Just days before Azerbaijan wiped the indigenous Armenian enclave in Nagorno-Karabakh off the map, Acting Assistant Secretary of State Yuri Kim declared to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that “We will not tolerate any attack on the people of Nagorno-Karabakh.”
The genocidal intent was clear. Azerbaijani soldiers wore armbands with the image of Enver Pasha, mastermind of the 1915 Armenian Genocide, and the slogan “Don’t run Armenian you’ll just die of exhaustion!” Upon capturing Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh and a city historically almost entirely Armenian, the Azerbaijani government named a street for Enver Pasha. To Armenians, Azerbaijan’s arrest of the region’s Armenian political leaders has obvious parallels to the 1915 arrests—and subsequent executions—of prominent Armenian leaders, an event that scholars say marked the beginning of the Armenian genocide.
While growing numbers of Congressmen complain or sign letters demanding action, the Biden administration does little to help displaced Armenians or punish Azerbaijan for systematically violating every diplomatic agreement and ceasefire they signed. While realists in the White House view Armenia-Azerbaijan in isolation and may even see opportunity in the loss of Nagorno-Karabakh to enable an elusive peace, they are wrong on both counts. Unilateral action justifies unilateral reaction, even if delayed by decades, while ethnic cleansing unpunished signals its utility to aggressors.
So it is now with Turkey. On October 1, 2023, two suicide bombers affiliated with a militant offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) attacked the front gate of Turkey’s interior ministry, injuring two Turkish soldiers. While there is no excuse for terrorism, the attack came after a year of near daily Turkish cross-border attacks on Kurds. The Turkish Interior Ministry responded by declaring all sites it associates with the PKK and YPG (People’s Defense Units) as well as energy infrastructure as potential targets. Turkish drones and/or aircraft have preceded to bomb a number of sites across northern Iraq and Syria. The threat to bomb civilian and economic infrastructure represents collective punishment illegal under international law.
Given the US partnership with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), of which the YPG is a member, that raises the stakes that Turkey might target American troops. This is not a theoretical problem. On April 7, 2023, Turkish drones targeted a convoy conveying Iraqi Kurds, SDF, and American Special Forces. The strike was not simply a warning, but lethal in intent. Local officials told me the only reason Americans did not die was that the ground was muddier than usual, allowing the warhead to penetrate into the ground before detonating. On October 5, American forces in Syria downed a Turkish drone that they deemed a threat. Such NATO on NATO action is a rarity.
The Turkish government might seek to compel the United States to abandon their Syrian Kurdish allies, much as the White House abandoned Armenians. That the United States has been silent regarding the Turkish ethnic cleansing of Afrin might encourage Ankara further. That President Donald Trump had after a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan expressed willingness to throw the Kurds under the bus might lead Erdogan to believe American resolve is weak.
He would be foolish to believe so. The United States allied with Syrian Kurds against the Islamic State that Turkey at the time backed. Turkey might be a NATO member, but Kurds have proven themselves on the ground at a time Turkey would not. The Islamic State remains a threat, one that would grow if Turkey overruns the Kurdish administration. Erdogan’s racist hatred of the Kurds also ignores the obvious to those who have visited the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria: while far from perfect, it is nonetheless impressive and has achieved a great deal with few resources. Residents—both Kurdish, Arab, and other—enjoy greater freedoms than their counterparts do in Syria, Turkey, or in areas of Iraqi Kurdistan under the control of the Barzani family.
This will not keep Turkey from trying, however. As Turkey seeks to ethnically cleanse northern Syria, Kurds tell me that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps demands the same right of access and operation along its border. Serbia, meanwhile, uses the Azerbaijan and Turkey precedent to intimidate and target Kosovo. Turkey may hope American forces simply get out of the way, but they should not. Today’s downing of a Turkish drone should be both a shot across the bow and an inspiration for the future. To stop ethnic cleansing, it behooves the United States to help all of its allies defend themselves from the predation of dictatorships wielding drones.
Conversely, American troops across the globe will be in danger unless the White House forcefully conveys to those who would seek to target and intimidate them that to do so will lead to an exponentially higher price visited upon them. Washington should put Ankara on notice: If a Turkish drone, jet, or sniper targets an American, every Turk in Syria and Iraq will have a target on their back.
Now a 19FortyFive Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).