TORONTO – Three days after US President Donald Trump announced he was withdrawing US troops from an area near the Syrian-Turkish border, Turkish forces entered.
The latest armed conflict in Syria comes just months after Kurdish and US forces declared they had taken the last land held by ISIS – and for anyone monitoring the region closely, it was virtually inevitable after the American ad.
Here’s a look at what has happened in northern Syria over the past few days, what could happen next, and the impact it could have on Canada.
WHAT IS HAPPENING?
Turkish forces entered northern Syria on Wednesday, launching airstrikes and a ground attack against Kurdish fighters, who were previously allies with the US military in the fight against ISIS.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said he wants to establish a “safe zone” along the Turkish-Syrian border that would essentially put many Syrian Kurds under Turkish control.
Although the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has largely regained control of Syria from ISIS – in part thanks to the help of Russia and Iran – the Kurds have gained some autonomy in the north .
A Kurdish insurgency exists in Turkey, and Erdogan has said he sees the Kurds in Syria as terrorists threatening his country. He tweeted that he was aiming to “prevent the creation of a terrorist corridor” along the border.
US and Turkish officials were working on a compromise to protect the border, with the backing of Kurdish authorities, but Erdogan was reportedly frustrated by the slow pace of negotiations.
The Kurds have long been allies of the United States, being the only group willing to work with the Americans to drive ISIS out of Syria.
That relationship likely ended abruptly after Trump announced on Sunday that US troops would withdraw from the border area. The troops left the border towns of Ras al-Ayn and Tal Abyad.
“President Trump is just sitting down and allowing what appears to be a military operation to be deployed against some of the most capable and dedicated allies we have had during the fight against IS,” Michael S. Smith II, a terrorism analyst and lecturer at Johns Hopkins University, told CTV News Channel Wednesday.
“This sends a strong signal to many of our other weaker partners around the world that under the Trump administration the United States may not be the most reliable ally.”
Without US protection, most analysts expected Turkey to launch an offensive – as has happened. The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have stopped fighting ISIS due to Turkey’s urgent new threat.
Bessma Momani, an international affairs analyst at the Center for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, Ont., Said on Wednesday that this week’s developments shouldn’t come as a shock, especially as Trump has already signaled his dissatisfaction with the idea. to have troops in Syria.
“I think anyone who is surprised by this hasn’t really paid attention to Erdogan or Trump,” she said.
WHY IS THE UNITED STATES DEPARTURE?
The decision to withdraw US troops from the region has been condemned by Democratic and Republican politicians in the United States
Trump shed light on his thinking on Monday when he said he did not want US troops to wage “endless wars” abroad.
Although it seemed to most outside observers that the departure of US troops would result in Turkish military action, Trump seemed to think otherwise, saying on Thursday that the incursion was “a bad idea.”
The United States had about 1,000 troops in northeastern Syria before the withdrawal.
The SDF accused the United States of not respecting its commitments by leaving the border area. They say 11,000 Kurdish fighters died in the fight against ISIS.
WHAT COULD HAPPEN NEXT?
Turkey has pledged to hit only SDF targets and protect civilians – however, few believe that a prolonged Turkish offensive will result in few civilian deaths.
Before Wednesday’s action, the International Rescue Committee warned that any Turkish offensive could displace up to 300,000 people.
If Turkey succeeds in gaining control of the region, then it could put pressure on the many Syrian refugees currently living in Turkey to return to Syria.
According to Momani, the mood in Turkey is that people are “a little tired of taking in so many Syrian refugees, which is very sad, but rather understandable given that they are hosting millions of them.”
Momani said she feared the Turkish government would send all refugees to northern Syria, even though many of them came from Aleppo or other parts of the country.
“It’s not necessarily their home,” she said.
WHAT IS CANADA’S ROLE?
The Canadian Armed Forces have been involved in the fight against ISIS since 2014 and have helped train Kurdish forces in northern Iraq. Canadians are currently leading NATO’s anti-ISIS mission in Iraq.
The mission is combat-free and focuses only on Iraq, meaning there were no Canadian troops accompanying the Americans to Syria.
Turkey is also a member of NATO. While a number of European countries have criticized Turkey’s military incursion, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said NATO believes Turkey is acting in response to a legitimate security and should take measured and proportionate measures.
“The United States leaving the region could leave a vacuum, and that is exactly what Turkey was trying to avoid,” Tina Park, NATO Defense Center researcher, told CTV News Channel on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, around 40 Canadian citizens – most of whom are believed to be children of ISIS fighters – are being held in an SDF detention camp.
The nonprofit Families Against Violent Extremism wrote to Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland on Wednesday, urging the government to call on Turkey to protect and repatriate the detainees.
“They lack basic medical care. They lack basic food. There is endemic violence in the camps… and now, with the Turkish invasion, it is completely untenable, ”Alexandra Bain, director of Families Against Violent Extremism, told CTV News Channel.
“Children are going to die. “
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau was asked about the situation in Syria on Wednesday during an election event in Markham, Ont. He said the government was working with its allies in the Middle East to create “long-term peace and stability.”
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer was last asked about developments in the region on Monday in Ottawa. He said he was monitoring the situation closely and criticized Trudeau for removing Canadian fighter jets from the NATO mission.
With files from the Associated Press