One of the trickiest problems for the US in Syria has always been having to balance the aims of its often unreliable local allies. Through the Syrian civil war, the most effective anti-ISIS forces have been the Kurds, especially the Syrian Democratic Forces. Unfortunately the SDF and Turkey are mortal enemies – and Turkey is one of our major NATO allies in the region. Without US forces to protect them, there’s a high chance the Turks will use their powerful military to obliterate the SDF. Now President Trump has served notice that America isn’t going to allow that.
- On Sunday, President Trump made one of his famous Twitter policy announcements in support of the Syrian Democratic Forces, threatening retaliation against NATO member Turkey if it uses the partial US withdrawal as an opportunity to attack the anti-ISIS group.
- The SDF is dominated by the Kurds, a minority ethnic group spread across parts of Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey. The Kurds have no homeland of their own, and have been brutally oppressed by some of the countries they live in – most harshly in Iraq under Saddam Hussein, and in Turkey since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.
- Formed around a core of the Kurdish YPG – People’s Protection Units – the SDF has been the leading force in the fight against ISIS. Backed by US and allied air power and special forces, they’ve captured huge swathes of land from the jihadis and destroyed many ISIS units.
- Unfortunately, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan says the YPG is a terrorist organization. He’s already ordered attacks against Kurdish militias, and he’s ready to attack the SDF as soon as he thinks he can get away with it.
- Now Trump says that if Turkey moves against the SDF, the US will “devastate Turkey economically.” That’s a credible threat, too; the Turkish economy relies heavily on US technology and investment, and would be hit hard by sanctions.
- Turkey immediately retaliated, with the president’s spokesman saying “Turkey expects the US to honor our strategic partnership… It is a fatal mistake to equate Syrian Kurds with the PKK, which is on the US terrorists list, and its Syria branch PYD/YPG … Turkey fights against terrorists, not Kurds.”
- This is a misleading statement, though, because Turkey tends to see any armed Kurdish group as terrorists. They’ve certainly not hesitated to shell and bomb Syrian Kurds in the past. Hopefully Trump’s firm stand in favor of the SDF will stop them doing it again.