Following U.S. President Donald Trump’s sudden decision to militarily withdraw from Syria last week, Kurdish leaders have struck a deal with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to join with Syrian regime forces in fighting against an incursion by Turkey, a country that has long repressed the Kurdish people, dismissing their calls for an independent Kurdish state as sedition. By extension, this sudden pivot on the part of the Kurdish leadership puts it into alliance with Russia, while setting it against NATO, of which both the U.S. and Turkey are member states.
As of Thursday, October 17, 2019, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claimed to have reached a deal for a tentative ceasefire with the Turkish government, the terms of which included a withdrawal of Kurdish YPG forces from within a twenty-mile “safe zone,” to be administered by Turkey for the resettlement of refugees.
According to NBC News, an official Syrian government source stated that Syrian forces were moving north to secure territory from Turkish forces, which had “committed massacres against civilians and destroyed infrastructure.” Aldar Xelil, a senior Kurdish official, stated that the Syrian regime forces would mainly be concentrated along the border in order to deter Turkish attacks, as war has not been officially declared between Syria and Turkey, while the political administration of the territory would mainly fall to the Kurds. He went on to mention that Russia wanted to open up direct negotiations with the Kurds.
After the ceasefire declaration had been made on Thursday, Vice President Pence stated that “Our team is already working with YPG personnel in the safe zone for an orderly withdrawal outside the 20-mile mark and we’re going to go forward together to bring peace and security to this region, I’m very confident of that.” However, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu called this agreement “a pause in Turkey’s operation” and “not a ceasefire.” US President Donald Trump hailed the agreement as a “great day for civilization,” in a tweet published Thursday. For his part, Kurdish leader Aldar Xelil stated that while he welcomed the ceasefire, his armed forces would nevertheless resist any Turkish assault, according to Reuters.
Though this move is a positive development for regional peace and security in the short term, this does little to alleviate the fact that America’s close relationship with the Kurds has been dealt a serious blow by Trump’s withdrawal of troops. The Kurds allying with the Syrian government is cause for great concern; the government troops ostensibly guarding the Kurds’ northern frontier at the safe zone could be used to encircle and forcibly annex the Kurds’ autonomous state, Rojava. Additionally, Russia’s involvement is worrisome, in that Russian President Vladimir Putin has played on preexisting tensions in the past to drive conflicts that Russia can then use to their geopolitical advantage, as seen in Georgia in 2008, and in Ukraine in 2014.
Since the end of the Ottoman Empire and the partition of the Middle East immediately afterward, the Kurds have faced a difficult situation as they have sought to establish an independent state, in which their ethnic identity, language, and customs can be respected. For this, they have been persecuted by various regimes; under the regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the Kurds were ruthlessly oppressed, with the regime attacking Kurdish villages with chemical weapons. In Turkey, pro-Kurdish independence parties such as the PKK have been banned, with mayors belonging to the PKK being ousted and replaced with loyalist government officials.
The situation became more hopeful for the Kurds after the fall of the Hussein regime in 2003; Iraqi Kurdistan was given a large degree of independence. The Arab Spring and subsequent rise of the terror group Islamic State in the 2010s also changed the game, with the Kurds banding together with the international community fighting the terrorists. In the midst of the fighting in Syria, the Kurds established a de-facto state, Rojava, in the northeast of the country along the border with Turkey. Turkey claims that PKK and YPG insurgents have used Rojava as a base to attack Turkey, which led to a Turkish offensive last week after President Trump’s announcement of an American troop withdrawal.
This four day cessation of hostilities is perhaps the only chance the U.S. has to take serious corrective action. It must bolster its own forces within Rojava, at once to prevent Turkish and Syrian aggression and to deter a hostile diplomatic takeover by Russia, as well as to prevent destabilizing forces like the Islamic State from regrouping. In its capacity as the world’s strongest military power, the U.S. must seize this chance to act according to its principles and preserve peace and human rights, to a people long denied them.
UPDATE: As of Friday, October 18, 2019, the Guardian reports that Kurdish Red Crescent personnel suspect Turkish forces have used white phosphorous, a chemical weapon that causes severe burns to its victims, on a Kurdish village. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has been called to investigate this suspected war crime.