What should the US, NATO do about Turkey’s operation in Syria?

Urgent action is needed to preclude another disaster in Syria.

Turkey Steps Up Campaign In Northern Syria
A Turkish army armoured vehicle advances in the Syrian city of Tel Abyad, as seen from the Turkish border town of Akcakale on October 13, 2019 [File: Burak Kara/Getty Images]

President Donald Trump‘s decision to allow Turkey to enter northern Syria, followed by another to withdraw all US forces from the northeast, has upset a tenuous balance that existed since the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) was stripped of its last territory in March.

The decisions blindsided not only the United States‘ Kurdish partners, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), but also Trump’s own government. Voices from the left and the right, including from allies such as former ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have decried the moves, suggesting they could lead to the re-emergence of ISIL.

Indeed, the Turkish incursion has precipitated a dramatic series of events, including a mass exodus of civilians and reports of ISIL fighters escaping the prisons where they had been held.

The YPG and the broader umbrella force it controls, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), responded by cutting a deal with the Bashar al-Assad regime, allowing its fighters to enter their areas before Turkish-backed forces arrived. 

The arbitrary nature of Trump’s decisions is callous and potentially harmful, and if the al-Assad regime ends up taking over areas previously held by the YPG, it could pit Turkey against the Syrian military and even Russia. By abandoning the YPG, Trump’s actions have sent a signal that the US cannot be trusted. They may also have created the space for ISIL members to escape and regroup. 

But, while all of this is true, something has been missing from the condemnation levelled against Trump: how we got here in the first place.

What we are witnessing today may have been unleashed by Trump, but the dye was cast in 2014, when the US decided to bet its entire counter-ISIL strategy on a group that is not representative of the majority of the Syrian people and which is too closely associated with the enemies of a NATO ally.

It is important to recall that the conflict in Syria did not begin when Turkish troops entered the northeast. It started in 2011, when the people of Syria rose up against the 40-year dictatorial rule of the al-Assad family. Their calls for freedom and dignity and the regime’s violent response to it – with the help of Hezbollah, Iran and Russia – left hundreds of thousands dead and millions displaced, as well as creating a vacuum that enabled groups like ISIL to emerge.

Another important fact to remember is that the overwhelming majority of Syrians currently being killed are in Idlib province in the northwest of the country. Three million people there – half of whom have already been displaced at least once – are enduring incessant attacks by the Syrian and Russian air forces. While any action that harms civilians should be prevented, the deafening silence regarding what is taking place in Idlib, and what has taken place in other parts of Syria before, leads one to question the motives of those now suddenly heartbroken over what is happening in the northeast.

Furthermore, casting the YPG as representatives of all Syrian Kurds is dubious. Most Syrian Kurds do not belong to the organisation or its political wing, the Democratic Union Party (PYD). But as the only armed faction among Syria’s Kurds, it has monopolised control over the security and governance of the areas under it. 

Many Kurds who oppose it or do not share its ideology have been arrested or driven into exile, including members of the Future Movement and the Syrian National Council who sided with the pro-democracy movement against al-Assad.

Concerned more with establishing its own autonomous governance than confronting the al-Assad regime, the PYD/YPG has refrained from supporting pro-revolution factions and at times aided the Syrian regime when doing so suited its interests. For example, the YPG played a key role in facilitating the Syrian regime’s besiegement and eventual capture of Aleppo. 

Finally, some Syrian Arabs resent the YPG’s growing presence in areas that were not historically Kurdish and have accused the group of forcibly displacing Arab villagers. In a 2015 report, Amnesty International uncovered “a wave of forced displacement and home demolitions amounting to war crimes carried out by the Autonomous Administration” led by PYD/YPG. Many displaced Arabs have not been allowed to return to towns and villages under the YPG’s control.

Although the YPG had moderated its stance in order to secure US support, including repackaging itself as the SDF and recruiting non-Kurds to join its military forces and to coadminister localities, major security and political decisions continue to be made exclusively by the YPG elements of the SDF.

This is not to say that the Syrian Arab opposition has not committed its share of violations or that it has not had associations with problematic groups; it has, for example, fought side-by-side with al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch al-Nusra Front.

Moreover, current Turkish operations have caused more than 100,000 people, mainly Kurds, to evacuate their homes and there are concerns that Turkey may seek to repopulate these areas with Syrian Arab refugees it currently hosts. Given these dynamics, it is important to assess Turkey’s role and the YPG’s history clearly and honestly.

From the beginning, the decision to arm the YPG was problematic because of its associations with its Turkish counterpart, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and because it holds goals that do not always align with those of the Syrian revolution.

The US bet on the YPG because it provided a short-term fix to ISIL without risking a direct confrontation with Russia or Iran, who backed al-Assad. But this strategy was only going to work as long as Turkey was willing to ignore the perceived threat at its southern border. 

Given recent developments, the options for the US and its allies in Syria are limited. These options will decrease further if all US troops leave the northeast. If this happens, the US and the coalition it put together just delivered 30 percent of Syria to the regime after it did all the hard work of defeating ISIL.

If US troops do depart, the international community should not lose sight of other pressing priorities.

Firstly, the areas currently under Turkish control include hundreds of thousands of civilians who will need assistance. The UN and other aid agencies should seek to enter those areas once the fighting has ended to provide assistance and to ensure that no human rights violations or forced displacement is taking place. Efforts should also be made to facilitate the return of people displaced by the fighting in the northeast, should they choose to. 

Secondly, the international community must not forget Idlib and the ongoing attacks against civilians there. Those that have denounced Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan should also warn al-Assad and Russian leader Vladimir Putin to end their campaign in Idlib. 

Thirdly, NATO should send clear signals to the Syrian regime and Russia that it will support Turkey against them even if it disagrees with the wisdom of the Turkish operations. The future of the Transatlantic Alliance is at stake if it fails to do so, and that only benefits Putin.

Finally, in due course, the international community should support any and all efforts to end Turkey’s long-running conflict with the PKK.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.