How the Afghanistan pullout spurs Turkish attacks on Syria's Kurds

The United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan has fueled concerns among its Syrian Kurdish partners that they may be similarly abandoned to a military campaign by Turkey against them, journalist David Lepeska wrote in the National.

In a column on Sunday, Lepeska said that Washington’s clumsy withdrawal from Afghanistan during a takeover by the Taliban militant group left the Syrian Kurds with two concerns. Firstly, they feel that they may be wrong to place their fate in the hands of Washington, which was roundly criticised for leaving the Afghan government it spent two decades supporting in the face of a Taliban onslaught. Second, given the possible role of Turkey in a post-U.S. Afghanistan, Ankara may be provided room to attack the Syrian Kurds with little in the way of repercussions, he said.

Turkey views the U.S.-allied Syrian Democratic Forces, dominated by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), as an extension of its long-time foe, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Like Turkey, the United States designates the PKK as a terrorist organisation but has refrained from labelling the YPG as such.

Lepeska highlights a series of examples of Turkish airstrikes on SDF units and leaders to demonstrate how it spared little time in attacking a U.S. ally during the Afghanistan withdrawal. On August 16, one day after Kabul fell, a Turkish airstrike killed a prominent Yazidi commander who worked with the United States to defeat the Islamic State. A week later, Turkish drones rained missiles down on northeastern Iraq in what Lepeska said was a demonstration that Ankara can strike anywhere in northern Iraq.

Turkey has targeted the SDF in several offensives into northern Syria in recent years. The first came with Operation Euphrates Shield in 2018 when Turkish forces, supporting Syrian proxies, drove the SDF out of the Afrin canton. A subsequent campaign of driving local Kurds from the region has been labelled as ethnic cleansing by some human rights organisations, and the province continues to suffer from insecurity.

The next major offensive came in October 2019 with Operation Peace Spring. After a week of fighting, Turkey agreed to a Russian brokered ceasefire that confined Turkish territorial gains to a swathe of land between Tel Tamer and Ain Issa. Turkish strikes within this zone have continued and Syrian Kurdish officials frequently demand that the United States and Russia hold Turkey to account for violating the 2019 agreement.

Coalition officials insist that Washington remains committed to its allies but narrow it to supporting the fight against ISIS. In an interview in Kurdish news outlet Rudaw, the U.S. envoy to the coalition Joey Hood stated “that Turkey needs to take actions in its own national defence against terrorist activities” without condemning attacks on the SDF. This comment has stayed true to positions held by the last two U.S. administrations, begging the question Lepeska puts forward about whether it is in fact tacit approval of Turkish actions.

Lepeska said that enabling Turkey could prove short-sighted if it ends up undermining the fight against ISIS. He says this could even backfire on Turkey if it chooses to remain in Afghanistan where an ISIS faction known as ISIS-Khorasan remains active. This group claimed responsibility for the deadly attack on U.S. forces and Afghan civilians outside Kabul airport on August 26 that left dozens of people dead.