The Syrian Kurds always knew they would be betrayed by the United States, but no one could have expected that their abandonment would be so sudden or so brutal.
In a shock reversal of U.S. Syria policy, President Trump declared on Twitter, to the horror of his Kurdish-led SDF allies and his own administration, that he would not stand in the way of Turkey’s long-threatened invasion of the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration of Northeast Syria (AANES).
In doing so, Trump overturned America’s Syria policy, demolishing assurances to both local allies and international partners alike that the SDF’s sacrifice of 11,000 fighters in the bloody war against the Islamic State would be repaid with some form of negotiated settlement with Turkey, or at least protection from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s vengeance.
That this move comes immediately after US troops oversaw the destruction of the SDF’s carefully-prepared defensive positions, constructed to slow the progress of a Turkish assault, has only emphasized the sense of betrayal amongst to the SDF.
“The sacrifices we made to defeat the Islamic State were not just a service to our people but also a service to the United States, Europe, and the entire International community, who faced a real and present threat from terrorism,” wrote Ilham Ahmed, co-chair of the AANES’ Syrian Democratic Council governing body in an op-ed in the Washington Post. “We expected our sacrifice and commitment to be repaid in kind. Instead, now we have been betrayed.”
Now, SDF forces are not only fighting desperately to preserve their hard-won autonomy along the entire 300-km stretch of the border, they may very well be fighting for their survival.
The Other Power Brokers
Facing the vastly superior forces of a NATO member state, their best hope is to hold as much ground as possible before some means of international pressure can bring an end to the Turkish onslaught.
But it’s unclear when such international pressure will come. At the time of writing, the international condemnation of the Turkish offensive has yet to be matched by any meaningful action. NATO’s security general Jens Stoltenberg has called on Turkey to “act with restraint,” though no mechanism exists to discipline Erdogan in the likely event he decides otherwise.
France, Germany and the UK called an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council, and the European Union has called on Turkey to “cease the unilateral military action,” adding that “any attempt at demographic change would be unacceptable for us,” yet the European powers, militarily weaker than the sum of their parts and ultimately dependent on the United States for their security, are unlikely to pursue any concrete measures to halt the Turkish offensive. Individually, the EU nations Finland, Norway and the Netherlands all announced a halt on arms sales to Turkey on Friday, with Sweden’s Defence Minister Peter Hulqvist declaring his support for an international embargo.
Keenly aware of the EU’s political vulnerabilities, Erdogan on Thursday threatened to “open the gates and send 3.6 million refugees your way,” repeating his weaponization of refugees as a political tool during the 2015 migrant crisis. EU Council President Donald Tusk responded Friday, declaring that "Turkey must understand that our main concern is that their actions may lead to another humanitarian catastrophe, which would be unacceptable. Nor will we ever accept that refugees are weaponized and used to blackmail us.”
In the United States, condemnation of Erdogan’s gambit has brought rare bipartisan consensus to the nation’s fractious political discourse, with senior Trump ally Lindsey Graham proposing a bill to Congress placing wide-ranging economic and military sanctions on Turkey and its leadership if Turkish moves are not halted and military gains relinquished.
Yet by the time this bill passes — if it does — Turkey is likely to have achieved its primary objectives, and it will all be too late for the SDF.
The Humanitarian Disaster
So far, Turkish forces and their rebel proxy militias have made only relatively limited gains, centered on the villages surrounding the Arab-majority border city of Tal Abyad and the ethnically-mixed city of Ras al-Ain, but their superior numbers, equipment and training are almost certain to win out.
The flat, featureless terrain of northeast Syria favors an armored attacking force, and the SDF’s almost total lack of modern heavy weaponry — a condition of American support long insisted upon by Erdogan — further limits the possibility of sustained SDF resistance.
Almost all of northeast Syria’s population lives along this exposed stretch of border, many of whom, Kurds and Christians alike, descend from refugees of 20th century Turkish genocides. So far, according to Kurdish sources, at least 28 civilians have been killed by Turkish bombardment, and more than 100,000 have fled their homes. Five civilians were also killed Friday in an ISIS car bomb in the border city of Qamishli, already under bombardment from Turkish forces.
What locals fear most is a vastly-amplified repeat of the January 2018 conquest of Afrin, a Kurdish-majority region of northwest Syria invaded by the Turkish army and resettled with Syrian Arab and Turkmen rebel groups loyal to Erdogan, who have driven hundreds of thousands of Kurds from their homes, and engaged in an ongoing onslaught of murder, theft and rape. The desecration of religious sites and the appropriation of the land and property of the local Kurdish population has met only limited condemnation from Turkey’s Western allies, which Kurdish authorities see as having laid the groundwork for Turkey to attempt ethnic cleansing on a far greater scale.
The centrality in this new campaign of the most brutal and criminal of the rebel militias deployed in Afrin and in Turkey’s lawless northern Aleppo Euphrates Shield zone is a source of fear for civilians in northeast Syria, particularly the Kurds and Christians most likely to suffer from their depredations.
The ISIS Threat
Those fears of forced displacement are heightened by Erdogan’s open threats to resettle millions of mostly Arab refugees in the conquered Kurdish and Christian-majority regions of northeastern Syria in a dense chain of towns and villages planned to alter the region’s demographic balance, a clear breach of international law, which Erdogan has explicitly been warned not to pursue by the international community, including the United States.
In a blistering series of tweets on Wednesday, Brett McGurk, former US envoy to the International Coalition to Defeat Daesh and chief architect of the American alliance with the SDF, condemned Erdogan’s incursion into Syria and underlined the indulgent Turkish relationship with ISIS that allowed the jihadist group to spread in the first place.
“Turkey foreclosed any serious cooperation on ISIS even as 40k foreign fighters flowed through its territory into Syria,” McGurk posted, “Tal Abyad, a Syrian border town, was the main supply route for ISIS from 6/14-6/15 when weapons, explosives, and fighters flowed freely from Turkey to Raqqa and into Iraq. Turkey refused repeated and detailed requests to seal its side of the border with US help and assistance.”
Thousands of those ISIS fighters and their families are now under SDF detention in the squalid and increasingly restive al-Howl camp in the eastern Syria desert, with the SDF warning that they will be forced to withdraw their already insufficient guard forces to defend their northern borders from the Turkish invasion. The abandonment of those posts poses a clear and present threat to Western security, but Trump simply brushed it off on Wednesday with the assertion that, since they would likely go to Europe, it was not an American concern. Taking advantage of Turkish shelling, five ISIS detainees escaped an SDF-run prison camp on Friday afternoon.
The Chaos To Come
Though Trump’s abrupt abandonment of the SDF has created an urgent international crisis, the roots of today’s disaster lie deep within the internal contradictions and ambiguities of America’s confused Syria policy.
Initial US support for the Syrian rebels fighting to overthrow Assad wavered as it became clear that, as in Libya, the results of their victory would not necessarily enhance peace and America’s global standing. The fact that it is many of the same groups once armed by the US that America’s political establishment now warn are at risk of committing ethnic cleansing and genocide in northeast Syria underline the incoherence of American policy, highlighted most clearly when CIA-backed rebel factions fought Defence Department-backed SDF factions across northern Syria.
Initial cooperation against government forces between FSA and YPG militias in northern Syria faltered as Turkish-backed rebel militias expelled Kurds from their homes in the villages of the northern Aleppo countryside in 2013 and besieged Aleppo’s Kurdish enclave of Sheikh Maqsud right until their final defeat by Russian-backed Syrian government forces in 2016, a defeat taken advantage of by the YPG in their opportunistic conquest of rebel territory during the rebel collapse. Simultaneously, secular FSA militias hostile to the jihadist takeover of the Syrian rebellion defected to the SDF, or were forced out by the al-Qaeda faction Jabhat al-Nusra. These groups fought alongside the SDF, as witnessed by VICE News in the battles against ISIS across eastern Syria, and are now fighting against their former FSA allies on the frontlines of Manbij, at the western edge of the SDF’s zone of control. Once united by the revolution against Assad, today, however, both Turkish-and SDF-backed FSA groups are now primarily engaged with the struggle against each other, fighting and dying under the same rebel flag in a war long waylaid from its original purpose.
The Turkish government argues, with some reason, that by supporting the SDF, derived ultimately from the PKK movement fighting the Turkish government for autonomy across Turkey’s majority Kurdish southeast, America is threatening Turkey’s national security. The SDF, in response, notes that peace talks between the PKK and the Turkish government were going well in the early years of the Syrian Civil War, and that only a return to comprehensive peace talks can resolve this bitter, decades-long conflict, a proposal the United States showed no interest in pursuing even in the days of relative stability before Trump.
Trump's chaotic Syria policy will only add more weight to Russia's strengthening position in the region. Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov alluded to this outcome when criticizing Trump's actions Wednesday, warning that by first supporting Kurdish autonomy in Syria and then suddenly abandoning their allies, the United States is “playing very dangerous games,” adding that “such a reckless attitude can set fire to the entire region.” It is possible that Turkey will call a halt to its offensive after seizing one or two border cities, or just as likely that it will push through the desert to the furthest edge of SDF territory, expelling hundreds of thousands of people from their homes and potentially reigniting the Kurdish conflict in Turkey itself.
Absent meaningful international pressure or help from Turkey’s regional rivals in the Arab world, the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration will have limited means of survival open to them. AANES overtures to the Damascus government have already been rejected by the Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister, while Russia’s diplomatic cover for the Turkish offensive indicates that Turkey, by removing America from the region, is acting in a manner welcome to Putin’s interests.
With growing instability in Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia’s proxy conflicts in Yemen slipping into open confrontation, and a proxy conflict in Libya between Turkey and its Muslim Brotherhood ally Qatar on the one hand, and Egypt and the UAE on the other, the broader Middle East has entered a period of escalating tension with no visible exit route. At the heart of the instability lie two increasingly rogue actors playing off each other to widely destabilizing ends: Erdogan’s Turkey, long an agent of regional chaos, and now Trump’s administration itself. The Turkish incursion into Syria is almost certain to be a tragedy for the region’s vulnerable minorities, but the chain of events it is liable to set into motion are far easier to dread than accurately foresee.
Cover: Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left, and U.S. President Donald Trump, right, shake hands during a meeting on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan, Saturday, June 29, 2019. (Presidential Press Service/Pool Photo via AP)