Just when it looked like the seven-year war in Syria might be nearing its end, Turkey has invaded the northwestern province of Afrin. The target of the invasion is the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, the Kurdish militia that, with American military backing, recently defeated ISIS in Raqqa. President Trump is scheduled to speak to Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Wednesday, but it already seems clear the United States isn’t going to stick up for its ally.
Beginning Saturday night, the Turkish military carried out hundreds of airstrikes on a string of Kurdish towns, killing dozens of civilians. On Sunday, even as senior U.S. officials were touring liberated Raqqa, columns of Turkish tanks and armored fighting vehicles were rolling across the border not far to the north. On Tuesday and Wednesday, photos posted to social media showed masses of Kurdish civilians fleeing their homes in the cold and muddy weather.
Turkey says the offensive is to clear Afrin of “terrorists,” by which they mean the YPG, which for the last three years has been the United States’ primary ally in the ground war against ISIS. Although the YPG-led coalition is still battling remnants of ISIS in the Euphrates River Valley, the loss of Raqqa effectively ended their self-declared caliphate. It was a major geopolitical victory for the U.S. But the Kurds, a fiercely independent people who make up a sizable minority in Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran, have a long history of helping the U.S. achieve its military objectives in the Middle East only to be abandoned once they’ve served their purpose. On Monday, the White House issued a lame call for Turkey to exercise “restraint,” and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson timidly acknowledged Turkey’s “legitimate concerns.”
From the beginning of the war in Syria, Turkey’s primary interest has been keeping down the Kurds, an ethnic group the Turkish state has brutally oppressed for nearly a century. Under Erdoğan’s leadership, Turkey has become increasingly nationalist and authoritarian, and on Sunday, he cast the invasion of Afrin in classically fascist rhetoric, with a dash of Islamist chauvinism: “We will crush anyone who opposes our national struggle,” he said in a speech to a huge crowd waving red flags. “Allah is with us.”
The YPG, by contrast, is a secular, progressive militia with elected leaders that shares power with an all-female counterpart, the YPJ. As I’ve previously reported, hundreds of volunteers from Europe and America have joined the YPG, in particular the sort of hard-left activists you might have found at Occupy Wall Street or setting limousines on fire at Trump’s inauguration. Lucas Chapman, a 22-year-old communist from Georgia who served in the YPG, says the invasion of Afrin was “completely unethical and without purpose.” Clark Mitchell, a 25-year-old U.S. Army veteran from Tennessee who served in the YPG during the Battle of Raqqa, says he and some others are now trying to see if they can get to Afrin in time to fight the Turks. Otherwise, he says, “Our leaders will stand by and do nothing to stop Erdoğan from massacring the Kurds.”
As of Wednesday evening, Afrin remained without radio and Internet. Thick fog blanketed the battlefield, and there were conflicting reports of casualties. The Turkish military said it had so far killed 260 Kurdish and “Islamic State” fighters, though ISIS has never had a presence in Afrin; until Turkey invaded, it was the most peaceful part of Syria. A spokesman for the Turkish Embassy in Washington, D.C. did not respond to a request for comment.
It’s not clear what the Turkish government hopes to accomplish. They can’t “eliminate” the YPG in Afrin without massacring half the young people, because the YPG is essentially a national guard. “What are they supposed to do?” said Can Êzîdxelo, a Kurdish journalist from Afrin. “Leave their homes?” Since Afrin is sovereign Syrian territory to which the Turks have no claim, it’s doubtful they mean to occupy it indefinitely. Nor does the offensive directly affect the balance of power between the government of Bashar al-Assad and the rebels opposing him. It seems to be an exercise in pure aggression, a chest-pounding charge onto the Kurds’ turf, to let them know they may have defeated ISIS, but they’ll never be safe from the Turkish state.
It’s also a chance for Erdoğan to throw his weight around in a new international order bereft of any kind of principled leadership. The United Nations has been powerless to stop a half-dozen countries from invading Syria in violation of international law. The Chinese don’t care, and the European Union still coattails the U.S., even though the Trump Administration’s Syria policy has been random at best. The Russian intervention in Syria has been rational and effective, but utterly amoral in defense of the mass-murdering Assad. According to YPG commanders, the Russians gave them a choice between ceding Afrin to the regime or dealing with a Turkish invasion. When they refused to surrender to Assad, Russia removed its forces from Afrin, clearing the way for the Turks to bomb it.
The U.S. military could stop Turkey by imposing a no-fly zone over northern Syria, but Trump is especially unlikely to stick up for the Kurds. Using them to defeat ISIS was an Obama Administration strategy that he only reluctantly continued after it turned out he didn’t have a “secret plan” of his own, as he had claimed during the campaign. His first pick for National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn, had to resign after it was revealed, among other things, that he’d secretly received half a million dollars to lobby for Turkish interests. Trump has his own financial connections with Turkey, including a Trump Towers in Istanbul, and Erdoğan, a financially corrupt, conspiracy-mongering bully whose government jails more journalists than any other country, is reportedly one of the world leaders Trump most admires. After Erdoğan claimed near-dictatorial powers in a crooked referendum in April 2017, Trump was the only western leader who called to congratulate him. “We have a great friendship,” Trump said.
Besides having defeated ISIS, the Kurds are the only major player in Syria with a sincere ideological commitment to secular democracy and human rights. The entire civilized world ought to be taking their side against Turkey, but with freaks of human nature like Assad, Putin, Trump and Erdoğan calling the shots, it looks like they’ll once again be on their own. As the old Kurdish saying goes, “No friends but the mountains.” Fortunately the Kurds really know how to fight.