This is my third update on the situation in Northern Syria (and Iraq), including Afrin.
It was beyond alarming to read in the Wall Street Journal this morning that President Trump said at a rally in Cleveland Ohio yesterday: "President Donald Trump suggested to a crowd in suburban Cleveland that the U.S. would withdraw its more than 2,000 troops from Syria. The forces have been working with local fighters to defeat Islamic State, which remains lodged in the eastern half of that country. “We will be coming out of Syria, like, very soon,” Mr. Trump said. “Let the other people take care of it now.” These comments were tucked into an article about the first meeting between Secretary of Defense Mattis and newly appointed National Security Adviser John Bolton.
If this actually is proposed US policy, it is important that its impact is fully understood. It will surely mean an end to the preservation of minority communities in Northern Syria and in Northern Iraq, including Christians (Assyrians, Syriacs, Chaldeans, etc.), Kurds, and Yazidis. It will surely bring about the failure of our long war against Middle East terrorism. It will also extinguish the expectation that the US would have a real foothold within Syria from which to maintain military, diplomatic, and strategic strength in the region. It will also mean the likely loss of the model government structure and commitment to freedom and democracy now in operation within the Federation of Northern Syria—a potential source of resolution of the Syrian conflict or, at the very least, an island of pluralism, freedom of religion, rights for women, etc. in the Middle East.
This should be a cause for great alarm within the Administration, the Congress, NGO’s, and religious groups that are concerned about the survival of Christianity and other minority religions and ethnic groups, notably including Kurds and Yazidis, in the Middle East. It should also alarm those who wish to see our anti-terrorism and anti-ISIS strategy succeed. Simply put, pulling out US troops from Syria will give ISIS a free hand to regroup and join with Turkey and its newly empowered jihadi militias (26,000 strong) to resume efforts to take over both Syria and Iraq. Who will “take care of it now”? The Turks, the Russians, the Iranians, and the Assad regime. Without a US/SDF presence in the Deir as Zhour area, Iran and Russia will take over, and Iran will get its long sought highway to the Mediterranean. Alternately, Turkey and Iran will fight over that the territory.
The Syrian territory that should be a platform for the US, militarily, strategically, and diplomatically in the region — the Federation of Northern Syria—will be quickly gone. The US will have no real basis for playing a significant role in peace talks or the final resolution (if possible) of the Syrian conflict. The consequences for the FNS will be horrifying, as they already have been in Afrin. There is literally no place for displaced Christians, Kurds, and Yazidis to find safe havens in the area. Neither Turkey nor Iran are real options. Possibly they can go to Iraqi Kurdistan.
This apparent, or hopefully only proposed, plan for US troop withdrawal follows a pattern of apparent indifference to the suffering of the people groups that fielded the SDF and that are the primary conquerors of ISIS—with US support. It also shows a complete indifference to the future of Christians, Yazidis, Kurds, and other minorities in both Syria and Iraq, which are supposedly great concerns of this Administration. Christians in Iraq are leaving at a record breaking pace, as predicted, because the combination of a US policy failure to support self-defense and rebuilding efforts in the Nineveh Plains plus the US allowing Iranian backed militias to occupy half of the Nineveh Plains leads Christians to lose hope for their future in Iraq. If Turkey is allowed to invade some or all of the FNS, Christians in that part of Syria will follow suit. Christians in Western Syria will see that there is no end to war in Syria and that the alternative outcomes are continuation of Assad’s dictatorship or Islamist rule. The same is true for Yazidis, who have just seen their sanctuary in Afrin be destroyed and who face further ethnic cleansing by Turkey in Sinjar.
The attached Syria war map shows the epic scale of the areas liberated from ISIS by the SDF—at least one third of Syria and most of its productive farmland and oil fields. This territory is secured with US support (minimal in comparison to US support and troop presence in Iraq and Afghanistan). The SDF took on the challenge of fighting ISIS beyond the initial boundaries of the FNS solely at US request. It did not have to lose thousands of lives taking Raqqa and could have stayed in place defending its own people. Had it done so, it would have been better equipped to fight back at Turkey. It might have gotten more Russian support against Turkey.
The FNS has the only non-sectarian, pluralistic, democratic government structure in the Middle East. (Even Israel is a religious, Jewish, state). The FNS gives full freedom of religion to all religious groups, full rights to women and all ethnic groups. It is the only place in which Christians have full civic and political rights as well as real freedom to practice their religion in Syria or Iraq. Even Kurdish and Arab Christian converts can worship freely.
Nonetheless, the US allowed Turkey to invade Afrin. This has caused the ongoing fight against ISIS in Southeastern Syria (on both sides of the Euphrates near Deir Azour and its rich oil fields) to almost ground to a halt. Turkey acted in clear violation of the February 24, 2018 UN Ceasefire Resolution 2401, which applied to Afrin as well as Ghouta. Turkey told the UN to “go to hell” with its ceasefire resolution and completed its invasion of Afrin as of March 18.
This week, Ambassador Nikki Halely, spoke out forcefully against the violation of the Ceasefire Resolution violations by the Assad regime and the Russians in Ghouta. However, nothing was reported as being said about Afrin.
Turkey threatens to invade the remainder of the Syrian border stretching to the east from Afrin, including Manjib, Tel Abyad, and Quamishli, the most significant cities for the FNS. It also said that it would invade Sinjar in Northern Iraq and reportedly already has done so. There are continuing reports that the US is negotiating with Turkey about withdrawing our forces from Manjib, which would give Turkey a free hand to invade Manjib and possibly continue east.
In all cases, Turkey has stated that its goal is to “cleanse” these areas of their current inhabitants and replace them with “rightful residents” by which it means Arab Sunni Muslims sympathetic to Turkey and its expansionist goals. The pretext for Turkey’s aggression is alleged cross border security threats from SDF and YPG fighters. However, as a BBC study recently showed (see below), there were at most 15 cross border incidents resulting in any damage within Turkey, while Turkey has killed many people on the Syrian side of the border through relentless shelling. There were no instances of actual invasion of Turkey. So the entire premise for Turkey’s aggression is groundless.
Turkey is using jihadi mercenaries as ground troops. These are the same forces that formerly fought with ISIS and other enemies of the US, that sought to impose a radical Islamist religious state in Syria, that possess a fatwa against the SDF and civilian populations that support them. These forces have already shown their true nature in Afrin, killing, looting, and destroying the once peaceful agricultural province.
Turkey is moving quickly. It has already expelled at least 170,000 Afrin residents, who are trapped in an SDF controlled area surrounded by Turkish forces and regime forces. Turkey is refusing to allow Afrin legal residents to return to their homes and is jubilantly reporting the return of Afrin’s “rightful residents” sympathetic Arab Sunni Muslims who never set foot in Afrin before. The Assad regime’s forces are demanding extortionate bribes to allow people to cross the border into Alleppo Province. Turkey is shelling and apparently getting ready to invade the area where the refugees are trapped. Many families are sleeping in the open without even minimal blankets or shelter, food, health care or other provisions. This CNN video released yesterday shows the heartbreaking situation: https://www.cnn.com/videos/world/2018/03/29/afrin-displaced-caught-in-limbo-wedeman-pkg.cnn
One alternative for the FNS/SDF if the US pulls out is to turn to Russia and/or the Assad regime for protection. Turkey invaded Afrin only after Russia decided to allow them to do so. Turkey would not have invaded had it had to face Russian anti-aircraft weapons and warplanes. This would not be a good outcome for US foreign policy or Middle East strategic interests, but it would be a better outcome for Syrian Christians and other minorities.
The simple fact is that the SDF is no match for the Turkish army with its seemingly endless supplies of warplanes, tanks, drones, and other sophisticated weaponry, probably mostly purchased from the US. With a US presence, it can be hoped that Turkey will refrain from trying to invade the FNS and do to its residents what it has done in Afrin. It should be noted that the US is gaining nothing strategically by backing Turkey’s aggression inside Syria. Instead, it is fostering its slide toward using Islamism as an ideology and basis for an increasingly dangerous dictatorship with aspirations to attack other neighbors, notably Greece. Abandoning the SDF and the FNS can only result in a loss of all we have expended in Syria and abandonment of it to Russian, Iranian, Assad regime, and Turkish/Islamist interests.
I urge all of you to work toward these goals through letters to the President, Congressional resolutions, raising awareness in the media and religious groups:
1. Stop Turkey’s plans to invade the FNS from Manjib to the Iraqi border; stop Turkey’s invasion and “cleansing” of Sinjar.
2. Require Turkey to allow international observers, monitors, and humanitarian aid into Afrin. Force it to stop ethnic cleansing, ongoing summary executions of those it views as infidels, particularly Christians and Yazidis, looting and seizing of homes, farmland, and businesses.
3. Require Turkey to allow Afrin residents to return to and rebuild their homes and their lives.
4. Provide immediate assistance, shelter, and other humanitarian aid to Afrin refugees.
5. Censure Turkey in the UN for its misconduct in Afrin.
6. Develop a long term plan to secure the FNS and promote its governance model as a solution for the Syrian conflict.
Thanks to all of you,
PS: Some of you did not get the earlier updates. I have expanded the list due to the obvious emergency we are facing.
LAUREN B. HOMER
ATTORNEY AT LAW
HOMER INTERNATIONAL LAW
LAW AND LIBERTY TRUST
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