Following the Turkish incursion into the Kurdish area of northeast Syria, everyone involved—the United States, the European Union, the Arab League, Syria, Iran, Iraq, even Russian President Vladimir Putin—was concerned.
Of course, that concern had nothing to do with the human tragedy that is unfolding in the area west of the Euphrates River. There is no mercy for the hundreds of thousands of civilians, Kurds and others—women and children—who are being uprooted and are fleeing the villages near the border. No one is feeling any regret regarding the more than 500 people who have been killed or wounded after only five days of Turkish aerial bombardments and shelling.
No, the main concern is the threat that as a result of Turkey’s assault, the Islamic State (ISIS) could rise again. Tens of thousands of ISIS operatives are currently being held in prison by the Kurds, and tens of thousands of their relatives are being held in detainment camps. In a last attempt to halt the Turkish incursion, the Kurds warned that there was a real danger that under cover of battle, their ISIS prisoners might escape and return to their native countries to resume jihad against the infidels.
Even if the Kurds’ threat is somewhat exaggerated (most of the prisoners are located outside the zone in northern Syria that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is targeting), it is not baseless or unreasonable. If the Kurds are busy defending themselves, they will have less time to devote to guarding prisoners. The Americans, who until now were helping to secure the prison facilities, are now more concerned with protecting the lives of their own forces in Syria, especially after a few of them were nearly hit on Saturday by errant Turkish artillery fire.
Aside from that, the war against ISIS, which is still alive and kicking in many places in eastern Syria, has been halted almost entirely due to Erdoğan’s operation. This allowed ISIS operatives to set off car bombs in Qamishli, a major logistics center for the Kurds, as it was being bombarded by the Turks.
The fear that ISIS could rise again as a result of the Turkish incursion has prompted the Europeans to take the rare step of falling in line with Washington by threatening to apply sanctions to Turkey if it does not cease its assault. Putin also expressed concern about ISIS operatives making their way back to Russian-controlled areas. The Arab League convened a special meeting of Arab foreign ministers in Cairo on Saturday, many of whom condemned the Turkish incursion.
U.S. President Trump might be starting to regret his phone call to Erdoğan last week and his ensuing decision to withdraw a few dozen American soldiers from the area that Turkey is now invading. The fear of an ISIS revival and the harsh criticism from both parties over his abandonment of the Kurds have caused the U.S. president to not only threaten Erdoğan with “paralyzing the Turkish economy,” but also to instruct U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin to prepare to take action against Turkish assets in the United States if the Turkish operation continues.
Perhaps out of a desire to prevent additional harm to the United States, which is now seen as turning its back on its allies, Trump rushed to announce that he was deploying additional forces and anti-aircraft defenses to Saudi Arabia to help defend it against Iran. But the Saudis don’t really trust Washington anymore and have already asked Pakistan to help solve their conflict with Iran through diplomatic channels.
There is little to no chance Erdoğan will blanch at sanctions. This weekend, he threatened that if the Europeans took action against him, he would let millions of refugees in Turkey loose to “flood” Europe. The deal to hold refugees in Turkey in exchange for billions of dollars in European aid is due to expire soon.
The Turkish incursion into northern Syria is part of an orderly, two-stage plan designed to eradicate any possibility of an autonomous Kurdish entity arising there. The first part of the plan is to run Kurdish residents and militias out of towns and villages that lie within a strip of territory along the Turkish-Syrian border, and to advance 20 miles into Syria to set up a buffer zone. The second stage will fill that territory with more than 2 million Syrian refugees who are currently in Turkey.
In simple terms, this is known as ethnic cleansing.
Turkey, which has the second-largest military in NATO, and its partners (such as the pro-Erdoğan Syrian rebels) have a clear military advantage over the Kurdish forces, as well as superior air power. Occupying a security zone and pushing the Kurds out is one possible move, but holding it in the long term without casualties won’t be simple. The Kurds have a lot of experience in guerrilla warfare, and Erdoğan should take a lesson from Israel’s traumatic experience controlling the security zone in southern Lebanon until it withdrew in 2000.
Israel is following developments in northern Syria, and the responses from the superpowers (mainly the United States) to the Turkish incursion, very closely. The alliance between Jerusalem and Washington is strong and different from Washington’s commitments to its other partners in the region. However, there is something disturbing in the fact that the Kurds, a brave people, feel abandoned by the strongest country in the world, while the Saudis are already convinced that the United States won’t defend them against the grave threat from Tehran.
Oded Granot is a journalist and international commentator on the Middle East.
This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.