On Monday, U.S. President Donald Trump declared that almost all American forces currently stationed in northern Syria to help combat the Islamic State are to be withdrawn, as Turkish forces prepare to take on the responsibility, according to the Boston Globe. This has elicited numerous protests from within the United States and abroad, but especially within the Kurdish community, who feel this move has left the Kurds vulnerable, despite having fought the Islamic State alongside the U.S., the Kurds’ violent history with Turkey is a deep cause for concern among the Kurdish people.
Developments today have confirmed these misgivings; already, Turkish forces have begun to enter northern Syria, with Turkish President Recep Erdogan tweeting that “The Turkish Armed Forces, together with the Syrian National Army, just launched Operation Peace Spring against PKK/YPG and Daesh terrorists in northern Syria,” according to the Washington Post. CNN reports that, despite Erdogan’s assurances that the push southward was to establish a “safe zone” for the resettlement of Syrian refugees, Kurdish forces are reporting that Kurdish civilians have been killed.
The Trump Administration stated that the move was intended to reduce the number of deaths of American soldiers within the Middle East. A Washington Post report quoted the President as stating that “Thousands of our Great Soldiers have died or been badly wounded. Millions of people have died on the other side,” and that deploying them to the Middle East had been a mistake. Later, according to the Guardian, Trump attempted to explain his abandonment of the Kurds, stating that “[The U.S. has] spent a tremendous amount of money helping out the Kurds, but they are [only] fighting for their land,” and going on to state that “[The U.S.’s] alliances have taken advantage of us.” Meanwhile, a spokesperson for United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres stated to Al-Jazeera that “Civilians and civilian infrastructure should be protected,” adding that “the Secretary-General believes there is no military solution to the Syrian conflict.” In the same report, NATO Secretary Jens Stoltenburg stated that while Turkey has genuine security concerns, it was important that the Turks “avoid actions that may further destabilize the region, escalate tensions, and cause more human suffering.” Hossam Zaki, Deputy Secretary-General of the Arab League called Turkey’s military operation “a blatant violation of Syria’s sovereignty… that could allow for the revival of [the Islamic State].”
Trump’s sudden decision to withdraw vital forces from Syria is reprehensible, and may permanently sour relations with the Kurdish people, who have established themselves as a force for democracy, human rights, and stability in the region, and a key ally in the fight against terrorism. Worse, this opens the door for Turkey to commit acts of political repression and genocide against Kurds within its own borders and the wider region, without anybody to stop them.
Since the rise in 2014 of the Islamic State, the Kurds, a long marginalized ethnic group spread across Iraqi, Iranian, Turkish, and Syrian territory, fought back against the militants. The Kurds have long fought for an independent ethnic homeland, and in Iraq, they have been given a great deal of autonomy. However, in Turkey, the Kurdish organization Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) has been banned and suppressed as a terrorist organization by the Turkish government, with mayors believed to be affiliated with the PKK being sacked and hundreds imprisoned. The fall of the Islamic State’s last holdout in 2019, meanwhile, resulted in thousands of people, many of whom are hardened jihadists and ideologues themselves, according to NPR, being placed into refugee camps, which has provided some of these militants with an opportunity to regroup. Up until now, Kurdish and U.S. forces have helped to keep the region in an uneasy peace in northern Syria, despite Turkey’s opposition to the Kurds along its southern border with Syria. With U.S. forces gone, the Turks now have free rein to pummel the Kurdish opposition and with it eliminate a key pillar of the newfound peace.
The only way to stop this human rights catastrophe before it can deteriorate further is for the United States to step in once again, and act as a buffer between Turkish and Kurdish forces. The U.S. should share its drone-gathered intelligence with both parties to show the positions of terrorists and other forces that threaten the fragile stability of the region, so as to avoid civilian casualties. The U.S. also must step in diplomatically, with the help of regional organizations such as the Arab League to help work out a fair and equitable power-sharing agreement within the safe zone Turkey intends to build. With such an agreement in place, Syrian refugees can resettle in peace, and repression against the Kurds can be avoided, as the two sides work hand in hand to safeguard against destabilizing forces such as the Islamic State.
UPDATE: As of noon, eastern time October 10, Vox reports that the U.S. Senate is considering a bill to impose sanctions upon the Turkish leadership if Turkey’s attacks on the Kurds continue. Trump seems to support this bill, recognizing that the Kurds are vital allies in the fight for peace.
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