In Depth

Have Western nations abandoned the Kurds?

World leaders have been reluctant to take a stand against the Turkish assault on Afrin

Western governments have been accused of turning a blind eye to a humanitarian crisis in the Syrian enclave of Afrin after Turkey launched a military offensive in the Kurdish-held region earlier this year. 

Hundreds of people, many of them civilians, have been killed by air strikes and artillery as Turkish troops and their allied militias push into Afrin, in northern Syria, and more than 250,000 people have been forced to flee.

“Afrin is the most brutal expression of what’s called realpolitik,” says Didier Billion, deputy director of the French Institute for International and Strategic Relations.

Western powers “were very happy” to have Syrian Kurdish troops on the ground to fight against Islamic State (IS), Billion told French news agency AFP. “But Ankara, a Nato member, will always be more important than Afrin.”

What is Turkey doing in Afrin?

The Turkish military, along with pro-Turkish rebels from the Free Syrian Army, launched “Operation Olive Branch” in late January, reportedly in response to US plans to help Kurdish and ethnic Arab militias fighting Isis militants build a new “border security force” between Syria and Turkey.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his country would not allow a “terror corridor” along its border and would push further east from Afrin, The Washington Post reports.

Turkey has long vowed to crush the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which the government considers a terrorist group aligned with the banned Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK).

After months of heavy shelling and violent clashes, Erdogan announced on 18 March that the Turkish military had seized full control of Afrin. The aerial assault appeared to have the tacit approval of Russia, which controls the airspace over the enclave.

Human Rights Watch has accused Turkey of indiscriminately striking civilian targets, while the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has warned of a deepening humanitarian catastrophe.

Khaled Issa, the Kurdish Syrian representative in France, said the attack on the Kurdish population in Afrin amounted to ethnic cleansing.

“The same fighters who fought courageously against Daesh [the Arabic acronym for Isis] are today left to the mercy of the Turkish army,” Issa told AFP. “There’s a moral responsibility for the international community in the face of an unjustified and illegal aggression.”

How has the West responded?

There has been a “deafening silence” from most world leaders about what is effectively an illegal invasion, Sandeep Gopalan, professor of law at Deakin University in Melbourne, writes in US newspaper The Hill.

In a statement issued last week, the US State Department said it was “deeply concerned” by the events in Afrin but remained “committed to our Nato ally Turkey” and “their legitimate security concerns”.

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson expressed similar sentiments last month, when he insisted that “Turkey has the right to want to keep its borders secure”.

The strongest condemnation so far has come from German Chancellor Angela Merkel. “For all Turkey’s legitimate security interests, what has happened in Afrin, where thousands and thousands of civilians are persecuted, killed or forced to flee, is unacceptable,” she told the German parliament last week.

Seth J. Frantzman, executive director of the US-based Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis, says Kurds feel deeply betrayed by the West’s inaction.

“Friends I’ve spoken to on the ground wonder whether they were right to sacrifice so much against IS alongside the Western powers and whether their fight was in vain,” Frantzman writes in The Spectator.

What could happen next?

Analysts warn that Turkey’s assault on Afrin risks seriously escalating the conflict in Syria, especially if its forces move ahead with plans to approach areas where US military personnel are stationed.

Relations between the Nato allies are currently “teetering on the brink of a precipice”, and direct military conflict is a possibility, Anthony Skinner, a director at the UK-based forecasting company Verisk Maplecroft, told Bloomberg.

The two nations have drawn red lines, which “magnifies the risk of miscalculation on both sides,” he warned.

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