GP Insights

GP Insights # 163, 12 October 2019

Middle East: Border Tensions between Syria and Turkey across the border
Nidhi Dalal

What happened?

Turkey has launched military operations against the Kurdish forces in northern Syria. It has launched airstrikes and fired arms in the territory held by the US-allied Kurdish forces. Under Operation Peace Spring, Turkish F-16 jets had begun offence along the Turkish border. According to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the assault on the Kurdish forces in the region had been initiated to 'prevent the creation of a terror corridor across its southern border'. 

Despite Trump's statement denying the US approval for Turkey's actions, recent reports suggest it had provided intelligence to the Turkish forces. Surveillance videos and reconnaissance footage from US planes were provided to the Turkish forces that were planning the attack weeks earlier.

What is the background?

The attacks were launched after President Trump ordered the withdrawal of the US troops stationed in the region. The Kurdish forces were instrumental in the fight against the ISIS. After substantially pushing back the ISIS, the Kurdish forces guarded the prisons that held thousands of fighters and their relatives. Turkish assault and US withdrawal have left the forces to fend for themselves and have also left the prisons vulnerable. With a large number of Syrian refugees already in Turkey, the assault has left a substantial number of civilians susceptible.

The Kurdish population is the most significant minority in Syria. It comprises 7-15 per cent of the total population and is mostly in the north-eastern part of the country. Turkey has long considered the Kurds as terrorists and has termed its latest actions as counterterrorism. It has designated the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) as a terrorist organization.

Kurds rose to global prominence for their role in fighting ISIS. The Syrian Kurdish forces along with the Iraqi Kurdish forces and Turkish Kurdish forces, withheld the advancing ISIS and had taken custody of about ninety thousand ISIS. The Kurds had allied with the US and had received substantial airpower support in their operations. 

The Arab Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Unit (YPG) coalition was effective in minimizing the ISIS threat. The faltering of the peace treaty between Turkey and the Turkish Kurds also saw an increased number of terrorist attacks in Turkish cities of Ankara and Istanbul. 

Turkey is highly suspicious of PKK receiving support from another side of the border from Syrian Kurds. 

What does it mean? 

The US withdrawal affects not only the Kurdish fighters but also a large number of civilians in the region. 

If the Syrian forces are now engaged in fighting Turkey, it will shift the attention from countering the resurgence of the ISIS. Chances of imprisoned ISIS fighters escaping is a threat. 

The humanitarian crisis inflicted by the civil war is expected to deepen with numerous civilians fleeing the area after the attacks. The UN expects a substantial number of 758,000 civilians residing in the border region displaced. 

The peace process in the region is also on the verge of falling apart with concerns voiced by Russia, Iran, Kuwait, and others. 

There is a vacuum left due to the US departure. Syria's future hangs in the balance. 


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