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A man rides a motorcycle along a road with plumes of black smoke in the background.
A man rides a motorcycle near the Syrian Kurdish town of Ras al-Ain along the border with Turkey on October 16, 2019.
Delil Souleiman/AFP via Getty Images

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9 questions about Turkey, Syria, and the Kurds you were too embarrassed to ask

Trump took US troops out of northeastern Syria last week, and Turkey invaded.

Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

The airstrikes started at 4 pm local time last Wednesday in northeastern Syria, across the border from Turkey. Black smoke plumed into the air over towns like Ras al-Ayn and Tal Abyad. Below, tens of thousands of people fled. Turkey had launched a ground offensive before the end of the day.

This is how Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring unfolded, just days after President Donald Trump relocated US troops from those border towns, offering Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan an open pathway to invade northeastern Syria, territory controlled by the Syrian Kurds.

Those same Syrian Kurds were America’s most critical ally in fighting ISIS in Syria and ending its territorial caliphate. Kurdish militias fought as part of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which lost about 11,000 fighters waging war against the terror group, a defeat for which the US president often takes credit.

A Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighter is reflected on a broken mirror in Baghouz, Syria, on the frontline of fighting to expel the Islamic State group from the area on March 12, 2019.
Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images

The US partnership with the Kurds in Syria began during the Obama administration but intensified under Trump, who armed the fighters. But that alliance was born of necessity and desperation; it existed because of a common enemy in ISIS. And that uneasy relationship created a rift between the US and Turkey, a key NATO ally, which sees the Kurds as an existential threat.

Experts have long called the US-Kurdish partnership a “ticking time bomb.” That bomb finally went off, quickly and decisively, after President Donald Trump spoke on the phone with Erdoğan last Sunday. Shortly after, Trump ordered the withdrawal of the 50 or so American troops still in northeastern Syria, clearing the way for a Turkish invasion and leaving Kurdish forces and thousands of civilians at risk.

Turkey’s offensive may have felt like a dramatic escalation but it had been long-planned, and in many ways, entirely predictable. The situation is complex, with broad and still-unpredictable consequences for Syria.

This story is developing rapidly, but here’s a guide to help you understand what is happening, why it’s happening, and what might come next.

1) Who are the Kurds?

The Kurds are an ethnic group whose population is primarily spread across Iran, Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Armenia. They’re considered one of the world’s largest stateless nations. The total population of Kurds in the Middle East and in the broader diaspora varies, but most estimates put it somewhere between 25 million and 40 million. The Syrian Kurdish population is among the smallest, roughly around 1.7 million people concentrated in northern Syria. Most Kurds are Sunni Muslims, although not exclusively, and Kurds, depending on the region, are also Shiite Muslims, Christians, and other sects.

The Kurds ended up where they are — without a homeland — because of the Western powers who drew the region’s map after World War I and the breakup of the Ottoman Empire. The Allied powers (the UK, France, Italy, Japan, and others) who won the war signed the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres with what was left of the Ottoman Empire. That pact set aside territory for the Kurds as it carved up the Ottoman Empire. But that got amended with the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, which established the modern Turkish state and the other borders in the Middle East. That treaty omitted a Kurdish nation-state and left the population divided across several different countries.

Women in traditional Kurdish outfits smile in front of a bonfire.
Turkish Kurds celebrate Newroz, or Persian New Year, in Diyarbakir, Turkey on March 21, 2019.
Ilyas Akengin/AFP/Getty Images

That left the Kurds as ethnic minorities in other states, where they’ve often faced repression and violence.

In Syria specifically, the Kurds faced severe discrimination and were denied basic rights and citizenship. This escalated under the Ba’athist regime of Hafez al-Assad (father of Bashar, Syria’s current leader), who led Syria from the 1970s to 2000, and continued under the current president, Bashar al-Assad.

In the 1970s, the Hafez al-Assad government resettled Syrian Arabs in Kurdish towns in the north, displacing Kurds and establishing an “Arab Belt.” Meanwhile, Assad supported Kurdish resistance outside of Syria, specifically the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey in the 1980s and 1990s, mostly to mess with Syria’s regional rivals. The now-imprisoned leader of the PKK, Abdullah Ocalan, was based in Syria until the late 1990s and launched attacks from there.

For decades, the PKK waged a violent insurgency inside Turkey, fighting to establish their own independent Kurdish state. The Turkish government fought back in a bloody counteroffensive, and the resulting fighting left tens of thousands dead.

There were some notable instances of Kurdish resistance to the Syrian regime: In 2004, for instance, a soccer brawl between Syrian Arabs and Kurds in the northeastern city of Qamishli transformed and spread into a Kurdish uprising against the regime. Syrian government forces crushed that movement fairly quickly, though pockets of resistance continued — and might have been a precursor of what was to come in Syria.

Still, Syrian Kurds weren’t united politically; there were multiple parties and movements. That started to change after the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011, which saw the rise and eventual dominance of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, or PYD.

The PYD, founded in 2003, is an offshoot of the PKK — the insurgent group in neighboring Turkey that’s waged war against the Turkish government since the 1980s.

Those ties between the PKK and the PYD are why Turkey sees the Syrian Kurds as such a threat. And Turkey isn’t exactly wrong to see it that way: The PYD became so successful in Syria in large part because of its relationship with the more established PKK. The PYD’s fierce military arm, known as the People’s Protection Units (YPG), benefited from PKK’s decades of fighting Turkey. (There’s also the YPJ, which is the women’s militia.)

The Syrian civil war ultimately enabled the PYD’s rise to power. Assad was dealing with major opposition in big cities in Syria, and his attempts to put down the uprising strained his armed forces. So, in the summer of 2012, Assad pulled out of the traditionally Kurdish areas so he could deal with rebellions elsewhere. This gave little incentive to the Kurdish militias to join in the fight against the Assad government. It also created a vacuum for the PYD to begin establishing control.

The Kurds named the self-governing territory in northeastern Syria that emerged “Rojava.” Kurds aren’t the only ethnic group in this area, but the PYD promised to protect minorities and promote a secular, democratic, and egalitarian society. It established the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in October 2015, which is led by Kurdish fighters in the YPG/YPJ, but its ranks include many Syrian Arabs, along with Christians and other groups.

But as this Kurdish experiment in self-governance began, the Syrian Kurds were faced with another looming threat: ISIS. But before we get to the terror group, let’s talk about Turkey.

2) Why does Turkey care so much about what the Kurds in Syria are doing?

It really has to do with the Syrian Kurds’ connection to the PKK, which the US, EU, and others have classified a terror group.

The Turks got their modern state after World War II but the Kurds did not, and they were denied rights within Turkey pretty much since its founding.

The PKK formed in the 1970s, embracing both Kurdish nationalism and a socialist ideology with the goal of establishing an independent Kurdish state. The PKK waged an armed war against the Turkish state since 1984, a conflict that’s killed about 40,000 people.

The PKK has undeniable links to the Syrian PYD, but from the Turkish perspective, the establishment of a Kurdish-run, autonomous territory on the border between Syria and Turkey is far bigger than a security risk — it’s an existential threat. Erdoğan does not want to see any form of Kurdish self-rule across the border, and he’s using the fight against terrorism as the guise to invade and shut it down.

3) Why did the US partner with the Kurds to fight ISIS?

In 2014, ISIS began rapidly consolidating territory in Syria and Iraq. Their advance brought them to a Kurdish city on the Syrian-Turkish border called Kobane.

ISIS wanted control of the city for strategic and symbolic reasons. ISIS launched their siege in September 2014, which turned into a four-month attempt to seize the city and its adjacent villages from those Kurdish militias.

At the start, ISIS was better equipped, and the Kurdish militias in Kobane were essentially surrounded by ISIS. Thousands were displaced as ISIS threatened mass slaughter. And though ISIS was also at Turkey’s doorstep, the Kurds’ connection with the PKK kept Ankara on the sidelines. Turkey refused to help and were more or less okay with allowing ISIS to eliminate its Kurdish enemies.

Thousands of Yezidis trapped in the Sinjar mountains as they tried to escape from Islamic State (IS) forces, are rescued by Kurdish Peshmerga forces and Peoples Protection Unit (YPG) in Mosul, Iraq on August 9, 2014.
Thousands of Yezidis trapped in the Sinjar mountains as they tried to escape from Islamic State forces, are rescued by Kurdish Peshmerga forces and People’s Protection Unit in Mosul, Iraq on August 9, 2014.
Emrah Yorulmaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

But the United States did step in, beginning airstrikes against ISIS toward the end of September 2014. At first, the US-led coalition’s support did little to slow ISIS’s advance and Kobane still looked on the verge of falling under ISIS control.

But in mid-October 2014, ISIS’s fortunes began to shift as the US increased airstrikes and Kurdish militias led an offensive to retake some territory that ISIS had captured. The battle for the city continued for weeks; only in January 2015 did the Kurdish militias finally reclaim Kobane and push back ISIS.

The battle of Kobane was a major milestone in both the fight against ISIS and the Kurds’ mission to establish their own autonomous territory. It basically made the PYD the umbrella group for all Kurds, as its armed wing, the YPG, proved its ability to protect the population. It also made it hard for the US to ignore the Kurds’ effectiveness on the battlefield.

The Syrian Kurds were far from an ideal partner for the US, given the animus between them and Turkey, a NATO ally. Washington, too, has labeled the PKK a terrorist group since 1997, and the connection between the PKK and the YPG fighters is pretty undeniable.

But a few factors pushed the US into partnership with the Syrian Kurds despite all of that. The most obvious one, of course, is that the United States did not want to put its own troops on the ground in Syria to battle ISIS. So it was going to have to find another option.

The Free Syrian Army, which is backed by Turkey, was one possibility. These were the rebels battling Assad, who had also received CIA support since about 2013. (Trump ended funding in 2017.) But the Free Syrian Army was a pretty loose band of rebels and was much more focused on fighting the regime. Their ranks also contained plenty of extremist elements, and some fighters defected to groups like ISIS, too.

“This is a group that the Turks put forward and offered to the United States when the United States went looking for allies in the fight against the Islamic State, and were rejected by the Pentagon on the grounds that they were poorly trained, poorly equipped, and riddled with extremists,” Steven Cook, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told reporters on a call last week.

That basically left the Kurdish militia as the one reliable fighting force.

And, at the time — between late 2012 until the summer of 2015 — Turkey and the PKK were in the middle of peace talks and a ceasefire was in place. “From the American perspective, this was the ideal scenario,” Güneş Murat Tezcür, an expert on Kurdish politics and a professor at the University of Central Florida, told me. The peace talks gave the US some cover to make overtures to Kurdish fighters to fight the Islamic State while still working closely with its NATO ally in Turkey.

That peace process fell apart in 2015 and the ceasefire ended — leaving the US to balance this extraordinarily delicate position, appease Turkey, and try to mediate between both. The US tried to diminish the PKK-PYD connections, and encouraged the rebranding of the Kurdish forces “Syrian Democratic Forces” to account for its relationship with Syrian Arab fighters.

“And it was working until just last Sunday,” Tezcür said.

But this partnership was never really sustainable. Both the Obama and Trump administrations partnered with the Syrian Kurds to achieve a very narrow goal: defeating ISIS.

That narrow focus on what the SDF could do for the US ignored the larger political dynamics at stake — the “ticking time bomb,” so to speak.

4) What did the Kurds and the SDF do to defeat ISIS?

The Obama administration provided training and air support for the Syrian Democratic Forces, which encouraged the SDF to take on ISIS in northern Syria.

The Obama administration wanted to use the Syrian Kurds to defeat ISIS, with limited engagement from US troops. The Trump administration wanted the same, but in 2017, Trump made the decision to arm the Syrian Kurds, alarming Turkey even more.

The US saw arming the Kurds as one of the only ways to successfully root out ISIS from Raqqa, the caliphate’s de facto capital in Syria. The SDF began moving toward Raqqa in November 2016 and launched its offensive in June 2017. After months of fighting — backed by US airstrikes — the SDF retook Raqqa in October.

The reclamation of Raqqa in Syria, along with the fall of Mosul in Iraq in 2017, helped crush ISIS’s territorial caliphate. After defeating ISIS in Raqqa, the SDF advanced south to Deir al-Zour, where the SDF chipped away at ISIS territory, finally taking the very last ISIS holdout in March 2019. All told, the SDF lost about 11,000 fighters in its efforts to defeat ISIS.

As the SDF reclaimed this territory from ISIS, it set up governing councils to administer and rebuild cities, and it also took on the responsibility of guarding the thousands of ISIS prisoners and their families, including at the al-Hol refugee camp that holds about 70,000 ISIS women and children.

5) Why is Turkey attacking Syria now?

As the SDF expanded its territory and control, Turkish President Erdoğan became increasingly anxious about the Syrian Kurds and their de facto state across the border.

Turkey didn’t want the Kurds to have their own independent state right on its border, fearing it would give that much more momentum to the Kurdish insurgency in its own country. “They are afraid that this entity that exists on the Turkish border could get some official status,” Wladimir van Wilgenburg, journalist and author of The Kurds of Northern Syria: Governance, Diversity and Conflicts, told Vox.

Erdoğan thus wanted to push the Syrian Kurds back from the border and establish a buffer zone between them and his country. He made a similar move in northwestern Syria in Afrin, in 2018.

But Erdoğan wants to expand that buffer zone and use some of this territory resettle some 2 million of the 3.6 Syrian refugees who fled to Turkey since the start of the Syrian War.

Erdoğan explained his plan at the United Nations General Assembly in September, going so far as to suggest a safe zone as far as 50 miles into Syria, stretching to Raqqa.

Erdoğan is under increasing pressure at home because of Turkey’s flagging economy. Erdoğan presided over a strong economy in the previous decade, when the Turkish president pursued growth at all costs; this involved plentiful borrowing and spending, including on infrastructure and massive construction projects. Now Turkey is faced with a lot of debt, which has spooked investors and fueled an economic tailspin.

Against that backdrop, Erdoğan’s political party lost key mayoral elections in Istanbul and Ankara. He’s also drawing backlash from the number of refugees in Syria; as the economy has struggled, Turks are beginning to cast them as scapegoats for high unemployment and the fallout from the economic crisis. So clearing out the Kurds, resettling refugees, and launching a military would ostensibly give Erdoğan a much-needed boost at home.

But what largely stopped Turkey from actually moving forward was the United States and the small number of troops still stationed in northeastern Syria. In December 2018, Trump abruptly announced that he was pulling troops out of Syria, which looked likely to pave the way for Turkey to come in and establish this safe zone. Trump would go on to reverse his decision somewhat — but it was clear he wanted to get out, and Erdoğan desperately wanted to move in.

In August, the United States and Turkey signed a joint security mechanism, which was intended to address some of Turkey’s security concerns about the Kurds by establishing a buffer zone incrementally. Starting in September, the US and Turkey began running joint patrols, and the US helped push back some Syrian Kurdish forces from the Turkish border. The US also convinced the Kurds to cooperate with the effort and destroy some of their fortifications — ultimately making them more vulnerable in case of a Turkish incursion.

“In August, we came to this ‘security mechanism’ agreement,” Azad Cudi, a British Iranian Kurd who is a sniper for the YPG, told the BBC. “Based on that, we withdrew. We destroyed the fighting positions which were built to fight the Turkish in case of an invasion and we handed them over to the Americans.”

But Turkey apparently was losing patience. After Erdoğan’s phone call with the White House last Sunday, Trump agreed to relocate the 50 or so troops still stationed in Kurdish-held towns near the border. Though the White House scrambled to defend Trump’s move, saying the administration did not endorse or support Turkey’s invasion, it was really too late. Once US troops cleared out, Erdoğan had an open pathway into Kurdish territory.

And so “Operation Peace Spring” began.

6) How are the Kurds responding?

The Kurds called the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw a “stab in the back” but said they’d try to hold off Turkish advances. Even so, in the initial aftermath of the Turkish offensive, the Kurds call on the US-led coalition to institute a no-fly zone to prevent civilian casualties. Their pleas were unanswered.

The Kurds are fighting back, particularly in the border towns, where they’re also taking on the Turkish-backed Syrian militias, loosely known as the Free Syrian Army.

But the Kurds, effectively abandoned by the US, needed more support. So they struck a deal with Assad to deploy Syrian regime troops near the border to deter Turkey’s incursion and try to protect Kurdish civilians.

“An agreement has been reached with the Syrian government — whose duty it is to protect the country’s borders and preserve Syrian sovereignty — for the Syrian Army to enter and deploy along the Syrian-Turkish border to help the SDF stop this aggression” by Turkey, the SDF said.

This puts the US’s one-time ally in Syria on the side of Assad, Russia, and Iran. It also sets up a confrontation between Turkey — remember, a NATO ally — and the Syrian regime. But most critically, as Assad moves into the north, it could potentially return a big chunk of Syria into his control. The Kurds said that the Syrian regime forces wouldn’t be posted in areas where the Kurds are fighting the Turks; the Kurds also said they would continue to administer the parts of northern Syria under their control. But how long that will last now that Assad’s forces have moved into the region is the looming question about this arrangement.

Meanwhile, Russia is entering the territory the US left, trying to keep both Turkey (with whom Russia has had a warmer relationship of late) and Assad’s forces separate.

7) What does this mean for ISIS?

The SDF is guarding approximately 11,000 detained ISIS terrorists, including about 2,000 foreign fighters. That does not include the nearly 70,000 people living in the al-Hol refugee camp in northeastern Syria, which contains ISIS families and where the Pentagon says ISIS is actively recruiting new members.

The Department of Defense has previously warned that the SDF has limited capacity to guard these ISIS fighters indefinitely. US officials have also sounded the alarm that ISIS is planning mass prison breaks; a Turkish invasion and the chaos it’s bringing might give ISIS fighters the cover and ability to do so.

The White House has said that Turkey will be responsible for all ISIS fighters captured in the territory in the past two years, but though Erdoğan is happy to claim he’s fighting ISIS, his focus is most certainly the Kurds. And it’s not clear Turkey itself has the capacity — or desire — to take on this responsibility of guarding ISIS fighters or how such a transfer would even work, as the SDF and Turkey are essentially battling each other.

Three crying women carry a portrait during a funeral.
Relatives of a fighter of the Syrian Democratic Forces, who was killed in an attack claimed by the Islamic State in Manbij, walk with his portrait during a funeral for the victims in the northern Syrian-Kurdish town of Kobane on March 27, 2019.
Giuseppe Cacace/AFP/Getty Images

ISIS no longer controls a lot of territory, but it’s morphed into an insurgency movement and remains a serious threat to the stability of both Iraq and Syria. The Department of Defense warned in August that a US drawdown of troops risked an ISIS resurgence.

In other words, all the worst-case scenarios are playing out right now, and ISIS could very well take advantage of this chaos and instability to begin to reconstitute. As Daniel Byman wrote for Vox, “Even a small number of hardened, dedicated fighters could pose a major terrorism threat; research has proven they are far more lethal.

“The Islamic State is highly opportunistic,” he continued, “and it will use the ensuing chaos and distraction of its enemies to reconstitute itself, increasing the danger of international terrorism as well as local violence.”

There are signs this is already happening: ISIS detainees and sympathizers escaped from a camp in Ayn Issa in northeastern Syria on Sunday. There are reports of ISIS sympathizers rioting and attacking guards in detention camps. And the US failed to extract dozens of high-value ISIS detainees from Kurdish prisoners before Turkey rolled through, according to the New York Times.

8) How has the US responded?

The United States’ response has been, to put it mildly, totally wild.

Trump relocated troops from northeastern Syria, which ultimately gave Turkey the go-ahead to invade.

But even as he did so, Trump vowed that he would “totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey” if the country did anything he considered off-limits.

Then Secretary of Defense Mark Esper announced Sunday the US was withdrawing all 1,000 troops from northeastern Syria, basically opening a void and giving Turkey more cover to go deeper into Syria.

President Trump, flanked by Secretary of Defense Mark Esper.
President Trump, flanked by Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, speaks during a meeting with senior military leaders in the Cabinet Room at the White House on October 7, 2019.
Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images

On Monday, Trump issued a stinging statement against Turkey, raising steel tariffs on Turkey 50 percent and suspending trade talks. He also issued an executive order putting sanctions on Turkey, including Turkish government officials and ministries. He dispatched Vice President Mike Pence and National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien to Turkey to try to negotiate a ceasefire.

Congress is also considering bipartisan sanctions legislation against Turkey that goes further than Trump’s measure, and are considering a proposal that would ban weapons sales to Turkey (the EU halted arms sales, too). On Wednesday, the House overwhelmingly passed, 354-60, a resolution condemning Trump’s decision to remove forces from Syria. It’s a strong bipartisan statement from Congress — but won’t change much on the ground.

Ultimately, that’s the problem with all of these measures, including the latest pressure on Turkey. It’s all coming a little past due, right after the US ceded whatever influence and leverage it had in Syria. Turkey is already in Syria, the consequences of which can’t be reversed.

9) What does this mean for the war in Syria?

It’s far too soon to say. But in a week, the map in Syria has shifted dramatically. The Kurds still hold on to territory, but the future of their democratic experiment looks bleak. Their alliance of necessity with Assad is likely to bring many parts of northern Syria back under the regime’s control. This is the very territory the US and Kurds worked to liberate from ISIS and now it will be handed to Assad, giving him greater influence — if not yet total control — over the territory and the ISIS fighters being held there.

Turkey’s incursion continues, and Erdoğan seems unencumbered by previous commitments and looks willing to push into Syria to establish a buffer zone.

Turkish-backed Syrian fighters take part in a battle in Ras al-Ayn, Syria, along the Turkish border as Turkey and its allies continue their assault on Kurdish-held border towns in northeastern Syria on October 14, 2019.
Nazeer Al-Khatib/AFP via Getty Images

The new fighting is likely to displace tens of thousands of people, who are fleeing to the south to escape the bombing and shelling. About 6 million refugees have fled Syria and millions more are displaced within it; Turkey’s offensive will only exacerbate this.

What does seem certain is that Trump’s decision has effectively taken the United States — and its coalition partners — out of any discussion about the future of Syria. Any peace or ceasefire will almost certainly be guided by the players there: the regime, Russia, Turkey.

“The US will be without any role,” van Wilgenburg said. Trump, who’s made a promise to disentangle America from conflicts overseas, maybe doesn’t care. But the fallout says a lot about American influence and just how much it has diminished.

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