by Anne Speckhard
Athens: On October 9th, 2019, with a “nod” from President Trump—given via Twitter—the Turkish military began an all-out aerial bombardment and invasion of Northeastern Syria, purportedly to clear the area to create a terrorist-free safety corridor and resettle over one million of the over four million Syrian refugees currently straining the Turkish system. This occurred despite the fact that the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) already were doing a good job of controlling the area and that there was no publicly available data that the SDF, despite being predominantly Kurdish led and staffed, had allowed any PKK terrorist activity attacking Turkey to occur from inside their territory.
The PKK, who the Turks continue to confuse with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units YPG) and Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), have their headquarters in the Qandil mountains in Iraq, not Syria. The YPG and YPJ who make up the major part of the SDF, are the Kurds who fought valiantly to defeat ISIS territorially and to save the Yazidis being genocidally killed on Sinjar Mountain. After incorporating minorities into their ranks, the YPG transitioned into the SDF, which currently controls the northeast of Syria. While many Rojava officials leading inside the SDF sympathize with the larger Kurdish project and revere PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan for uniting the Kurds and for his visions of bottom-up governance, they state that they do not allow PKK to be active in their territory, and there is no clear evidence that they do.
The PKK is actually a Turkish domestic issue with complications in Iraq, not Syria. Although Abdullah Ocalan lived and operated in Syria until the 90s, the PKK has long ago moved to the Qandil mountains in Iraq. The PKK successfully recruits terrorist cadres from inside Turkey and attacks across the Iraqi/Turkish border are common using Turkish cadres. Two years ago, Turkey was engaged in talks with the Turkish PKK, but these talks ultimately failed and there are major issues in Turkey due to their failure to resolve their so-called “Kurdish” problem. This has nothing to do with the Syrian Kurds, however, and it is grave mistake to confuse the YPG with the PKK. Likewise, with the development of Turkish military drones, the Turks have been very successful in identifying PKK movement in the Iraqi Qandil mountains, and have, as a result, been bombing them daily, diminishing the size and power of the group. Yet domestic support for the PKK inside Turkey continues, referencing the need for domestic changes versus international military incursions.
Meanwhile the Syrian Kurds who, since 2015, had U.S. military backing and air support to fight ISIS have been, and are currently, suffering from Turkey falsely labeling them as terrorists while they are in actuality the strongest and bravest force that fought and defeated the most heinous terrorist killers yet seen to date. In serving as U.S. “boots-on the-ground” to fight ISIS, the YPG and YPJ lost 12,000 fighters, saving us from losing many U.S. troops in the fight against ISIS.
Today, President Trump stated that the Kurds are not U.S. allies because they did not fight with the U.S. in Normandy and in World War Two. Despite the stupidity of this statement, he seems to have forgotten that ISIS is a globally minded group and that the ISIS external emni, the security apparatus of ISIS, while operating from inside Syria, planned, incited, and carried out numerous and horrendous terrorist attacks inside many of our major cities: New York, Paris, Brussels, Nice, London and Istanbul among them.
The YPG and YPJ helped enormously to put an end to ISIS’s ability to control territory on the ground in northeast Syria and thereby made all of us safer as we board trains and planes and move about our cities. However, ISIS is still active. Until this Turkish incursion, the SDF was busy repelling weekly attacks from ISIS sleeper cells that they have been actively rounding up. Meanwhile, Baghdadi still exhorts his followers to mount attacks all over the globe. Hence, our YPG and YPJ allies have protected all of us from the long and tenacious terror arm of ISIS and continue to do so. By comparison, Turkey proved negligent in allowing upwards of 40,000 foreign fighters to stream across its border to join groups like ISIS, and there is a great deal of evidence of Turkish complicity in directly supporting ISIS to be its proxy fighting force against the Kurds. Turkey contributed to making ISIS as strong as it became, while the Kurds were the force that took them down.
When Baghdadi resurfaces on audio and video clips, he tells his followers to try to break out the ISIS men and women currently held in prison in Syria and Iraq. This is a considerable group of persons. In Syria, the SDF currently holds 10,000+ ISIS cadres, 8,000 of them local and approximately 2,000 more who are foreign fighters, 1,000 of them thought to be Europeans. Additionally, an estimated 75, 000 women and children are currently being held in Camp Hol, Syria, with at least 60, 000 being Syrians and Iraqis. At least 8,000 children and 4,000 wives of foreign terrorist fighters are held in Camp Hol, while Camp Ain Issa holds an additional total of 12,000 women and children. Of these 1,000 children and 265 women are foreigner terrorist fighter’s family members. Camp Roj holds 1,500 women and children of foreign terrorist fighters. Europe in particular has refused to repatriate these ISIS prisoners who are now waiting to see what will befall them with the Turkish incursion and battles ensuing. Those inside the prison report being terrified.
All of the SDF prisons and camps are overcrowded, with riots and attempted jail breaks regularly occurring, as well as killings and attacks. The prison facilities themselves are also strained, with some of prisons consisting of schools repurposed as prisons and the prison guards are often attacked. Yet, in our ICSVE interviews with over 5% of the SDF held ISIS prisoners, we repeatedly hear that the YPG and YPJ units holding the prisoners do not engage in abuses or torture and that they observe human rights with this dangerous prison population. The SDF has been severely challenged in managing these facilities and has repeatedly expressed a need for technical assistance in dealing with terrorist prisoners and for financial assistance to build at least five prisons.
Now, the SDF are even more challenged as they face a Turkish incursion. While counter-terrorism experts warn that the ISIS prisoners could escape and might try to reinvigorate the ISIS Caliphate, our interviews indicate that most prisoners are very battle exhausted, disillusioned of ISIS and simply want to go home to face justice and at some point, resume normal lives. Most show no interest to pick up arms again. Yet if they were to suddenly find freedom amidst this new chaos unleashed by President Trump and the Turks, they would likely go into hiding locally in Syria or Iraq, try to make their way into Turkey to hide, or continue onward home, and in doing so may get convinced to rejoin the terrorist group. It remains to be seen how far the Turks will incur into SDF held territory and if they will cause circumstances in which the prisons are also under attack.
It is clear that the SDF has no wish to free the ISIS prisoners that they lost their lives fighting and capturing. We can expect that they will do their best to keep them secured, unless it proves impossible to stay alive while so doing. Naively, President Trump assures that Turkey has been warned that they must be responsible for the prisoners and we are all safe. Yet, there is no clear hand-off mechanism in place and the YPG and YPJ units holding the prisoners are being called terrorists by the Turks and as a result, threatened for their very lives.
On the first day of the Turkish incursion the Turks announced that they had hit 181 targets but were not aiming at the Kurdish people, just wanting to clear the area of Kurdish terrorists. Whether or not the Turks are able to distinguish terrorist from civilian while using aerial bombardments and mortars launched from a distance, is unclear. We know that 7 civilians, 2 who were Christians, were killed in the first day of assaults.
The Turks are demanding that the SDF stands down and YPG and YPJ do not resist them. Yet, judging from the Turkish actions in Afrin, the Kurds have a strong motivation to engage in armed resistance. On the same pretext of creating a safe zone, in Afrin, Turkish backed fighters took over the homes of Kurds and drove many of them out while they placed Arabs in their places. The SDF also claim that they have a great deal of evidence that these so called “Free Syrian Army” troops that Turkey used then, and is using again now, as their fighting force, is made up of vicious, sick-minded and brutal former ISIS members who Turkey aligned with in the past to fight the Kurds.
Sinam Mohamed, who now lives in the U.S., tells of how her beautiful Afrin home was overtaken by bearded cadres, her factories looted, and the equipment taken back to Turkey, and that her family was driven out, never to return to their farms and livelihood. Once wealthy, the family is now impoverished and living apart, having fled Afrin. Theirs is just one of many such stories. Certainly, there are also stories of Kurds being unfair, but under SDF leadership their problems with minorities were being worked out in a democratic manner, not through violence.
Yesterday Turks shelled all along the borders. The SDF sent us a picture of a young boy under age five laying on the ground killed by Turkish bombs. Is this the PKK that the Turks wished to eliminate? Civilian deaths cannot be justified on either side. These areas where Turks are incurring are heavily populated and the Turks look to be aiming to do a massive population displacement with no regard to human rights.
President Erdogan’s goal in creating a safety zone is also to resettle at least one million of the Syrian refugees currently residing in and stressing the Turkish population. However, it goes against all human rights principles to forcibly resettle refugees and to do so in areas that they are not from. It begs the questions of whose homes and lands exactly will they will take over, and how this could possibly occur in the name of promoting peace? Forcible deportations and resettlements are not a good idea, yet President Erdogan today threatened Europeans who may call their actions an occupation, warning that he will respond by sending more refugees streaming into Europe. Indeed, Turkey holds the keys for that as well. Clearly, President Erdogan does not have the Syrian refugees nor the Europeans best interests in mind and he is just locked into labeling the YPG as terrorists.
The betrayal by President Trump of our Kurdish allies needs to be reversed immediately. The originally negotiated joint patrols with Turkey are what should be instituted, with a no-fly zone over SDF controlled areas immediately instituted, with US guarantees of SDF protection. While President Trump is correct that the U.S. should not be engaged in endless wars, his abrupt pull out with no clear plan for handing off the ISIS prisoners, or ensuring protections for civilians, is not the way to leave.
There is no need for this current Turkish military incursion. Turkey has not put forward any credible evidence that the PKK is mounting attacks into Turkey from Syria, where it is clear the PKK is a Turkish problem that they have themselves failed to adequately address. Turkish academics admit that the PKK routinely recruits in Turkey and we know that Turkey was engaged in negotiations with the PKK two years ago which have now failed. These are totally a domestic issue requiring resolution at home, not in Syria. If refugees are to be resettled that also needs to occur in a planful and nonviolent manner.
Our SDF allies are completely able to enforce the peace in their territory and have been doing so for a few years now. That we would acquiesce to Turkish demands and “fake news” accusing our best allies of being terrorists, without any evidence produced that the PKK is active in these zones and allow this violence to occur harming our reputation and our allies is a shame to all of us. It costs us no American lives to offer airpower and protection to our Kurdish allies who fought valiantly to protect us all from ISIS.
While at some point the US will have to back out of Syria, we are committed to Iraq for the longer term and our troop and air power are mainly situated there, decisions which are unlikely to change, so the costs are low at present to reverse this disastrous decision.
To keep Syria intact as one country, the SDF will have to at some point negotiate its territorial control with the central government. However, the Assad government has insisted to place top-down governance in areas held by the SDF and that goes against Kurdish philosophy of democratic grassroots up governance. Assad may win that battle, but if he does, we should recognize it means the newest budding democracy in the Middle East will have been destroyed in its infancy.
SDF units who fought valiantly on our behalf, are men and women who deserve our respect and gratitude. Likewise, given all the bad governance, oppression and corruption in the region we should be eager to support the newest democracy in the Middle East, that is also attempting to give women and minorities their rights. While the SDF has not yet created a perfect democracy, it’s an amazing accomplishment to have established good governance in the middle of war.
President Trump needs to get some spine now and tell the Turks to back out of Syria and clearly stand by the Kurds who are our allies and are not terrorists. If anyone can produce clear evidence that there are any PKK actions occurring from inside SDF controlled territory it is easy to insist with the SDF that these people be arrested and brought to justice. Currently, we are aware of none, despite Turkish propaganda claims to the contrary.
While the SDF are armed and they have dug tunnels throughout the area and thus can move underground and avoid air detection, they are no match for the Turkish army, which is the second largest army in NATO with a huge air force, latest technology, drones etc. Likewise, as they counterattack Turkish lives are needlessly lost. Essentially, given the example of Afrin, we have left our Kurdish allies to a slaughter and massive displacements which are already occurring. What choice do these brave men and women have but to fight when it’s their cities and land and they are being called terrorists who Turkey wishes to kill. It’s time to put a stop to this now.
Reference for this Article: Speckhard, Anne (October 11, 2019) “Fake News” and the Trump Betrayal of our Kurdish Allies. ICSVE Brief Reports. https://www.icsve.org/fake-news-and-the-trump-betrayal-of-our-kurdish-allies/
Anne Speckhard, Ph.D., is Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE) and serves as an Adjunct Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine. She has interviewed over 600 terrorists, their family members and supporters in various parts of the world including in Western Europe, the Balkans, Central Asia, the Former Soviet Union and the Middle East. In the past two years, she and ICSVE staff have been collecting interviews (n=196) with ISIS defectors, returnees and prisoners, studying their trajectories into and out of terrorism, their experiences inside ISIS, as well as developing counter narratives from these interviews. She has also been training key stakeholders in law enforcement, intelligence, educators, and other countering violent extremism professionals on the use of counter-narrative messaging materials produced by ICSVE both locally and internationally as well as studying the use of children as violent actors by groups such as ISIS and consulting on how to rehabilitate them. In 2007, she was responsible for designing the psychological and Islamic challenge aspects of the Detainee Rehabilitation Program in Iraq to be applied to 20,000 + detainees and 800 juveniles. She is a sought after counterterrorism expert and has consulted to NATO, OSCE, foreign governments and to the U.S. Senate & House, Departments of State, Defense, Justice, Homeland Security, Health & Human Services, CIA and FBI and CNN, BBC, NPR, Fox News, MSNBC, CTV, and in Time, The New York Times, The Washington Post, London Times and many other publications. She regularly speaks and publishes on the topics of the psychology of radicalization and terrorism and is the author of several books, including Talking to Terrorists, Bride of ISIS, Undercover Jihadi and ISIS Defectors: Inside Stories of the Terrorist Caliphate. Her publications are found here: https://georgetown.academia.edu/AnneSpeckhard and on the ICSVE website http://www.icsve.org Follow @AnneSpeckhard