Since the outbreak of Syria’s civil war in 2011, more than 500,000 people have been killed and at least 12 million displaced. Entire cities have been destroyed. But amid the rubble, North and East Syria, populated by Kurds, is relatively peaceful and stable. Early in the conflict, Syria withdrew its forces from the Kurdish area to address more urgent challenges elsewhere in the country.
I recently visited Qamishli, on the Iraq-Syria border, to discuss political transition. The region is vulnerable. Its relative security would be destroyed if Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan makes good on his threat to attack.
He believes that Syrian Kurdish militias are a branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which includes Kurds from Turkey who have fought for Kurdish rights since the mid-1980s. He vows to “strangle” terrorists and establish a security belt along Turkey’s border with Syria.
U.S. troops could be collateral damage. About 2,000 U.S. Army Special Forces are embedded with Kurdish militias called the People’s Protection Units. The United States provides weapons and air support for their fight against the Islamic State.
The United States has no friends in Syria except the Kurds. Syria has become a proving ground for Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and Turkey. Syria borders Israel and could be a launch point for attacks. Will Washington prevent Turkey from massacring civilians, or will it turn a blind eye as Turkey targets Syrian Kurds?
Erdogan has a track record of war crimes. On Jan. 20, Turkey launched an unprovoked attack against Afrin, a peaceful Syrian hamlet west of the Euphrates River. To cleanse Afrin of Kurds, Turkish war planes bombed for 58 days, killing hundreds and displacing 300,000 people.
The Trump administration needs Kurds to help eradicate up to 20,000 ISIS fighters from pockets along the Syria-Iraq border. The Kurds also help contain Iranian influence in Syria. And the United States is establishing five warning posts on the Turkish-Syrian border as a tripwire to prevent violent conflict between Turkey and the Kurds. If Turkey attacks, however, the posts would be overrun. In a veiled warning, Erdogan maintains, “Our targets will never be U.S. soldiers.”
Establishing a no-fly zone in North and East Syria would eliminate Turkey’s advantage of air power and give the Kurds a fighting chance.
The decision has significant security and political implications. Most U.S. air power in the region is at Incirlik Air Force Base in southeast Turkey. If the U.S. establishes a no-fly zone, Turkey would probably ground U.S. planes and close Incirlik.
Anticipating worsening relations with Turkey, the United States has been relocating war planes to Greece. U.S. airfields in Cyprus and U.S. aircraft carriers in the eastern Mediterranean also could help enforce a no-fly zone. The United States faces a historic choice. It could continue its alliance with Turkey, which aided jihadi groups in Syria and is buying missiles from Russia in violation of NATO principles. Or the United States could support the Syrian Kurds. Not only has the People’s Protection Units helped the fight against ISIS. The self-governing territory of North and East Syria is secular and pro-American. It could serve as a model for future governance of Syria. The United States needs a principled and practical approach, defending its partners rather than trying to placate its adversaries.
David L. Phillips, director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights, is the author of “The Great Betrayal: How America Abandoned the Kurds and Lost the Middle East.”