Never before in history has the US worked with a group and then opened the skies to have another US ally bomb and destroy it. On October 9, the Syrian Democratic Forces, a group of mostly Kurdish fighters who fought ISIS for five years and helped create a peaceful and stable area in northeast Syria, were bombed and bombarded by Turkey as US forces withdrew and watched.
In an unprecedented reversal for Washington’s policy in Syria the Americans armed, trained and encouraged the SDF to liberate wide swaths of Syria from ISIS only to turn around on October 6 and, under the leadership of US President Donald Trump, give Turkey the open skies and borders to attack US partner forces. Like thieves in the night, US forces withdrew from their positions without explanation, processes, discussions, or leaving behind people to monitor the area, and made it clear to Ankara that nothing would be done to impede an attack.
NATO appeared to give tacit approval to Turkey, a member state, to invade northeast Syria, while many European countries expressed concern. Some of these countries, such as the UK and France, had been partners with the US in the coalition against ISIS and had fought alongside the SDF for years. They too were not informed on October 6 as the US decided to say that ISIS detainees were not Turkey’s responsibility and that the US would withdraw from the border. Paris and London appear dismayed that Turkey has invaded, but like the US, they don’t want to do anything to prevent their SDF partners from being killed in airstrikes.
Turkey informed the UN General Assembly of its plans in September. Although the military invasion of a foreign country, settling of people and confiscation of the lands of the indigenous inhabitants is usually illegal under international law, a new set of global rules have been created for Turkey’s operation.
The unprecedented nature of Turkey’s attack on Wednesday, bombing peaceful towns along the border with impunity, represents not only a setback for 30 years of US policies in the Middle East and around the world, but also a change in the concept of international law and the change in the way Western powers deal with partners that used to fight ISIS.
It came as a shock to the SDF that the US would withdraw so quickly and without explanation – without discussions or a process in place. They suffered around 11,000 casualties fighting ISIS, many of them alongside the US in battles such as Raqqa and Baghouz, pressed to complete the total defeat of the ISIS “caliphate,” only to then be told that now that ISIS was defeated, they would be abandoned.
Turkey has labeled its operation a “fountain of peace,” arguing that it is “clearing” the border area of “terrorists” up to a depth of 30 km. Turkey then intends to settle several million Arab refugees from other parts of Syria in the Kurdish part of northeast Syria, clearing Kurds from their historical lands to make way for up to 140 towns, 200,000 houses and billions in foreign investment.