U.S. Invokes Cautious Optimism In A Deal With Turkey Concerning The Protection Of Syrian Kurdish Groups

On January 12th, the United States Secretary of Defence Mike Pompeo reiterated his strong belief that a deal could be struck between the U.S. and Turkey regarding the protection of Syrian Kurdish groups. The comments arrived at the backdrop of Trump’s decision to withdraw large amounts of its troops from Syria, troops that had otherwise been supporting their allies – the Syrian Kurdish rebels – in the U.S.-led fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). This decision to withdraw troops from the region received a negative response from countries all over the world, though notably by Turkey which threatened to attack the Kurdish rebels, who they deem as terrorists.

Detailing the strategy of the U.S. in the Middle East, Mike Pompeo stated that “it is time for old rivalries to end for the sake of the greater good of the region.” Whilst this was aimed at the relationship between the Arab countries, it is apparent that Turkey’s affiliation with Kurdish rebels was an area which the U.S. sought to focus on. As vital allies of the U.S., Mike Pompeo ensured that Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from the region would only be carried out if “the Turks don’t slaughter the Kurds.” This received an overwhelmingly negative response by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, who warned that Turkey would attack Syrian Kurdish rebels, “If the [withdrawal] is put off with ridiculous excuses like Turks are massacring Kurds, which do not reflect the reality, we will implement this decision.”

The ‘optimistic’ deal is complex due to competing views of the U.S and Turkey, not least due to the subjectivity of how one defines ‘terrorism.’ For the U.S., the protection of Syrian Kurdish rebel groups reflects their assistance in the US-led campaign against ISIL, “we also know that those fighting alongside of us for all this time deserve to be protected,” as Pompeo stated. Conversely, Cavusoglu argued that the U.S. relationship with the group was false and only based on U.S goals to end terrorism in the region, “it is hard to break up with a terrorist organization after being involved with it at this level.”

It is clear, however, that behind the different labels of terrorism, the Kurdish people, akin to their historical struggle, continue to be neglected. Whilst seemingly under the protection of the U.S., many fear repercussions from Turkey and neighbouring countries. With Pompeo’s optimistic deal held loosely together by the promise of Turkey’s right to “defend their country from terrorists” but not detailing the measures on how to do so, the subjective definition of ‘terrorism’ is clearly being manipulated.

The Turkish-Kurdish conflict is a long-running conflict that has persisted over the years despite various peace agreements. The root causes of this conflict have typically stemmed from the desire of greater autonomy and an independent homeland for the Kurdish population, something that has historically been rejected by the Turkish state. Groups such as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) have also engaged in what is referred to as the Syrian Kurdish-Islamist conflict against ISIL – a conflict motivated by retaliation against ISIL after attacks on Kurdish villages in northern Syria. This also saw the involvement of U.S. with its coalition against ISIL, which Syrian Kurdish groups supported.

The U.S. has an obligation to protect the Kurdish people and its groups, not because they are effective allies in the fight against terrorism but because they are human beings at risk. This would not mean cooperating with ‘terrorists’, and instead it is clear that the term ‘terrorists’ should be deconstructed in a region where the term is used willingly to justify violent actions. Doing this would allow for a better understanding of conflict in the region and would better integrate the Kurdish people. Otherwise, the fact that the proposed plan is ‘optimistic’ does nothing for the Kurdish population, a population that fears the historical accounts of human rights abuse in the region.