Global attention has focused on the Middle East once more after Turkey launched a military operation, named Peace Spring, moving into Northern Syria. The incursion was made possible by the prior withdrawal of US troops. Beforehand, there was little outwardly indication of the troubles to come: Daesh’s territory was conquered and the US and Turkey cooperated in the region. However, everything started to fall apart after the phone call between President Erdogan and President Trump, in which he agreed to withdraw US troops from Northern Syria, became public.
Since then, commentators have criticized President Trump’s decision to withdraw, and Turkey’s actions and intentions. It has been claimed that Turkey is solely motivated by its conflict with Kurdish forces, who have been US allies in its campaign against Daesh. Kurdish groups have been portrayed as being left behind or even betrayed by the United States.
A closer look at the Kurdish forces Turkey is fighting provides a better indication of Turkey’s motivation to move into Northern Syria. There are the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), initially created and supported by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), and, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is prohibited in Turkey. While Turkey considers these groups to be terrorist organizations, the United States has supported both the YPG and SDF in the war against Daesh, not willing to commit substantial numbers of boots on the ground itself.
US military support for Kurdish groups in Syria was always highly contentious and unacceptable for Turkey. After US forces started their exit from Northern Syria and Turkey launched its military operation, President Trump said that the US “paid a huge amount of money and equipment” to Kurdish forces to fight Daesh. In fact, that support for Kurdish militias in Syria has been a major strain on relations between Washington and Ankara, because Turkey considers those Kurdish groups benefitting as terrorists and threat to national security.
President Trump also expressed a widely-held but wrong point of view when he said that Turks and Kurds have been enemies for 200 years. The truth of the matter is that Turks and Kurds have not always been enemies. Open conflict broke out after the emergence of groups pursuing Kurdish independence in the latter half of the 20th century. Openly Marxist-Leninist in orientation, they hardly represent the entirety of Kurds. The perception that all Kurds are PKK-SDF-YPG sympathizers needs to be critically unpacked. When you talk about Kurds, you have to be specific about which Kurds you are talking about. After all, There are over 14 million Kurds in Turkey, many of whom do not support confrontation with Turkey.
While it is true that Turkey will never allow the creation of a Kurdish state in this region, Turkey is not fighting Kurds as such. Turkey has been fighting against whom it considers terrorist groups. In fact, the PKK is classified as a terrorist organization not only by Turkey but also the US State Department, and the YPG is its affiliate in Syria.
Turkey is not only determined to clear Northern Syria from any group that threatens its border and security, but also to prepare a safe zone to repatriate millions of Syrian refugees. At present, Turkey hosts the largest number of Syrian refugees in the world. With no end to the Syrian conflict in sight, many Syrian refugees will remain in Turkey for an extended period. This causes both practical and political challenges for the Turkish government. Addressing these challenges through a “safe zone” is one focus of the policies Turkey is pursuing with its invasion.
That Turkey harbors intentions to establish a safe zone in Northern Syria, has not been a secret. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan laid out his plans at the United Nations General Assembly. Already, Turkey has established a part of the safe-zone area where for approximately 350 000 people live. With the establishment of the new safe zone, Turkey would be able to resettle millions of Syrian refugees. However, first, Turkey needs to clear and secure this territory in the north of Syria.
In light of Turkey having made its intentions clear that it would begin operations in Northern Syria to establish a safe area and the well-known fact that the presence of armed and trained Kurdish forces operating just outside its border is unacceptable to Turkey, the surprise, albeit not the outrage, expressed after the start of Turkey’s military operation in Northern Syria is baffling. Those now blaming and criticizing the Turkish government for its incursion, should ask themselves what they have done in the past to defuse tensions in the area, what their alternative is to resolve the crisis in the region, and, what their response would be if faced with similar problems at their border?