Image Credit: President of Russia
In a climate of growing political tension, Turkish President Recip Tayyip Erdogan has promised to “crush the heads” of Kurdish fighters if they fail to withdraw from a planned “safe zone.” This recent announcement came in the wake of Turkey’s ‘Operation Peace Spring’. Moreover, it was declared only days after President Trump’s widely criticised decision to withdraw American troops from the war-torn country.
The offensive, involving 15 000 troops from the Turkish Armed Forces (TAF), commenced on 9th October with the stated aim of creating of a ‘safe zone’ reaching 30 kilometres into neighbouring Syria for 480 kilometres along the border. Erdogan declared the action was also aimed at “neutralising terror threats against Turkey”. However, the Turkish capture of over 60 settlements has brought the TAF into conflict with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) based in the proposed zone, with the town of Ras al-Ain witnessing some of the heaviest fighting.
This large-scale military operation is taking place in a complex environment of shifting alliances and allegiances. The SDF’s military wing is led by the Kurdish People’s Protection Groups (YPG), a group which Ankara sees as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) fighting for autonomy inside Turkey. Conversely the US and its allies view the SDF as a vital ally in the fight against the Islamic State. The organisation has also assisted in the American campaign to topple Bashar al-Assad, but now accuses Trump’s administration of “backstabbing” after the last US ground forces withdrew earlier this month. Although committed to the stability of the region, American decision-makers seem unwilling to risk casualties.
According to Erdogan, the disputed territory will be used to resettle 2 million of the roughly 3.6 million Syrian refugees currently displaced in Turkey. Yet, critics claim the resettlement plan is an effort to ethnically cleanse an area with a large Kurdish population along Turkey’s southern border. The Turkish government has denied this by arguing that it is simply trying to ‘correct’ changes in demographics caused by the SDF.
The international response to Operation Spring Peace has been mainly hostile. The European Union, Arab League, and United Kingdom have all condemned it as an unprovoked attack on a sovereign state. President Trump originally praised the Turkish strategy, but his Secretary of State Mark Pompeo has subsequently said the US is prepared to use military force against Turkey if the rights of Kurds in the region are not respected. It’s an odd division in the Trump administration: Trump himself is often quick to denounce the policy of his own government, even as his leaders express different opinions.
Amidst the fighting, there have also been accusations of war crimes carried out by militias allied to Turkey. Amnesty International has claimed it has evidence of atrocities, while the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is investigating allegations that white phosphorus gas has been used against SDF personnel. In a volatile and unpredictable environment, it is proving difficult for the documentation of the situation on the ground. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) estimates that at least 70 civilians have been killed in addition to 400 soldiers on all sides.
So far diplomacy has proven ineffective at halting the spread of violence. Although a meeting between Vice President Mike Pence and President Erdogan resulted in a ceasefire, the SDF has since reported shelling and explosions around Ras al-Ain and other locations on the border. With little trust between the Kurdish and Turkish factions, it was only a matter of time before key international players got directly involved. Russia has deployed forces to the Turkey-Syria border as part of a deal to remove Kurdish troops. The same deal gives the Kurdish troops 150 hours from noon on Wednesday 23rd October to withdraw 3okm along the border.
After eight years, the conflict in Syria shows little sign of abating. The differing responses to Operation Spring Peace have illustrated the ideological divisions within the international community, which is proving unable to resolve the conflict or the humanitarian crisis it has caused. As tensions between Turkey, the SDF, and the US continue to escalate, the next few weeks could decide the potential future of not only the region, but for the millions of people that call it home.