Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan continued his threats against key American allies in Syria, the Kurds. Erdogan vowed that “Turkey has the right to eliminate all threats against its national security. God willing, we will carry the process started with Afrin and Jarablus [previous offensives into Syria] to the next stage very soon.” Erdogan is willing to use any means necessary to “eliminate” the Kurds. In addition to the buildup of Turkish forces and heavy weaponry along Syria’s northern border, Turkey is mobilizing militants affiliated with al Qaeda which have openly stated they are ready to join Turkish troops in an offensive against the Kurds.
Newly appointed US secretary of defense Mark Esper responded to the Turkish threats, “clearly we believe any unilateral action by them would be unacceptable.”
This is all too familiar to Kurds, Turkey invaded and illegally annexed Afrin, a predominantly-Kurdish region in northwest Syria in 2018 with the help of al Qaeda affiliates. The invasion resulted in a mass humanitarian crisis, prolonged the civil war, and provided a boost for the terror organization. From Turkey’s perspective it allowed them to effect demographic changes, called ‘Turkification,’ as they cleansed the area of Kurds and settled Turks instead.
The Kurds of northeast Syria have formed an alliance with local Arab tribes and ethnic and religious minorities and control 30 percent of territory east of the Euphrates river. The stability in north east Syria conflicts with Turkey’s interest in the region, to expand its territory and sphere of influence over Sunni-Muslims. Turkey’s biggest fear is another autonomous region in the Middle East ruled by Kurds fearing the over 20 million Kurds in Turkey will eventually demand the same. Erdogan intends to stir up ethnic tensions between Kurds and Arabs to destabilize the region, so far, he has failed.
The U.S. has temporarily averted a Turkish led war against the Kurds by striking an agreement on a so-called “safe zone” adamantly pushed by the Turks. Erdogan’s government initially called for a 25-30km safe zone, deep into Kurdish held territory along Turkey’s border to include Turkish forces in an attempt to push back the SDF. Rightly so, the Kurds reject Turkey’s proposal citing Turkey’s intension of land grabbing and demographic change in Syria.
After months of talk between Washington and Ankara, the two sides finally agreed on establishing a joint operation center in Turkey. According to a statement released by the U.S. embassy in Ankara, the two sides agreed to the following:
- A rapid implementation of initial measures to address Turkey’s security concerns;
- To stand-up a joint operations center in Turkey as soon as possible in order to coordinate and manage the establishment of the safe zone together;
- That the safe zone shall become a peace corridor, and every effort shall be made so that displaced Syrians can return to their country.
The vague agreement fails to address key concerns of the Kurds:
- Kurdish security concerns against a Turkish invasion led by Turkish backed al Qaeda affiliates;
- Any “safe zone” must be temporary, based on a timeline and must always include joint forces of American troops;
- No permanent Turkish military presence or heavy weaponry in north east Syria, regardless of its joint status;
- A “safe zone” on the Turkish side of the border must also be discussed;
- A peace corridor must not mean demographic change, and a corridor West of the Euphrates shall be discussed;
- If Syrian airspace is in use, it must be conducted jointly with American jets not going beyond agreed length of “safe zone”;
- Any operations or patrols must be preapproved by the U.S. and must be jointly coordinated;
- The SDF must be officially recognized by the Turkish government and preserved by the U.S.;
- The return of Afrin to Kurds must be on the table.
Regrettably Kurdish security demands is unlikely to be considered beyond preventing a Turkish invasion. If talks fail, the Kurds may be forced to release thousands of ISIS fighters held in make shift prisons and divert their resources towards the Turkish border. Guaranteeing the protection and preservation of north east Syria is both in the long-term interest of the United states Middle East strategy and Turkey’s internal stability.
Kurds are major actors in the Middle East. Turkey’s denial of this reality creates instability and is shortsighted.