America is in a smoldering hotbed between two opposing strategic allies, Syrian Kurds and Turkey. The first has played a valiant and vital role in defeating ISIS. The other, a NATO partner, has concerns that Kurdish separatists will collapse their southern border.
Major conflicts with economically-distressed Turkey revolve around control of enormous Kurdish territorial oil resources. Those boundaries stretch from the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf to the end of Malatya and Marash. These regions include parts of eastern Turkey, northern Iraq, northwestern Iran, and northern Syria.
If Kurdistan were an independent country, its surface-accessible reserves would qualify it for OPEC membership. Ashti Hawrami, the natural resources minister for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), has spoken of increasing exports to 1 million barrels per day or more.
In early 2015, Kurdish soldiers known as Peshmerga successfully defended the Kurdish capital of Erbil from Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants who had seized much of northern Iraq. Nevertheless, this conflict, along with political interferences from Ankara and Baghdad, have kept many large investors away.
The Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), a militant separatist force, has been waging a guerilla war on the government of Turkey since the mid 1980s. In retaliation, the government destroyed numerous Kurdish-populated villages and placed food embargoes upon the residents. Hundreds of thousands were forced to flee their homes, and more than 20,000 Kurds were killed in the violence.
Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, Kurdish provinces were placed under martial law and political parties representing Kurdish interests were banned. The Kurdish language was also officially prohibited, both in public and private life, and many people who spoke, published, or sang in Kurdish were arrested and imprisoned.
Emboldened by American occupational forces in Iraq, the PKK ended a five-year-long ceasefire with Turkey in 2004. Although Ankara was concerned that the destabilization of Iraq would establish an independent Kurdish state in the north adjacent to Turkish provinces, it was evident that U.S. commanders had no interest in fighting the PKK on behalf of Turkey.
PKK has established itself as a vital American ally in battles against ISIS. Their forces helped tens of thousands of desperate Yazidis escape Islamic State-encircled Mount Sinjar in Iraq, and in 2015, played a pivotal role in saving the Syrian city of Kobani.
Of special alarm to Ankara, U.S.-backed Syrian Kurds took control of the northern Syrian city of Manbij from ISIS more than a year ago. Manbij sits at the strategic crossroads used by ISIS to ferry weapons, supplies and fighters between the Turkish border and the group’s former Syrian stronghold in Raqqa.
In 2016, Turkey very reluctantly agreed to allow fighters from the Syrian Kurdish Militia (the YPG) from eastern Syria to cross the near-by Euphrates River to seize Manbij. This occurred after the Obama administration assured Turkish leaders that those forces, which it claimed to be different from PKK, would withdraw once the fighting was over.
The YPG, a dominant power in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), has had a leading role in driving ISIS from northern Syria. Turkey regards both the YPG and PKK to be terrorist organizations.
Last month, Turkey launched its Olive Branch operation to drive the Kurdish-supported SDF, YPG and PKK militia out of the city of Afrin to the west of Manbij. President Trump called President Erdogan, warning him not to launch any attacks on Manbij where U.S. Special forces are stationed.
Although the U.S. has worked closely with Kurdish groups in Syria, we have no direct ties to those who are defending Afrin. Nevertheless, Trump administration officials have exhorted Turkey and its allies, including Russia, to exercise all restraint necessary to avoid broadening the conflict.
Secretary of State Tillerson has recently confirmed that the U.S. does plan to keep a military force in Syria for the foreseeable future. General Joseph L. Votelm who heads the United States Central Command echoed that commitment. Speaking in an interview, he said that American forces would remain in eastern Syria, alongside their Syrian Kurdish and Arab allies, as long as needed to defeat the Islamic State.
Not standing strongly with the Kurds after they have sacrificed a generation of their people doing the dirty work to defeat ISIS will demonstrate to friends and foes alike that America cannot be trusted as a reliable partner. In choosing our own trusted allies, let’s also recall that Turkey did not allow the U.S. to make use of its territory during the Iraq War of 2003 to attack Saddam Hussein’s forces.
Let’s also remember that Afrin, like all other Kurdish regions in Syria, celebrates a system of governance that enshrines the rights of women, ethnic minorities, and grassroots democracy. These principles stand in stark contrast to the growing authoritarianism of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Allies who share our most fundamental values are well worth defending.
Larry Bell is an endowed professor of space architecture at the University of Houston where he founded the Sasakawa International Center for Space Architecture (SICSA) and the graduate program in space architecture. He is the author of "Scared Witless: Prophets and Profits of Climate Doom" (2015) and "Climate of Corruption: Politics and Power Behind the Global Warming Hoax" (2012). He is currently working on a new book with Buzz Aldrin, "Beyond Footprints and Flagpoles." Read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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