As Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan rolled out the military offensive called “Operation Peace Spring” on his country’s southern border with Syria, the big surprise was not the invasion itself but the reaction from the neighbouring Kurds and their supporters. All are, collectively, still reeling.
Erdoğan has proved, once again, that he is not given to making threats without following through on his intentions. He told the world some months ago of his plans to “prevent a terror corridor being established on our southern border and bring peace and stability.” And now he intends to do something about it.
Bearing in mind that America and its western allies have a consistent record of betraying the Kurds, I am amazed that they are amazed. Time and again the US has armed this ethnic group to go out and fight, or threaten to, on its behalf while dangling the carrot of support for their self-determination and independence in the Kurdish dominated regions covering parts of Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq.
There are around 40 million Kurds spread over these four countries, and while the predominant faith amongst them is Islam, there are also Kurdish Christians, Zoroastrians, Yarsanis, Yazidis, Alevis and Jews. Decades of US promises of freedom and independence have never come to fruition, but the eternal optimism — some might call it gullibility — of the Kurds sees them take the bait every time.
When the Ottoman Empire collapsed after World War One they believed that their time had come, but as much of the Ottoman territory was carved up between the French and British colonialists, the dream of a promised Kurdistan quickly evaporated. That was back in 1923 and the Treaty of Lausanne, when the British crushed the fledgling Kingdom of Kurdistan in Iraq.
In the interim period up until World War Two, the British embraced a carrot and stick approach with the Kurds but ultimately sided with Turkey on each occasion. When the Kurds did rebel against British rule in Iraq, Winston Churchill was widely quoted as saying: “I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against the uncivilised tribes… it would spread a lively terror.” Fast forward to 1988, and Saddam Hussein did exactly that when he dropped chemical gas bombs on the Kurds in Halabja.
Saddam rose to power thanks to the US, which assumed the role as the region’s main colonial power. While the US withdrew aid to the Kurds, it also provided the Iraqi government with napalm to use against them.
The Iraqi Kurds were duped again several more times to take up American weapons to fight covert wars for Uncle Sam’s benefit which would cynically drain the energies and resources of both Iraq and Iran. Their loyalty went unrewarded when, in the 1980s, the West collectively looked the other way and Saddam went all genocidal against the Kurds.
By the first Gulf War in 1991, US President George Bush Senior made TV and media appeals following a successful bombing campaign which saw Saddam’s forces pull out from Kuwait. His broadcasts were targeted directly at Iraq’s Shia in the south and Kurds in the north, urging them to rise up against Saddam.
I watched in amazement as Bush made his appeal and then sat in despair as both minority groups did exactly as the US President ordered. As they took to the streets, though, the Americans headed for home and Saddam’s army massacred those taking part in the US-prompted rebellions. After global outrage, a safe haven was created to protect the Kurds in northern Iraq and a no-fly zone was introduced.
In 2014 the US teamed up with the Turkish Kurds in Syria and armed them in the fight against Daesh which caused concern in Turkey. Since the US gave Ankara the green light to unleash a heavy bombing campaign against Iraqi Kurds back in 2007, this really should have served as a warning.
Fighting between Turkish and Kurdish forces was inevitable as American armoured vehicles evacuated troops from Ras al-Ayn and Tal Abyad in the border zone at the weekend. It is now emerging that US President Donald Trump, who is facing impeachment at home, acted without consulting his own diplomats who deal with Syria, or his main allies there, including Britain and France.
Ankara views the Syrian Democratic Forces as indistinguishable from Kurdish terrorists within Turkey. The military action launched this week, therefore, was bound to happen.
While previous deals negotiated between Turkey and America have always mentioned the US-backed Kurds, the White House announcement on Sunday made no mention of any deals. It simply read: “Today, President Donald J Trump spoke with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey by telephone. Turkey will soon be moving forward with its long-planned operation into northern Syria. The United States Armed Forces will not support or be involved in the operation, and United States forces, having defeated the Isis territorial ‘caliphate’, will no longer be in the immediate area.”
The statement also mentioned that Erdoğan had assured Trump that Turkey would take over the detention of Isis/Daesh militants captured by the SDF. In several previous outbursts, Trump has attacked European governments robustly for not taking responsibility for their own nationals within Daesh ranks.
“The US government has pressed France, Germany and other European nations, from which many captured Isis fighters came, to take them back, but they did not want them and refused,” the White House statement continued. “The US will not hold them for what could be many years and great cost to the United States taxpayer. Turkey will now be responsible for all Isis fighters in the area captured over the past two years in the wake of the defeat of the territorial caliphate by the United States.”
Erdoğan has said that his safe zone will enable two million Syrian refugees living in Turkey to return to their homeland, although the Kurdish SDF has already accused Ankara of trying to change the region’s demographics by social engineering.
However it is mounting criticism from European leaders that has infuriated the Turkish President more than anything else. On Thursday, he warned the EU not to call his military operation an invasion or he would retaliate by sending millions of Syrian refugees to Europe. Erdoğan was enraged by a statement released the day before by the European Union which pressed Turkey to “cease the unilateral military action” against the Kurdish-led SDF in northern Syria. “We will open the gates and send 3.6 million refugees your way,” he warned Europe.
Whatever the consequences of Operation Peace Spring, two lessons are very clear: the Turkish President means what he says and says what he means; and promises made to the Kurds by the West are given freely but are of little value. The US has betrayed the Kurds, yet again. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.