guerilla war against Turkey) since the early 1990s, the tactics of the PKK changed around the turn of the millennium. The PKK dropped its calls for an independent state and instead called for a ceasefire, Kurdish regional autonomy and democratization in Turkey.
The PKK ideology could roughly be described as ecology, feminism and democracy; all laudable goals, but unacceptable to the Turkish government/establishment. By 2001, the USA, EU and UN had responded to Turkey’s lobbying and placed the PKK on their list of terror groups. This allowed for Turkey to pursue a wide campaign of crushing dissent, imprisoning activists, journalists and elected Kurdish officials.
The Turkish government has also been accused of allowing extremist Islamist fighters to cross the border in the early years of the Syrian war to fight against the Kurds. It has been reported that Turkey has used ISIS militants in the fighting against the Kurds in Afrin last year, all the while claiming the YPG was freeing ISIS militants in exchange for armed service against Turkey.
The west has largely overlooked the massive human rights violations and crackdowns of Turkey against the Kurds so far. There is nothing to suggest that this offensive will be any less bloody or any more justified.
This will be a moment that the West looks back on with remorse: allowing the killing and oppression of the Kurds in Syria.