On April 16th, Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan assumed near-dictatorial control in a narrowly won national referendum. Just over a week later, Erdogan ordered a wave of airstrikes on American-backed Kurdish militia in Iraq and Syria, killing as many as seventy people.
One of the airstrikes hit a small hilltop base in northeastern Syria that I had visited about five months ago, a place the Kurds call Qereçox. At the time, maybe a hundred Kurdish fighters were there, men and women, cooking scrambled eggs and playing volleyball to pass the time. They were lightly armed and had few possessions, slept on floor mats and burned pine boughs for warmth. Most of them were passing through on their way to the front line with ISIS. After the Tuesday morning strike, a Kurdish fighter by the name of Dlzar Surchy sent me photos of the aftermath, the blasted shell of a concrete building standing amid dusty rubble. “Ow may good fake turky,” Surchy wrote, by which I think he meant, “Oh my God, fuck Turkey.”
An American named Lucas Chapman who spent six months fighting ISIS with the Kurds posted a photo of one of his former commanders, a Kurdish woman named Jiyan Amed, whom Chapman said was killed in the Qereçox strike. “She was always respectful and genuinely cared for all the soldiers under her command,” Chapman wrote.
The main target of the strikes was a nearby base on Mount Sinjar, Iraq, which I also visited on the same reporting trip. The small group of Kurdish fighters based there famously rescued the Yazidi Kurds from an ISIS genocide in August 2014; that’s how they ended up on Mount Sinjar, after driving ISIS out. The most memorable thing about the place was a war memorial, a sort of terrace with rows of concrete podiums, about a hundred in total, each supporting a framed photo of a Kurdish martyr who died saving the Yazidis, including a few young female fighters. Images uploaded to social media yesterday showed the memorial site a wreckage of concrete and dirt and shattered picture frames. I wasn’t able to reach any of the Kurds I met on Mount Sinjar, but a Canadian photographer named Joey Lawrence who was there last November took to Twitter to denounce the “cesspool of larger global agendas” that permitted Turkish fighter jets to bomb a band of anti-ISIS guerrillas, many of whom were not twenty years old. One, I remember, was just a half-grown boy, whose job it was to make breakfast and feed the few animals they kept. Another was a sixteen-year-old girl who had lost an eye fighting ISIS north of Mosul.
As usual, Turkey’s justification was to label those killed terrorists. For their part, the stateless Kurds say they fight only to defend their rightful homeland. One middle-aged, mustachioed Kurdish commander I interviewed on Mount Sinjar put it this way: “What is Turkey?” he said, rolling a cigarette in a grimy, freezing-cold kitchen with rats running along the rafters. “What is Iraq? Lines drawn on a map. Kurdish people have been in this place since before the time of the Prophet Muhammad.”
The building where we had that conversation was blown up Tuesday morning. A panoramic image uploaded to Twitter showed it reduced to a wreckage of rubble and rebar strewn down the mountainside.
Turkey is a member of NATO and supposedly a United States ally, but for more than a year now, Erdogan has been bombing and shelling the Kurdish militias of Syria, even though they are fighting side-by-side with about 1,000 American troops in a campaign to liberate Raqqa, the ISIS capital. At the same time, Kurdish peshmerga forces are supporting the American-managed Mosul offensive in neighboring Iraq. The string of Turkish airstrikes also hit those Kurds, killing at least five peshmerga.
In a giant “sorry I’m not sorry” to the world, Erdogan ordered the strikes on April 24, the date of commemorating the Turkish genocide against the Armenians, another ethnic minority group that Turkey has long persecuted.
In the past, United States officials have been oddly tolerant of Turkish interference in Syria, keeping silent even after a Turkish airstrike in November 2016 killed an American citizen who had volunteered to fight ISIS with the Kurds. This time, however, Erdogan may have gone too far; American diplomats and military officials immediately condemned the airstrikes, sounding genuinely surprised and angry. The phrase of the day at the State Department was “deeply concerned,” diplomatic code for “extremely pissed.” An official complaint was lodged with the Turkish government. A spokesman for the anti-ISIS coalition based in Iraq said that the Kurds killed in the strikes had been “fighting to rid the world of ISIS,” and that the strikes had been conducted “without proper coordination with the Coalition.”
The governments in Damascus and Baghdad protested the violation of their airspace. Even Russia spoke up in defense of the Kurds. But it’s not clear whether the outrage extends to the White House, which has yet to comment. Like Duterte of the Philippines and Putin of Russia, Erdogan is one of a number of murderous autocrats whom Trump openly admires. After a failed coup attempt in Turkey last summer, candidate Trump praised Erdogan for crushing the rebellion, and said that Turkey would have a greater role in the fight against ISIS if he were elected. Erdogan 51-percent victory in the referendum earlier this month was widely regarded as fraudulent and universally condemned in the West – except by Trump, who called Erdogan to congratulate him.
Even from what little is known of Trump’s finances, it’s clear that he has business ties with Turkey. There is a Trump Towers Istanbul, and his son Donald Trump, Jr. occasionally goes hunting in Turkey, where he enjoys killing rare desert animals in the company of Turkish businessmen. The trail of suspicious connections eventually circles around to Moscow: The Turkish businessman who paid former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn $600,000 while he was an advisor to Trump’s 2016 campaign is partnered with a Russian who has dealings within Putin’s circle.
Under Erdogan, the Turkish government has grown increasingly conservative and Islamist, and is widely considered to be giving ISIS covert support. As early as November 2014, a team of Columbia University researchers found that Turkey supplies military equipment, logistical support, training and medical care to ISIS fighters, and provides them with a market for the oil they stole from Syria and Iraq. Turkey’s motives are obvious. There are proxy wars upon proxy wars going on in Syria, and aside from their ideological affinities, ISIS is the enemy of Turkey’s enemies: the Assad regime, and above all, the Kurds. In the ruthless calculus of the Syrian Civil War, that makes ISIS and Erdogan crypto-allies.
But Team ISIS is losing. Backing the Kurds was the single most successful move the United States has made since first intervening in Syria. In October 2016, with support from the United States Air Force, the Syrian Kurds launched the operation to liberate Raqqa, where ISIS has its global headquarters. Since then, ISIS has lost about half of its territory. The Kurds are now within a few miles of Raqqa and have it surrounded on three sides, reportedly triggering a round of panicked infighting and punitive executions within ISIS ranks.
Elite American commandos have been embedded with the Kurds since November 2015, about 500 of them at the moment. Last month, they were joined by another 400 artillerymen from the Marine Corps – just what the lightly armed Kurds needed most. But that deployment was planned before Trump took office, and so far the president has made no decisive statement about the Kurds. Meanwhile, Erdogan appears to think he can get away with anything; on Wednesday, in the face of criticism from around the world, he had about 1,000 dissidents rounded up and thrown in jail, to add to the 47,000 soldiers, police, judges, lawyers, civil servants and journalists he has already imprisoned for opposing him.
So the question is: Will Trump walk away from the alliance against ISIS that the Obama Administration and the Kurds have forged and instead embrace an autocratic regime in Turkey (as Erdogan has urged him to do), or will he put the rogue Turkish government in its place and fully arm the Kurds so they can finish the job? Thursday evening on social media, Kurdish fighters and journalists were calling for the United States to impose a no-fly-zone over northern Syria, and there were reports that the Raqqa offensive would be halted if the United States failed to take concrete action. The White House remained silent – plans had already been made for Trump to meet with Erdogan in Washington next month. Trump’s ties to Turkey and Russia – which is backing the Assad regime – add yet another layer of competing agendas atop the unbelievably complicated and opaque conflict in Syria, which has metastasized into a world war in microcosm. But on the ground, what happened Tuesday morning was simple: Kurds fighting ISIS got killed.