by Aaron Martinez
When asked to describe the Middle-East, “complicated” is an often used word. The region is often characterized as being saturated with political and ethnic tensions, all while outside and internal forces continue to profit from the instability they have created. The nation of Syria in particular, embodies this perception of the region. Split between various armed groups and in a constant state of warfare since 2011, the state of the country has resulted in what has been described as a humanitarian crisis. The war has caused a massive loss of life, and has displaced millions; it is often referred to as the second deadliest conflict of the 21st century. In the midst of this chaos, president Donald Trump made the controversial decision to pull US troops out of Syria, leaving allied Kurdish forces in the North vulnerable to an attack by Turkey. But who are the Kurds? Why does Turkey want them gone? And what was the reasoning behind Trump’s move?
The belligerents and alliances formed during the war is arguably as complex as the war itself. To vastly oversimplify, on one side of the conflict are various rebel groups who control the Northwest and Southeast of Syria, these rebel groups are backed by numerous countries but their most active foreign allies are most certainly Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Opposing them is Bahar Al-Assad, a controversial presidential dictator, who’s preference for the Syrain Alawite minority group, crackdowns on Arab Spring protests, and human rights violations arguably led to the war. He is also supported by numerous others, but perhaps most concerning to the US is his alliance with Iran and Russia. Finally, the primarily Kurdish Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (or Rojava) forms the last main combatant.
Kurds are an Iranian ethnic group who call much of the Middle East their home. They are a large group, and have been seeking an autonomous region of their own since the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire almost 100 years ago. In fact, they are the largest ethnic group in the world without a home country. Naturally this has created tensions between them and the nations they inhabit. Turkey is one of these many countries. Altercations between Turkish armed forces and Kurdish extremists aren’t uncommon, and tensions between the Turks and Kurds have existed since the 70’s; this has pitted Turkey against Rojava.
Finally this brings us back to recent news. The Kurds are US allies, and the states have supported them both militarily and financially for many years now. The Kurds were critical in the fight against ISIS, and ironically, it was Kurdish intelligence that led to the killing of ISIS’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi just a few days ago.Turkey is also a US ally and have been since the cold war. Both nations see the dissolution of the Assad regime as an end goal; however, they don’t agree on the Rojava situation. The US up until the departure from Syria had been strong allies with the Kurds while Turkey vouched for their removal.
Thanks to US diplomacy, for the majority of the civil war, altercations between the Turks and Kurds have been few and far between, however without a US military presence, the effect of this diplomatic pressure is diminished significantly. The result? Within hours of the first US troops leaving Syria, Turkey began its invasion of Rojava, bringing an entirely new conflict onto the Syrian stage.
This begs the question: “Why would Trump pull out of Syria?” especially when the vast majority of his advisors argued against the move. After all, it would result in an even greater loss of life, and would be incredibly unpopular among his fellow Republicans. Trump’s original response to this question was met with criticism from both parties. He asked the question “what have the Kurds done for us?” going on to say that they [the Kurds] “didn’t help” during the d-day invasion of Normandy. However, most analysts agreed that this was simply a cover-up for the true reason for the departure.
Enter Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the authoritarian strong-man president of Turkey. For many years now Erdoğan has expressed a fear that US-backed Kurdish forces and the militant extremist groups present in Turkey are one in the same. When Erdoğan expressed a desire to move against US backed Kurds for this very reason, Trump agreed to simply move out of the way. The balance between the Kurds and Turks that the US had been maintaining for so long essentially ceased, and in its place came more bloodshed, and a torn relationship between the US and Kurds. This move was met with immense criticism, much of it coming from frustrated Republicans, who used this as a moment to express their concerns with the president. Not only was it poor foreign policy, but many regarded it as being opposed to American values. The United States essentially bent the knee to a foreign power, and abandoned an honorable and trustworthy ally.
The move also resulted in an unfavorable position for the US in Syria. Because of the quick departure of Kurdish forces from Syria due to the impending Turkish invasion, it is now believed that 100 ISIS fighters have escaped custody in Syrian prisons. Internationally, the US position has also weakened. Putin and Erdoğan were quick to divy up Northern Syria between themselves, and the Kurds in Rojava have formed a protective alliance with Bahar-Al-Assasd, creating a situation in which US enemies gain a stronger foothold in the region. It is no surprise that the move has been considered one of the biggest political embarrassments for the US in its history of intervening in Middle-Eastern affairs.
After criticism began to surface, Trump reportedly told Erdoğan in a letter “Don’t be a tough guy” and “don’t be a fool,” which Erdoğan reportedly threw away, proceeding with the attack. These moves along with others reignited debates surrounding Trump’s admiration of authoritarian strong men. During the midst of the chaos Trump was quick to compliment Erdoğan, despite his blatant disregard of his suggestion to leave the Syrain Kurds be.
While the situation in Syria is complicated, it doesn’t take an expert to see that Trump’s latest international move was nothing short of a blunder. This abrupt and illogical foreign policy has resulted in a damaged US diplomatic reputation, a stronger enemy presence in a critical region, and a strong anti-US sentiment among out allies in the Middle-East. One can only hope that our future foreign endeavours cultivate better results.