US officials warned Turkey this week against expanding its so-called buffer zone in northeast Syria, saying such a move would complicate counter-ISIS measures, and would increase the violence that Kurds and Syrians in the region have faced since Turkey’s initial incursion in 2019.
“We strongly oppose any Turkish operation into northern Syria and have made clear our objections to Turkey,” Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East Dana Stroul said in a speech at the Middle East Institute Wednesday. “ISIS is going to take advantage of that campaign, not to mention the humanitarian impact.”
As Stroul pointed out, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a group that’s made up largely of Kurds and is critical to the ground battle to recover ISIS-held territory in Iraq and Syria, are responsible for security in the Al-Hol and Azraq camps. Together the camps hold approximately 60,000 vulnerable, displaced people, and serve as prisons for around 10,000 alleged ISIS militants.
On May 23, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his military would launch further offensives, creating a 30-kilometer-deep buffer zone as soon as the military and intelligence and security services had completed their preparations, Reuters reported.
“The main target of these operations will be areas which are centers of attacks to our country and safe zones,” Erdogan said during a speech at the time, although he didn’t specifically mention where the operations would take place or point to any particular target.
Erdogan has repeatedly warned that his military is planning an incursion into northeastern Syria, driving further into territory held by the Kurdish ethnic minority.
“That’s a global problem, it’s not a US problem,” Stroul said of a Turkish attack weakening the security situation in northeastern Syria. “So frankly, the whole world should be a little bit more active at this point in time about the risks, about the second- and third- order effects of renewed operations that detract from security of these detention facilities, security and access to the displaced persons camps, and continued counter-terrorism pressure on ISIS.”
While it’s true that a further-regrouped ISIS could constitute a global threat on some scale, the reality is that both an ISIS resurgence and renewed violence by Turkey affect local civilians first, and often in the most devastating ways.
Turkey’s pushed into Syrian territory before
Turkey mounted Operation Peace Spring in 2019, its third push into Syrian territory since 2016, to “neutralize terror threats against Turkey and lead to the establishment of a safe zone, facilitating the return of Syrian refugees to their homes,” Erdogan tweeted at the time.
“We will preserve Syria’s territorial integrity and liberate local communities from terrorists,” he continued, referring to the Kurdish Worker’s Party, a Kurdish militant group in Turkey that the US considers a terrorist group, as well as Kurdish forces and administration in northeastern Syria. Now, Erdogan says he wants to go further.
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin was reportedly briefed on a possible invasion, according to NBC News’ Courtney Kube; Austin then directed Pentagon staff to develop a response, according to defense officials Kube interviewed on background. When asked to confirm Kube’s reporting, the Department of Defense referred Vox back to Stroul’s comments on Wednesday.
Anya Briy, a researcher and member of the Emergency Committee for Rojava — the autonomous Kurdish region in northeastern Syria — presently in the city of Qamislo (which sits on the border between Rojava and Turkey) said that, “The [Rojava] administration is preparing for an invasion, they have declared a state of emergency, and military reinforcements have been sent to the areas that Turkey has singled out for attack,” specifying that the reinforcements in question are with the Syrian government, which has agreed to back the SDF in the event of an invasion.
Mazloum Abdi, the General Commander of the SDF, warned in a press conference on Friday that Turkey is preparing for another invasion. Abdi acknowledged talks with the US, but expressed doubt in the coalition’s ability to stop further incursions, saying, “The coalition made stances, but they cannot stop Turkey’s attacks against our areas.”
Turkey and its partner forces have been accused of numerous human rights abuses during the occupation
A large part of the US and Kurdish concern over the invasion is in its possible humanitarian impact.
Human Rights Watch and others have documented abuse of civilians in a so called “safe-zone” since its creation in the 2019 invasion of Kurdish-controlled Syrian territory, which includes indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas, sexual violence, and restricting critical supplies like water to Kurdish-held areas.
In 2021, Turkey’s partner force, the Syrian National Army (SNA) arbitrarily detained 162 people and recruited at least 20 children into its factions, according to a Human Rights Watch report. Any move by Turkey to increase its territory in Syria will in turn increase violence for civilians, and cause further instability in an already-unstable landscape.
The PKK, or the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, is a Kurdish nationalist militant group based in Turkey. It was responsible for terror attacks there in the 1970s, ‘80s, and ‘90s in its quest to first overthrow the Turkish government, and later demand rights and self-determination for Kurds in a nation that had historically oppressed them by outlawing their culture, massacring civilians, and destroying Kurdish villages, among other abuses.
Furthermore, the Rojava Information Center’s — a volunteer-run media organization in Rojava providing analysis, research, and reports on northeastern Syria— most recent state of the occupation report points to forced displacement of Kurds and construction of villages for Arab Syrians from other parts of the country. The report estimates that since 2018, nearly 300,000 Kurds have been displaced from the Afrin area in northern Syria, with nearly as many refugees settled there with the help of entities tied to the Turkish government and investment from Gulf countries.
Fighting — and human rights abuses — along Turkey’s Syrian and Iraqi borders has also ramped up since 2015, when a ceasefire between Turkey and the PKK broke down. According to analysis by the International Crisis Group, 600 civilians have been killed in terror attacks or fighting; 3,878 PKK fighters have been killed, and 1,360 members of Turkish state security forces have been killed in the conflict since 2015. During the invasion in 2019, the group found further evidence of abuses like summary executions of civilians, mass displacement, and attacks on civilian targets on the part of Turkish armed forces and the SNA were found by .
A resurgent ISIS would be bad for the world, and worst for Syrians and Iraqis
As Stroul pointed out Wednesday, there are risks for the security of ISIS prisons and refugee camps that the SDF is guarding. According to her estimate, nearly 10,000 ISIS fighters are held in SDF-run prisons and approximately 60,000 refugees — some of whom are ISIS sympathizers and have high potential to be radicalized — live in Al-Hol and Azaq camps in “degrading, arbitrary, and often inhuman and life-threatening conditions,” according to a 2022 Human Rights Watch report.
During the height of of its power, the primary victims of ISIS’s cruel ideology and methods were the people actually living under their rule. Brutal violence, including public executions or threats of serious physical harm for infractions like wearing Western clothes, were the daily norm. While attacks in the West and other regions successfully sowed terror, civilians in ISIS-controlled territory were forced to live in a perpetual state of fear.
As Syrian journalist Taim Al-Hajj wrote for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in March of this year, ISIS is still staging smaller-scale, regional attacks that aren’t dependent on territorial control. A Pentagon report from December 2021 describes a diminished ISIS in both Iraq and Syria — but one that still has the capabilities to attack, sow fear, and “exploit and provoke sectarian, ethnic, and tribal divisions.” In Syria, ISIS primarily carries out smaller scale attacks and kidnappings in pursuit of a renewed territorial caliphate.
On the US side, the concern is that in an already unstable situation SDF fighters-cum-prison guards will leave the prisons and camps to protect their communities in the event of a Turkish invasion. That’s likely a legitimate concern.
“There’s only so many SDF to go around, so they’re going to de-prioritize what we care about,” Stroul said. “What we care about is security of the detention facilities, and continued counter-terrorism partnered operations, so we can keep the pressure on ISIS.”
If indeed Turkey attacks and SDF fighters push north, conditions would be right for ISIS to stage a jailbreak — a tactic they are accustomed to. In January, ISIS attempted a high-stakes operation at a prison in Hasakah, Syria in which more than 500 people were killed and an unknown number of prisoners escaped, the Washington Post’s Louisa Loveluck and Sarah Cahlan reported in February. SDF guards only regained control of the facility after 10 days of fighting with support from American and British forces. In the Post’s recounting of the battle, civilians were either displaced by the fighting, under lockdown, or left without access to critical supplies like medicine and fuel.
However, the invasion isn’t fait accompli, no matter what Erdogan says. According to Briy, a meeting on Tuesday between Turkey, Iran, and Russia could thwart Turkey’s efforts. Despite the preparations for attack, and the potential for serious fallout both for counter-terror operations and the humanitarian situation in Syria. “There is also a belief that Turkey will ultimately not get permission to attack from either Russia or Iran,” she said.