When United States President Donald Trump ordered the withdrawal of American troops in northern Syria in October, chaos and violence unraveled. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians, mostly Kurds, started to flee for their lives as Turkish bombs shelled civilian homes and structures. While ceasefire went in effect days after the initial attack, reports of ethnically-motivated killings have started to emerge, with Turkish-backed forces proudly documenting their own war crimes.
According to Amnesty International, Turkish military forces its Syrian allies “have displayed an utterly callous disregard for civilian lives, launching unlawful deadly attacks in residential areas that have killed and injured civilians.” So far, the invasion has displaced more than 100,000 people and killed 218 civilians in Syria, the group said.
Although the main combat phase has ended, post-ceasefire operations are still ongoing, and observers feared that such activities would inflict permanent shift in demographics in the region.
But how did Turkey and Syria arrive at this mess? Could it be undone? Is there a way out to the melee Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have created?
The conflict between Turkey and Syria, as experts described, is like a powder keg waiting to explode. For the longest time, Erdogan has been eyeing northern Syria over the supposed links between the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)—which is composed mainly of armed Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ)—and the rebel group Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which the Turkish government has been fighting with for years.
Erdogan claims that the PKK is aligned with the SDF and fears that the latter would inspire Kurds in Turkey to establish an autonomous region similar to that in Syria. To prevent that from happening, Erdogan pushes to build a “safe zone” in Turkey’s southern border where he also plans to relocate some 3.6 million Syrian refugees living in Turkey.
But there was one thing that prevented Erdogan from attacking Syria: U.S. soldiers stationed in northeastern part of the country. Trump effectively removed this roadblock when he gave a green light to withdraw the troops. As if downplaying the impact of the pullout, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said the U.S. “doesn’t have the forces on hand to stop an invasion of Turkey that is 15,000 strong.”
Recipe for disaster
This decision has posed an even more dilemma for those trying to fix the Syrian problem: a tactical ally of the U.S. in obliterating terrorist group Islamic State in Syria, the Kurds would be forced to forge alliance with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad—who has close ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin—to counter attacks by Turkish forces. Instead of focusing on eradicating the terrorist threat, the Kurds would be compelled to protect the territory it has gained in the past years of fighting the Islamic State.
Indeed, it was a clusterfuck, to borrow The New Republic’s description of Trump’s betrayal. But his decision to withdraw American troops was just the end of it all. The invasion of Syria was an expected result partly because of growing polarization in Turkey, of Erdogan’s dwindling popularity, of the lira’s plummet, and of the Turkish people’s brewing frustration over millions of Syrian refugees hosted back home.
Turkey was (and is) in crisis—and it was a recipe for disaster.
Do what populists do
The Syrian refugee crisis has found its way into the heart of public debate in Turkey with more than 80 percent of Turkish citizens in favor of sending Syrian refugees back to Syria and two-thirds of the Turkish public saying they are opposed to their continued presence. This is the reality that Erdogan has to deal with: a Turkish public that has turned its back on Syrian refugees.
Erdogan also has a falling popularity to think of. According to Ankara-based pollster Metropoll, the Turkish president’s approval rating in September has dropped nine points from last year: from 53 percent in 2018 down to 44 percent in 2019.
According to political scientist Laura Gamboa, authoritarians, history has proven, were at their best in eroding their country’s democracy when faced with crises. On the other hand, Princeton University professor Jan-Werner Mueller noted in his book “What is Populism” that crisis can be a “performance” for populists like Erdogan, who has been in power for 16 years and is the longest serving leader of modern Turkey.
Could Erdogan be riding on the Turkish people’s frustration with his decision to bomb northern Syria? Probably. Could the invasion be a diversion from the harsh economic and political realities the Turks face? Very likely. It’s demagoguery at work.
Then again, at the end of the day, the biggest loser here are the Syrians, especially the Kurds: betrayed by their American allies, they have no one to turn to but their old foe, Assad, and his ally, Putin. Syria remains an open buffet for actors in the region, with the Islamic State lurking in the background and with peace nowhere in sight.
Müller, Jan-Werner. 2016. What Is Populism? Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Gamboa, Laura. 2017. “Opposition at the Margins: Strategies against the Erosion of Democracy in Colombia and Venezuela.” Comparative Politics 49(4): 457-477.