A short while ago, the United States began removing troops from northeastern Syria in anticipation of a Turkish offensive. This mostly Kurdish northeastern area of Syria, known as the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (NES), is home to many semi-recognized and semi-independent autonomous regions and groups — among them being the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
The United States supported the SDF in the conflict against ISIS, a mutual enemy, and has worked with related groups numerous times in the past, but has now pulled financial, intelligence and military support from the group.
Why is Turkey invading the NES? Why would the U.S. pull support from the SDF? Who really is responsible for the current tension, and how does this affect the world at large? It’s a lot more complicated than you might think, and to get to the bottom of it, we need to look all the way back to the creation of the current Turkish state itself.
Empire to Republic: Founding the Modern Turkish State
Turkey is the successor state to the Ottoman Empire, which was one of the Central Powers in WWI. The Ottomans, to put it bluntly, were pretty bad dudes who were credited with the Armenian genocide, among others, over the course of WWI (all of which modern Turkey has refused to acknowledge).
After the war, the Allied Powers decided to partition the Ottoman empire into several new states with the Treaty of Sèvres. This treaty would have forced the empire to release all non-Turkish lands and make provisions for the creation of a Kurdish state (among others).
This treaty failed, somewhat spectacularly, when a Turkish nationalist movement ousted the Ottoman Sultan and demanded the return of lost territory. European powers then scrambled to appease the Turkish nationalists while attempting to retain control of the industry and natural resources that they had claimed for themselves; towards this end, they created the new Treaty of Lausanne, which gave Turkey back the territory that was to be set aside for a new Kurdish state.
This treaty is responsible for the large Kurdish minority in Turkey and in other Middle Eastern countries it has led to the near constant persecution of the Kurdish people in Turkey.
Something I would like to stress here is that at no point was the United States in anyway involved with the partitioning of the Ottoman Empire, or the fate of its Kurdish population; those decisions lay nearly entirely with the British, French and Italian Tripartite along with a few other minor players. Now that we know a little about Turkey’s background, I want to look at the relationship between the United States and the combatants of this conflict.
The United States and Turkey
Turkey is a charter member of the UN; an early member of NATO, the IMF and the World Bank; and a founding member of the OECD, OSCE, BSEC, OIC and G-20. Put more simply, Turkey is a major power in the Middle East and Europe and a major military and economic ally of the United States.
Even so, relations between Turkey and the U.S. are far from warm, due in part to Turkey’s semi-autocratic regime and oppressive domestic policies. Tensions between the U.S. and Turkey began to rise when the U.S. began backing the SDF — a group which is considered terroristic by Turkey and is associated with several other terrorist groups — in the fight against ISIS. Relations between the U.S. and Turkey cooled even further when Turkey announced its intention to purchase military equipment from Russia.
In spite of these tensions, Turkey remains a key ally in building stability in the Middle East.
The United States and the SDF/NES
The United States has a tenuous “arms length” relationship with the SDF and the NES. The United States allied itself with and supported the SDF in the conflict against the ISIS caliphate, to the chagrin of its Turkish ally, but does not recognize the sovereignty of the NES. The United States’ relationship with the SDF was mostly a matter of convenience, following the old adage “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
However, this relationship is complicated significantly by the SDF’s Kurdish identity.
For the most part, the United States has had very positive relations with Kurdish peoples; Kurdish minority groups have often worked with the US in the global war on terror. However, U.S.-Kurdish relations are not entirely positive.
The Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) is an anti-American, communistic Kurdish nationalist group that is recognized as a terrorist group by the U.S., Turkey and the European Union. It is also the leading group in the movement for Kurdish autonomy in Turkey, and one of the most powerful groups in the NES.
So, back to the issue at hand. Turkey has invaded the NES to expel the SDF, an organization it considers terroristic, and to create a safe zone to resettle the 3.6 million Syrian refugees that currently reside in Turkey. The United States has begun removing its forces from the region but has not condoned the invasion, threatening harsh economic sanctions if a peaceful solution cannot be found.
What were the alternatives available to the US? It could have increased its military presence in the area to deter Turkey and wound up in a standoff with one of its own allies. Or, it could have removed its forces but continued to support the SDF in a conflict against a U.S. ally: effectively supporting both sides of a war.
So, the US has instead decided to excuse itself of the situation. Whether this is the right decision, who can say? There definitely are a lot of negative ramifications to doing this, but I can tell you one thing for certain: anyone who says that this situation is simple, or that there is an obvious answer, is either completely uninformed or a liar.
P.S. The conflict between Kurdish groups and the Turkish government has been constant since the Treaty of Lausanne. The European powers that created that treaty, along with Germany and others, are also allies of Turkey and also supported the SDF against ISIS. What’s more, they have a lot more at stake in conflict, being continental neighbors of Turkey and not half-way around the world. I wonder if they ever plan to do anything about it.
Stephen Strong is a senior majoring in Finance and International Business. He can be reached email@example.com.
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