In a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, President Trump virtually single-handedly committed to pulling out 1,000 troops from Syria and gave the go-ahead for Turkey’s military to enter an area that is under the control of Washington’s Kurdish allies.
The Kurds are a stateless ethnic group of Western Asia. In the northeast of Syria, they make up an overwhelming majority of the Syrian Democratic Forces, a critical actor in the fight against ISIS. Erdoğan, however, considers the Kurds an existential threat to Turkey because of the group’s historical ties to the PKK, an officially recognized terrorist group, but more importantly because of his fear of an independent Kurdish state on Turkey’s southern border. Erdoğan wants to not only expand the “buffer zone” between the Kurds and his country by pushing them further into Syria in order to prevent an influx of Syrian refugees but also to prevent Turkish Kurds from mobilizing.
The US, on the other hand, saw the Kurds as a necessary ally against the presence of ISIS in Syria and provided not just military support starting in the Obama administration, but also arms and airstrike assistance by the Trump administration in 2017. After the fall of Raqqa in 2017, when ISIS lost its “capital” to Kurdish SDF forces, the alliance became less strategically critical for President Trump. On Oct. 13 — one day after Turkish forces attacked Kurdish civilians — Secretary of Defense Mark Esper announced that the US was committed to removing all 1,000 American troops from northeastern Syria.
This move can’t even be considered unilateral — by acting against the advice of his own national security staff and the wishes of his own party, Trump is playing right into the hands of the Erdoğan-Putin duo. Along with opening up a vacuum that the Russian-supported Turkish military is already using to establish a buffer zone, Trump raised tariffs against Turkey and threatened more economic consequences if Erdoğan did anything “off-limits.”
“Off-limits” seems like a standard that is harder and harder to reach, however, as the Turkish military is increasingly aggressive while President Trump turns a blind eye to blatant abuses. At his rally in Dallas on Oct. 17, Trump said it was good to let the Turks attack the Kurds, saying, “Sometimes you have to let them fight like two kids.”
Maybe it’s just me, but when I got into fights as a kid, I don’t remember anyone being raped and then stoned to death. That’s what the Turkish-backed Ahrar al-Sharqiya fighters did to Kurdish politician Hevrin Khalaf.
According to Amnesty International, Erdoğan’s military and mercenaries have committed war crimes and “displayed a shameful disregard for civilian life.” Witness testimonies, video footage and medical reports provided evidence of deadly attacks, in which Turkish authorities claim to have taken 18 civilian lives and injured 150 more in the first four days of attacks. The Kurdish-led administration said that at least 218 civilians, including 18 children, have been killed in the first six days of attacks.
The Turkish government made concessions as a signal of their official commitment to a “peaceful resolution,” but they are laughably empty. Erdoğan’s promise is to officially demilitarize in the region until the Kurds back out of it. In reality, the way that the Kurds leave is through being continued to be violently forced deeper into Syria by Turkish-backed fighters in the region. This means that war crimes and other serious human rights violations will continue without technically violating the terms of the agreement, thus facing no additional penalty from the United States.
American sanctions on Turkey are a slap on the wrist when compared to how much removing troops from Syria supports Erdoğan — and when Sen. Lindsay Graham and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are on the same page about an issue, it’s bad. The problem is, even in the unlikely scenario in which President Trump completely reverses his stance, the can of worms that is an American green light for a military incursion is incredibly difficult to close back up.