The Trump administration’s decision to immediately withdraw U.S. forces from the Syrian border and allow Turkish troops to invade is not merely the abandonment of the West’s Kurdish allies, but a warrant for ethnic cleansing.
Trump’s mind was apparently made up after a telephone call with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Trump’s press secretary then released a statement which read, "Turkey will soon be moving forward with its planned operation into northern Syria. The United States Armed Forces will not support or be involved in the operation, and the United States forces, having defeated the ISIS territorial "caliphate," will no longer be in the immediate area."
And with those words, the White House washed its hands of the fate of Syria’s Kurds and the future of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Kurdish forces who lost thousands of soldiers while fighting to defeat ISIS, the scourge of the civilized world.
The rise of ISIS was made possible by Ankara’s inaction when, from 2013-14, hordes of international militants, fanatics and psychopaths, not to mention truckloads of weapons, crossed Turkey’s border into Syria, on the so-called Jihadi Highway.
Now, the U.S. is handing over ISIS duties to Turkey. However, it is doubtful whether the West’s fair weather friend has either the willingness or the competence to take effective control over rowdy jails overcrowded with battle-hardened ISIS prisoners, desperate to escape and re-establish their medieval empire.
Before Trump’s decision, the U.S. and Turkey had agreed to establish a security corridor, a "safe zone" inside the Syrian-Turkish border. The U.S. wanted the zone to be just a few kilometers inside of Syrian territory along a 480km border stretch with Turkey. However, Ankara insisted it be a full 30km deep, and was incensed by U.S. foot-dragging. Turkey threatened unilateral action - and Trump rolled over.
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Why the need for a 30km "safe zone"? Turkey wants to push the YPG as far back as possible to prevent, or at least have a buffer, against an autonomous Kurdish enclave dominated by the YPG’s political arm, the Democratic Union Party.
Ankara sees these groups as one and the same as the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), an internationally proscribed terrorist group waging a decades-long war against the Turkish state which claimed over 40,000 lives.
However, another reason for Turkey’s zeal for establishing a large buffer zone is so it has room to resettle millions of Arab Syrian refugees currently living in Turkey. The presence of these refugees while Turkey experiences its worst economic crises in decades is deeply unpopular across Turkish society. It was even a contributing factor for the unprecedented hammering of Erdogan’s ruling party at local elections last spring.
What is Erdogan and his government’s answer to the YPG Kurdish forces security question and the political problem of hosting millions of Syrians? A good old dose of ethnic cleansing.
In 1993 Andrew Bell-Fialkoff defined "ethnic cleansing" in a seminal Foreign Affairs essay, written as the world was left reeling by the return of concentration camps to Europe, only this time against Bosnian Muslims rather than Jews.
According to Bell-Fialkoff, ethnic cleansing is the "expulsion of an ‘undesirable’ population from a given territory due to religious or ethnic discrimination, political, strategic or ideological considerations."
The UN fears that a Turkish incursion into Syria would lead to the mass displacement of the region’s Kurds, which would in effect open up space for Turkey’s plan to resettle two million Syrian refugees in this "safe zone" and perhaps another one million in territory beyond. However, the vast majority of Syrian refugees in Turkey are Sunni Arabs and not originally from the area of the planned resettlement, which is mainly Kurdish.
In other words, what’s being planned is the forced exchange of one ethnic population for another. That’s Ethnic Cleansing 101.
And nobody can plead ignorance. This is exactly what happened last year when Turkish backed forces invaded Afrin. Hundreds of thousands of Kurds fled while Turkey, by its own admission, Arab Syrian refugees into the area, as many as 300,000.
And yet, Turkish authorities are energetically working to promote the resettlement "safe zone" plan. President Erdogan even announced the idea at the United Nations while other leading Turkish officials have called for U.S. and European support for what is essentially a project of ethnic cleansing.
Although Western officials have not endorsed the plan, they need to universally, unequivocally and publicly condemn it.
Sure, Trump is now warning Turkey that he will wage an obliterating economic war if in his "great and unmatched wisdom" Turkey does anything untoward, but the damage has already been done. Ankara’s biggest deterrence for invading, the presence of U.S. forces, has gone.
If implemented, Erdogan’s ethnic cleansing campaign in Syria is sure to be remembered alongside Saddam Hussein’s genocidal al-Anfal campaign in Iraq, and Hafez Assad’s Arab resettlement policies and Baathist denials of Kurdish rights, not to mention Turkey’s attempts to demographically reengineer Kurdish regions during the 1920s and 1930s and the brutal nature of Turkey’s war with the PKK.
It will also be remembered that the White House was complicit.
Dr Simon A. Waldman is an associate fellow at the Henry Jackson Society and a visiting research fellow at King's College London. He is the co-author of “The New Turkey and Its Discontents” (Oxford University Press, 2017). Twitter: @simonwaldman1