Making up 7% to 10% population of Syria, the Kurds have been a highly marginalised community living in the northern part of Syria but have overlapping linkages to countries such as Turkey and Iraq. The Kurds fought as allies of the United States in their war against ISIS which threatened the entire region in 2015 and helped in eliminating the Islamic Caliphate. Many of the ISIS fighters were captured and imprisoned with the assistance of Kurd dominated People’s Protection Units or YPG.
Once the war against ISIS was over and the terrorist group became less significant, the Kurds resumed their bid for self-determination and their demand for a separate homeland. Since the Kurdish PYD and YPG were banned under the Syrian constitution, the demands were considered as a threat to Syria’s territorial sovereignty. But the fight for Kurdish independence was not limited to Aleppo. Along with claiming their rights on the Syrian towns of Tel Abiad and Rasulayn, the Kurds recognised a few areas in Turkey’s south-eastern region as part of Kurdistan. This has led to attacks by PKK or Kurdistan Worker’s Party in Turkey and all efforts towards reconciliation have majorly failed.
With the defeat of the common enemy, ISIS, the United States deployed more than 1000 troops in northern Syria, fulfilling the expectations of the US support to Kurd rebels. However, the defeat of the United States coalition in Syria alongside President Donald Trump’s bid to end far-fetched wars especially in the Middle-East region derailed the trajectory of the US support to Kurds. Not only did President Trump announce the withdrawal of troops from Syria, the United States provided a free-hand to Turkish President Erdogan to move ahead with his agendas near the border.
Recently, President Erdogan has announced that a Turkish military operation into Syria has started, entering the country east of Euphrates River. He has received the support of Syrian National Army which has approximately 14000 men ready to advance in the Kurd dominated territories. The goal is to disrupt movement on the M4 highway used for movement between Kurdish occupied areas and is 25 to 30kms away from Turkey’s border. The US troops have withdrawn from Tel Abaid and Ras al-Ayn, allowing Erdogan to establish a safe-zone while suppressing the Kurdish rebels. This would lead to mass displacement of the residing population and an insurmountable amount of violence in the affected territories.
The main reason behind the creation of the safe zone is to allow safe passage and settle refugees which left Syria during the Syrian War. It would give President Erdogan a prospect to get rid of the migrants including the Kurdish groups, who have long been involved in bloodshed in the south-eastern part of Turkey and preserve the demography, thereby appeasing the domestic population for electoral gains. In trying to justify the invasion, Turkey has dubbed this as an operation against terrorism emanating from Kurd occupied terrains.
The Turkish jets along with a round of howitzers and drones have already started to target Syrian Kurdish positions, relegating their command of the occupied areas. This would allow Turkish and Syrian National Forces to enter without significant opposition from the other side. Although the US-supplied weapons to the Kurd rebels in the fight against ISIS, most of them cannot match the force of the opposition. The bombing in the border regions has killed 5 civilians and injured many others.
After the US President Donald Trump announced the troops’ withdrawal from north-eastern Syria, his decision was heavily criticised by the US Congress. Due to the internal constraints, President Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have to partly reverse their decision and threaten Turkey with economic sanctions if the Turkish troops are involved in severe human rights violations and inhumane actions during the offensive. However, they mentioned that the withdrawal of the US troops did not offer a ‘green-light’ and the rationality of the Turkish offensive is binding till the time it did not surpass the legitimate security interests of Ankara. Conversely, the value of Turkish Lira was steady after the launching of the operation.
Meanwhile, Australia has generated concerns over the situation in Syria along with the resurgence of ISIS and has requested to bring the end to the offensive. The U.A.E and Kuwait have vociferously condemned Turkey’s operation which could extend instability in the region. Saudi Arabia has termed it as a blatant violation of the sovereignty of Syria. Hossam Zaki, the deputy general secretary of the Arab League has promulgated the meeting of foreign ministers in the aftermath of the attacks on north-eastern Syria. The United Nations Security Council has requested a closed-door meeting concerning the future course of the war.
In the current situation, the YPG and SDF can either allow Turkish forces to move in without putting up a strong fight or work under the dictates of the Syrian government. In the end, the YPG will rear a strong fight, but they cannot hold ground for long due to a lack of capacity to fight the invaders.
Image credit: Robert Sullivan [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Geopolitics.
The author is a Research Officer at Chennai Centre for China Studies. He has completed his Masters in Political Science from the University of Hyderabad, Telangana, and Bachelors in Political Science (Hons) from Delhi College of Arts and Commerce, University of Delhi. His areas of interests include Theories of International Relations, Indian Foreign Policy, Afghanistan-Pakistan Relations, Geopolitics and Security Studies.