As airstrikes and artillery rain down on civilians in northeastern Syria, it’s clear that Turkey’s claims that its recent military offensive is about taking the lead in the global fight against the Islamic State are nothing but dangerous propaganda.
For years, Turkey’s government allowed Islamic State fighters to cross its territory into Syria. But, before Monday, there were no Islamic State fighter elements along Turkey’s border with Syria because Kurds, Arabs and Christians expelled them with help from the U.S. military. Today, these U.S. allies are running for their lives.
Under the guise of fighting terrorism and “securing” the border, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s real plan is to remove Kurds from that border and radically re-engineer local demographics. The initial Turkish attacks have already displaced an estimated 100,000 people, marking the fourth Turkish intervention in Syria since 2016.
Since modern Turkey’s establishment, successive Turkish governments have abused and discriminated against Kurdish citizens, failing to address legitimate political, cultural and economic aspirations. Repeated Kurdish rebellions were met with military occupation and an obsession with obliterating any signs of Kurdish autonomy, including beyond Turkey’s borders.
At last month’s United Nations General Assembly meeting, Erdogan announced his intention to deport millions of Syrian Arab refugees in Turkey into the Kurdish region of northern Syria. Erdogan wants to destroy the Kurdish administration in northeast Syria as he did when he supported the invasion of Afrin, a Kurdish province west of the Euphrates River. In Afrin, Turkish-backed Islamist Syrian rebels took over and thousands of Arabs from other parts of Syria moved in to take over Kurdish homes.
In a July 2018 report, the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) warned that ethnic Arabs occupying homes of Kurds who fled might be “an attempt to change the ethnic composition of the area permanently.” Another U.N. report also found that “displaced civilians attempting to return to Afrin have been frequently barred from their property, often appropriated by armed group members and their families.” Erdogan wants to effectively “Arabize” the region east of the Euphrates inhabited by Kurds, Arabs, Christians, Turkmen and Yazidis.
While the ongoing conflict is often wrongly portrayed as one between Turkey and the Kurds, the Christian minority in Syria opposes a Turkish intervention as much if not more than the Kurdish minority. Christians now living in northeast Syria descend from those who survived pogroms a century ago when the Ottoman Empire disintegrated.
Turkish government statistics also show a majority of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees in Turkey are not from the northeast of Syria but rather from the northwest, where mostly Arabs have lived. According to Turkey’s Interior Minister, 66 percent of Syrian refugees in Turkey are from Syrian regime-held areas. Only 17 percent are from areas under Syrian Democratic Forces control, while the rest are from opposition-held areas.
Forcing refugees to return to areas other than where they are from, while displacing the people who do live there, creates a dangerous, unstable dynamic that will exacerbate the existing humanitarian crisis and place thousands more civilians in harm’s way.
Last month, Turkey signed a joint declaration with Russia and Iran saying it supported “the safe and voluntary return of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) to their original places of residence in Syria.” The U.S. State Department opposes the illegal forced return of refugees. If the international community is unwilling to prevent the Turkish invasion and killing of civilians in northern Syria, it should unequivocally reject Turkey’s ethnic cleansing plans.
Erdogan even wants the West to finance a $27 billion reconstruction effort to boost his domestic political standing. The money would ease Turkey’s Syrian refugee burden and revive Turkey’s damaged construction sector. Discontent over the economy and refugees were key reasons Erdogan’s party lost rerun elections in Ankara and Istanbul last summer.
President Trump has given Erdogan a green light to attack a U.S. ally and once again betrayed the Kurds. Meanwhile, other U.S. officials strongly oppose abandoning the Kurds, a key partner in the fight against the Islamic State.
This week, Sens. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) vowed to introduce legislation imposing sanctions on Turkey if it attacked the Kurds, while the U.N. commissioner for human rights warned all parties to “exercise restraint.”
But this is not enough. Trump should immediately sanction Turkey and prevent Turkey from using airspace to attack Syrians. World leaders should not just protest the unfolding catastrophe and ethnic cleansing; they should also demand accountability and clear consequences.
Wladimir van Wilgenburg is co-author of “The Kurds of Northern Syria: Governance, Diversity and Conflicts.” Amy Austin Holmes is a visiting scholar at Harvard University’s Middle East Initiative.