The Turkey-Syrian conflict has been worsening in recent years, nearing a potentially irreversible, devastating climax.
The conflict between Turkey and Syria has steadily increased since 2011, reaching a boiling point when U.S. President Donald Trump chose to remove U.S. soldiers from Syrian land before the death of an important Middle Eastern leader. To understand the issues at hand, you must start at the beginning with the ongoing Syrian Civil War.
Protests in Syria and religious conflict
Following similar trends across the Middle East, in March 2011, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his government were challenged with pro-democracy protests that aimed at reforming government practices. Some of the practices included limiting the government’s ability of censorship and surveillance of its citizens and the erasure of the regime’s allegedly violent tactics against perceived opponents, according to Encyclopaedia Britannica.
The Syrian government quelled protests through acts of violence, but sparked a full civil war when rebel groups formed in response to this military crack down.
Although the protestors wanted an end to Assad’s harsh governmental practices, the issue behind the Syrian Civil War is also a response to the nation’s Islamic history, according to Call of Hope. There are two major denominations in Islam: the Shia and Sunni. Over time, these two groups have grown further apart, disagreeing over core elements of their theology.
While the long time rivalry between these two denominations is part of the conflict, there is also another, smaller sect of Islam known as the Alawites, which is the sect that al-Assad is from. The Sunni people believe it would be a religious victory if al-Assad was removed from power, but this would conflict with their relationship with Iran which follows Shia belief.
According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, most of those protesting belong to the country’s Sunni majority while most of the government military are part of the Alawite minority.
Syria’s act of violence against the protesters sparked outrage in many nations across the world. Turkey condemned the regime after stories of several brutal killings by the military were released, according to The Telegraph.
Due to the influx of fighting, swarms of Syrians began fleeing the country, creating the Syrian Refugee Crisis. Turkey became a haven for refugees during these early years.
Along with the refugees, fleeing militants also crossed the border to Turkey, according to The Guardian.
The Free Syrian Army is formed
In 2012, Turkish military intelligence allegedly supervised the Free Syrian Army, composed of those Syrian militant rebels who allegedly sought to overthrow the Syrian regime, according to The Guardian.
The Free Syrian Army is only one of many combatants against the government, however it is the main organized rebel group that has engaged with government forces regularly, according to Encyclopaedia Britannica.
ISIS enters the picture
The fighting increased and while most non-Islamic military groups were faltering from exhaustion and fighting among themselves, a group under the name the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), rose as a major military power.
While ISIS was fighting against the Syrian government, they also had a defining Islamic agenda against many areas, such as the Kurdish region in northern Iraq. The U.S. performed multiple airstrikes against their forces in order to protect Christian communities from being attacked and wiped out near the Iraqian border as well, says Encyclopaedia Britannica.
Turkey’s involvement was minimal until August 2016 when they orchestrated a direct military strike against ISIS forces to clear them from a border town in Syria, according to CNN. However, this military move was not only against ISIS but also directed at the Syrian-Kurdish fighting forces.
“[The] Kurds are a large ethnic minority in Syria…[and] Turkey is determined to keep the Kurdish fighters from establishing Kurdish control of the border area on the Syrian side should ISIS be pushed out,” wrote CNN reporter Euan McKirdy.
was the leader of Islamic State from 2003-2019. Under his leadership, the group expanded into Syria. Under his rule, ISIS massacred captives, beheaded journalists and aid workers, and threw individuals believed to be gay from the rooftops of buildings, according to the Associated Press.
Turkish forces invade Syria
The Turkish forces first began to directly invade Syria in January 2018 with what they called “Operation Olive Branch,” launching “cross-border military operations into Afrin in northwestern Syria,” according to Genocide Watch. Their goal was to route the Syrian-Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) from that region of Afrin.
In an attempt to de-escalate the rising tensions, Russian and Turkey forces agreed to implement a buffer zone between government and rebel forces.
Where we are now
In October 2019, Trump withdrew U.S. forces from aiding the Kurds, leaving them open for attack and annihilation by Turkish forces. This was due to new tariff laws, “halting trade negotiations with Turkey and doubling tariffs on imports of Turkish steel as relations between the countries continued to deteriorate,” according to The New York Times.
The removal of U.S. aid has sparked concerns of a genocide of the Kurdish minority, especially as ties between Turkey, Russia and Iran strengthen.
On Oct. 26, U.S. forces cornered al-Baghdadi and forced him to detonate his suicide vest, killing himself and three of his children who were with him, according to the Associated Press. Although this is a definite blow to the Islamic State, the group has lost many leaders before and still remains a force of military violence.
Trump sees the death of al-Baghdadi as a large milestone in the U.S.’s fight against the Islamic State.
“He was a sick and depraved man, and now he’s gone,” Trump said. “He died like a dog, he died like a coward.”
Despite Trump’s recent criticisms regarding impeachment proceedings and the backlash he received from pulling troops out of Syria, the death of al-Baghdadi acts as a significant foreign policy victory for him.