The mission of the 30,000-strong Syrian Defense Force (SDF) was to secure Syria’s northern border with Turkey and its eastern border with Iraq.
After carrying out airstrikes on the Afrin area of northern Syria over the weekend, Turkey launched a ground operation into the region January 21. Turkey’s goal is to wipe out U.S.-allied Kurdish forces which control the area and establish a 30-kilometer (18-mile deep) “security zone.”
Turkey ironically named the incursion Operation Olive Branch. Its soldiers were accompanied by special “conquest” prayers held in Turkey’s 90,000 mosques over the weekend, where worshipers were instructed to pray for the “victory of our heroic security forces.”
Yet anything but an “olive branch” motivates Turkey’s president in his all-consuming paranoia about the motives of the region’s Kurdish people and the end game he aspires for them.
“Now the U.S. has acknowledged it has established an army of terror along our country’s border. It’s up to us to drown this army of terror before it is born,” Erdogan ranted a few days before launching the Syrian invasion.
The Syrian force is made up of Arab fighters as well as Kurds, but to Erdogan, the mere mention of empowered Kurds is enough to invoke the Islamist leader’s wrath.
“Don’t stand between us and a herd of murderers. Otherwise, we will not be responsible for unwanted incidents,” he warned the U.S.
Turkey considers the SDF to be terrorists because of the inclusion in the forces of the Kurdish YPG militias, whom he accuses of being aligned with the Kurdish PKK terrorist group.
Until this latest incursion by Turkey, the SDF controlled close to 25 percent of Syria’s territory in the border area with Turkey and Iraq. With the help of U.S.-led coalition air strikes, the SDF captured the territory from Islamic State.
Perhaps in the last vestiges of its obligation to a fellow NATO member, Turkey warned the U.S. before the bombing began, according to Defense Secretary James Mattis, who said high-level U.S. military officials were notified by the Turkish military. Hence, no U.S. troops were injured in the Turkish airstrikes.
Yet instead of condemning the “blatant attack,” (which the invasion was called by the Syrian government) Mattis merely said, “We are working now on the way ahead. We’ll work this out.”
The Kurds have proven to be the U.S.’ most loyal ally as well as the most effective fighting force against Islamic State. They are the largest nation in the world without a state, numbering 45 million people divided between Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey.
They are committed to democracy, human rights and gender equality. They represent perhaps the only and last foil to Iranian and Turkish hegemony in the region.
Under the Trump administration, the United States backed down when confronted by Turkey about Kurdish independence last fall, refusing to stand by the Iraqi Kurds in their quest for autonomy. Under the Obama administration, the U.S. looked the other way while Turkey facilitated the transfer of ISIS and other jihadi fighters to Syria. It failed to call out Turkey for supporting ISIS by buying Islamic State’s contraband oil, the best-known “secret” in the Western world.
Barely a protest was heard from the U.S. in the aftermath of the attempted coup against Erdogan when Turkey cut the power to a Turkish airbase used by the U.S. and put it on lockdown in an effort to force the U.S. to extradite Turkish Imam Fethullah Gulen (whom Erdogan accused of being behind the coup). The airbase stores nukes and was the take-off point for attacks against Islamic State.
While over 100,000 people – journalists, civil servants, military officers, police, university professors and more including an American pastor and other Americans – were detained, arrested, imprisoned and/or tortured in Erdogan’s post-coup sweep, the U.S. stood idly by.
It is time for the U.S. to stop kowtowing to Turkey, which has proven time and time again it is no ally. Under Erdogan’s leadership since 2003, the country has taken a severe and downward turn into Islamist-driven politics and government.
Standing up to Turkey over the establishment of a Kurdish-led Syrian Border Force is a good place to start.