As the Syrian Democratic Forces flee, the Turks redraw the Middle East
Why is it happening ?
Following a phone call between President Trump and President Erdogan of Turkey, the White House released a press statement on 6 October announcing the withdrawal of US troops in Northeast Syria, noting that the United States would not stand in the way of a Turkish offensive in the region. As a result, on 9 October 2019, the Turkish armed forces began ‘Operation Peace Spring’ into northeast Syria, starting with airstrikes and followed by a ground offensive.
Turkey's President Erdogan has two main motivations for a military offensive in northeast Syria. First, Mr. Erdogan aims to destroy the 'terrorist corridor which is trying to be established on Turkey’s southern border. In other words, Mr Erdogan wants to oust the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPJ) who gained control of Rojava (North and East Syria) during the fight against the Islamic State. For Mr Erdogan, the YPJ poses an existential threat to Turkey's national security.
This retreat by Mr Trump’s administration was a surprise to the international community, the Kurds and domestic US audience. Mr Trump’s policy broke with previous US policy towards its ally, the Syrian Defence Forces (SDF) and their commitment to the fight against IS. Last month, a spokesperson for the SDF confirmed that they removed fortifications in towns along the border with Turkey as part of an agreement with the US and Turkey. However, the United States backtracked on this promise leaving the SDF at the mercy of the Turkish armed forces.
Why does it matter?
The implications of this shift in US policy and Mr Erdogan’s subsequent 'Operation Peace Spring' risk the long-term stability of Syria and the Middle East.
First, the withdrawal of U.S troops from northeast Syria is significant, not only because it contradicts the United States longstanding commitment to the fight against ISIS, but also risks an ISIS resurgence in the region. Preventing an ISIS resurgence requires local capable ground forces. The Turkish offensive is now the SDF’s top priority, who are now tasked with defending the region and its civilians. As a result, the SDF have redirected their forces to the northern border, leaving southern areas, where ISIS remains active, vulnerable. This will result in political and social chaos that ISIS will be able to exploit to regain popular support and regain network infrastructure. As a result, ISIS is likely to remerge in this region.
Second, Mr Erdogan’s operation to create a buffer zone to relocate Syrian refugees in the northeast region signals alarming signs of ethnic cleansing. Mr Erdogan’s plan to effectively replace the local population, (made of Kurds, Assyrians, Yezidis, and many other smaller minorities) with Arab Syrians is a clear attempt to re-engineer the ethnic demographics of Northeast Syria. In July 2018, the U.N High Commissioner for Human Rights warned that such a plan to relocate Arab Syrians into predominantly Kurdish areas would be ‘an attempt to change the ethnic composition of the area permanently’. This extremely concerning campaign has already led to the displacement of over 300, 000 civilians.
The promise of a safe zone to relieve the pressure of Syrian refugees may backfire, serving to deepen the refugee crisis in Europe, especially given that Mr Trump reduced the number of refugees eligible for admission to the U.S. It is also likely many of the displaced civilians will head towards the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq (KRG), considered by many as the last remaining safe haven in the region. Since the start of the Turkish offensive, it has been reported that over 3,000 civilians from northeast Syria have arrived to the KRG. The KRG will certainly face difficulty coping with the increased number of refugees since they are already struggling to manage the 1.5 million refugees and displaced people in camps. This raises concerns about how the Middle East will respond and cope with the mass displacement likely to be caused by the Turkish offensive. Mr Trump’s unpredictable foreign policy towards Northeast Syria will have repercussions in the region and beyond for many decades to come.
What can you do about it?
President Trump’s carelessness and unpredictable approach to the escalating situation in northeast Syria is dangerous. From giving Mr Erdogan the green light to backtracking to imposing sanctions on Turkey, it is clear that the United States has not stood firm against Mr Erdogan’s military operation. The condemnation and calls for sanctions from inside the United States, from Congress, and from the international community are an important factor to increase political pressure on Turkey. However, the international community must lend their support to protecting the people of Rojava to avoid displacement and loss of civilian life. The SDF and civilians have been abandoned and excluded from international and diplomatic discussions despite the fact that this operation affects them. It is important that pressure is placed on representatives and leaders in the international community to act firmly against Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring. They must demand the SDF are included in any decision making process about their future political role in northeast Syria.
Larah Salih is a contributor to TIB.