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Explainer: As Turkey attacks and Trump watches on, who are the Kurds and why are they in the middle?

The US made the surprise decision to pull troops out of northern Syria, leaving Turkey to enter.

Smoke billows from targets inside Syria during bombardment by Turkish forces.
Smoke billows from targets inside Syria during bombardment by Turkish forces.
Image: Lefteris Pitarakis/PA Images

THE TURKISH MILITARY has launched a ground operation in northern Syria, causing thousands of Kurdish people to flee their homes.

The move by Ankara comes following the unexpected decision by US President Donald Trump to remove all of the US forces from the area.

The controversial decision effectively cleared the way for Turkey to enter the region and the decision by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is due to be discussed at an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council later today.

But how did we get to this point and why could the situation have such far-reaching consequences for the Kurdish people and the wider region?

Who are the Kurds?

The ethnic minority Kurdish people live in the Kurdistan region which straddles Turkey, Syria, Iran, Iraq and Armenia.

The region is considered the world’s largest stateless nation and Kurds have long faced persecution by the nations in which they inhabit.

Kurds in Iraq operate an autonomous region but their status in Syria is less defined. They make up about 7% and 10% of Syria’s population and when the civil war broke out in 2011 the main Kurdish parties avoided taking sides.

Bashar al-Assad’s government forces largely pulled out of Syrian Kurdistan to concentrate on fighting elsewhere and Kurdish militias took control.

As the so-called Islamic State attempted to spread in 2015, Kurdish militia the People’s Protection Unit (YPG) fought alongside the Arab Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to defeat IS in Northern Syria.

They were strongly backed by airpower from a US-led western coalition and in March of this year the SDF announced they had expelled the extremists from their last patch in the region.

Trump had hailed the victory achieved by the Kurdish-Arab ground fighters and western airpower as a win for the United States but this ‘victory’ did not mean the end of IS

trump-signs-executive-orders-on-transparency-in-federal-guidance-and-enforcement US President Donald Trump. Source: PA Images

Although IS-administered territory has been reduced to virtually nil, IS fighters remain in the region and many are being held in makeshift jails protected by Kurdish militias.

Kurdish authorities have been calling on the international community to help set up and guard new high-security detention facilities.

Syria’s Kurds are also calling for much more support for displacement camps, where tens of thousands of people have amassed after fleeing battles against IS.

Some 1,000 US troops had been in the areas to assist Kurdish allies before Trump’s decision to remove them.

Trump has long argued that the US needs to remove itself from actions in the Middle East but this controversial decision left Kurdish fighters and civilians at risk of a Turkish invasion.

This duly followed within days.

As of Wednesday evening, Turkish bombardment on Kurdish-controlled areas in northeastern Syria killed at least 15 people, eight of them civilians, a monitoring group said


While the Kurdish militias we allies of the US in the fight against IS, Turkey has labelled them as terrorists.

Erdogan has long been an opponent of Kurdish nationalism and his country has long been planning military action against Kurdish forces in northern Syria due to their ties with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has fought a bloody insurgency against the Turkish state since 1984.

On Sunday Trump and Erdogan held a phonecall that was, as NBC News reports, supposed to “ease the Turkish leader’s fury” that the pair did not meet at the UN last month.

“But Sunday’s phone call didn’t go as expected, officials said. Erdogan was adamant about Turkey going into Syria,,” NBC reports.

Trump told Erdogan that a moderate incursion, such as clearing out a safe zone, would be acceptable, officials said. But he said a large invasion that leads to major combat operations would be unacceptable, officials said.

Erdogan claims that this “safe zone” would be used as an area to which millions of Syrian refugees can be returned.

Turkey has seen an influx of some 3.6 million refugees since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war and Erdogan today warned the EU that it would have to deal with these refugees if the ‘safe zone’ was not created.

“Hey EU, wake up. I say it again: if you try to frame our operation there as an invasion, our task is simple: we will open the doors and send 3.6 million migrants to you,” Erdogan said in a speech to parliament.

Source: BBC Newsnight/YouTube

Washington reaction

Without providing details of the phonecall, the White House made the surprise announcement on Sunday evening that Turkey was entering Northern Syria and that US troops “will not support or be involved in the operation” and “will no longer be in the immediate area”.

In effect, pulling out of the region.

It’s believed that Erdogan assured Trump that Turkey would be able to contain IS fighters in the area but Trump’s Republican colleagues are among those to have cast doubt on that claim.

They also fear that the decision to abandon the Kurds will impact the US ability to build future alliances.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham and Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen have even published a bipartisan bill aimed at imposing sanctions on Turkey for its actions.

With reporting by © – AFP 2019

About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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