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October 28, 2019

Good morning <<First Name>>,

We hope your week is already off to a brilliant start. 

As you will undoubtedly have seen over the weekend, President Trump spent much of his Sunday declaring a major victory over ISIS, after the terrorist group's leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was killed in a raid led by U.S. forces in northwest Syria on Saturday evening.

But while Trump was celebrating the death of the infamous al-Baghdadi, who leaves no obvious successor behind, critics warn that this does little to ameliorate the damage that has been wrought by Trump's recent decision to withdraw troops from Syria. The instability and conflict that has since ensued remains a major cause for concern amongst politicians on both sides of the aisle.

With U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East now as confused as it is confusing, we've focused this week's newsletter on Syria and the U.S.'s abandonment of the Kurds.

We hope you find it helpful in terms of better understanding how we got to where we are, and why Trump's Syria policy has been unanimously condemned by those around him.

Have a great week!

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 THE VENN DEEP DIVE:  THE U.S. ABANDONS THE KURDS
OVERVIEW
  • Earlier this month, Trump announced he would be withdrawing U.S. troops from northern Syria, where they had been fighting alongside America’s Kurdish allies in the ongoing battle against ISIS. In so doing, Trump cleared the way for Turkey to launch a military assault against the Kurds, which occurred just days later. 
  • Backed by certain Syrian rebel forces with supposed links to the terror groups, al-Qaeda and Jabhat al-Nusra, the military attack has already displaced more than 130,000 Kurds, Arabs, Yazidis, and Christians, claimed the lives of dozens of civilians and injured hundreds more.
  • The decision prompted widespread criticism from across the international community, and in a rare sign of bipartisan unity, Congress registered overwhelming opposition to the move, with two-thirds of House Republicans, including every one of the party’s elected leaders, joining the Democrats in supporting a non-binding resolution that condemned the withdrawal. 
  • Trump, however, remained undeterred. Facing opposition from both parties, he insisted he ran for president on a pledge to end “endless wars” in the Middle East and bring our troops home. “They’ve been fighting for 1,000 years. Let them fight their own wars.” Brushing off criticism that he’d abandoned the Kurds, America’s strongest allies in the fight against ISIS, he said the conflict with Turkey “has nothing to do with us” and dismissed the Kurds as “no angels”, who entered combat for their own financial gain. “We’re making the Kurds look like they’re angels,” he said. “We paid a lot of money to the Kurds. Tremendous amounts of money. We’ve given them massive fortunes.”
  • In an op-ed for the Washington Post, Senate leader, Mitch McConnell, described the decision as “a grave strategic mistake." One that “will leave the American people and homeland less safe, embolden our enemies, and weaken important alliances.” 
  • Senator Lindsey Graham, typically one of the president’s closest allies, was similarly condemnatory of the President’s decision. “I hope President Trump is right in his belief that Turkey’s invasion of Syria is of no concern to us, abandoning the Kurds won’t come back to haunt us, ISIS won’t reemerge, and Iran will not fill the vacuum created by this decision,” he wrote on Twitter. “However,” he noted, “I firmly believe that if President Trump continues to make such statements this will be a disaster worse than President Obama’s decision to leave Iraq.”
  • Meanwhile, despite Trump reiterating that his Syria policy was part of a broader effort to bring American troops home, that doesn’t actually appear to be what’s happening. Mere days following America’s withdrawal from Syria, Defence Secretary Mark T. Esper announced that around 1,000 of the troops being withdrawn from Syria are now being sent to Western Iraq, where they will continue to fight ISIS. An additional 1,800 troops are being sent to Saudi Arabia to provide added support to the Kingdom, following attacks on Saudi oil production facilities in September.
  • It’s a confusing situation all round, so here are some quick pointers on what’s going on and how we got here.
WHO ARE THE KURDS?
  • The Kurds are an Iranian ethnic group numbering 30 to 40 million people, located primarily in a region spanning across northwestern Iran, northern Iraq, southern Turkey, and northern Syria, along the border with Turkey. They have never had their own state, and are considered one of the world’s largest stateless nation.
  • This is no small part thanks to a broken promise made by the victorious Western allies shortly following World War One. While the 1920 Treaty of Sevres provided that the Kurds would be granted their own nation-state, three years later the Treaty of Lausanne established the borders of modern Turkey and made no such provision. Instead, it left the Kurds with minority status in their respective countries, where they’ve often faced violence as a result. In the years that have followed, any effort by the Kurds to establish an independent state has been aggressively crushed. 
  • In Syria, the Kurds form the largest ethnic minority, comprising 5% - 10% of the population as of 2011. Historically, they have faced marginalization and discrimination by successive Syrian governments, who have promoted Arab nationalism while repressing Kurdish political and cultural rights, such as banning the Kurdish language.
  • Since the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War in 2011, the Kurds have captured around a third of the country, establishing their own self-governing region in Rojava, in northeastern Syria.
  • In Iraq too, they have similarly established a semi-autonomous state, electing the first Kurdistan Regional Government and National Assembly in 1992. In 2005, following the fall of Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi constitution permitted a significant federal devolution that gave more power to Kurdish leaders.
  • In Turkey, however, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) has waged an armed struggle against the Turkish state since 1984, in a fight to create their own independent Kurdish state. Turkey has declared the PKK a terrorist organization and fought a bloody counteroffensive in response. 
WHY WERE THEY AMERICA’S ALLIES?
  • In 2014 ISIS was advancing rapidly through Syria and Iraq. As part of their offensive, the terrorist group sought to take control of Kobane, a Kurdish city on the Syrian-Turkish border, which held strategic and symbolic significance. The siege turned into a four-month battle to seize Kobane, and its adjacent villages, from Kurdish militias. And while the battle between ISIS and the Kurds occurred right on Turkey’s doorstep, it refused to step in because of the Kurds’ association with the PKK. 
  • The U.S., however, chose to intervene, and began airstrikes against ISIS in late 2014. Together, the U.S. and the Kurdish militias eventually reclaimed Kobane and pushed back ISIS - a major victory for the Kurds that aided their mission to establish a semi-autonomous territory of their own.
  • 11,000 Kurds have died in the effort to combat ISIS, compared to 8 American troops. 
  • But the alliance was always a difficult one for the U.S., given the animosity that existed between the Kurds and America’s NATO ally, Turkey. It was a “ticking time bomb” according to experts, that focused on their one common goal, to defeat ISIS while ignoring the bigger political dynamics at stake.
TURKEY INVADES SYRIA. WHY?
  • Following Trump’s withdrawal of American troops from northern Syria, Turkey’s President Erdogan launched an offensive against the formerly US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) over its Southern border. 
  • The stated goal of ‘Operation Peace Spring’, as Ankara has called it, is to create a “safe zone” 20 miles deep on Turkey’s border with the SDF, to ensure that Turkish border towns are beyond the reach of shelling and rocket fire. Turkey views the Kurdish YPG, which comprises the bulk of the SDF, as a terrorist group that is indistinguishable from the banned militant group, the PKK. 
  • Trump’s abrupt withdrawal of troops has widely been seen as giving a green light to Turkey to advance on Kurdish-held north-east Syria, since U.S. forces have long served as a buffer between Turkey and the SDF. 
  • In response to condemnation of Turkey’s military offensive by Western allies, President Erdogan asked: “What kind of prime minister, what kind of head of state are those who offer to mediate between us and the terror group?”.
WHAT’S HAPPENED TO THE KURDS SINCE THE U.S. WITHDRAWAL?
  • The Kurds called the Trump administration’s move to withdraw troops a “stab in the back”, but said they would attempt to fight off Turkish advances solo. Following the first Turkish attack they did, however, call for the U.S.-led coalition to institute a no-fly zone in order to deter civilian casualties. No response came. 
  • The Kurds have been fighting back against Turkish advances, particularly in the border towns where they’ve also faced Turkish-backed Syrian militias, known as the Free Syrian Army. 
  • As Turkey's offensive intensified, the Kurds have been compelled to turn to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, with whom they’ve struck a defense pact.  “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. 
  • The deal allows for Syrian troops to advance into areas the regime hasn’t held since 2012 and represents a major reconfiguration of alliances, putting America’s one-time ally on the side of Assad, Russia, and Iran. 
AND WHAT ABOUT ISIS…?
  • On Sunday morning, Trump announced that U.S. special forces had killed ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, during an attack in northwestern Syria. “Last night, the United States brought the world’s No. 1 terrorist to justice,” Trump said at the White House, highlighting that no U.S. troops had been killed during the raid. “The world is now a much safer place,” he continued.
  • Yet, while the President was claiming a huge victory over the terrorist group, officials have warned that this does little to reduce the damage wrought by his decision to withdraw troops from the Turkish-Syrian border. Baghdadi’s death is “a blow to ISIS especially following the defeat of the caliphate. But the fight against ISIS is not over,” according to one senior U.S. official. “We are less safe for withdrawing our forces in Syria.” Meanwhile, officials have also emphasized that the effort would not have been possible without the help of Syrian and Iraqi Kurds, even after the U.S. began withdrawing troops.
  • Thousands of ISIS fighters and their families are currently being held in makeshift camps across the region, guarded by the SDF. Amidst reports that hundreds of ISIS affiliates recently escaped a displacement camp in northeast Syria many now fear that as fighting across the border escalates, this sort of incident could begin to happen more frequently, allowing ISIS to regain strength in light of the chaos.
  • According to Jeremy Bowen, the BBC’s Middle East editor: “on the messaging app Telegram, they have [ISIS] declared a new campaign of violence across Syria”. “They lost their territory, the ‘caliphate’, but those who stayed out of jail—or a grave—have reconstituted themselves in sleeper cells to carry out guerrilla attacks.”
 
***
Want to know more and dig a little deeper into this fascinating topic? Of course you do. Below are three carefully selected podcast episodes to help you do just that.

THE PODCASTS

“NO FRIENDS BUT THE MOUNTAINS”

The Kurds have been the United States’ strongest allies in the fight against the Islamic State since 2014, losing more than 11,000 people in the long-drawn-out battle. The U.S., by comparison, has lost eight. With Trump having withdrawn U.S. forces from northern Syria earlier this month, the Kurds have, as has occurred over and over again throughout their history, been abandoned by those they saw as allies. Their constant refrain, that they have ‘no friends but the mountains’ appears, once again, to ring resoundingly true. 
In this episode, The Foreign Desk, examines what this recent turn of events means for the future of Rojava.
 


00:30:00

U.S. TROOPS AREN’T COMING HOME

With Trump pulling out of northern Syria because he is “tired of endless wars”, but then sending troops to Iraq and also to Saudi Arabia, America’s foreign policy seems confusing at best. 
So what explains Trump’s recent actions in the Middle East? And what impact will these decisions have on America’s presence there, not to mention stability across the region? In this episode, Vox Explained takes a closer look.

00:16:41

ISIS: A RESURGENCE?

The Kurds have acted as the frontline in the battle against ISIS over the past five years, sacrificing thousands of lives in a war they were essentially fighting on behalf of the international community. Prior to America’s withdrawal from Syria, the U.S. and their Kurdish allies were reportedly carrying out as many as a dozen counter-terrorism missions a day to combat the terrorist group. Now that has stopped and we’re left to wonder whether Trump’s decision will ultimately facilitate an ISIS resurgence. 
In this episode, the BBC’s Beyond Today examines the repercussions of America abandoning the Kurds. 


00:23:18


This rounds up our deep dive, but stay tuned as we will revisit this important issue in a future newsletter.


Words by: Emma-Louise Boynton
Editing by: Jim Cowles, Stacy Perez and Emma-Louise Boynton
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