Turkish President Recep Erdogan is threatening to open up a new front in Syria. Liam Glen writes on the high stakes of the issue, along with its relevance to the United States.
The fighting in Syria is far from over, but the civil war seems to have passed its peak. Civilian casualties in recent years have plummeted compared to the height of the conflict. But as the recovery begins, the potential for new conflict will inevitably arise.
This is especially pressing after President Donald Trump moved US forces away from northern Syria, held by the US-aligned Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The action comes at the beginning of October, the deadline set by Turkish President Recep Erdogan for the beginning of a unilateral military intervention into the region.
Speaking to the United Nations General Assembly in September, Erdogan outlined a plan for “a peace corridor with a depth of thirty kilometers and a length of 480 kilometers,” along the Turkish-Syrian border, with the ostensive purpose of resettling Syrian refugees.
However, he also spoke of extending it to the “Deir ez zor-Raqqa line,” far further to the south, with the goal of eliminating what he refers to as “PKK-YPG terrorists.”
This is a reference to the SDF. The group has been an essential ally of the US in the fight against ISIS. But due to the ethnic politics of the Middle East – the SDF is majority Kurdish, an ethnic group with large populations in Syria, Iraq, Turkey, and Iran – it has become an enemy of Turkey.
Depending on the seriousness of Erdogan’s threats, this has the potential to start a bloody conflict between Turkey and the SDF, one that will put the US in a difficult position.
The Last Bastion of Peace in Syria
The SDF is the military arm of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, commonly referred to by the Kurdish name of Rojava, which overtook the country’s northeast in wake of the civil war.
As alleged in Erdogan’s speech, Turkish government sees it as an outgrowth of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is recognized as a terrorist organization by Turkey and the United States.
The PKK was founded by Abdullah Öcalan as a Marxist-Leninist Kurdish nationalist group. But after his imprisonment in 1999, Öcalan claimed to have undergone an ideological conversion. He and the PKK now advocate a “democratic confederalism” centered around direct democracy, regional autonomy, common ownership of property, gender equality, and ethno-religious pluralism.
While Rojava’s leadership claims to be unaffiliated with the PKK, there is no doubt that they are heavily influenced by Öcalan’s ideology.
How well they live up to these radical democratic ideals, however, is less clear. Human rights groups have raised concerns about the arrest of political dissidents, among other issues. Still, western reporters in Rojava consistently find it to be the freest and most stable region within Syria.
This is a low bar to meet, but it nonetheless makes the threat of military intervention alarming. Turkey’s occupation of the Syrian border city of Afrin, which was captured from the SDF in 2018, has been fraught with accusations of arbitrary arrest, torture, and property destruction.
Conflict in northern Syria could also open the door for a much-feared resurgence of ISIS. Such instability would be just the thing needed to give the group an opportunity to retake territory.
Even Erdogan’s stated plan of creating a buffer zone in northern Syria for the resettlement of refugees is highly controversial. Experts point out that much of the land in question is uninhabitable. If the Turkish President went through with his plan to resettle 2-3 million refugees in the area, it could create another humanitarian disaster.
The Diplomatic Maelstrom
The moral concerns over this issue are obvious. However, it also puts the US in a difficult situation.
Rojava has been a crucial partner against ISIS, but America’s unwillingness to stand up to the Turkish government has created a heavy sense of betrayal. This will bode well for US credibility in future interactions with partners.
Meanwhile, Turkey is a NATO ally whose relationship with the US has already grown worryingly confrontational. Any further defense of Rojava could bring the strategic partnership to a breaking point.
The most important factor will be Erdogan’s resolve. He is strongly opposed to Kurdish autonomy in the region, and he is under pressure from within Turkey to resettle Syrian refugees. However, he also surely knows the risks of a full-scale military conflict.
A war against the SDF would be bloody enough, but such an invasion could also provoke a response from the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad. The Kurdish rebels may not have a natural affinity for al-Assad’s regime, but international politics makes for strange bedfellows. In turn, a conflict with the Syrian government could draw intervention from al-Assad’s sponsor, Iran.
As always, the US’s best course of action is to defuse the situation using soft power to draw concessions from all sides involved. The best case scenario could even see a negotiated agreement between Turkey and the leaders of Rojava.
Should worst come to worst, however, the US must be willing to stand in favor of its SDF allies. Turkish military intervention would spell disaster for the region, and the US should be willing to use all diplomatic tools at its disposal to deter the potential instability and bloodshed.