Explainer: Turkey's offensive against Kurdish fighters and what it means for Canada
TORONTO – Three days after U.S. President Donald Trump announced that he was pulling American troops out of an area near the Syria-Turkey border, Turkish forces moved in.
The latest armed conflict in Syria comes only months after Kurdish and American forces declared that they had taken the last land held by ISIS – and for anyone who watches the region closely, it was virtually inevitable following the American announcement.
Here is a look at what has happened in northern Syria in the last few days, what could happen next, and how it could impact Canada.
WHAT IS HAPPENING?
Turkish forces rolled into northern Syria on Wednesday, launching airstrikes and a ground attack on Kurdish fighters, who had previously been allied with the U.S. military in the fight against ISIS.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said he wants to establish a “safe zone” along the Turkey-Syria border that would essentially put many Syrian Kurds under Turkish control.
Although the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has largely taken back control of Syria from ISIS -- thanks in part to help from Russia and Iran -- the Kurds have picked up a certain amount of autonomy in the north.
A Kurdish insurgency exists in Turkey, and Erdogan has said he views Kurds in Syria as terrorists threatening his country. He tweeted that he aimed to “prevent the creation of a terror corridor” along the border.
American and Turkish officials had been working on a compromise to protect the border, with the support of Kurdish authorities, but Erdogan was reportedly frustrated with the slow pace of the negotiations.
The Kurds have long been allies of the U.S., being the one group willing to work with the Americans to drive ISIS out of Syria.
That relationship has likely come to an abrupt end after Trump announced Sunday that American troops would pull back from the border area. Troops have left the border towns of Ras al-Ayn and Tal Abyad.
“President Trump is just sitting back and allowing for what appears to be a military operation to be rolled out against some of the most competent and dedicated allies that we’ve had during the fight against Islamic State,” Michael S. Smith II, a terrorism analyst and lecturer at Johns Hopkins University, said Wednesday on CTV News Channel.
“This sends a strong signal to many of our other, weaker partners in the world that under the Trump administration, the United States might not be the most reliable ally.”
Without U.S. protection, most analysts expected that Turkey to mount an offensive – as has happened. The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have stopped fighting ISIS because of the urgent new threat from Turkey.
Bessma Momani, an international affairs analyst at the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, Ont., said Wednesday that this week’s developments should not be a shock, particularly given Trump has previously signalled discontent with having troops in Syria.
“I think anybody who is surprised by this really hasn’t been paying attention to either Erdogan or Trump,” she said.
WHY DID THE U.S. LEAVE?
The decision to pull American troops out of the region has been condemned by Democratic and Republican politicians in the U.S.
Trump shed some light on his thinking on Monday when he said that he doesn’t want to see American troops fighting “endless wars” overseas.
Despite it seeming to most outside observers that the departure of American troops would result in Turkish military action, Trump appeared to think otherwise, saying Thursday that the incursion was “a bad idea.”
The U.S. had approximately 1,000 military personnel in northeastern Syria prior to the pullout.
The SDF has accused the U.S. of failing to live up to its commitments by leaving the border area. They say 11,000 Kurdish fighters have died in the fight against ISIS.
WHAT COULD HAPPEN NEXT?
Turkey has vowed to only strike SDF targets and protect civilians – however, few believe a prolonged Turkish offensive will result in few civilian deaths.
Prior to Wednesday’s action, the International Rescue Committee had warned that any offensive from Turkey could displace up to 300,000 people.
If Turkey is successful in taking control of the area, then they could put pressure on the many Syrian refugees currently living in Turkey to return to Syria.
According to Momani, the mood in Turkey is that people are “kind of tired of hosting so many Syrian refugees, which is very sad, but kind of understandable given they’re hosting in the millions.”
Momani said she is concerned that the Turkish government could send all refugees to northern Syria, even though many of them are from Aleppo or other parts of the country.
“That’s not necessarily their home,” she said.
WHAT IS CANADA’S ROLE?
The Canadian Armed Forces have been involved in the fight against ISIS since 2014, and helped train Kurdish forces in Northern Iraq. Canadians are currently at the head of the anti-ISIS NATO mission in Iraq.
The mission is non-combat and is solely focused on Iraq, meaning there were no Canadian troops accompanying the Americans in Syria.
Turkey is also a NATO member. While a number of European countries have criticized Turkey’s military incursion, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has said it is NATO’s view that Turkey is acting in response to a legitimate security concern and should take measured and proportionate action.
“The United States leaving the region could leave a vacuum, and that’s exactly what Turkey was trying to avoid,” Tina Park, a research fellow at the NATO Defense Centre, said Wednesday on CTV News Channel.
Meanwhile, approximately 40 Canadian citizens – most of them believed to be the children of ISIS fighters – are being held in an SDF detention camp.
The non-profit group Families Against Violent Extremism wrote a letter to Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland on Wednesday, urging the government to ask Turkey to safeguard and repatriate the detainees.
“They lack basic medical care. They lack basic food. There’s violence endemic in the camps … and now, with the Turkish invasion, it’s completely untenable,” Families Against Violent Extremism director Alexandra Bain told CTV News Channel.
“Children are going to die.”
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau was asked about the situation in Syria Wednesday at a campaign event in Markham, Ont. He said that the government is working with its allies in the Middle East to create “long-term peace and stability.”
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer was last asked about developments in the region on Monday in Ottawa. He said he was watching the situation closely and criticized Trudeau for pulling Canadian fighter jets from the NATO mission.
With files from The Associated Press