Turkey, the Kurds, and the US
By Amanda Gach
Turkey and the United States have been allies since World War I. Turkish-US alliance was essential during the Cold War and Turkey is a key NATO partner today. For decades, Turkey has been fighting against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is deemed a Marxist-separatist guerrilla terrorist organization by both Turkey and the United States . For five years now, the United States has allied itself with the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Kurdish military group that has been highly effective in combating ISIS. YPG has strong ties to the PKK, and as a result, is viewed by Ankara as a terrorist group because of its involvement in fighting an insurgency in southeast Turkey since 1984 . As the fight against ISIS developed, the United States partnered with YPG to further American interests and offense against ISIS, arming and training Kurdish fighters. Turkey, however, has repeatedly requested the United States to withdraw its support to YPG and carried out operations (such as Operation Olive Branch in 2018) directly against PKK and YPG in the Afrin region along the border of Turkey and Syria.
President Trump announced the withdrawal of American troops from Syrian soil in December 2018. Syrian Kurds and YPG have expressed great concern because they have long fought with US troops’ support. Kurdish Syrian political leader Ilham Ahmed had asked western governments “to create an international observer force along the Syria-Turkey border.” In the beginning of this year, the United States threatened sanctions against Turkey in the case of an attack on Kurdish forces stationed in Syria and President Trump and President Erdogan have continued talks on a potential safe zone and the retrieval of weapons the United States have provided to YPG.
In early October 2019, President Trump ordered the United States military to withdraw forces from the Turkish border with northern Syria. Turkey had plans in place to begin an operation in the region for resettling Syrian refugees, leaving YPG groups vulnerable to displacement and the Kurdish nation in danger. The Kurdish forces previously allied with the United States publicly called the US withdraw as “backstabbing” after the US promised protection from Turkish forces and after YPG assisted the US in the struggle against Iran. The US decision was perceived as sudden, with no forewarning, and the withdrawal gives way for Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring. The operation has since resulted in the death of 200 civilians and the displacement of over 100,000 people in the Kurdish-settled region.
Today, the United States does not have a withdrawal date for the remaining 1,000 troops in the region. They are kept in the territory mainly to defend against Islamic State forces, which are regrouping, and which Turkish and Russian forces don’t plan to combat. This action contradicts the October announcement to withdrawal troops and is perhaps recent action to backtrack support for Kurdish allies and the combat against ISIS. This action has also led to Kurdish forces willing to adhere by the 32-km distance from the Turkish border. The events of the end of 2019 leave room for both regional and international confusion of where the United States stands, with high concern coming from both Turkey and Russia – is the US planning to stay half in or step completely out? Recent events point to at least keeping some minor presence in the region.
Implications for U.S. Foreign Policy
The announcement of President Trump’s withdrawal of approx. 1,000 troops from the Syrian territory in October had a variety of effects. President Trump’s Foreign Policy focuses on ending “endless wars” and sharing the burden of international threats with allies. While on one hand the decision to back out of Northern Syrian territory accomplishes these goals, on the other hand, the backlash of the global message of ally abandonment is severe. United States officials were unclear about the timeframe in which they would stay in Syria from the beginning. Initial shock and confusion came from the sudden US withdrawal announcement. Withdrawing from allied Kurdish troops with no forewarning places the Kurdish nation in immediate danger to the Turkish offensive and signals the value, or the lack of value, that the United States places on their 5-year alliance in fighting ISIS. The United States has consequentially sent out an indirect message to all its other allies that US alliances are conditional up until the United States no longer needs assistance or is no longer committed to the joint cause.
The United States must now be cautious about what additional messages it sends out. As Turkish forces move into northeastern Syrian territory, the United States must become a strong public advocate and defender of Kurdish well-being. If it is to eventually withdraw its remaining troops, the US should be direct and public about its defense of the humane treatment of Kurdish nationals. This would also result in some redeeming confidence in US alliances. Ambassador William Roebuck, currently serving as Deputy Special Envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS and Senior Advisor to the Special Representative for Syria Engagement, stated the following: “Make clear to Turkey, publicly and even more bluntly, privately, that it will bear all the costs for its military operation. That includes the bill for our heavily damaged interests: the undercut fight against ISIS, the wrecking of our partner force, and the significant damage to our credibility as a partner in the region and beyond.” Turkey’s recent offensives have been deemed as camouflaged “ethnic cleansing” in the eyes of Roebuck, who was the sole US diplomat on ground in northeastern Syria and who worked closely with civilian representatives. In addition, Turkey’s recent action of sending troops to Libya makes it clear that Turkey is expanding its military influence and is growing as a regional power.
If a withdraw of remaining of US troops continues, the United States must be prepared to take a strong declared position against the new forces that move into Northern Syria by both Turkey and Russia to protect its former allies and to maintain its international credibility.
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