What does the Turkish offensive in Syria mean for counter terrorism?

You gotta feel for the Kurds, history’s version of ‘always a bridesmaid, never a bride’.  Oft described as the world’s largest ethnic group without a country to call their own, the Kurds have come ever so close on several occasions.  They were kinda promised autonomy following the breakup of the Ottoman Empire in the post WWI period (in the Treaty of Sèvres) but that didn’t pan out.  After the US invasion of Iraq in 1992 hopes ran high once again for quasi independence but Saddam Hussein’s forces wreaked vengeance on Kurdish provinces leading to the imposition of  a US/UK-enforced no-fly zone.  Most recently, Kurdish assistance in helping to beat back Islamic State, primarily through the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG), has led to the creation of  a zone of influence along the Syrian-Turkish border.  The US in particular has relied upon, and armed, both groups in aid of its goal of destroying IS.

Hold the celebration however.  With a vastly diminished IS threat, Turkey has decided to unleash the dogs of war against the Kurds in the Afrin region along the aforementioned border.  Turkey’s reasons are clear: it considers the YPG to be nothing more than a version of the PKK, a listed terrorist organisation (in Canada too) against which it has been at war for decades, mostly in the Kurdish-dominant southeastern provinces of the country.  Turkey has vowed to continue it offensive until the threat is gone.

This move is going to create more problems than it resolves.  Don’t get me wrong, I have no qualms with Turkey’s counter terrorist deployment, even if I think their obsession with everything Kurdish has made the situation worse than it should have been.  Complicating matters is the fact that the SDF/YPG are US allies and the Trump Administration has just announced plans to keep forces in Syria indefinitely to prevent an IS resurgence (did anyone ask the Syrians if this was ok?).  What happens if Turkish troops – Turkey is both a NATO member and ally of the West, albeit an increasingly iffy one under President Erdogan – encounter US troops embedded with the Kurds?  This could get ugly fast.

There is another elephant in the room that has yet to be addressed.  A sizeable number of Westerners traveled to Syria and Iraq to fight alongside the SDF/YPG against IS and some are probably still in theatre.  What if they come under fire or get captured by the Turks?  Many Western countries have ignored the fact that some its citizens hooked up with a terrorist group (if you agree with the Turks that YPG=PKK), which is odd since anyone who elected to join IS will likely be prosecuted.  Does the fact that the YPG was battling IS make it ok?  Maybe some are trying to paraphrase US President Roosevelt’s comment about Nicaraguan dictator Somoza: “they may be terrorists but they are OUR terrorists”.

There are at least two lessons to draw from all of this.  First, we really need to be careful in whom we choose to fight alongside of in the ill-named ‘war on terror’.  If we are to maintain some sense of moral superiority we cannot be seen to embrace unsavoury characters for short-term gain because of the long-term pain it will engender.

Secondly, there is every likelihood that the Kurds will get screwed – again.  While I cannot support the use of terrorism by groups such as the PKK – irrespective of Turkish past practices – and I believe that many Kurdish leaders and their rivalries/infighting have been their people’s worst enemy, it would be nice if the Kurds could finally get a land to call their own.  Although this is not going to happen, in part because the ground they occupy happens to straddle four countries – Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey, none of which are particularly keen to give them an independent homeland – it does not mean that we should not work towards a solution amenable to all.  The Kurds have stood up to dictators like Saddam Hussein and Bashar al Assad and fought at our sides in several conflicts.  Should that not count for something?

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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