In October, Turkey launched “Operation Peace Spring” in the northeastern part of Syria, which was controlled by Kurdish-led forces. The operation began after President Trump withdrew US forces from northern Syria. The Kurdish-led forces have been a strong US ally against the so-called Islamic State radical group in the past. The Turkish president, Recep Erdoğan, has been strongly criticised for these actions by his Western allies.
Who are the Kurds?
There are between 25 and 35 million Kurds, who are an ethnic group inhabiting parts of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. Even though there are many members of this minority, they have never been able to create a nation-state.
After the fall of the Ottoman Empire during World War I, the future of the Kurds looked bright. They were promised their own nation-state in the Treaty of Sévres. Turkey, however, rejected this treaty and refused to sign it. After several years, a new treaty was drawn up, the Treaty of Lausanne. It said nothing about Kurdish independence and over time the Western countries forgot about the idea of a Kurdish nation-state.
Kurds have been denied their rights and persecuted numerous times throughout their history. Not only by Turkey, but also, for example, by Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. After the civil war in Syria began, Kurdish parties refused to take sides and the Syrian government forces eventually withdrew from territories inhabited by Kurds to focus on more prominent threats. In the time of their absence, Kurdish militias took control of the territory.
When the power of the Islamic State grew and its forces started to attack cities such as Kobane, the Kurdish militia became one of the strongest forces fighting the Islamic State. The biggest Kurdish militia, People’s Protection Units (YPG), formed an alliance with local militias called Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). These Kurdish forces became strong allies of the US during the fight against the Islamic State.
Why did Turkey launch the attack?
As previously stated, the relationship between the Kurds and Turkey is a strained and problematic one. The recent rise of Kurdish autonomy in northeast Syria is very troubling to Ankara. Furthermore, Turkey associates the YPG with a Kurdish rebel group, called the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). This organisation is labelled as a terrorist group in Turkey.
The main goal of the attack was to set up a 30 km safe zone along the Turkish-Syrian border with the intention of “clearing it“ of all the YPG and SDF fighters. Turkey is also moving some of the 3.5 million Syrian refugees that were situated in Turkey into this safe zone.
The operation was possible because President Trump decided to withdraw troops from northern Syria, which practically gave a green light to Ankara. SDF said that it was determined to defend its territory at all cost and that proved true when an agreement had been struck between the Syrian government and the SDF. Russia backed Bashar al-Assad’s regime and assisted to repel the Turkish assault.
The assault resulted in deaths and injuries of civilians as well as SDF fighters. There is also the risk of captured Islamic State fighters escaping. Thousands of them are currently being held in SDF-run detention centres and the Turkish assault has resulted in the escape of some of them.
What is the world saying?
Many countries began to criticise President Erdoğan immediately after the attack. The EU has condemned the invasion and issued a joint statement in which the member states pledged not to export weapons to Turkey. The US reaction was mild at first but eventually they issued sanctions against Turkey.
Even though the reaction has been unified and negative, no real action has been taken to stop President Erdoğan from his operations in Syria.
Al Jazeera. Turkey begins ground offensive in northeastern Syria. 10 October 2019 (https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/10/turkey-begins-ground-offensive-northeastern-syria-191009212025006.html).
BBC News. Turkey's Syria offensive explained in four maps. 14 October 2019 (https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-49973218).
McKernan, Bethan. At least 750 Isis affiliates escape Syria camp after Turkish shelling. Guardian. 13 October 2019 (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/oct/13/kurds-say-785-isis-affiliates-have-escaped-
Weise, Zia. Turkey’s invasion of Syria explained. Politico. 17 October 2019 (https://www.politico.eu/article/8-questions-about-turkeys-incursion-into-syria-answered/).