This 5-minute explainer will help you answer the question, why is Turkey attacking the Kurds.
For many years US foreign policy has been tightly linked to an alliance with Turkey. As part of that alliance, a group known as the PKK (The Kurdish Workers’ Party) was recognized as a terrorist group by the United States, the European Union and most importantly by Turkey.
The PKK is a Kurdish political organization with roots in Turkey. An ongoing and violent struggle between the PKK and Turkey started in the 1980s. More than 40,000 people have been killed in that fighting and hundreds of thousands displaced. The Kurds hold the majority of victim counts in this fight. For years Turkey has identified this struggle as a fight against terrorists while the Kurds see it as a fight for their own homeland.
You need to read this backgrounder to understand who the Kurds are and what they represent in the Middle East. It is really important for grasping what is taking place today!.
The Kurds stretch far and wide across the Middle East. They are the fourth largest ethnic group in the region and boast a population of 15-20 million people spread across a variety of nations.
The rise of ISIS in 2013-14 and the decline of the Syrian government in the ongoing civil war there created a rare opportunity and risk for many among the Kurdish communities. ISIS did not target Kurdish people to the extent it did other minorities in the Middle East largely because they were Sunni and not seen in the light of heresy with which ISIS viewed many other groups. In the early stages of ISIS, in fact, the Kurds were frequent targets for recruitment to ISIS.
Kurdish political organizations determined to leverage regional instability to grow their own power and organizational bases. This move was what put them at odds with ISIS. Both groups were seeking control of different territories. The Kurds were seeking it for their long-delayed independent state. ISIS was seeking it for their caliphate.
As a result, Kurdish fighting groups became an important ally in the fight against ISIS in the region. An estimated 11,000 Kurds were killed fighting ISIS in recent years. They are often seen as one of the most important fighting forces against ISIS.
A coalition of forces known as the SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) was formed in Syria. It consists of a variety of militias but the YPG (People’s Protection Units) is seen as the leading and dominant force within the SDF. The YPG is the military wing of a Kurdish Syrian political group. This is an important part to recognize. Turkey sees all of these organizations as an offshoot of the PKK. In 1979, the founder of the PKK fled Turkey to Syria. A lot of his influence was felt in the development of Kurdish-Syrian political groups at that time.
Throughout the Obama administration, the US foreign policy toward Syria was mixed at best. President Obama did not want to involve the US in another Middle Eastern engagement after the quagmire in Iraq. At the same time, the growing levels of atrocities and war crimes were difficult to deny or ignore. President Obama’s own UN Ambassador Samantha Powers criticized the world for their lack of response to these atrocities.
The problem was that the US was not doing a lot in response to Syrian atrocities either. The Kurds and the SDF provided a middle road of sorts. The US and its allies provided air cover to drive back ISIS while the Kurds would sweep in on the ground. This was only one front of the devastation in the Syrian Civil War but it did hold back ISIS. President Trump maintained this strategy when he came to office and the territory belonging to ISIS was massively reduced.
Today many of the former members of ISIS sit in prison camps in northern Syria. The locations are a secret but this is where they are believed to be. This includes about 10,000 prisoners from Syria and Iraq as well as another 2,500 from Europe and other countries. The Kurds have guarded these prisoners while the world tries to figure out what to do with them.
Meanwhile, the strength of the Kurdish forces in the northern part of Syria has increased and become established. The Kurds, for their part, have hoped this would be the pathway for their own long-awaited and delayed independent homeland. But as has been the case for nearly 100 years, when the Kurds felt secure and strengthened, Turkey felt threatened.
Turkey’s President Erdogan does not see a defense against ISIS at his southern border in the form of the Kurds. He sees what he defines as a “terrorist corridor.” Two years ago Turkey invaded northern Syria to push back ISIS. They did not leave at that time. They also did not advance due to threats from the small US presence there.
As the US pulled its troops from the region this week the door was opened for Turkey to move in. That is exactly what they are doing. From Turkey’s perspective, they are wiping out two terrorist threats, ISIS and the Kurds. President Erdogan also states that he will establish a “safe zone” in this area and deposit two-thirds of the more than 3 million Syrian refugees living in Turkey into that safe zone.
Turkey’s rapid advance into the areas that have been managed by the Kurds in the last couple of years demonstrates this invasion has been long planned. Human rights organizations anticipate significant casualty counts and atrocities will follow. Civilians are already leading in the death count totals among the Kurds.
Geopolitical experts are concerned about the ISIS prisoners. As the Kurds busy themselves to defend their homes and lives who will guard the more than 12,000 ISIS prisoners? Could this lead to a re-emergence of ISIS in the region?
Meanwhile, President Trump is accused of betraying Kurdish allies. In truth, the Kurds have always been betrayed. That is a large part of their history since World War I. The recent betrayal of the Kurds is not a new event of US policy in Syria. It is a continuation of a policy that has lacked strategy and purpose from the very beginning.