Last week, Turkey launched an incursion into Kurdish-held northeastern Syria, prompting stern condemnation from its Western allies.
On Monday, both the European Union and the United States decided to penalize Ankara over the operation, with EU foreign ministers agreeing to stop weapons exports to Turkey and Washington issuing sanctions.
Here are answers to eight key questions about Turkeys operation and its consequences.
Why the animosity between Turkey and the Kurds?
After World War I, the Kurds were left without a state of their own, ending up spread across Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. As ethnic minorities in these states, Kurds frequently faced repression. Against that backdrop, a militant group, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), emerged seeking a Kurdish state within Turkey. (It now calls for greater autonomy in the country.) In the 1980s, a violent conflict ensued between the Turkish state and the PKK, killing tens of thousands of people; the PKK still regularly attacks Turkish security forces. Ankara, as well as the EU and the U.S., classify the PKK as a terrorist group.
Turkey-backed Syrian fighters gather around a Turkish army tank in the northern outskirts of the Syrian city of Manbij near the Turkish border | Zein Al Rifai/AFP via Getty Images
After the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, a Syrian affiliate of the PKK — the Peoples Protection Units (YPG) — seized control of territory in northeastern Syria, establishing a semi-autonomous statelet bordering Turkey. The YPG later took the lead of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a military alliance supported by the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State group. The SDF lost some 11,000 fighters battling ISIS.
The YPG claims theyre not directly linked to the PKK, but Turkey — as well as most experts on the region — say they share close ties. Ankara therefore saw a threat to its own security in the quasi-autonomous Kurdish state on its doorstep, dubbing it a “terror corridor” where the PKK could hide or easily attack from.
What prompted the Turkish invasion and what is President Erdoğan trying to achieve?
Ankaras aim is twofold: pushing YPG fighters at least 30 kilometers away from its border and establishing a so-called “safe zone” in parts of Syrian territory it seizes to which it plans to return refugees. Turkey currently hosts some 3.5 million Syrian refugees, more than any other nation, and resentment toward them is on the rise among Turkish citizens. Its also worth noting that parts of the opposition and many Turks, not just supporters of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, support the military operation.
The incursion, fueled by security fears as well as nationalist sentiment, is Turkeys third operation in Syria. Erdoğan has long spoken about plans for a “safe zone” and driving away the YPG. But it was the U.S. that triggered the offensive when President Donald Trump announced the American troops stationed in northeastern Syria would withdraw — effectively green-lighting Turkeys planned incursion. Ankara subsequently launched the operation on October 9, with its troops entering Kurdish-held territories alongside Turkish-backed Syrian Arab militias.
What has happened since in Syria?
Northeastern Syria, previously one of the most stable regions in the war-ravaged country, has become a battleground. As Turkey began capturing territory, the Syrian Kurds had little choice but to strike a deal with the Moscow-backed regime of President Bashar al-Assad to halt the Turkish advance — likely spelling the end of their cherished semi-autonomy.
The EU has condemned the invasion. In a joint statement on Monday, the bloc also pledged that member states would halt weapons exports to Turkey.
According to the United Nations, more than 130,000 people have been displaced since the start of the offensive. Turkey says it has killed nearly 600 “terrorists” as of Tuesday. Reports by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and others say dozens of civilians were killed. At the same time, hundreds of Islamic State supporters are reported to have escaped from Kurdish custody amid the Turkish advance. (The SDF says it holds about 10,000 Islamic State fighters.)
Does this mean another major influx of refugees into Europe is imminent?
Probably not. Tens of thousands are trying to escape the fighting, but two factors make it unlikely a significant number will end up in Europe rather than become internally displaced. The first is geographical: Turkey is pushing down into the country from the north — meaning most will flee south rather than north into Turkey and then cross to Greece.
Second, it has become difficult to pass the Turkish-Syrian border even with the help of smugglers after Turkey built a wall and stepped up security along the frontier. Prior waves of displacement — such as in the spring, when fighting in northeastern Syria prompted 400,000 to flee — did not create another 2015-style refugee crisis.
Europe does rely on Turkeys cooperation for migration management, including in patrolling the Aegean Sea, so Erdoğans threat to send all refugees currently in Turkey to Europe if EU countries continue to criticize Ankaras Syria offensive raised some concerns. But it is questionable whether Erdoğan would do so — he has made the threat numerous times before.
What has been the EU response?
The EU has condemned the invasion. In a joint statement on Monday, the bloc also pledged that member states would halt weapons exports to Turkey. As of Tuesday, the countries that have formally suspended their arms trade with Ankara include Germany, France, Italy, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Finland and Sweden. The same day, they agreed to prepare a list of possible sanctions — to be deployed if and when the EU decides to do so — on Turkish individuals and legal entities over Ankaras drilling activities off Cyprus.
Turkey did not take kindly to the announcement, accusing the EU of displaying “a protective approach towards terrorist elements” in Syria and saying it would “seriously reconsider our cooperation with the EU on certain areas due to its unlawful and biased stance.”
Syrians return to their homes in the town of Ayn al-Arus after it was taken over by Turkish-backed Syrian fighters | Bakr Alkasem/AFP via Getty Images
Hungary, meanwhile, appeared to endorse Turkeys Syria incursion on Tuesday in contradiction to the EU member countries unanimous statement from only a day earlier, in particular Ankaras plan for refugee resettlement. Humanitarian organizations are warning against a so-called safe zone, however, and Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has already told Turkey not to expect EU financial support for such a plan.
What impact will the export bans have?
Its likely to be very limited. Turkey, already the second-largest military within NATO in terms of personnel, has raised its defense spending by 65 percent over the past decade, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). Ankara currently covers 70 percent of its defense needs with domestic production, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu Read More – Source