Syria, Turkey, and the Plight of the Kurds



Just a few weeks ago, the centuries-old conflict between the Kurds, an ethnic minority group based in parts of the Middle East, and the country of Turkey was thrust into the international spotlight. The reason for this newfound deluge of worldwide attention? The Trump administration decision to withdraw American troops from the Syrian border, where they were allied with Kurdish forces in defeating ISIS. 

The Kurds comprise the largest ethnic minority group in Syria, making up between five to ten percent of the total population. They are mostly concentrated in the northern region of Syria, which shares a border with Turkey. Large Kurdish communities also exist in Turkey, Iraq, and Iran, but no country in the world has a majority Kurdish population. The Kurdish population in Syria gained international recognition for their boots-on-the-ground efforts to eradicate the terrorist organization known as ISIS, or the Islamic State, which gained power after the turmoil of the Syrian Civil War in 2011. Their involvement began after the United States joined a multinational coalition in 2014 aimed at defeating ISIS; this coalition soon allied with Kurdish militant groups who consistently proved themselves as forces to be reckoned with in the region. 

While the Kurds are heroes to the free world, Turkey is distrustful of them: the Kurdish militia that proved itself irreplaceable in the fight against ISIS is considered by some to be a subsidiary of a Kurdish insurgency group within Turkey known as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. This subset of the Kurdish Turkic population has brewed guerilla violence for decades upon decades, leading Turkey and the United States to label it a terrorist group. Turkey sees Kurdish reclamation of land formerly controlled by ISIS as a threat to their national security, and fears that Kurdish extremists could convert those fighting for freedom into those fighting for insurgency. The Obama administration tried to smooth over this conflict of interest by encouraging the Kurdish militia to adopt a different name and enlist more non-Kurdish freedom fighters. This policy enjoyed moderate success, as the group has since been renamed to the Syrian Democratic Forces and about 40 percent of its members are non-Kurds. As a show of good will, under Obama, American troops stationed in the region began patrols of the Turkish border to preserve peace. American goals of Turkish appeasement even went so far as to convince the Kurdish administration to retreat from the border and dismantle some of their defensive capabilities. 

However, President Trump has largely been an opponent of continued United States presence in Syria and what he views as “endless wars.” Campaign trail promises to his supporters finally came to fruition as he led an official order for American troops to leave the Syria/Turkey border after consulting with the Turkish president on October 6th, 2019. The American retreat effectively opened up the region to Turkish attack. An alliance of Turkish troops and Syrian Arabs began an invasion of Kurdish-held territory on October 9th. The invasion quickly devolved into chaos; American troops experienced several close calls with Turkish firepower while attempting to retreat. As a result, the Pentagon reevaluated the situation, and orders have now been sent for a full withdrawal from northern Syria. While President Trump has slapped Turkey with economic penalties for their invasion and treatment of Kurds, Americans, and their allies in the region, all that will be left of the American footprint is a small base in southern Syria. 

What does this mean for the rest of the world? Firstly, Turkey and their allies immediately benefit: Turkey can reclaim land from groups it views as dangerous, with over 75 square miles of Syrian-turned-ISIS-turned-Kurdish territory seized by the Turks in just one weekend. Secondly, Russian support of Syria turned insidious: the Syrian regime is taking back power previously held by Kurdish forces, supported by money and influence from the Kremlin. The Putin administration has even emerged as the main intermediary between the Kurds, Syria, and Turkey, expanding their power in the region to the detriment of United States interests. The final concern is perhaps the most widely recognizable and most widely feared: the resurgence of ISIS. The Kurdish militia no longer has the capabilities or support to attack remaining terrorist cells or guard the over 11,000 captured ISIS militants in the region. 

Abandoned by America, Kurdish freedom fighters are alone in the region, surrounded by enemies on all fronts: Syria, ISIS and Turkey, with Russia pulling the strings. Only two questions remain–will the international community ignore the anguish of our allies? Or will we help them as they so bravely helped us?

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