Thousands of Kurds protest US military withdrawal from northeast Syria

Crowds gather in the border towns of Tal Abyad, Ras al Ain following an early departure of US troops

Protestors begin a human shield campaign in Ras al Ain, October 8th. Photo: Hewar News, The Rojava Information Center

NEW YORK — Thousands of Kurdish civilians have taken to the streets to protest President Trump’s recent decision to withdraw U.S. troops from the Turkish-Syrian border. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder, protestors united behind handmade banners, waving the national Kurdish flag and chanting, “No to occupation by Turkey!”

Protestors gather outside of Tal Abyad following the US troops withdrawal on October 8th, 2019.

The largest crowds gathered to protest in the border cities of Tal Abyad and Ras al Ain, where US military withdrawals have already begun.

Trump’s decision to withdraw US military forces from the Turkish-Syria border follows a Sunday phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. A US withdrawal will allow Turkish military forces to unilaterally implement Erdogan’s proposed ‘safe zone’, a 30-kilometer buffer that will run the length of northeast Syria’s border with Turkey, from the banks of the Euphrates River to the western border of Iraq.

Should Turkish military operations continue as planned, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimates that over 300,000 Kurds currently living within the planned ‘safe zone’ will be displaced from their land. Officials expect that Kurdish families will move south, seeking refuge in cities like Raqqa, Al Hasakah, or even in Deir ez-Zur, the last stronghold of the Islamic State.

“This invasion will shatter the long-standing peace and security in Northeast Syria, the only region of Syria where millions of people have been able to live free of both regime tyranny and the oppression of jihadist groups like the Islamic State,” says Thomas McClure of the Rojava Information Center in northeast Syria. “Kurdish people who led the struggle against ISIS will once again be massacred at the hands of the Turkish state.”

Several protestors also gathered in the city of Kobani, an important economic center in northeast Syria.

“No to Neo-Ottoman Rule!” Kurdish women march outside of Kobane on October 8th. Photo: Hewar News, The Rojava Information Center
Protests in Kobane, October 8th

No to neo-Ottomanism,” the protestors chant. “No to occupation and no to demographic change.”

Here, protest slogans capture the true cost of Erdogan’s ‘safe zone’: Not only will Turkish military forces displace the Kurdish population and occupy their land, but President Erdogan plans to transfer some 1.5 million Syrian refugees from central Turkey into the buffer zone.

“Erdogan wants to change the demographics of Kurdish Syria,” says a local humanitarian coordinator speaking on condition of anonymity. “Turkey’s refugee population generally comes from Arab communities in Aleppo or Hama in northwest Syria. Returning 1.5 million Arabs to Syria’s northeast border will create a demographic barrier between the Kurdish populations living in southern Turkey and the Kurdish populations settled in Syria.” Such demographic changes will weaken Kurdish alliances and help safeguard Erdogan’s nationalist agenda.

While many of Tuesday’s protestors were civilians, members of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) also joined the protests in front of the United Nations headquarters in the Syrian town of Qamishli.

Kurdish war veterans join protests against the US withdrawal in Qamishli on October 8th, 2019. Photo: Hewar News via The Rojava Information Center
Kurdish war veterans join protests against the US withdrawal in Qamishli on October 8th. Many fighters have joined the of the Syrian Democratic Forces, the United States’ main ally in the fight against the Islamic Caliphate, since 2011. Photo: Hewar News via The Rojava Information Center

Striking images of YPG soldiers maneuvering the crowds on crutches and wheelchairs remind onlookers that Kurdish fighters have been among the United States’ most reliable and self-sacrificing allies in the eight years war against the Islamic State.

Several members of Trump’s Republican party have warned that a betrayal of the Kurds will harm American’s credibility as an ally worldwide. In a Monday statement Senator Patrick J. Toomey (R-PA) urged President Trump “to rethink this decision immediately.” Many members of the GOP agree, with Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) warning that “a precipitous withdrawal” could benefit Russia, Iran, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria and the Islamic State.

As the US withdrawals continue, the future of Syria’s Kurds becomes increasingly unstable, and civilian security in the proposed ‘safe zone’ appears less than safe.

I report on borders, resources and human security. Currently @Columbia | SIPA. Formerly @Mercy Corps