Donald Trump pulling out US forces from northeast Syria and exposing the region and its major ally—in the fight against Islamic State (IS)—the Kurds to Turkish offensive comes as no surprise given the litany of backstabbing the Kurdish people have suffered over the decades.
On October 7, US President Donald Trump tweeted, “I was elected on getting out of these ridiculous endless wars, where our great Military functions as a policing operation to the benefit of people who don’t even like the USA.” This came following his phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the night of October 6.
Turkey and the Kurds have a long history of animosity. The Kurds, finding themselves in a no-man’s-land between four nations: Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran, have over the decades made multiple attempts to find for themselves a home, often fighting against the Turks. Therefore, America forging an alliance with the Kurds to fight off IS, has been a bone of contention between the two countries. But why did the US form an alliance with the enemy of its ally?
Not that the country did not explore alternatives. The US first looked into local Syrian options, including moderate rebel groups, and according to Foreign Policy invested USD 500 million in a train-and-equip programme which yielded limited results: only a small group fighting near the American al-Tanf base in southeastern Syria.
Then America turned to Turkey to find alternative fighting groups. The result again was fruitless, because the forces trained by Turkey was inadequate and would require more expansive and proactive involvement of US military.
This led to the US joining hands with the Kurds who formed the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia to fight the war against the IS. In over four years of fighting, according to CNN, SDF lost nearly 11,000 of its fighters, but freed millions of civilians and hundreds and thousands of square miles of landmass from IS control. And the result: the defeat of one of the most notorious terrorist forces in the world. Whether this defeat is ultimate or temporary is another matter.
Soon after, cracks between the US and Turkey started to become deeper, especially with Turkey regarding YPG as an extension of the designated terrorist group the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Over the last few months, Turkey has raised concerns about the security of its southern border with Syria, where the Kurds are active and the country has threatened retaliation against them.
All the while, the US has been trying to assuage its NATO partner with plans of joint patrols of the border areas, which unfortunately was not good enough for Turkey. Erdogan’s aggressive rhetoric has only intensified in the last few weeks, culminating in the phone call with Trump and the US troop withdrawal from the region.
In the face of severe bipartisan opposition at home, Trump tweeted, “We may be in the process of leaving Syria, but in no way have we Abandoned the Kurds, who are special people and wonderful fighters.” But his actions suggest otherwise. And although Trump has threatened to punish Turkey if it goes off-limits—”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!)”—he tried to wash his hands of his ally by saying that the Kurds “didn’t help us in the second World War, they didn’t help us with Normandy for example”.
But more than the domestic and partisan backlash, Trump or America, along with the rest of the world, have another major concern in the face of the current Turkish offensive: around 12,000 IS fighters (Al Jazeera), almost one-third of them foreign nationals who have been held captive in seven prisons by SDF near the city of Raqqa. And the thousands of family members and relatives of the IS fighters kept in different camps in the areas that fall within the “safe zone” that Turkey wants to create to accommodate some of the displaced Syrian refugees.
As Turkey’s operation rolls on, if SDF has to mobilise troops near the border areas to fight the Turks, and flee for their lives, one wonders what would happen to the IS prisoners and their families. There are fears that the distraction caused by the Turkish offensive could easily create conducive circumstances for the IS prisoners to flee, and perhaps to regroup and re-emerge?
With the defeat of the IS still seen as fragile by military experts, one wonders, if it was the right course of action for Turkey, or America for that matter. In a recent tweet Trump said, “The U.S. has done far more than anyone could have ever expected, including the capture of 100 percent of the ISIS Caliphate. It is time now for others in the region, some of great wealth, to protect their own territory. THE USA IS GREAT!”
But if SDF is not able to endure the attack of Turkey—reports of plumes of smoke rising into the air and people fleeing in panic, fear of displacement in the region are frequent, especially in towns of Ras al-Ayn and Tal Abyad near the Turkish border are already making the rounds of international headlines—who will prevent the IS fighters and their families from slipping out?
The French President Emmanuel Macron is perhaps right in fearing that Turkey’s attacks run “the risk of helping Daesh [Islamic State] rebuild a caliphate”.
According to BBC, at least 11 civilians have been killed since the beginning of the recent Turkish operation along with “dozens of fighters from the Kurdish-led SDF and pro-Turkish factions”. Turkey says it has “neutralised” 399 YPG fighters; the Kurds put the figure at 29. As per UN estimates, the Turkish offensive in northeast Syria endangers the lives of 1.7 million people. Various humanitarian groups have estimated that the attack puts 300,00 people at the risk of displacement.
The Kurds have been used by the US in brewing trouble in Iran, Iran and Turkey, and conveniently been left to their own devices when being nerve gassed by Iraq in the 1980s and slaughtered by Iraqi military in the 1970s. In fact, during the reign of Abdel Karim Kassem, the US had armed the Kurds because the country was having trouble controlling Kassem. And with the fall of Kassem in the 1963 coup, according to The Intercept, America backtracked on its policy towards the Kurds, cut off the aid and supplied the new government with napalm, which inevitably was used on the Kurds. Given this history of betrayal, one wonders why had the Kurds not considered the possibility of their new-found alliance turning sour again?
In the midst of this chaos, one can only hope the tenuous defeat of IS in the region is not just a brief interlude in another bloody and senseless chapter of our history.
Tasneem Tayeb is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star. Her Twitter handle is @TayebTasneem