Pulling Out of the Middle East: Consequences and Considerations
By Andrew Vipatasilpin
Just when you thought that politics in the Middle East were starting to stabilize, the tensions between the Kurdish people and the peoples of Turkey and Syria erupt into a firestorm of conflict, violence, and displaced populations. You may be wondering how this situation arose. You may not be surprised that the U.S is involved. However, this time it’s different. Rather than intervention, the withdrawal of U.S forces from Northern Syria have initiated new conflicts between the governments of Turkey and Syria on one side and the Kurdish people on the other. If you’re unfamiliar with Kurds and their place, or lack thereof, in the Middle East, here’s a summary of the ongoing situation in the Middle East.
The Kurds are an ethnic group of people that inhabit Iran, Syria, Iraq, and Turkey. They number approximately 25-30 million people across the four countries, but, within each country, they are an ethnic minority. In Turkey, where our modern dilemma takes place, the Turkish government has been repressing attempts by the Kurds to express Kurdish identity and gain political representation as an ethnic group since the 1990s.
Naturally, the Kurds formed an opposition group known as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, PPK, which advocates for the freedom to express Kurdish identity and economic equality within Turkey. Unsurprisingly, some radical members of the PPK have taken to violence against the Turkish government to get what they want, further increasing tensions and leaving peaceful Kurds in a lose-lose situation between paranoid Turks and angry Kurds who both demand some form of enlistment as a show of loyalty.
The U.S has maintained a military presence in Syria since 2015 in response to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad using chemical weapons upon its own population. Since then, Americans have been engaging in counterterrorism efforts in the region, and they have established relations with the Syrian government, Turkish government, and Kurdish groups, all of whom meet on the northern border of Syria. In mid October, the Trump administration agreed with the Turkish government to pull out about half of the military presence, approximately 1,000 troops, from the region and a lifting of sanctions against Turkey in exchange for a permanent cease-fire agreement between Turkey and Syria. On October 23rd, the U.S military began the process of withdrawing 1,000 troops from the region, leaving behind another 1,000 to help facilitate the ceasefire agreement.
You may be wondering why the Kurds weren’t were mentioned in the cease-fire agreement. Apparently, so were the Kurds. After the U.S withdrew approximately half of its forces from northern Syria, Turkish forces began attacking Kurdish villages that were expected to be harboring PPK sympathizers. The Syrian government also commenced attacks on Syrian Kurds on their northern border. Although the Turkish attacks have not produced high military or civilian casualties yet, approximately 100,000 people have been displaced in order to escape fighting between Kurdish groups and the Turkish and Syrian government. According to Defense Secretary Mark Esper, at little over a hundred Islamic state detainees escaped prisons in northern Syria after conflict in the area.
With conflict beginning to rage in the Middle East, the members of the Congress haven’t been too pleased with the aftermath of partial U.S withdrawal. James Jeffery, the U.S ambassador to Syria, testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday October 22nd. There appears to be consensus between Democrats and Republicans that this was a poor decision with senators such as Bob Menendez (D-NJ), and Mitt Romney (R-Utah) questioning the rationale and the swiftness of the withdrawal. Furthermore, a resolution in the House of Representatives opposing the Trump administration’s decision received bipartisan support, passing 354 to 60.
Despite domestic condemnation, there’s still a great deal of uncertainty in the region following U.S departure. There are even reports of Russian collaboration with the Turkish government, in which Russian forces would intervene to support the Turkish and Syrian efforts to oust Kudish forces from their respective countries. Until there is further executive action on behalf of the Trump administration, the Kurdish people have been left to fend for themselves for the time being.
Andrew Vipatasilpin is a junior majoring in political science at the George Washington University.