Earlier this week, President Trump announced the withdrawal of US troops from Syria. The decision drew strong criticism from across the global political spectrum, including close allies to the president.
Northern Syria is still a highly destabilised and volatile region – with several opposing factions still occupying the area, including Turkish backed Syrian rebels and Syrian Government’s military. The region is one of the last territorial strongholds of ISIS, with jihadist groups still sowing terror especially in the province of Idlib. Northwest Syria in particular is also a region with a strong and deep-rooted presence of Kurdish militia.
Originally from Iran, the Kurdish population is spread across Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria. Kurds are minorities in their own countries, but have always pursued the dream of a greater independent Kurdish state, a project that alas clashes with the political agenda of the rest of the Middle East. That has led to numerous rebellions, several genocides and the general hatred from other countries. In Turkey, specifically, they are classified as a terrorist organisation.
During the long battle against ISIS, Kurdish militia proved to be one of the coalition’s most critical allies, pushing jihadist fighters out of Northern Syria and capturing more than 10,000 suspected terrorists – currently held in seven prisons in the region.
Trump’s announcement was clearly seen by the international community as a ‘green light’ to Turkey to attack the Kurds. The American military acted as a buffer between the two forces, protecting the Kurdish militia against an attack from an outside power. With the withdrawal of the US troops, Erdogan’s response was not long in coming: just a few hours after Trump’s tweet, Turkish forces ushered into Northeast Syria. Now that the ISIS is defeated, the focus is back to the original enemy.
Rostyslav Savchyn, Refugees in Istanbul
Trump seemed to have ignored the first rule of geopolitics: if there is room to move, things move - and the impact of this decision will be vast. The attack will bring further violence to an already destabilised region: there is a strong risk of another insurgence, with the intervention of Government’s forces aiming to regain control by leveraging the chaos. This would play into the jihadists’ hands: local rebel and Kurds militias are currently detaining more than 10,000 men suspected of being ISIS terrorists; as men are needed to fight the greater war with Turkey, jihadists may flee the unguarded prisons and spread to the rest of the Syrian territory and beyond, or in case of foreign fighters go back to their home countries.
Both Trump’s and Erdogan’s decisions were clearly political. In the US, the 2020 elections are getting closer and Trump wants his troops out of Syria as soon as possible to avoid another Afghanistan or Iraq, two terrible political stains on the curricula of the two previous presidents. Turkey, on the other hand, is facing a massive immigration problem. The civil war has led to thousands of Syrian refugees entering Turkey to flee the atrocities of jihadist terror and international conflict. Erdogan’s plan is to kill two birds with one stone: force Kurdish militias back to central Syria and Iraq, while at the same time create a buffer zone along the Syrian side of the border. This ‘safe zone’ would enable the Turkish to resettle the Syrian refugees, re-establishing control of the national borders.
No one is happy with Erdogan’s decision to rush into Syria. The political, humanitarian and economical costs of the civil war have been already immense, and the political gains were very elusive to say the least. The latest developments further complicate the stabilisation process, increasing the risk that further tensions may spread across Iran and Iraq, leading to a possible exacerbation of the wider conflict between Sunni and Shia Islam.
Nevertheless, the die is cast. Turkey has always been a key geopolitical and military partner for the US, thanks to its special position between Europe and the Middle East. But there’s more: following the intervention in Ukraine in 2014 and the annexation of Crimea, Russia has now access to the Black Sea; the Bosporus – controlled by Turkey – is the only bottleneck that separates Russia from the Mediterranean, which has long been a Russian’s target and ambition since before the October Revolution. As such, Turkey is too much of a precious ally for the US and NATO. The hard truth is that, despite the wider indignation of the international community, too much is at stake to engage in the conversation beyond declarations of condemnation and angry Tweets.