On October 6, 2019, during a phone call with the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, US President Donald Trump decided to withdraw US troops from northern Syria. His declaration has had unfathomable seismic impact, not just in the Middle East but all across the globe. The US had, for long, been acting as the truce-keeper between Syrian Kurds and Turkey, both of whom are American allies. But the US’ sudden withdrawal and abandonment not only caused a proxy war within three days, but also left a significant part of the war-torn country without proper leadership and command.
To gain a deeper perspective of how things spiralled out of control, we need to step into the history of Syria, Turkey and a common ethnic group, the Kurds.
Who are the Kurds?
The Kurds constitute a community of a predominantly Muslim ethnic group. Most of them speak one of the two significant dialects of the Kurdish language and have distinct cultural and linguistic traditions. The Kurdish conflict dates back to an attempt by the Ottoman Empire to end the 300-year-old autonomy of the Kurdish principalities in Kurdistan. Even after the end of the Ottoman Era, the Kurds were granted neither their independence nor their autonomy. In fact, when it collapsed, all of the new nation states that eventually emerged – Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran – inherited their own Kurdish conflict.
In 1919, the Kurds and Turks together fought and won a war for independence against the Allied Forces. The Treaty of Sevres, signed after World War I, promised the Kurds their own homeland. Even though the Turkish regained their identities with the formation of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, a later agreement decided that the Kurds would remain divided among Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq. The Turkish identity was represented as a unifying force, and the Kurds were expected to accept this imposed reality, despite the social and cultural differences between the two groups.
The Kurds constitute one of the most violently suppressed ethnic groups of the Middle East. Within Turkey, power was increasingly centralised in Ankara, and Turkish domination became normative. The Turkish government chose to create a homogenous and centralised society by using violent tactics. The resistance and revolts of the Kurdish were met by state-backed oppression. Repressive policies of assimilation were later implemented to transform the Kurds into ‘civilised and secular Turks’.
Thus, Turkey’s suppression sowed the seeds of decades of animosity and violence between the communities. The most serious challenge to Turkish administration rose in 1984 with the emergence of PKK or Kurdistan Workers’ Party. PKK has been identified as a terrorist organisation by both the US and Turkey, and is responsible for destructive armed conflict in south-eastern Turkey as well as bombings in Ankara and Istanbul. The PKK claims to represent the aspiration of ‘democratic autonomy’ for the Kurds.
How did this buried conflict resurface in US-Syria ties?
The years-long armed civil war in Syria started with peaceful protests against Bashar Al-Assad in 2011. In 2012, when the country began its descent into violent chaos, various factions tried to capture control and power in different sections of Syria. These included pro-government militias, rebels fighting for a more democratic state, Islamist extremists and militias from ethnic and religious minorities seeking to protect their areas from attack. One such faction was called the People’s Protection Units or the YPG, which was composed of Kurdish militia.
In the midst of this humanitarian crisis, the Islamic State started to gain ground and power. The chaos of the civil war helped them capture swaths of land in both Iraq and Syria. In 2014, the US decided to intervene and fight against ISIS. The US led an international coalition that conducted airstrikes and established military bases in the strife-torn Syria. However, the US needed local support, and the Kurdish militant group - People’s Protection Units - emerged as the safest choice.
The YPG transformed into a true American ally and fought alongside US troops to capture nearly a quarter of the total Syrian land mass, including most of the border with Turkey and areas mostly populated by Arabs and other ethnic groups. With the US, it also successfully drove the Islamic State from northern Syria.
But Turkey was not too happy. The YPG was an off-shoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the group that led the insurgent movement against the Turkish government. The growing power of the YPG, especially close to the Syria-Turkey border was viewed as a significant security threat. The US was also caught in a tight diplomatic spot since Turkey, a NATO member and the Kurdish militia group, YPG had transformed into vital allies for it.
How did the US respond?
The Obama administration tried to slowly decelerate the tensions between the two parties. Firstly, the name of YPG was changed to SDF, or Syrian Democratic Forces and people from different ethnic backgrounds were encouraged to enlist in the SDF. Next, American troops transformed into de-facto peacekeepers and conducted patrols of the border in tandem with the Turkish forces.
However, the slow but sustainable path of diplomatic peacekeeping didn’t suit Trump. Saying that the US must avoid ‘endless wars,’ President Trump has long wanted to withdraw American forces from Syria. On October 6, 2019, Trump finally removed US troops from the Turkey-Syria border and this decision wreaked nothing but havoc.
With renewed access to a weakened border, the Turkish forces began an invasion of northern Syria on October 9. The Pentagon has now ordered all troops deployed in northern Syria to withdraw. Trump has threatened to impose sanctions on Turkey if the attacks on Kurds aren’t stopped. And has also said that he was halting trade negotiations with Turkey and doubling tariffs on imports of Turkish steel.
Assad and Putin: The beneficiaries of US foreign policy
For the Kurds, history seems to have repeated itself. After fighting and laying their lives with the troops of the US-led coalition, the Syrian Kurds have been abandoned in the midst of a proxy war against Turkey. Pathetic diplomacy and foreign policy of the US has resulted in an unexpected beneficiary: Russia.
On October 13, the Kurds announced a deal with the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, agreeing that its troops could advance into the zone that had not been controlled by Damascus since 2012, right up to the border with Turkey. This is a huge victory for Russia and Iran-backed Assad government. But the consolidation of the victory didn’t end there. On October 23, the Turkish forces halted their incursion of Syria after a deal between the Turkish and Russian governments. The announcement followed an agreement on Tuesday night between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, which significantly redrew the battle lines of the eight-year-old Syrian conflict.
The US’ hasty decision to withdraw from the Syria-Turkey border, without proper consideration of the ramifications, has led to great instability in the region. Not only that, it has strengthened the position of Assad and Putin, against whom, a part of the intervention was targeted. The US not only weakened its own position in the region but left an ally to fend for itself, without any support. This ill-guided and rushed foreign policy decision will cost Trump heavily. The sad truth at the moment is that the Syrian civil war can never be determined by Syrians; its outcome lies with foreign powers, and the US, after investing for years in this war, just lost a diplomatic and proxy battle to Russia.
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