While the attacks on the Kurds are the result, it’s hard to tell exactly why all of this is happening
Twenty-four hours after Turkey launched airstrikes and attacks on eastern Syria, claiming they were clearing the area of “terrorists,” questions remain about how the US enabled a Turkish attack on mostly Kurdish forces that fought alongside the US for five years.
The questions that have been raised have been made more complex by a lack of explanation from Washington, which seems as astounded and befuddled by US President Donald Trump’s decision, as the people in eastern Syria now being pounded by artillery and airstrikes after years of living in peace. While Trump seemed to claim that he had abandoned the Syrian Kurds because they didn’t help the US in the Second World War, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appeared to argue that the same Kurdish groups the US partnered with were a “terrorist threat” to Turkey. While Trump’s comments seem confusing, Pompeo’s comments create a disturbing impression that the US purposely misled its own partners on the ground, viewing them as terrorists while using them to fight Islamic State, apparently knowing all the while the US would walk away from them.
The Syrian situation has been transformed more rapidly. The US didn’t coordinate with the UN or other countries, its own Coalition partners, or even its own commanders on the ground. It seems that at a whim the US went from supporting partners fighting ISIS to enabling airstrikes on them. This is a result of a US policy that tended to be run by three different units in the administration, including at the military level by CENTCOM, the diplomatic level at the State Department and out of the White House where the commander in chief makes the final decisions. There seems to be little coordination in the US between various parts of the government, leading to chaos on the ground and in foreign policy.
This leaves many questions about what is happening in eastern Syria. While US forces withdraw from the border area to enable the Turkish attack, the US hasn’t withdrawn entirely. It still is fighting against ISIS. But who are the US partners now? The US appears to argue the SDF must continue to fight ISIS and pay for thousands of detainees while US allies in Ankara kill the SDF. This puts the US in the awkward position of fighting ISIS with the same force that the US now views through Ankara’s lens as “terrorists.” Is the US policy therefore one of fighting terrorists with other terrorists? Then why did the US choose to train tens of thousand of members of the SDF and why did the US help create the SDF in the first place in 2015? Why create an organization that ones views negatively? Did the US communicate its concerns to the SDF? Did it identify any actual threats to Turkey over five years working with the SDF? If so, why didn’t the US explain them?
Another question raised is where Turkey’s right to invade eastern Syria comes from in international law. Turkey has shown no evidence of “terror” attacks from eastern Syria. Instead it vows to resettle eastern Syria with Arab refugees, a thinly disguised way to take the one Kurdish area in Syria and change its Kurdish indigenous population. Why doesn’t Turkey invest in Jarabulus, Idlib and Afrin, areas it already controls? Why does it need eastern Syria also?
Third is the question of the UN. In previous cases, such as Israel’s fighting with Hezbollah or Hamas, the UN and international community have worked on ceasefires and accused Israel of disproportionate force. Where is the usual lip service in this regard to Turkey? Why isn’t there a UN team to negotiate a ceasefire and end a UN mandated force similar to UNFIL to monitor the border. Couldn’t the UN help separate Turkey from the alleged “security threat,” that Ankara argues is in Syria? Why is Turkey able to use F-16s and massive airstrikes against civilian areas without questions about proportionate force? These are the kinds of demands Israel faces when fighting in Gaza. It is asked to warn civilians while there seems to be no similar call for Turkey to do the same.