On 9 October, Turkish forces launched ‘Operation Peace Spring’ against Kurds in northern Syria. It is their third such operation in the war-torn country. The goal of this military excursion into north eastern Syria to establish a ‘safe zone’ with the objective of preventing the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) from controlling areas along the Turkish-Syrian border. This is part of Turkey’s longstanding goal to have a military presence in Syria to neutralize the alleged ‘terror corridor’ run by the SDF. Ankara has been opposed to the formation of an autonomous Kurdish region in northeastern Syria because of the insurgency led by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in southeast Turkey. The People’s Protection Units (YPG), Kurdish militias affiliated with PKK, which has been at war with Turkey for decades. Unfortunately, the YPG is also the backbone of the U.S.-backed counter-ISIS coalition in Syria.
For years, the U.S. has deterred Turkish aggression against its Kurdish allies. Yet, following a conversation with Erdogan, U.S. President Donald Trump unexpectedly announced on October 6 that he would withdraw U.S. forces to facilitate the Turkish operation. Trump’s green light sparked a frenzy of bipartisan outrage that Trump was abandoning a loyal ally. America’s position is that it neither endorses nor supports the Turkish military operation. But it is a distinction without a difference and will be of little comfort to the Kurds. Trump was unsentimental about the plight of the Kurds and characteristically viewed their contribution to the fight against IS in purely transactional terms: ????‘The Kurds fought with us, but were paid massive amounts of money and equipment to do so.’
While the decision to abandon the Kurds might be justified in light of fulfilling a campaign promise or as part of a ‘deal’ to reset US-Turkish relations, most will view it simply as a betrayal of a US ally. It calls into question the value of American commitment or loyalty to friends and foes alike. The potential damage to America’s reputation will reverberate far beyond Syria and the fate of the Kurds.
Republicans on Capitol Hill have joined Democrats in a rare display of bipartisanship to condemn Trump’s decision to abandon the Kurds to the mercy of the Turks. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi called on Trump to reverse this dangerous decision. Senate Majority Leader Republican Mitch McConnell warned that a precipitous withdrawal of US forces from Syria would only benefit Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime. McConnell urged the president to exercise American leadership. Frequent Trump critic Mitt Romney criticized the ‘betrayal’ of the Kurds and warned of an impending humanitarian disaster.
One of Trump’s benefactors Lindsay Graham castigated the president for his ‘shortsighted and irresponsible’ decision, accused him of outright lying about IS, and threatened a bipartisan Senate resolution to force a change in policy. Another usually dependable Trump ally, Marco Rubio described the decision as a grave mistake that will have implications far beyond Syria. The isolationist-leaning Rand Paul was just about the only Republican to support Trump’s decision: ‘He once again fulfills his promises to stop our endless wars and have a true America First foreign policy.’
Who’s fighting in Turkey’s assault?
Turkish forces are fighting against Kurds in northern Syria. Beyond its own forces, Ankara is also relying on 18,000 Syrian fighters — most of them grouped under the banner of an outfit that calls itself the Syrian National Army. They are mostly Sunni Arab former rebels who were defeated by the Damascus regime, and who now effectively serve as Turkish proxies. They have already fought alongside Ankara during its previous Syria operations in 2016 and 2018, the latter of which saw them take over the Kurdish enclave of Afrin, near the border. In addition to Kalashnikov rifles, these Syrian fighters are armed with rocket launchers and heavy artillery.
The Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) forms the backbone of an alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters, known as the Syrian Democratic Forces. Since it was formed in 2015 with US backing, the SDF has played a key role in the years-long battle to eliminate the Islamic State group. It has lost 11,000 personnel in such offensives. A seasoned fighting force, the SDF has been trained and armed by Washington. But Trump Administration betrayed with Kurds. On October 6, Washington announced that US forces would withdraw from Syria’s northern border to make way for a ‘long-planned operation’ by Turkish forces.
Kurds are Stateless ‘lame Duck’ people
Between 25 and 35 million Kurds Kurds inhabit largely mountainous, regions across southeastern Turkey through northern Syria and Iraq to central Iran. They make up the fourth-largest ethnic group in the Middle East, but they have never obtained a permanent nation state. The greatest number lives in Turkey, where they account for about 20 percent of the over all population. Kurds also make up 10 percent of the population in Iran, 15-20 percent in Iraq and 15 percent in Syria. There are also smaller communities in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Lebanon, as well a large Diaspora in Europe, particularly Germany. They form a distinctive community, united through race, culture and language, even though they have no standard dialect. They also adhere to a number of different religions and creeds, although the majority is Sunni Muslims.
In the early 20th Century, many Kurds began to consider the creation of a homeland – generally referred to as ‘Kurdistan’. The collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I opened the way for the creation of a Kurdish state, which was provided for in the 1920 Treaty of Sevres. However Turkish nationalists, led by army General Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, opposed the harsh terms of the treaty and launched a new war. It resulted in a new accord, the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which set the boundaries of modern Turkey, made no provision for a Kurdish state and left Kurds with minority status in their respective countries. Over the next 80 years, any move by Kurds to set up an independent state was brutally quashed.
In Turkey, the rebel PKK, which has waged a 35-year insurgency against the army in the mainly Kurdish southeast, is outlawed as a terrorist organization. Its founder Abdullah Ocalan has been behind bars since 1999. In Syria, the Kurds have been oppressed by successive governments for decades. After civil war broke out in 2011, they took advantage of the chaos to set up an autonomous region in the north — to Turkey’s alarm. Turkey has since carried two cross-border offensives targeting Kurdish forces in Syria, in 2016 and 2018.
Will Turkey be able to establish a ‘Safe Zone’ in Syria?
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gave a detailed Turkey’s plan to establish the safe zone during his address at the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) on September 24. According to Erdogan, the safe zone will be 480 kilometers long and 30 kilometers deep inside Syria. He argued that the safe zone east of River Euphrates will be able to house nearly two million Syrian refugees who were forced to flee to Turkey after 2011. According to the Turkish official estimates, Turkey currently hosts about 3.6 million Syrian refugees and has spent nearly US$ 4 billion on their housing and welfare. While underlining that talks with the United States on establishing the safe zone is still under progress, Erdogan expressed Turkey’s determination to continue with the plan.
Turkey’s plan for a safe zone in Syria is not new. Erdogan has on several occasions in the past talked about the need for a safe zone inside Syria. In early September this year, he discussed about safe zone with provincial leaders of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Between 2014 and 2018, Turkey had undertaken a number of limited military operations in northern Syria to execute its safe zone plan. There are two major objectives that Turkey seeks to achieve through the establishment of a safe zone in northern Syria. One, breaking the nexus between SDF and PKK which Turkey feels undermines security in its southeast. And, two, establishing a Turkish-controlled zone inside Syria to repatriate the Syrian refugees languishing in Turkey.
Turkey has since 1984 faced Kurdish insurgency led by the PKK, which was declared a terrorist organization by the government the same year. Erdogan made it clear that Turkey considers the SDF as a terrorist organization and that it is committed to eliminate this national security threat.
Furthermore, Turkey sees the creation of a large safe zone in northern Syria as an easy way out of the problem it faces due to the presence of a large Syrian refugee population within its borders. As stated earlier, Ankara wishes to repatriate and resettle about two million Syrian refugees in the safe zone under its control. Some reports suggest that Turkey has already started the process of repatriating them to areas in northern Syria which are currently under its control. Erdogan during his address at the UNGA invited other countries, especially from the EU, to join the Turkish efforts to resolve the refugee problem.
Ankara’s plan, however, runs contrary to the interests of other important actors in the Syrian theatre. Turkey’s North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) ally, US, is not in favor of a large safe zone. US depended on the SDF to defeat the Islamic State (IS). It was the most effective local force against the IS terrorists and now, with the US support, controls the de facto autonomous Kurdish region in northeast Syria. Nonetheless, it is not only the US which has had problems with Turkey’s safe zone plan. Russia and Iran, which together with Turkey spearhead the Astana peace process on Syria, too have been opposed to the Turkish proposal.
The Assad regime and the Syrian Kurds too are opposed to Turkey’s safe zone plan. The regime is opposed to the Turkish military presence and does not want refugees back as they are considered traitors. For the regime, this will also undermine the territorial integrity of Syria. On the other hand, Kurds see the Turkish pursuits as an existential challenge. The majority of Syrian refugees in Turkey are Sunni Arabs and Turkmen, while the area being touted as the safe zone is predominantly Kurdish and hence the SDF fears ‘ethnic cleansing’ of the Syrian Kurds by the Turkish forces.
The Syrian Kurds counted on the US support and the EU sympathy to counter Ankara’s belligerence but now feel betrayed by the Trump administration. This might push them to seek Russian support. The Assad regime and its supporters in Moscow and Tehran too are opposed the Turkish intervention. In reaction to the Turkish incursion, Iran has launched a military drill in its north western region bordering Turkey. Erdogan has made safe zone a domestic political issue linked to Turkey’s national security and economic revival, given the complexities in Syria and lack of support for the plan, establishing the proposed safe zone will be a difficult task.
Will Islamic State re-emerge?
Yes, quite possibly in some form, is the short answer. Jihadist groups like Islamic State (IS) and Al-Qaeda thrive on chaos and disruption. This incursion has brought tension about that. But the outcome will partly depend on the depth, duration and intensity of the Turkish incursion into Syria. IS has lost their self-declared caliphate following the battle for Baghuz in Syria in March this year. But thousands of their fighters are still alive and not all are in prisons.
In north-eastern Syria, previously an IS stronghold, their resurgence has been kept in check by the large number of Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) soldiers, mostly Kurds. They arrested some IS jihadists, who are from more than 60 countries. But with Turkey’s powerful army now pushing into areas the Kurds have controlled, Kurdish priorities have changed. Defending themselves has become more important than guarding IS prisoners.
There are basically two risks here. The first and most immediate is that of a prison break. According to local officials, at least 750 IS members have reportedly fled a displacement camp in north-east Syria after Turkish operation started. It could lead ISIS to regain strength amid the chaos. There are an estimated 12,000 IS members in SDF-run prisons and a further 70,000 IS dependants in camps like Al-Hol. The IS members include hardcore veterans likely to have carried out or witnessed beheadings, crucifixions and amputations, as well as those with experience of planning military attacks. There is a growing fear in Western intelligence communities that in the event of a successful jailbreak then some of these hardened fighters will find their way back to Europe or other home countries and plan a repeat of the sort of attacks witnessed in London, Paris, Barcelona and elsewhere.
The author is an independent analyst in international and regional politics.