On Monday, Turkish warplanes hit the village of Bene in Afrin, a Kurdish canton in northwestern Syria. Two civilians were wounded, and there was widespread damage to homes. Less than a week ago, they had struck the Makhmour refugee camp across the border in northern Iraq. Four women were killed, aged between 14 and 73. The government in Baghdad was furious and summoned the Turkish ambassador for explanations.
For years now, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has had the upper hand, for good and—especially—for ill, in Syrian and Iraqi Kurdistan, with one overarching goal: to destroy the democratic confederalism in Rojava and eliminate the PKK, which is operating in the Qandil Mountains in Iraq.
This escalation is causing great fear among Kurdish communities, who are certain that Erdogan’s threat will soon materialize: as he said on Monday, a military operation to the east of the Euphrates ”is imminent.” After Afrin, which was occupied last March and subject to harsh measures aiming at demographic change, with the Kurdish inhabitants expelled to make way for Sunni Islamist militants and their families, Turkey is pushing eastward toward the Ayn al-Arab and Jazira cantons.
What can be read as a confirmation came Wednesday with the shock announcement by the White House that the Pentagon will begin the withdrawal of the Special Operations forces stationed in Syria, both to the north, in support of the anti-ISIS campaign of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF, an alliance of fighters of different faiths and ethnicities, headed by the Kurdish YPG and YPJ), and to the south, at the al-Tanf base on the border with Iraq—an area of high strategic importance, as this is the transit area for the men and weapons coming from Iran to support the government in Damascus.
The administration has given orders to the Department of Defense to start planning the immediate withdrawal of troops, and, as Reuters has reported, the State Department staff will be called back within 24 hours. In lieu of an explanation, Trump, as usual, tweeted: “We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump presidency.”
As the Syrians and Iraqis know very well, ISIS has not been defeated: it is still present in isolated cells around the country (an estimated 2,500 militants are on the border between the two countries), and its presence is felt on a regular basis, with brutal attacks against the populations of the two countries. This state of affairs was confirmed just a few days ago by Brett McGurk, presidential envoy for the anti-ISIS coalition: “Nobody is saying that [ISIS fighters] are going to disappear. Nobody is that naive. So we want to stay on the ground and make sure that stability can be maintained in these areas.”
Now, Trump is denying this state of affairs, while the Pentagon prefers to remain silent, so that the only information we have is coming from leaks: the Department of Defense wants to stop the withdrawal, while White House spokesperson Sarah Sanders is saying the troops have already started returning to the US.
Left looming over the region is Erdogan, who will have much more room for maneuver without the US Marines in the way: the American presence in Rojava was a problem for him, not indeed because Washington had any intention to defend the SDF or the Kurdish units (as was clearly seen in Afrin, which was invaded on the watch of the United States, without a whisper from the latter), but because a Turkish ground advance might lead to some embarrassing standoff situations.
The position of the Americans on the matter by the new military agreement announced on Tuesday between Washington and Ankara: the Pentagon approved the sale of Patriot defense systems to Turkey worth $3.5 billion. This approval resolves the longstanding stalemate that had pushed Erdogan into the arms of the Russian. In 2017, Ankara had signed an agreement with Moscow to buy Russian S-400 defense systems, to be installed by October 2019, which NATO has considered a snub against the Alliance.
Those who will bear the devastating costs of a Turkish military operation are the Kurdish communities. This time, they will not face the artillery of a militia such as ISIS, but the fighters and drones of NATO’s second-largest army, with its destructive potential and its “international legitimacy.” Ankara has already put out its notice: they will intensify the anti-PKK operations in the Iraqi province of Sinjar, said the Turkish Foreign Ministry, while the president estimated that the operation in Syrian Rojava will begin “in a few days.”