The United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan has fueled worries felt among its Syrian Kurdish partners that they may be similarly abandoned, namely to Turkey’s campaign against them, according to The National’s David Lepeska.
In a column on Sunday, Lepeska wrote that Washington’s clumsy withdrawal from Afghanistan amidst a takeover by the Taliban militant group left the Syrian Kurds with two concerns. First was that it may be wrong to place its fate in the hands of Washington, which was roundly criticised for leaving the Afghan government it spent two decades building up behind in the face of a Taliban onslaught. Second, given the possible role for Turkey in a post-U.S. Afghanistan, it may be provided room to attack the Syrian Kurds with little in the way of repercussions.
Turkey views the U.S.-allied Syrian Democratic Forces, dominated by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), as an extension of its long-time foe, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The United States considers the PKK a terrorist organisation as well, but has insisted for years that it is not connected any longer to the YPG or wider Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
Lepeska highlights a series of examples of Turkish airstrikes on SDF units and leaders to demonstrate how it spared little time in attacking a U.S. ally during the Afghanistan withdrawal. On August 16, one day after Kabul fell, a Turkish airstrike killed a prominent Yazidi commander who worked with the United States to defeat the Islamic states. A week later, Turkish drones rained missiles down on northeastern Iraq in what Lepeska called “a demonstration that Ankara can strike anywhere in northern Iraq.”
Turkey has targeted the SDF in several offensives into northern Syria in recent years. The first came with Operation Euphrates Shield in 2018 when Turkish forces, supporting Syrian proxies, drove the SDF out of Afrin canton. A subsequent campaign of driving local Kurds from the region has been regarded as an ethnic cleanising by some human rights organisations, and the province continues to suffer from insecurity.
The next major offensive came in October 2019 with Operation Peace Spring. After a week of fighting, Turkey agreed to a Russian brokered ceasefire that confined Turkish territorial gains to a swath of land between Tel Tamer and Ain Issa. Turkish strikes within this zone have continued and Syrian Kurdish officials frequently demand the U.S. and Russia hold Turkey to account for violating the 2019 agreement.
Coalition officials insist that Washington remains committed to its allies, but narrow it to supporting the fight against ISIS. In an interview in Kurdish news outlet Rudaw, the U.S. envoy to the coalition Joey Hood stated “that Turkey needs to take actions in its own national defence against terrorist activist” without condemning attacks on the SDF. This comment has stayed true to positions held by the last two U.S. administrations, begging the question Lepeska puts forward about whether it is in fact tacit approval of Turkish actions.
Lepeska warns that enabling Turkey could prove short-sighted if it ends up undermining the fight against ISIS. He says this could even backfire on Turkey if it chooses to remain in Afghanistan where an ISIS faction known as ISIS-Khorasan remains active. This group claimed responsibility for the deadly attack on U.S. forces and Afghan civilians on August 26 that left dozens of people dead.