This article is by Ryan Posthumus.
Throughout world history, markers of nationalism, religion, and ethnicity have been the predominant means by which individuals have grouped themselves, seeking protection in numbers of like-minded and similarly identifying people. This has directly translated to the formation of organized societies and the concept of the nation-state since the beginning of human civilization. Though hegemony within “nations” allowed for smoother governance and maintenance of domestic relations, this hegemony also led to much friction between these unique groups, be it economic, cultural, religious, or political, among others. In some cases, these conflicts were overcome through mutual understanding, respect for each other on the basis of a shared “humanity,” and the need to survive, most often leading to the development of international cultures, complex political philosophies, and diverse cultural landscapes. In other cases, however, these conflicts were magnified and ushered in death and destruction, landlessness and poverty, famine and genocide. This process has repeated itself countless times over the course of world history and has indelibly influenced the current world in which we live in today. In our modern world, these conflicts still exist; one particular group of people who have been marginalized and oft forgotten about in the eyes of much of the world are the native residents of the Autonomous Administration of North East Syria (AANES): The Kurds.
As the sun set over the Northern Syrian desert on October 29, 2019, the last U.S. troops withdrew from this largely Kurdish region of the embattled Arab nation. The previous week, a deal was established between Turkish President Recep Erdogan and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence which provided a 120 hour ceasefire to allow for the retreat of Kurdish YPG forces and the removal of all remaining U.S. forces from the Northern reaches of Syria. Pence stated that Turkey’s invasion of Northern Syria, titled “Operation Peace Spring”, would reach a permanent ceasefire in the days following the departure of YPG forces. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, however, emphasized the impermanence of the ceasefire in response to Pence’s comments and instead proclaimed that an end to hostilities would come once all of “the terrorists” have left and that “we will only stop operations if our conditions are met.” While the alleged agreement is described by United States officials as being an “outcome [which] will greatly serve the interests of the Kurdish population in Syria” and that no harm would come about to the major city of Kobani in the AANES (traditionally known as Rojava), the fate of this majority Kurdish population is now in jeopardy.
In the days leading up to the Syrian Civil War, Syrian Kurds had been able to create a nearly semi-autonomous region of their own then known as Rojava in the Northern area of the country. Now, more than 8 years since the beginning of that conflict, having fought back against incursions from rebel groups and ISIS itself, the Kurds of Rojava are at risk of losing everything. The aforementioned invasion by Turkey into Syria has been billed by Turkey as necessary in order to create a security buffer zone for Turkey against the “terrorists” of the Kurdish YPG and has been well received and supported by Russia and U.S. President Donald Trump. Yet it should be said that the departure of U.S. troops from North Syria symbolizes something much more insidious than solely a desire to wind-down troop presence in the region or to recognize the desire for a compromise between Turkey and Syria in future border issues as it may seem at first glance. Rather, the sudden and willing withdrawal of U.S. troops can be seen as the United States sending three clear messages to the world. One, the U.S. is essentially “validating what Turkey did and allowing them to annex a portion of Syria and displace the Kurdish population.” Two, the U.S. no longer wants to be the leading international force in the Middle East. And three, the U.S. is willing to take a back seat in the sphere of international politics, even encouraging and deferring to figures such as Vladimir Putin in matters of global significance. This abandonment of past posture in the international sphere is a seemingly disastrous choice for the U.S. government as it diminishes its prominence globally and cedes power to countries generally seen as working against U.S. interests, such as Russia and, to a lesser extent, Turkey. But the real victims of this stark reversal are the individuals who now stand in the gunsights and cross-hairs of Turkish rifles and machine-guns: the Rojava Kurds.
As the situation currently stands, a silence has fallen over the desert once more. In the wake of a meeting between a Russian military delegation and Turkish government officials in Ankara earlier this week, both forces have decided to begin joint-patrols of the invaded region in order to maintain “peace and security” and to ensure that the Kurdish “terrorists” have left. Quite shockingly, accompanying this Turkish invasion force and these joint-patrols, per breaking news reported by Time as gathered from covert U.S. military and intelligence officials, are accounts and allegations of violence and murder of civilians by Turkish militias armed and backed by Ankara. In addition to these reported murders are reports of Turkish armed forces digging trenches and setting up watchtowers and outposts along the edge of the region which they currently occupy. This is activity that, along with the anticipated arrival of more Turkish troops at the border, signifies the desire by Turkey to continue pushing on into Syria once the ceasefire has expired, a very harrowing prospect for civilians living in this region. The area in question is still home to more than 4 million residents across 55,000 square kilometers, but that is where the certainty ends. Will international authorities decide to intervene in and mitigate this tense and reportedly deadly situation or will they, at the urging of the United States and Russia, refuse to step in and protect the lives, sovereignty, and rights of this oft marginalized native Rojavan population? Will Turkey decide to indeed expand beyond their current reach and invade more of Syria? And perhaps the most important question of all: Does the obviously heavy Russian involvement in these operations represent an escalation of Russian imperialism?
While this dispute over a mere strip of desert land may not symbolize very much at all for the state actors who regularly engage in high-stakes strategic chess matches on the world stage, for the individuals that live there, be it the Kurds or any other group (such as Assyrian Christians, Armenian Christians, Yazidis, Turkmens and Chechens), this narrow strip of land is their home. The Kurds have fought for it in the past, and if precedent rings true, they are not going to let it slip away.