Last week, President Donald Trump ordered an almost complete withdrawal of US troops from northeastern Syria. This left the door open for a Turkish invasion against the region’s Kurdish ethnic group, who are US allies.
This is an incredibly complex situation that can be dated back to the end of WW1.
At the end of WW1, the Ottoman Empire collapsed. The Empire covered a massive amount of land, and now mostly Western powers were left to decide how to divide it up. The Kurdish people had a sizeable population and wanted to be given their own country, which would be called Kurdistan, and some parties even promised it to them. However, after the Empire was divided up, the Kurds were left stateless. This left the Kurdish homeland scattered across Syria, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Armenia, where the group often faced persecution. Since then, the Kurds have repeatedly tried to gain independence but have been unsuccessful.
As I mentioned, one of the countries the Kurds remain in is Syria. Importantly, Syria has also been a hotbed for terrorism, which is where the US comes into the picture. During the Syrian Civil War, the Obama administration wanted to get troops into Syria to combat ISIS. At the same time, they didn’t want to send a lot of troops, so they would have to rely on allies for help. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was a definite no, as he was a brutal dictator. Russia and Iran, who were also involved in the conflict, weren’t candidates either, as they have historically been on bad terms with the US. So, the US turned their attention to the Kurds, who shared the same anti-ISIS agenda.
Fortunately, the US found a good ally in the Kurds. They were loyal and effective and played a big role in combating ISIS not only in Syria, but in Iraq as well.
Today, the Kurds still have a vision for an independent Kurdistan. The Kurds, while not having their own country, do have their own militias. During the Syrian Civil War, these militias were able to do a lot of damage to ISIS, leading them to gain more land and power.
This rise in Kurdish power is concerning to Turkey. Within Turkey, there’s a minority Kurdish population, most of whom share this vision of an independent Kurdistan. There have even been a few insurgent Kurdish groups within Turkey that have demanded independence and have been labeled as terrorists by the Turkish government. There’s also a large Kurdish militia presence in northeastern Syria, which is along Turkey’s border, causing them to be seen as a threat.
Turkey is also facing a Syrian refugee crisis and generally isn’t too welcoming towards these refugees. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has promised to relocate at least a million refugees across the border, into land he says will be gained by his attack on the currently Kurdish region.
Ever since the US has been allied with the Kurds, they have kept troops stationed in northeastern Syria. While the number of US troops there is small, it still prevents Turkey from attacking, because that way an attack on the Kurds would mean an attack on the US as well. While Turkey isn’t too fond of the Kurds, they definitely wouldn’t want to risk making enemies with the US.
The recent order to withdraw US troops from the region, however, gave Turkey the green light to launch an offensive against the Kurds, which they took full advantage of. Shortly after the order of withdrawal, Turkey attacked the region, sending airstrikes and artillery fire.
President Trump’s order to withdraw troops gained bipartisan backlash for three main reasons.
For one, it doesn’t reflect well on how the US treats its allies. The Kurds were of extreme help to the US in the fight against ISIS and were generally viewed as loyal allies. So in return for their help, the US left them to take on a much more powerful Turkish army by themselves.
Secondly, there could be an ISIS rebound. ISIS influence in Syria has been heavily beaten down, and they have virtually no more territory there. However, there are still many captured ISIS members in Kurdish holding camps, as well as some uncaptured members hiding throughout Syria. Now that the Kurds are fully occupied with Turkey, there will be less of a focus on monitoring these holding camps, allowing for ISIS members to escape. In fact, thousands of ISIS members have already escaped only a few days after the offensive. This will make it easier for ISIS to make a bounce-back in the region.
Thirdly, pulling out of the region could be followed by the removal of US troops from all of Syria, allowing Russia and Iran to have more influence there.
As the Turkish offensive carries on, a humanitarian crisis could be triggered as well, as thousands of Kurds could become displaced and civilians could be caught in the crossfire.
The Kurds have already shown their displeasure with President Trump’s decision. In a meeting with US officials, Kurdish general Mazloum Kobani said,“I need to know if you are capable of protecting my people, of stopping these bombs (from) falling on us or not. I need to know, because if you’re not, I need to make a deal with Russia and the regime now and invite their planes to protect this region.”
General Kobani’s statement already reflects one of Congress’ main concerns: Russia gaining more influence in the Middle East. While the Kurds may not have the most positive view of Russia either, they are in a desperate situation and seem to be willing to take any help they can get.