Syria is lit as Turkey goes after the Kurds. As always, President Trump seems to be the center of attention. But in this case, all eyes really ought to be on Turkey.
As the Syrian Civil War spun out of control, the Turkish government had some quite legitimate concerns over its increasingly unsecured and uncontrolled border with Syria.
One worry was the Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK, an avowed terrorist group that has warring with Turkey for more than three decades.
Compounding this chronic problem was an influx into Turkey of more than three million refugees fleeing from Syrian President Assad’s brutality and the murderous ISIS Caliphate that had sprung up in the middle of the country.
Turkey has long wanted to take control of the border area, sealing off the terrorist threat and creating a “safe zone” that would allow at least some of the refugees to return to their homeland.
For its part, the U.S. has long opposed, and still does not endorse, a Turkish incursion to secure the border area. During the Syrian Civil War, Turkey conducted several incursions into Syrian territory — at least two of them being major operations. This latest operation, however, is different.
Turkey is moving into territory not controlled by the Assad regime or ISIS. It is controlled by a primarily Kurdish political group (the Syrian Democratic Forces or SDF) and the military wing that safeguards it — the YPG.
The U.S. has supported the YPG in its battle against ISIS.Indeed, one of the decisive moves Trump made after becoming president was to ramp up support for the YPG — a move that accelerated the defeat of the Caliphate. Today, the YPG still detains thousands of ISIS fighters and their families.
The U.S. did not “green light” the Turkish incursion. In practical terms, there was little the U.S. could do to prevent Turkish action without becoming more directly embroiled in the Syrian conflict. The irony was that, by helping crush ISIS, the U.S. has created conditions for Turkey to act more boldly.
This latest movement of Turkish troops into Kurdish territory has already produced reports of combat with the YPG and of civilian deaths, injuries and displacements.
If Turkey holds to the 30-mile limit it set for the incursion, the SDF will still control significant territory, which includes the facilities detaining the bulk of the ISIS fighters.
The U.S. should, first and foremost, serve U.S. interests. We don’t want another Caliphate; that would only create a sanctuary and base for transnational terrorism. We don’t want Iran to gain a foothold in Syria to threaten our most important ally in the region: Israel. And we don’t want another humanitarian and refugee crisis that would further destabilize the region or spill over into our European allies.
So what should U.S. do?
For starters, we should continue to support the YPG as long as they continue to partner with us in fighting ISIS and detaining ISIS fighters. We should also try be a broker between the SDF and Turkey, with the aim of limiting direct armed confrontation between them.
As for U.S. forces, we have a small military footprint there now. Their mission is to facilitate the fight against ISIS. If they continue to serve an effective role, they should remain.
Throughout it all, the U.S, should focus on holding Turkey accountable for its activities. An accountable Turkey should:
- properly safeguard any ISIS fighters that come into their custody;
- ensure that the territory is not used as a terrorist platform;
- should safeguard the lives of innocents and provide humanitarian assistance for those in need;
- create conditions to allow refugees to return safely to their homeland, and
- keep the Iranians and their surrogates out.
In short, the U.S., all of Turkey’s NATO allies, indeed, all of the free world should demand that Ankara be a responsible international actor.
While the Turkish action may have been ill-advised, there are no do-overs. We are where we are.
The U.S. has limited interests, capabilities and influence in the Syrian conflict. We should use those wisely, to best protect our interests and best contribute to bringing peace and stability to the region.
This piece originally appeared in The Detroit News on 10/11/19 & updated on 10/14/19