It’s November, so we should be talking about turkey, right? While the bird which will grace your Thanksgiving table is certainly a timely topic, another timely topic is the country of Turkey. Mayhem abounds in that area of the world, and we can be thankful we aren’t there. And, due to a recent decision of our Commander in Chief, a thousand or so U.S. troops aren’t there either. Let’s talk Turkey about this news.
Back on October 6th, President Trump made an abrupt and controversial announcement that U.S. troops were being pulled from northern Syrian which borders Turkey. At the time, approximately one thousand American military members were based there. This figure was down from the 2,000 troops with boots on the ground in Syria the previous year. Woo hoo! Less troops in harm’s way in this dangerous area of the world.
A troop reduction in Syria should have come as no surprise to anyone. Why Trump campaigned for the presidency on a promise to end U.S. participation in wars such as in Syria. After becoming president, he first announced his intention to withdraw troops from Syria in 2018. So what’s the fuss? I mean, he did what he said, right? But some were taken aback that Trump decided to remove the troops pronto. His exit strategy was to exit. Period. Right then.
What was Trump’s rationale for the troop withdrawal? He wants to get the U.S. “out of these ridiculous endless wars.” The troops were in northern Syria in the first place because of an “age-old conflict” between Turkey and the Kurds, many of whom are located in northern Syria. The president noted that America is “not a policing agent.”
Turkey and Syria are neighbors; they share a border which is approximately 511 miles long. Nevertheless, their relations are anything but neighborly. Populating northern Syria along the Turkish border are Syrian Kurds who number around 1.7 million. Why doesn’t Turkey like its southern neighbor? Do the Kurds play their music too loud? Nope. Turkey considers the Kurds to be terrorists who must be eliminated. And by eliminated, I mean killed.
And the Kurds aren’t just living in northern Syria. They make up about 20% of the population in Turkey. The Kurds in Turkey have been stirring up trouble in their country an attempt to establish their own state. In fact, the Kurds, who per CIA estimates number between 25 and 40 million, are the world’s largest ethnic group without its own state.
The Kurdistan Workers Party (“PKK”) has been fighting for autonomy in eastern Turkey for 30 years. And by fighting, I mean carrying out violent acts such as bombings and assaults; it has a long history of conducting terrorist attacks. Moreover, the U.S. has formally designated PKK as a foreign terrorist organization. So, you can see why Turkey isn’t really keen on the Kurds in its own country.
But what beef does Turkey have with the Kurds living in northern Syria? They didn’t carry out any violent acts in Turkey. Well, Turkey views the Kurdish militia that dominates the U.S. backed Syrian Democratic Forces (“SDF”) as being aligned with the Turkish Kurds’ terrorist group PKK. The Syrian branch of the PKK is YPG. Are you A-OK in grasping this background? .
Let’s recap. Turkey doesn’t like the Kurds. It doesn’t like the Kurds in their country, the PKK, because the group engages in terrorist acts. Turkey doesn’t like the Kurds in northern Syria because Turkey thinks they are in cahoots with the Turkish terrorist group PKK. The Turkish Kurds don’t like the Turkish government because it quells their separatist movement. Got it? Now, how does the U.S. fit into all this? Well, its like many relationships. It’s complicated.
The U.S. teamed up with the Kurds in Syria to fight ISIS. In this context the U.S. armed YPG, the Syrian branch of Turkey’s PKK. Kurdish-run detention centers in Syria hold thousands of captured IS fighters and their families. According to some reports, about 11,000 detained ISIS terrorists are being guarded by the Kurds. The bottom line is the U.S. was allied with the Kurds against ISIS. But the Kurds don’t get along with Turkey, a NATO ally of the U.S. not to mention an area of strategic significance to our country. What’s a world power to do?
Well, President Trump decided not to risk a war with Turkey over the Kurds, so he ordered U.S. troops to high tail it out of Syria. This executive decision led to intense bipartisan criticism. (I mean, does anything he does escape criticism? But I digress.) President Trump was vilified for abandoning our Syrian Kurdish allies; naysayers felt the U.S. owed a huge debt to the Kurds for helping us contain ISIS. Trump responded that the U.S. may have left Syria, but it was not abandoning the Kurds.
Turkey, on the other hand, was delighted when the U.S. troops pulled out of Syria. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan ordered an assault on the Syrian Kurds before the dust had settled from the U.S. troops’ departure. The aim of this military operation was to push Kurdish militants back from Turkey’s southern border and deeper into Syrian territory. Can’t you just hear the Turkish commanders urging their troops, “Push ’em back, push ’em back…?” Trump, living up to his statement that he was not abandoning the Kurds, sent Vice President Pence to Ankara to broker a five day ceasefire.
But the plot thickens. Now Russia is in the mix. The U.S. supporting the Syrian Kurds gave Turkey a reason to buddy up to Russia. Turkish President Erdogan met with Russian President Putin in the Black Sea resort of Sochi to discuss the situation. Hey, if you have to talk politics, you might as well do it in a relaxing and beautiful location, right? Turkey and Russia struck a deal to establish a 20 mile safe zone with no Kurdish forces along the Syrian border. Now Russian military police are patrolling the Syrian-Turkish border along with Turkish troops.
Whew! What a headache to try to understand this complex situation. It has the makings of a good political soap. Will ISIS take advantage of the U.S. troops’ departure to make a comeback? Will Turkey and the U.S. kiss and make up after the U.S. teamed up with the Kurds in northern Syria but has now physically left the area? Is Putin gloating that he’s playing footsie with a NATO ally of the U.S. and getting toehold in the Mideast? All this Turkey talk is making me thankful that all I have to do is prepare a turkey for Thanksgiving and that I don’t have to deal with Turkey trouble.
Have you been following the news on the pullout of U.S. troops from northern Syria and the aftermath thereof? Did you realize that Mideast relations were so complex? Should the U.S. be involved in what’s going on in northern Syria? Why or why not? If so, to what extent should our involvement be?