Syrian offensive: Who did the Americans really betray?

Published: November 6, 2019
The writer is a recent LUMS graduate and is currently pursuing MSc in Norway

The writer is a recent LUMS graduate and is currently pursuing MSc in Norway

Perhaps Henry Kissinger was right when he said, “it may be dangerous to be America’s enemy, but to be America’s friend is fatal”.

It has been almost a month since Turkish forces crossed the border into Syria and began targeting the Kurdish forces. It is generally agreed that these Kurdish troops have been instrumental to defeating ISIS. The US is being blamed for abandoning yet another ally. The Turkish offensive has already displaced 100,000 people and there are fears of ISIS fighters returning due to the vacuum created. The US is on the verge of announcing sanctions against Turkey, and Kremlin has also refused to accept a permanent presence of Turkish troops in the region. However, to see who betrayed whom one needs to have a look at history.

After the rise of ISIS in post-Arab Spring Middle East, the US was reluctant to put boots on the ground and decided to do what it does best: outsource the war to militias.

The Kurds, however, were not the first choice of the US and its allies. Ever since the Syrian Civil War began, the US began providing the rebel forces with non-lethal aid. In 2014, Pentagon launched a programme to train and equip 15,000 rebel fighters; the programme was cancelled in 2015 after spending over $500 million and producing only a few dozen fighters. The CIA had launched a similar programme worth $1 billion of its own, which was shut down by President Trump in 2017 after the effort was unsuccessful and a large quantity of the equipment meant for rebel forces ended up in the hands of Islamist extremist forces. Moreover, as reported by The New York Times, many rebels trained by the CIA ended up joining the Al Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

With the continued failure of rebel forces, the US finally looked towards the Kurd militias for an alliance. Training and equipping of Kurdish fighters, also part of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), began in 2015 and ever since, they have been romanticised for their successes against ISIS.

There is one problem though which has been ignored by the discourse we see and read in media: the SDF is just another name for YPG (the militant arm of PKK which is classified as a terrorist organisation by NATO and accused of terrorist attacks in Turkey since late 1980s). Multiple American leaders have confirmed the links between YPG and PKK. The US defence secretary confirmed “substantial ties” between YPG and PKK in a testimony to the US Senate on April 28, 2016. In 2017, the Commander of US Special Operations Command termed the name “SDF” as a rebranding of YPG (and was recommended by the US), and even commented that putting in “democracy” in the new name was a stroke of brilliance. This rebranding was necessary to equip and train the Kurds in their fight against ISIS but the Turks never bought the new name.

Somehow, it all worked well until the US acted as a buffer between the Kurdish militias and the Turkish military, like our Frontier tribes were a buffer between the British and Soviets. Now with the buffer gone, Turkey has got itself a homerun against the Kurds in the flat, easily penetrable terrain of northeastern Syria. According to the Turkish President, the goal of the operation, apart from neutralising “terror threats” is to create a “safe zone” in northern Syria which will be 30-32 kilometres deep and run across the Syrian-Turkish border. It will be used to resettle at least one million Syrian refugees currently in Turkey.

Make no mistake: Erdogan’s domestic policies are a far cry from what Mustafa Kemal Ataturk had envisioned. He is even alleged to have been involved in financial corruption. However, whether it is the SDF or Turkey that was betrayed by the US is a decision that I leave for my readers to make.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 6th, 2019.

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