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Two MSU Experts on the Kurds Explain Turkey's Invasion of Syria

Jennifer Moore

Turkish forces have begun a military operation against Kurdish fighters in northern Syria with airstrikes, artillery shelling, and an invasion of ground troops.  Some of the forces under Turkish attack right now are the very fighters that stood beside the US in its fight against ISIS.

The Turkish assault was launched three days after U.S. President Donald Trump removed American troops from their positions near the Turkish-Syrian border, where the Americans had been serving alongside their Kurdish allies.

Two experts on the Kurdish people, Professor Djene Bajalan and Professor David Romano, both of Missouri State University, spoke with KSMU’s Jennifer Moore. Romano and Bajalan just returned from a conference last week in Iraq focused on the Kurdish people and their future stability.   You can hear their interview here:

Why is Turkey attacking these Kurdish groups in Syria?

Turkey has a long, complicated relationship with the Kurdish ethnic group.  The Kurdish  people live in an area that spans the corners of four countries—Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq—but the Kurds don’t have their own, internationally-recognized state. This identity clash and desire for more Kurdish independence has led to tension between the ethnic Kurds and the countries they reside in, like Turkey.

“Turkey has been wanting to go into Syria against these groups for some time now.  And in 2018, they invaded the Afrin region of northern Syria—which was held by these Kurdish fighters but under, kind of, Russian air responsibility,” said Dr. David Romano.

So Turkey convinced the Russians to stand down and move out, Romano said, and then Turkey invaded Afrin and displaced up to 300,000 people, installing their own proxy forces, including a lot of jihadi groups.  The Turkish-backed groups looted homes and businesses and tore down all Kurdish symbols in the area.

“And they've been wanting to do the same thing with the remainder of the Kurdish Syrian, Kurdish areas which have been under American protection since some time now. And it seems that on Sunday, after a phone call with Turkish President Erdogan, President Trump bowed to his demands and started pulling the U.S. troops out and they've wasted no time to move in,” Romano said.

Why is the relationship between Turkey and the Kurds so bad right now?

“The present Turkish government has shifted to a more nationalistic hardline policy to appease the nationalistic base in Turkey,” said Dr. Djene Bajalan.

“President Erdogan, his power has been weakening in recent years. Therefore, you know, moving against Kurdish people is a good vote winner amongst his base. And so we're seeing sort of an increase in hostility between the Turkish government—with both Kurds inside Turkey, because there's a Kurdish community inside Turkey, and Kurds outside of Turkey in places like Syria,” Bajalan said.

Similar tensions are happening in places like Iraq, Bajalan said.

How is the US tied to the Kurds under attack?

Some of the Kurdish fighters under attack right now are the same people that fought alongside the United States in its campaign against ISIS.

On Sunday, U.S. President Donald Trump declared that he was pulling more troops out of Syria, a move that many Americans, even Republicans who traditionally support the president, are criticizing, saying the U.S. is abandoning the Syrian Kurdish fighters who have been an ally.

Romano says the US tried to seek help in fighting ISIS from Syrian Arab forces in Turkey and with Turkish groups—but in the end, those groups were not up to the task. Only the Kurdish forces rose to the challenge of battling ISIS, he said.

“And so the last option was the Kurdish groups who were already fighting ISIS—and they were doing so heroically in Kobani. They stopped the ISIS advance in Syria in the town of Kobani in 2014.  And the Iraqi Kurds were doing a similar kind of campaign to stop ISIS in Iraq. So the Obama administration, under advice from his generals and the Pentagon, decided to go with the fighters who had proven their resolve and were actually showing results against ISIS. And it's been a good partnership.  Thanks to the Syrian Kurds the Islamic State's territory was all liberated in Syria and they were deprived of any territorial base. These Syrian Kurds defeated ISIS in Syria with our help and virtually no loss of American lives.

Why has this foreign policy moved spurred a bipartisan outcry?

Many lawmakers, diplomats and citizens have voiced concern that the United States is leaving its ally, the Syrian Kurdish fighters, high and dry after they helped the United States in its fight against ISIS.

It’s struck a nerve, and the response has been bipartisan in its criticism.  Bajalan says the Kurdish groups in Syria have a large base of people in the West who are aware of their causes.

“So for example, in northern Syria, you have a large Christian community.  And the Kurds in northern Syria have worked with that Christian community. And of course that has appealed to evangelical groups on the political right in the United States,” Bajalan said.

“You then have the more traditional neo-conservative elements of the American foreign policy establishment, who do not see abandoning an ally as setting a very good precedent for groups working with the United States in the future,” Bajalan said, adding that the Kurds in Syria lost thousands of people in the fight against ISIS.

“And then finally, on the political left because the Syrian Kurdish groups have made major advances in, sort of, women's rights and have adopted sort of socialistic models of government, there’s a base of support in the political left,” Bajalan said.

Romano added that both sides of the political aisle recognize that this action compromises US national security goals in the region—including in the realms of Syria, Iran and in regard to extremist groups.

How this invasion could lead to a resurgence of ISIS

“It's very possible that this could lead to a resurgence of ISIS, simply because the Syrian Kurds who have been guarding the detained ISIS fighters and who've been securing the countryside and the towns that were once controlled by ISIS are now going to be distracted fighting an operation along the Turkish border,” Bajalan said.

This will give ISIS a chance to re-establish itself, because the main military force that's opposing them is going to be distracted fighting elsewhere in Syria, Bajalan said.

ISIS is a very resilient organization that went underground after the US and its allies attacked the extremist group.

“You know, not all of [ISIS] were captured,” Bajalan said.

What are the humanitarian risks of this attack?

“The terrible irony is this part of Syria in the northeast was the only stable, fairly safe part of Syria,” Romano said.

“The Syrian Kurdish political parties out there—the Democratic Union Party and so forth—were very good about providing safe haven to Christians, to Yezidi, to Arabs who were fleeing Assad regime atrocities, to anyone who wanted to come in. They were quite liberal in that respect,” Romano said.

Not only did they provide safe haven—these Kuridish groups also armed the Christian groups and other threatened minorities, incorporating them into their military structure so that they could help defend their own communities.

“This this is a kind of rare thing out there and it's been a fairly safe, if desperately poor, area. And now we're talking, we could see displaced up to a million or so. It's got a population of about 2 million in the area.  And we have an easy precedent example from the Turkish invasion of Afrin in 2018 where we saw 300,000 displaced. It was a smaller area,” Romano said.

The Turkish state even stole the olive harvest after it invaded Afrin, saying that they couldn't leave the money with the Kurdish groups, calling them “terrorists.”

Why does Turkey’s leader want to control this area?

The Turkish leader wants to establish what he’s calling a “peace corridor,” a territory in Syria that is just across the Turkish border.

“And what they plan to do at that is resettle refugees, many of whom fled to Turkey over the last couple of years. There’s between 3 and 4 million refugees in Turkey. And Turkey like many countries is facing an increase in hostility towards refugees and migrants,” Bajalan said.

There’s another reason for the attack, Bajalan said.

“And at the same time he's going to displace Kurdish groups from that territory which will make it difficult for the Kurds to sort of maintain self-rule in that part of the country,” Bajalan said.

This zone is under the current sovereignty of Syria, which has seen tremendous instability since the outbreak of its civil war years ago.

“[Erdogan] absolutely wants Turkey to administer the zone in other parts that Turkey of Syria that Turkey has invaded. They've set up schools with Turkish curriculum. They're flying Turkish flags. They're paying the civil servants. And it's become like a colonial outpost of Turkey,” Romano said.

Turkey was originally quite generous about hosting refugees of the Syrian civil war, Romano said. But now public attitudes in Turkey toward refugees have soured.

“He wants to to ship them all to Afrin. Most of these are not from Afrin. And all the research so shows that refugees want to return to the actual localities they're from not just anywhere in the same state,” Romano said.

A world scholar describes the Kurdish ethnic group

“In terms of ethnicity we really mean first and foremost language: what language to someone speak and Kurdish is a language group related to Persian with several different dialects within the Kurdish language group,” Romano said.

That’s different from Arabic or Hebrew, which are in the Semitic language group. It's different from Turkish which is in the Altaic language group, Romano said.

“And with language comes a whole series of called cultural references symbols and historical memories which make an ethnic group of people. And so they have a different identity as a result,” Romano said.

And yet, the Kurdish people still do not have a recognized international state of their own.

How did the Kurdish people end up split between four countries?

Bajalan, who teaches history at Missouri State University, says the Kurdish plight has some of its roots in the aftermath of World War One.  Great Britain exerted its influence in the Middle East to identify borders based on its interests.

“At the end of the war, basically British interests lay primarily in two areas: in Iraq and to a lesser extent in Syria.  And so the objective of British policy after the war was to create a stable Arab regime in Iraq, which was where its main colonial prevalence was. And this meant that the Kurdish population—part of the Kurdish population—was going to be included in that territory,” Bajalan said.

The Kurdish population that lived further north at the end of the war remained under Ottoman rule and the British initially sort of made some promises to help them gain independence or a pathway to self-rule—but it became too expensive for the British to become involved in their main interest lay in Iraq. So they kind of allowed that territory to remain under Turkish rule at the end of the war after the war.

“And the main power that had been supporting Kurdish self-rule at up to this period in time was Russia. But in 1917 there was the famous Russian revolution. So Russia basically withdrew its support for a Kurdish state,” Bajalan said.

“So there was no big international power there to support the creation of a Kurdish state as there was in the case of creating an Arab state in Iraq or in Syria or creating a Jewish homeland in Palestine. You know those had great power support, whereas the Kurds did not have a great power backing them up at the end of the war,” Bajalan said.

Romano added that the French did something very similar in creating Syria.

“Ten percent of Syria is Kurdish. And a fair number of Kurds around today seven to nine million ended up in what became Iran. So the if you look at Kurdistan as this mountainous area where those four borders intersect the Kurdish people are split between the four states,” Romano said.

How American citizens can impact foreign policy

Historically, there have been cases in which American voters have seen something in international news and spoken out against it, leading to a change in US foreign policy.

Both Romano and Bajalan said that could happen in this case, too.

“A lot of analysts think that the American foreign policy is made outside of Washington D.C. more than inside—by the Congressmen and Senators bringing issues that their constituents care about to D.C. and using that to craft American foreign policy,” Romano said.

If voters got on the phone and reached their elected officials, it could change things.

“All the Christian groups in northeastern Syria have made announcements asking Trump to go back on this decision and to not abandon the authorities there, not let the Turks in. So if people made calls like this it would certainly have an effect,” Romano said.