On Sunday 13thOctober, a phone call occurred between President Erdogan of Turkey and President Trump of the United States. The subject was Syria, in particular the Turkish-Syrian border and the presence of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
The SDF are viewed by Turkey as a terrorist organisation, containing elements of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG – Kurdish acronyms are used in the article). They are accused by Turkey of support for the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), against who they have been fighting a counterinsurgency campaign in Southern Turkey since 2016. However, the SDF have proved central to the international campaign against the so-called Islamic State (‘Daesh’), providing a ready source of boots on the ground to be supported by US, British and French special forces and the air power of all three countries. This has created tension between the coalition and Turkey, with the latter technically being a key NATO ally. On the other hand, the SDF proved highly effective in the fight against Daesh: repelling them at Kobani in 2015, taking the stronghold of Manbijj, as well as capturing Raqqa (the ‘capital’ of the so-called caliphate). They seized Daesh’s last outpost, the village of Baghouz, and have since detained some 70,000 people previously connected with the group, 30,000 of which still claim allegiance to it. So, the situation was difficult.
Add into the mix Erdogan’s demands. Announced the previous week, they were simple. The current proposal, the ‘Security Mechanism’ agreed 2 months ago, did not meet the security requirements of his country. Although under the terms of the agreement the SDF were to have dismantled all fortifications upon the border and withdrawn their troops and heavy weapons, Erdogan wanted to mount an operation to drive the SDF deeper into Syria. The plan was to create a so-called ‘safe zone’, 32 kilometers deep and 480 kilometers long, across the northern Syrian border. With the SDF removed, Turkey planned to resettle 2 million of its 3.6 million Syrian refugees, an action Kurdish commentators have claimed amounts to ethnic cleansing. It is true that part of the border area is ethnically Kurdish and has been so since before the foundation of the Syrian state, but it is worth noting that this area amounts to about a quarter of the ‘safe area’ proposed by Turkey. However it is possible that the effect of Erdogan’s ‘safe zone’ would be to drive the Kurds away from their historic home in North-East Syria, as civilians flee south and the SDF retreat. Furthermore, the SDF fought valiantly alongside the US against Daesh, and to reward them by letting Turkey launch an offensive against them would be seen as reprehensible.
On the 9thof October, Erdogan had announced the start of the operation amid reports that the point of his call with President Trump was to halt it. Whatever was intended for that phone call to achieve, it didn’t happen. Trump gave the order for the US forces maintaining the buffer zone between the Turkish border and the SDF to withdraw. The result has been that the Turkish Army has pushed aggressively into northern Syria, displacing approximately 150,000 people from their homes. Lacking powerful allies, SDF have been forced to scramble for support. This has lead to them appealing to President Assad of Syria for aid, who agreed to repel the Turkish offensive. As a result, Russia has now interposed its forces between the Turkish and Syrian armies (Russia and Syria have been allies since 1980), with a view to preventing further engagements.
President Trump has faced criticism from multiple sources for his decision, including from Senate leader Mitch McConnell, whose support he will need in upcoming impeachment proceedings. In the meantime, the Guardian reports that 185 civilians have been killed in exchanges across the border, while CNBC reports that hundreds of former Daesh fighters have escaped, all as a result of what Turkey calls ‘Operation Peace Spring’. Whatever happens next, it’s clear there will be no easy resolution.