In early 2015, as Islamic State trampled over armies of the Middle East and menaced the west, the US turned to the Kurds for help. It was a familiar call, having been repeated over the decades whenever Washington needed a friend in the region. The outcome has been similar too.
Four years on, the people who helped safeguard the global order have been abandoned by the US on the eve of a Turkish push into Kurdish lands across north-eastern Syria. Betrayal has been an enduring theme whenever the US and the Kurds have partnered, but never before as nakedly as this.
As US armour and troops started to leave the region on Monday, a frantic Kurdish leadership was demanding explanations and readying for an invasion that could change the map of the region and prove hugely consequential in other ways too, including undermining the security gains achieved in the war on Isis.
Since the battlefield victory, Syrian Kurds have swapped roles from fighters to jailers, detaining 90,000 suspected Isis supporters in four camps across the province. Guards remained loyal to the cause on the promise of ongoing patronage from Washington. They have far less incentive to do so now.
European states, deeply invested in what happens to the Isis camps, were blindsided by Trump’s announcement that Turkey would take control of them and sceptical that Ankara has either the will or capacity to do such a thing.
For its part, Ankara also appears to be surprised. The site of one camp, al-Hol, is not on maps it has prepared for its operation. Inheriting a headache on this scale seems to be part of a quid pro quo imposed on Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. A state dinner at the White House may well hinge on him agreeing.
Among the camp detainees are hard-wired ideologues who would be central to an Isis resurgence if given the chance. The spectre of a jihadist juggernaut once again roaming the plains of Iraq and Syria after using captivity to regroup – think the US-run detention centres in Iraq writ large – now hangs heavy over a region still grappling with the seismic regional power shifts that have defined Trump’s three turbulent years in office. [Continue reading…]
Erdoğan has three aims, all problematic. One is to force the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which comprise about 60,000 fighters, away from Turkey’s southern border. Erdoğan vilifies the SDF as terrorists in cahoots with the PKK – the Turkey- and Iraq-based Kurdistan Workers’ party that Ankara has been fighting for decades. The terrorist tag is not remotely accurate. But demonising all Kurds as enemies of the state is a familiar tactic used by Erdoğan to bolster his divisive, dictatorial nationalist agenda.
Second, Erdoğan has plans to return, by force if necessary, many if not most of the 3-4 million Syrian refugees who have entered Turkey since 2011. His ruling AKP party and its ultra-nationalist allies have encouraged growing anti-migrant sentiment, effectively expelling these refugees from the larger cities. They’re happy that blame for Turkey’s faltering economy, high unemployment and social tensions can be directed at Syrians and other foreigners rather than at their own corrupt, repressive and incompetent management.
Erdoğan is also badly in need of a political and strategic success after a series of domestic reverses, including the AKP’s humiliating loss of Turkey’s two biggest cities, Istanbul and Ankara, in recent elections. Talk grows of an end to the Erdoğan era – something he cannot abide. Erdoğan also hopes to correct the mess he has previously made of his Syria policy. He initially courted the Damascus regime after 2011, then turned against it, then colluded with Russia and Iran – Bashar al-Assad’s main backers. That put him at odds, latterly, with Washington, Turkey’s key Nato ally.
In the gullible, geopolitically ignorant Trump, however, Erdoğan has found a friend and like-minded instinctive authoritarian. It’s plain Trump would rather give Erdoğan – a co-collaborator with his Moscow mate, Vladimir Putin – what he wants than keep faith with the Kurds. This unlovely, three-way gangster-partnership now presages a world of problems in Syria. One possible consequence is that the Kurds, their loyalty and sacrifices again repaid with betrayal, will cut a self-preservatory deal with Assad – or, alternatively, that their thwarted drive for an independent state will revive. [Continue reading…]