Israel will not be the only US ally that will be affected by the American military pullout from Syria. Similarly, Israelis are not the only group that have received the ire of Turkey’s President Erdogan. The Kurds, largely moderate, pro-US, and pro-Israel, have been the backbone of American anti-ISIS endeavours in the Levant. In the chaos of the Syrian Civil War, the Syrian Kurds secured territory, much to the chagrin of Erdogan. In response to Kurdish gains, the Turkish military launched campaigns to harass and assault the Syrian Kurds, but the American specter has greatly limited the scope of these attacks. Without an American presence, the Kurds of Syria will be under the threat of attack by the Turkish army. Just as importantly, with a power vacuum, Turkey may seize the opportunity to secure regional hegemony. Turkey has already begun to amass troops on the Syrian border, and may soon alter the balance of power in Syria and the entire Middle East.
The Kurds are the fourth largest ethnic group in the Middle East. Like other nations, they have a shared experience, unique culture, language, and history. They are also the world’s largest nation without a state. The region in which they reside, Kurdistan, straddles Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. For decades, the Kurds have aspired to self-determination, but have been stymied by internal and external divisions. From a realist perspective, it makes perfect sense that none of these states would accept the loss of territory and the creation of a neighbouring rival. This hasn’t stopped the Kurds from forming political movements. Unfortunately, their parties and self-governing bodies have been rife with infighting and corruption, the former often expressed as low-level civil war. In all four of the countries that Kurds have established these independence or autonomous parties, they have been persecuted, oppressed, and massacred. When a referendum in Iraqi had them poised to establish a Kurdish state, several nations threatened to invade and destroy the proposed polity. This parallel of a long historic hope make it difficult for Israelis and Jews not to sympathize with the Kurds.
Out of the fires of state violence the Kurds have forged themselves into competent fighting units, such as those seen in Syria today. In places like Turkey, many of the Kurdish freedom fighters have made the unacceptable turn to terrorism. However, the bravery and competence of the Iraqi-Kurdish Peshmerga and the YPG/YPJ are what Israelis and Americans are most acquainted with. American troops have fought alongside both, and these forces were at times the sole powers keeping ISIL from overtaking all of Iraq and Syria. In Iraq, when the national army was in tatters after the fall of Mosul, it was the Kurds that held the line. When the so-called Islamic State slaughtered its way through a crumbling Syria, it was the Kurds that held the line. Neither the Americans nor the Russians can take full credit for the degradation of the armies of that infamous black flag. Air power must be in support of land power, and the Kurds provided the latter. However, while the Kurds and Americans together fought and bled, Erdogan of Turkey consolidated his own power.
A Islamic neo-Ottomanist wannabe-Sultan, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan sat out much of the Arab Spring and Winter period. While states collapsed and Iran and Saudi Arabia locked horns, Turkey played a quieter and longer game. Erdogan had been eroding democratic institutions for a long time, but this took a dramatic leap forward during a failed coup, which many believe to have been a farce for concealing a power grab. Erdogan jailed tens of thousands of academics, judges, and military officers. This purged the army, the traditional secularizing force and check of power to tyranny in Turkey, and paved the way for Erdogan to add the crown of President to that of Prime Minister. Erdogan is therefore the most important political actor in Turkey. His ideology is decidedly Islamic, but more importantly externally minded. This doesn’t necessarily mean expansion of territory, though there are some irredentist aspects, but as a regional influencer. The glory of the Ottoman past beckons to Sultan Erdogan. While the world has divided the struggle for Middle Eastern hegemony into the binary of Saudi Arabia and Iran, Turkey has subtly been making itself a third option. Having what some consider to be the 7th most powerful army in the world, its difficult to assess it otherwise. All that remains is for it to find room for a play for more territory, resources, and influence.
It bears reminding that the Kurds in Turkey pursued terrorist strategies and tactics to try to achieve independence. The Turks put down this insurgency with brutality. It is therefore natural that the country of Turkey would oppose any crystallization of Kurdish military and political power on its borders, lest this incite secessionism and the resumption of internal violence within Turkey. In line with this, and with Erdogan’s character, during the height of the Syrian Civil War, foreign ISIS fighters were allowed to travel through Turkey to the Kurdish front. When the tide turned against ISIS due to American air support, Turkey bombarded the Kurdish strongholds with its own air force, and artillery. American forces, or at least their flags, were often at Kurdish positions to disuade the Turkish military from destroying what the YPG/YPJ had desperately carved out of the Syrian chaos. This didn’t stop Erdogan from initiating a limited invasion, occupying Afrin. According to some respectable sources, though such claims should be always taken with some salt, indiscriminate bombings, the intentional targeting of civilians, and other war crimes have occurred under Turkish auspices.
Now, with the withdrawal of American troops, Turkey has begun to amass soldiers in preparation of a broader campaign. According to Turkey the planned operation is ostensibly to eliminate “terrorists”. Many, perhaps even US President Donald Trump, have been fooled by Erdogan’s rhetoric into thinking that Turkey’s focus is ISIS. Based on similar rhetoric and past actions, such as those in Afrin, it seems clear that the Kurds are once again the focus. Considering that the Turkish-Kurdish PKK is a terrorist organization, it also makes sense from the Turkish perspective to see the related YPG/YPJ in the same light. What is likely is that the Turkish force will attack with a comparable ferocity to that of operations against the PKK, and Kurdish civilians will likely pay the price. After years of cooperation with Americans, and the fight against ISIS, all will be for naught. Abandoned, Kurdish political entities will be eviscerated, their society suppressed, and brave fighters and civilians alike will lose their lives.
It is no coincidence that Trump decided to withdraw from Syria during a phone call with Erdogan. It’s possible that Erdogan promised him something substantial. Perhaps it was a promise to continue to engage ISIS, in which case Trump has been had. The President is wrong in thinking that he can shirk responsibility of ISIS and pawn it off onto Turkey, since Erdogan will simply dash the duty on a rock. Another possibility is that Erdogan promised that Turkey in Syria would act as a buffer to invasive Iranian tendrils toward Lebanon and Israel. If this is the case, then Erdogan may be finally making its play to enter the great game that had up until now only been played by Iran and Saudi Arabia. With a blank check from the global hegemon, Erdogan will have legitimacy and reason to make his own territorial and strategic advancements in Syria. Which means that Erdogan would have promised something that he would have liked to do anyway. The fox would be watching the henhouse, and the eggs are Kurdish political power and regional control.
Whether one supports an American withdrawal or not, one must recognize the responsibility and loyalty that Americans should have for the Kurds. If US troops will not be in Syria to back them, then Trump should find some other way to secure their survival. America should make it clear to Turkey that the slaughter of the Kurds is a red line. If nothing is done, they will be massacred, and no ally will again trust the US. Israel, as a US ally, a limited regional actor, and a state that has interests in Syria, would also do well to ponder how it can petition Turkey for restraint, even if Erdogan and Netanyahu are in the midst of a spat. Additionally, both the US and Israel must consider the repercussions that a counter-operative triumvirate will have for the Middle East. Erdogan’s Turkey may be changing the rules to the great game, and the removal of the Syrian Kurds is the first revision.