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Turkish Imperialism: Whither the Syrian Kurds?


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Middle East Forum

Spyridon Plakoudas and Wojciech Michnik
Middle East Quarterly
Fall 2021

On October 9, 2019, the Turkish army and its proxy Syrian National Army (SNA) invaded the autonomous Kurdish region in northeastern Syria, or Rojava as it is known to Kurds.[1] Accompanied by a White House clarification that U.S. forces in the area would not resist the Turkish incursion and would be shortly withdrawn from Syria, Operation Peace Spring, as the Turkish invasion was codenamed, kindled immediate accusations of Washington's betrayal of its loyal Kurdish ally.[2]

In reality, this move by the Trump administration was a corollary of the incoherent and contradictory policy vis-à-vis the Syrian civil war in general, and the fight against the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS) in particular, bequeathed by the Obama administration to its successor. This culminated in a narrow counterterrorism strategy that relied heavily on the Kurds for fighting the Islamist terror organization while giving little thought to the implications of this strategy for Kurdish relations with the Assad regime and Turkey.[3] As a result, Operation Peace Spring threw the most stable and peaceful corner of Syria into disarray and set in train a "scramble for the Syrian Kurdistan" that seems to have closed the lid on Kurdish hopes for autonomous, if not independent existence.

A Tangled Web

On the face of it, President Trump's withdrawal decision should not have come as a surprise given his electoral campaign pledge to reduce substantially the nearly 200,000 U.S. military personnel stationed overseas, of which the roughly 2,000 troops in northern Syria were but a tiny fraction.[4] Predominantly involved in training the allied Kurdish militias, this force was of little military significance, as Rojava's landlocked position rendered it captive to the surrounding local powers (Turkey, Iraq, and Syria) and made its defense dependent on large-scale external support.[5]


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