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Syria: US withdrawal and Turkish incursion

Published Thursday, October 17, 2019

The Turkish incursion into north eastern Syria has caused concerns about refugees, ISIS prisoners and the future stability of Syria.

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Events in October 2019

On 6 October 2019, President Trump announced that he would immediately withdraw the US troops in Kurdish-controlled areas of north eastern Syria.

Three days later, the Turkish military launched a major military offensive into the area, aiming to create a 30km-deep safe zone along the border, where the Turkish government aims to send Syrian refugees presently in Turkey.

Prisoners associated with ISIS have escaped from secure camps.

The US, although it knew about the plans, imposed sanctions on the Turkish government, while the US Vice President Mike Pence travelled to Turkey to try to organise a ceasefire.

The UK expressed serious concerns about the military action.

Arms sales

The US reportedly offered to re-instate sales of the F35 fast jet in exchange for restraint in Syria. The deal had been stopped when the US learned that Turkey was to buy an air defence system from Russia.

European countries, including the UK, have suspended arms sales to Turkey, particularly of items that could be used in the incursion. There has not been an EU-wide policy, however.

ISIS prisoners

There are about 100,000 ISIS-affiliated prisoners in camps controlled by Kurdish fighters. Some 800 are already reported to have escaped. The Red Cross has called for countries to take back their own nationals in such circumstances. UK ministers say there are legal complicatins and that they want to see people given justice in the region, although they will look again at the situation of children.

Reaction

Many commentators have argued that the withdrawal is a strategic mistake, handing advantage in the region to the Assad government, Russia and Iran.

For others, the withdrawal makes sense for the US, even though the abandonment of the Kurds is a problem.

The Kurds’ record against ISIS

Many have said the decision to withdraw is a betrayal of the Kurdish forces that were crucial in defeating ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

The battle for Kobane, largely fought by Kurds with US air backup, was the first defeat for ISIS.

Syrian Kurds became the West’s main ground troop allies and the SDF, a Kurdish-led force, was the main force that, again with US and coalition airstrikes, drove ISIS from its capital al-Raqqah. The SDF took full control of Raqqah in October 2017.

Kurdish groups

Turkey claims that the YPG, the Syrian Kurdish militia, is the same as the PKK, the Kurdish group based in Turkey that is considered a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the US and the EU. It is widely agreed that the two groups are closely linked. Turkey’s attitude extends to the Syrian Democratic Forces – the Kurdish-led but multi-ethnic force that was assembled to lead the fight against ISIS in non-Kurdish parts of Syria such as al-Raqqah.

There is a myriad of Kurdish groups and militias, some legal and some not, spread across the four countries where Kurds have a significant population: Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria.

Commons Briefing papers CBP-8710

Author: Ben Smith

Topics: Middle East, Terrorism

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