The December 19 announcement of the withdrawal of the 2,000 US troops fighting the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria has not stopped inflicting damage and creating confusion. This started with the US administration and the resignations of defense secretary Jim Mattis and the special presidential envoy of the global coalition to counter ISIS, Brett McGurk. The two men both had intimate knowledge of the terrain and the serious consequences such a withdrawal would create. They understood the strategically dangerous and morally unacceptable decision to abandon their reliable and effective Kurdish allies in the war against the jihadists.
Soon after the announcement, France also made its views known, opposing the decision in a call between President Macron and US President Donald Trump, and two suicide attacks claimed by ISIS inflicted the heaviest toll on US troops in Syria since the beginning of the war. ISIS still has clandestine cells capable of carrying out attacks: these two attacks took place hundreds of kilometers from the area still under their control. This is ISIS thumbing its nose at Trump following his declaration of their defeat!
The still-active al-Qaeda branch, Hayat Tharir al-Sham, has controlled Idlib province and its surroundings, an area as big as Lebanon, since January 10. Turkey has turned a blind eye while other Islamist groups lost out. A new order now reigns in this area: a new jihadist administration under the “Government of National Salvation,” levying taxes and forcing merchants to be recorded in the commercial register if they want to continue to do business. ISIS continues to evolve, reborn within these very same groups, always present and always operational: a mutation of the virus.
The birth of IS in 2014 came with the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, following the decision by former US president Barack Obama. With hindsight, we understand the consequences this brought in its wake in Iraq and Syria, as well as on the streets of Western capitals.
Never one to fear he may be contradicting himself, Trump declared that a “security zone” would be created following the American withdrawal. The region to the east Euphrates, predominantly Kurdish, would be entrusted to Turkey!
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan continues to insist that he will destroy the Kurdish forces. To entrust this zone to Turkey would be to entrust the security of Israel to Iran and Hezbollah or to urge the Chinese to take good care of American interests in the trade war between the US and China.
The presidential tweet in early January announcing that the US would destroy Turkey economically if it attacked the Kurds is not reassuring. This was an attempt to backpedal and subsequently saw Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton travel to the Middle East.
The contours and parameters of the “security zone” being discussed are still to be defined. The troops of several world and regional powers maintain a militarily presence in the field, each representing divergent interests and overtly hostile projects. Russia and Iran, Syrian President Bashar Assad’s main supporters, are involved on the ground in anti-Western logistics; the war against jihadist terrorism is not their priority but is used as a tool.
Turkey joined the same camp thanks to its anti-Kurdish phobia and for its own ideological reasons. This involvement has an ideological affinity with and porosity between its own AKP ruling Islamist party in Ankara and the various armed Islamist groups in the international anti-coalition camp, i.e. the American-led “war against terrorism.” The Turkish military establishment was once a fiercely secular institution, firmly integrated and anchored in Western military strategy. This is no longer the case under Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian regime. After the 2016 failed coup, more than 50,000 officials, judges and university professors were fired; 15,000 arrested; and 25,000 prosecuted. The leaders of the official pro-Kurdish party in Turkey, the HDP, are in jail and the elected mayors of the majority of towns in southeastern Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish region have been dismissed and replaced by state administrators.
Erdogan’s AKP Party has not become a “Muslim-democratic party” along the lines of the Christian-democratic parties in Europe, such as the CDU in Germany, as many had hoped for. Turkey is ranked 17th of 102 countries as most antisemitic, according to the Anti-Defamation League, even surpassing Iran. The acceleration of Jews leaving Turkey in recent years confirms this. Turkey holds the prize as the world’s biggest incarcerator of journalists. The AKP has become an anti-diversity, anti-minority and anti-secular party.
Just as in the Iraqi Kurdish region, the Syrian Kurdish region offers a place of refuge to religious and ethnic minorities: Kurds, Assyro-Chaldeans, Armenians and Arabs live without killing each other over questions of identity. Together, they have established an administration. These are the very minorities that McGurk said would be most at risk in the event of Turkish intervention.
A quarter century of hindsight indicates the ideal solution today for the Syrian Kurds and other minorities would be a replication of the “no-fly-zone” that the Americans, French and British set up to protect Iraq’s Kurds in 1991 in the context of the first Gulf War. It would be a common-sense solution. This formula stabilized and pacified the Iraqi Kurdistan region, protecting it against Saddam Hussein’s army, which had not hesitated to resort to chemical weapons in its war against the Kurds. The Kurdish region of northern Iraq has since become the safest and most economically prosperous of all of Iraq.
Just as with the Golan Heights and its Syrian-Israeli border where Israel insisted on the removal of all Iranian and Hezbollah forces and the return of Syrian troops, the Syrian Kurdish approach could be the same: choosing between a rock and a hard place. Anything but Turkey. This could see them accepting a limited Syrian presence along the border with Turkey.
Through their long history of self-defense and resistance, a forgotten people oppressed by the Middle East’s authoritarian regimes, the Kurds have demonstrated that they are able to defend themselves against external attacks if they are not attacked from the air. This “security zone” currently under development will need take this into consideration. This gesture on the part of the international community toward its allies in the war against international terrorism would be the very minimum. These allies have paid a heavy price: thousands of victims and the destruction of their cities in a conflict that has taken on the mantle of a mini-world war.
More than ever, a strategic long-term vision is needed. The full range of ingredients that triggered the Syrian civil war eight years ago are still in place and Assad’s dictatorship is still in power. Eight years ago, we had not yet seen half a million deaths, 10 million people displaced and a million refugees in Europe. If we fail to manage the recent victory, which is only one battle in the global war against terrorism, we will only have ourselves to blame for the even bigger crises that follow.
The writer is a researcher and former director of The Representation of The Regional Government of Iraqi Kurdistan in Paris.
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