How Turkey’s Politics Worsen the Syrian Crisis

The fight against ISIS seems to be dwindling to an end. Yet, the ongoing tensions between the United States, the Kurds, and Turkey has only threatened to strengthen ISIS’s resolve and continue the crisis. Specifically, Turkey’s role in expanding and prolonging conflict, in regards to the Syrian Kurds, adds another dimension to the Syrian dilemma. 

The Kurds are a group of stateless peoples, residing within Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Turkey. The group has faced historical persecution. In 1988, for instance, President Saddam Hussein killed around 100,000 Kurds and infamously used mustard gas and deadly sarin on Kurdish civilians. Due to actions like these, for years, the Kurds have championed a form of independence that would allow them to be recognized by international actors and regional allies. Yet, there was intense opposition to the recent September 25th, 2017 Iraqi Kurdish independence vote, by Iraq, the United States, and Turkey, amongst other countries. Despite mounting international pressure, almost 93% of Kurds voted in support of Kurdistan as an independent state. While the Kurds are seen as a key fighting force against ISIS, they have often been neglected when it comes to the group’s calls for independence. In fact, General Joseph Dunford, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the United States, has cited the Syrian Kurds as “the most effective force we have right now.” However, the support from the United States has often been wavering and conditional, bowing to Turkey’s urging to restrain from giving the Kurds additional support.

Turkish-backed Syrian opposition fighters in the village of Jamanli, northeast of the Syrian city of Afrin, as smoke billows from a Kurdish-held location. CreditNazeer Al-Khatib/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
A long-standing policy of Turkey is to oppose the PKK and its affiliates. The Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, is a Kurdish militant group that has been fighting with the Turkish government since the 1980s. Turkey views the PKK as sowing havoc and causing terror in Turkey and beyond. Therefore, when arms of the PKK began developing in Syria, as the PYD and YPG, Turkey saw them as a threat. Yet, what complicated Turkey’s opposition to Kurdish groups is the role these Kurds have played in fighting ISIS. Often, Turkey’s goals of eliminating Kurdish groups comes in direct conflict with the nation’s goal to eradicate ISIS. 

Earlier this year, in January, Turkey launched a full scale military invasion against Kurdish forces in Afrin, Syria. The attacks have continued and in March of 2018, the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights cited that 17 people had been killed in strikes while 92 were injured. Yet, Turkish government officials have refuted claims that its military actions have targeted civilians and have additionally refused to enforce the UN Security Council’s ceasefire. As a result, a pause in the conflict becomes more unlikely for civilians. In the past few days, Turkey has ramped up its plans for a complete intervention. In the Afrin city, Turkish air raids have been launched, water has been cut off, and basic internet connection destroyed. The Turkish government has backed violent groups that have used napalm on villages and attacked dams, critical sources of water, in an effort to “give Afrin back to its rightful owners”, a warning that Kurds do not belong in Afrin. In response, Kurdish civilians have begun organizing as human shields, in an attempt to prevent Turkish forces from storming the city. Ultimately, Turkey’s siege could potentially threaten the lives of 1 million people living in Afrin. Turkey’s military actions come at a time when 2017 was the deadliest year of Syrian war for children. Military actions like Turkey’s intervention in Afrin demonstrate how children, the most vulnerable, suffer the longest lasting and most egregious offensives of the Syrian conflict.

Demonstration In Support of The Kurds in Afrin–Demonstrators affiliated with Kurdish groups protest against Turkey’s current campaign in northern Syria (Afrin), in Berlin, Germany, 11 March 2018.(Sipa via AP Images)
Moreover, when Turkey begins to put military might behind its threats to curtail Kurdish forces, the United States has often succumbed to Turkey’s pressure. Recently, the Trump administration made efforts to reassure Turkey that the United States would limit support for Kurdish fighters by urging Kurds to withdraw from Manbij, Syria. This move harmed Kurds that rely on US aid for assistance on the ground. However, Turkey has been pleased by this decision. In turn, Turkey has maintained its role as a critical ally for the United States, by being a NATO partner and housing American planes at its Incirlik air base. Consequently, Kurdish troops have seen fractures in their relationship with the United States, and they have begun moving Kurds fighting against ISIS in southern Syria to begin countering Turkey in the north.  Accordingly, for the United States, the balance between strategic and humanitarian objectives continues to be in peril. The US has attempted to choose a stance that prioritizes strategic intersts; however, in doing so, the nation has neglected the Kurdish people and allowed for invasions like Afrin to worsen and threaten the lives of innocent civilians. Sitting on the sidelines and bowing to Turkey only enables the Syrian conflict to become more deadly and drastic. It is time to act, or at the very least- try. 

Katherine Gan is a T’21 Undergraduate and a 17′-18′ Human Rights Scholar at the Institute.

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