Bear with us today as we are taking a detour away from domestic policy and towards U.S. foreign policy. While this is not within our typical wheelhouse, we believe that being an informed global citizen is just as important as being an informed American citizen. Foreign policy is a vital component of our political system, and we believe that this particular issue warrants a bit of explaining.
While seeing Syria in the headlines this past week may not have seemed out of the ordinary after years of civil war, tensions in the region have heightened dramatically after the Trump Administration recently pulled US troops from the Turkey-Syria border, redeploying them to other stations in the region. Following this action, Turkey launched a military offensive against Kurdish forces in northeastern Syria, seeking to drive Kurdish forces from the border and use the land to resettle nearly two million Syrian refugees. But before further unpacking the political controversy around the military offensive, who are the Kurds, and why is Turkey attacking them?
The Kurds are the largest stateless ethnic group, most of them concentrated in Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Armenia, and Syria. America has historically been allied with the Kurdish forces in Syria. However, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan views the Kurdish forces as a terrorist offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which has incited rebellion in Turkey since 1984. The tension between the Kurds and the Turks places America in a precarious position: Turkey is a fellow NATO member and ally, while the U.S. has historically supported the Kurds in fighting ISIS in the region.
After President Trump pulled troops from the border, Turkey launched a military offensive against the Kurds on the northeastern Syria border. In response, the Kurdish forces quickly forged an alliance with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian Army. Al-Assad had formerly largely ignored the northeastern region, allowing the Kurdish-led militia to assume power. With the withdrawal of American troops, Al-Assad moved to reestablish presence and funneled large numbers of Syrian soldiers into the area.
Last week, the U.S. and Turkey jointly announced a five-day ceasefire in the region after negotiations took place between Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and representatives from the Turkish government. Further, President Trump has directly addressed President Erdoğan and implored him to work towards a peaceful end to the offensive. The ceasefire is intended to allow Kurdish forces to evacuate and will maintain a “permanent cease-fire” once evacuation is complete. As the Kurds were left out of this negotiation, some criticized the announcement as an American concession on behalf of Kurdish forces.
Many argue that the U.S. has abandoned a key ally, the Kurds, and left them largely defenseless against more powerful Turkish forces. Further, many are concerned that pulling U.S. troops from the region will leave behind a power vacuum that may permit ISIS to regain strength and authority. Other areas of concern include maintaining security of ISIS prisoners in the region and ensuring safety of the Kurds.
Despite the ceasefire, both Senators Lindsey Graham (with Sen. Chris Van Hollen) and Senators Jim Risch (with Sen. Bob Menendez) have introduced various bills that would impose sanctions on Turkey. Top Congressional foreign affairs lawmakers and various European allies also released a joint statement condemning the decision to withdraw American military forces from Syria, as well as the Turkish invasion. The statement further called on the European Union to engage in conflict resolution. U.S. lawmakers are also pushing for legislation to impose sanctions on Turkey.
On Tuesday, the Turkish ceasefire ended, and Russia and Turkey announced joint patrols along the Syrian and Turkish border to be established within the week. Further on Tuesday, Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell and other senior Republican senators introduced an additional resolution opposing Trump’s withdrawal from Syria. As of the writing of this blog, the President has announced that a permanent cease fire between the two nation’s has been reached and that the U.S. is lifting all sanctions previously imposed on Turkey.
While the lack of violence in the wake of the ceasefire is promising, tensions continue unabated, and American interests in the region remain vulnerable. While the conflict may not be on American soil, it has significant effects on both American foreign policy and the political climate at home. As for what’s next, we’ll stay tuned, and hope that peace will remain.
*Contributing Author: Hannah Peterson