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Dashing Kurdish Hopes Will Not Bring Erdogan Peace

Sanctions, Insurgency, and a Cold Shoulder Await

Kurds protesting the Turkish offensive, Erbil, Iraq, October 2019 Azad Lashkari / Reuters

Only a few months ago, Kurds in the Middle East were optimistic. They enjoyed a newfound international recognition, and a major political breakthrough glimmered on their horizon. Their confidence sprang in large part from the achievements of the Syrian Kurds.

The Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) mostly dominated the multiethnic umbrella militia group known as the Syrian Democratic Forces. That group had worked for almost five years in close alliance with the world’s premier superpower, the United States, to defeat the Islamic State, or ISIS. The affiliation was extraordinary, from the Kurdish point of view, because the Kurdistan Workers’ Party was initially behind establishing the militia. Based in Turkey, that party has long battled the Turkish government, and it is on the U.S. terrorist list. In the Syrian territories that the militia forces liberated, Kurds quickly established their own governmental structures and institutionalized their rule.

The Kurdish success in Syria came some two decades after an autonomous, internationally recognized Kurdish entity, the Kurdistan Regional Government, or KRG, solidified in Iraq. In the aftermath of the Gulf War in 1991, Washington sought to stop Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein from massacring the country’s Kurdish population. The result of U.S. efforts was de facto Kurdish autonomy within Iraq, which would eventually lead to the KRG. In the period from 2014 to 2019, the United States appeared poised to once again midwife a Kurdish entity, this one under different circumstances and with less far-reaching powers, in Syria.

Within the space of a single week in October, Syrian Kurdish dreams have been cruelly dashed. Without informing even his own military, U.S. President Donald Trump gave Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan the green light to invade northern Syria. First he pulled U.S. Special Forces back from the Turkish-Syrian border, allowing Turkish troops and allied jihadis to start an offensive. Soon afterward, the White House announced that all 1,000 U.S. troops would leave Syria. All of Kurdish-controlled territory—not just the 20-mile security zone

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