Turkey, Trump and the Fate of the Kurds
October 11, 2019 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — On October 6, the White House declared US troops would be withdrawn from northern Syria and no longer be in the immediate area ahead of a Turkish military operation. It also added the US would not support or be involved in the operations, and that Turkey would now be responsible for the fate of all Islamic State (IS) fighters captured during the last two years (totalling 12,000 men and 70,000 women and children) and currently held by the Kurdish-led Syrian Defence Forces (SDF), a group of Kurdish and Arab militias.
Trump justified his decision by saying the US deployment of troops in northern Syria was simply too costly: “The Kurds fought with us, but were paid massive amounts of money and equipment to do so … They have been fighting Turkey for decades. I held off this fight for almost 3 years, but it is time for us to get out of these ridiculous Endless Wars, many of them tribal, and bring our soldiers home … Turkey, Europe, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Russia and the Kurds will now have to figure the situation out”.
This was followed by a characteristic Trump tweet warning Turkey:
As I have stated strongly before, and just to reiterate, if Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey (I've done before!). They must, with Europe and others, watch over... Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump), 7 October 2019.
Trump is simply stating that US troops will not stand in the way of planned Turkish operations against Kurdish controlled areas that comprise approximately one-third of Syria’s territory in the northeast of the country. An autonomous administration, under the leadership of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), controls this region of Syria, commonly known as Rojava. The region gained its de facto autonomy in 2012, taking advantage of the partial withdrawal of Syrian government forces from Kurdish areas. It is home to Kurdish, Arab and Assyrian populations, alongside smaller numbers of Turkmens, Armenians, Yazidis and Circassians.
Trump announced his intention of withdrawing US troops from the region in December, claiming there was no reason for US troops to stay there since IS was on the verge of complete defeat. Following this, the US administration came to an agreement with Turkey to establish a 10-15-kilometre-wide safe zone, referred to as a peace corridor, along the Turkey-Syria border in northern Syria. As a result, in August some of the Kurdish forces removed their posts and left this zone under the joint control of US and Turkish troops.
It seems that this was not enough to satisfy Turkey’s security concerns. Turkey has openly and continuously criticised the US for supporting the Kurdish militia, the People's Protection Units (YPG). Turkey considers the YPG to be a terrorist entity and an extension of the militant Kurdish political movement in Turkey, the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), with which government forces have been at war with for more than 30 years. On September 24, Turkey’s president Tayyip Recep Erdogan told the United Nations General Assembly that Turkey had a detailed plan for this region: to set up a safe zone along 480 kilometres of the border and reaching 32 kilometres into Syria, from the Euphrates River in the west to Iraq in the east, for the purpose of ensuring border security. Under the plan, up to 2 million Syrian refugees currently living in Turkey would be settled in the safe zone, with international support. If implemented, the project would halve the number of Syrian refugees sheltering in Turkey due to Syria’s eight-year long conflict and drive the YPG from the border. The Turkish plan, as explained by Erdogan, includes establishing 140 villages, 10 towns, more than 200,000 homes and a university. If materialised, this plan will seriously alter the demographic balance of the region by driving out much of the Kurdish population and replacing them with Turkey-friendly Syrian refugees.
So far, public opinion and the mainstream media in the West has been more interested in speculating over who would the likely winner of a Turkish offensive in northern Syria? “Bashar al-Assad is the real winner”, wrote the New Statesman, while CNBC asserts that “Trump handing northern Syria to Turkey is a gift to Russia, Iran, and ISIS”, an opinion shared by many other media outlets and commentators.
This area is not just a military zone occupied by fighters; it is home to between 500,000 and 1 million Kurds and approximately 1.5 million Arabs, Assyrians and Yezidis, many of whom are refugees who have escaped from war zones in Syria and Iraq. The 2014 population estimate of Rojava was 4.6 million. Sandwiched between the Turkish army, the Turkey-supported Free Syrian Army and the Kurdish-Arab SDF militias, these civilians face the risk of losing their homes, lands and lives. This is the unfortunate fate of millions who happen to have been born in this geographic region; in Middle Eastern countries that, in the recent past, have experienced foreign occupation, violent wars and civil wars. The first two Gulf wars — Operation Desert Storm in 1990, to drive Iraqi forces out of Kuwait, and the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq — killed hundreds of thousands, uprooted millions, unsettled the Greater Middle East, and led to still ongoing chaos and bloodshed.
Sixteen years after the George W Bush administration launched its so-called “War on Terror”, an untold number of civilians have been killed by in US and British-led military campaign through bombs, weapons, disease, illness, while millions of people’s lives have been turned upside down. Needless to say, the impact of war is particularly felt by children and adolescents. The wars are still ongoing in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, not to mention the secondary conflicts and covert wars that continue to wreak havoc across the Middle East.
On the eve of yet another disastrous military operation in the region, Save the Children Syria Response Director Sonia Khush said on October 7: “We are deeply concerned for the hundreds of thousands of people present in North East Syria (...) Currently, there are 1.65 million people in need of humanitarian assistance in this area, including more than 650,000 displaced by war. All essential services including food, water, shelter, health, education, and protection must be consistently provided to all civilians, or we could see another humanitarian disaster unfold before our eyes.”
What about the peace corridor and safe zone Erdogan wanted to establish? Peace and safety are not what the Middle East is known for. Peace and safety were sadly not features of the region, even before the War on Terror began. The Middle East is probably the most penetrated, invaded, exploited and destabilised region in modern history.
Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring supposedly has the following objectives: ensure border security; prevent a terror corridor and fight terror attacks; end drug trafficking; protect the territorial integrity of Syria; resettle Syrian refugees in terror-free areas, and prevent terror organisations from using children as fighters
All of these are similar to the declared objectives of Western interventions in the Middle East, all of which have only brought instability, insecurity and death — and all of which have failed. Can Turkey do better than the US? Better than Britain? Better than France? Better than Russia? Is there any precedent for this?
Turkey was given the green light to bomb parts of Iraq years ago, resulting in the deaths of dozens of Kurdish civilians. Syria is a sovereign state, as is Iraq, and the constant violation of its borders and the human rights of its citizens, Kurdish or Arab, is proof of what we all know but are reluctant to say: the US — not a universal morality, Western values, international law or institutions — decides whose security is to be protected, whose borders are to be respected and which allies can reap the rewards of influence, control, trade and resources that come at the cost of human life. It also finally reveals what we suspected all along: this was always Turkey’s war.
Bulent Gokay is a Professor of International Relations in Keele University, and Dr Lily Hamourtziadou is a Lecturer in International Security in Birmingham City University.