Trump's rapid Syria withdrawal is making life near the border with Turkey even more dangerous

Ellen Ioanes
Kurds SDF

Nazeer Al-Khatib / AFP via Getty Images


  • Turkey and Syria have enjoyed periods of relative calm, but tensions have risen between the two countries and the many forces fighting there since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011.
  • After negotiating a "safe zone" in northeastern Syria, US President Donald Trump announced abruptly on Sunday night that US troops would be pulling out of the area, leaving Turkey free to conduct a "long-planned" operation there.
  • Trump's decision leaves Kurdish soldiers fighting with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) vulnerable to attack from Turkish forces. The Kurds, a stateless people living across Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran, have been at odds with Turkey for decades.
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Turkey's involvement in the ongoing Syrian civil war is just one reason the border between the two countries is one of the most dangerous in the world — and it's only getting more dangerous.

The Kurdish militia in Syria were a crucial part of the US-led coalition that defeated ISIS in Syria. Now, as the US is beginning to pull troops from northeastern Syria, the president's critics — and even his allies — have sharply criticized him for abandoning Kurdish forces and rolling back gains against ISIS.

Turkey is opposed to Kurdish groups affiliated with Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) — which Turkey and the US  consider a terrorist organization.

As a new conflict looms, with Turkey preparing to invade — and by some accounts, already launching airstrikes against — northeastern Syria, life on the border is more dangerous than ever. Read on for more insight about what life is like there.

The border between Turkey and Syria has been an especially contentious area during the Syrian civil war, for two main reasons: the flow of Syrian refugees into Turkey, and the prevalence of PKK and Kurdish defense forces (YPG) in the northeastern part of Syria.

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Kurds, an ethnic minority living mostly in Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, have long demanded their own independent state — sometimes using violence to make their point. Turkey considers the Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK) a terrorist group because of violent uprisings against Turkish authority.

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The YPG, or the Kurdish People's Protection Unit, have worked with US-led coalition forces and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to combat the Islamic State in Syria. While President Donald Trump declared victory over the Islamic State this year, the Department of Defense released a report saying IS was regrouping in Syria and Iraq. ISIS in Afghanistan is also a growing threat.

Thomson Reuters

Source: INSIDER 



Gaziantep, Turkey, is a city about 40 miles from the Syrian border. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have sought refuge there since the start of the Syrian civil war, and while Syrians and Turks mostly coexist there, there is some animosity for refugees as the city has grown more crowded and that housing prices have gone up. Some violence by ISIS also contributed to the animosity.

Umit Bektas / REUTERS

Source: Al Jazeera



Diplomatic ties between Syria and Turkey have deteriorated steadily since the start of the civil war. Turkey's embassy in Damascus, Syria, closed in 2012, citing security concerns.

SANA via REUTERS

Source: The Daily Beast



The rise of the Islamic State in Syria led to Turkey's formal involvement in the Syrian civil war, starting in August 2016. Previously, Turkey had allowed Syrian rebels to train and regroup within its borders, but the increasing prevalence of ISIS and the YPG forces near Turkey's southern border prompted Turkey's military involvement. Turkey formally ended its Operation Euphrates Shield in 2017; however, the Turkish government and military continue to be enmeshed in the conflict.

REUTERS/Umit Bektas

Source: Al Jazeera



At present, the US and Turkey are setting up a base of operations to establish a future "safe zone" and to ostensibly prevent a threatened Turkish incursion into northern Syria. No details about the "safe zone," such as where it will be and when it will be established, have been revealed by either side.

Khalil Ashawi / REUTERS

Source: Al Jazeera



The Syrian refugee crisis has sent millions of refugees to surrounding countries like Lebanon and Turkey, as well as to countries in the European Union, like Germany.

REUTERS/Kadir Celikcan

As Turkey's economy continues to struggle, both opposition politicians, and the ruling party have blamed refugees and promised to repatriate them hastily to a failed state where many face arrest, torture, and death, either by the regime or from extremist groups like Hayyat Tahrir al-Shams or al-Nusra. Deportations of Syrian men from Istanbul have been on the rise.

Osman Orsal/Reuters

Source: Foreign Policy



The refugee camp at Kilis, Turkey, was hailed as a model for refugee camps — organized, well-run, clean, and humane. It was built by the Turkish government — not the United Nations, as many refugee camps are. But Turkey also got around many international requirements for accepting refugees, like guaranteeing them the right to work and travel freely, and guaranteeing that the government will not deport them back into unsafe conditions, by referring to Syrians who fled to Turkey because of the Syrian civil war as guests with temporary protected status rather than refugees.

Adem Altan/Pool / REUTERS

Source: The New York Times



Nusaybin, Turkey is a flashpoint city in the conflict between Turks and Kurds. Fighting there began in 2015. Nusaybin is a predominantly Kurdish city with a population of about 120,000, with political significance for Kurds. It is also an important location for Turkey, due to its proximity to the Syrian city of Qamishli. About 6,000 buildings were destroyed there in 2016, residents believe, by Turkish security forces.

Thomson Reuters

Source: International Crisis Group

 



Cizre, Turkey is the site of another clash between Turkish security forces and a majority Kurdish population. For 78 days in late 2015 and early 2016, the people of Cizre were cut off from the outside world, forced underground into basements as the Turkish security forces fought the PKK. According to the BBC, 160 civilians were killed by Turkish security forces there, a claim Turkey has rejected. .

Thomson Reuters

Source: BBC



A wall between Syria and Turkey extends across 764 km of the 911km border to keep the Islamic State and the PKK at bay. It was completed in 2018.

Reuters/Umit Bektas

Source: The National



Afrin, another Kurdish enclave, has been the target of Turkey's Operation Olive Branch, which started in January 2018 and displaced 137,000 people, Human Rights Watch reports. Citizens of Afrin also had their homes looted and occupied by Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army groups.

Khalil Ashawi / REUTERS

Sources: The Atlantic Council, Human Rights Watch 



Residents of Maraat al-Numan, a city in Idlib, Syria, fled to the Turkish border in August after Russian-led attacks on the town, including their hospital, as part of a larger campaign on the rebel stronghold of Khan Sheikhoun. Khan Sheikhoun was the site of suspected chemical attacks on Syrian civilians by Assad's government in 2017.

Reuters/Ammar Abdullah

Sources: Reuters, Al Jazeera



Kobane, or Ain al-Arab, Syria, is situated near Syria's northern border and was the site of one of the Islamic State's major offensives, in 2014. ISIS combatants killed around 200 civilians, and the fighting displaced around 100,000.

Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images

Source: Al Jazeera



Sanliurfa is an ancient city that's now home to a number of Syrian refugees. Among the ruins of the world's oldest known temple and ancient city walls, Syrian refugees attempting to build a life there, and extremist groups target vulnerable Syrian youth.

Amr Abdallah Dalsh / REUTERS

Sources: Smithsonian Magazine, International Crisis Group



Ras al-Ayn, Syria, has been a site of struggle throughout the Syrian civil war. In 2012, Syrian rebels fought government forces there. Then, in 2013, the fighting was between Syrian rebels and Kurdish militia. Then came an Islamic State attack in 2015. Skirmishes between the Syrian Democratic Forces and Turkey continued into this summer.

Rodi Said / REUTERS

Sources: McClatchy, NPR, Wall Street Journal, Al-Monitor

 



The Syria-Turkey Friendship Dam was meant to solidify ties between the two countries before the Syrian civil war stretched them to a breaking point. Construction on the dam, located on the Orontes river, in 2011. It has not yet been finished.

Khaled al-Hariri / REUTERS

Source: Reuters



Syrians who once streamed through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing to safety in Turkey are now being forced back through, according to reports of forced deportations of Syrians from Turkey. Bab al-Hawa is located in Idlib, the site of attacks by regime forces. Idlib is also overrun with militants from groups like Hayat Tahrir al-Shams, a coalition of militant groups that was once affiliated with al-Qaeda. In 2018, some US and British aid groups stopped using the Bab al-Hawa border crossing because of reports that the taxes being levied on trucks carrying aid supplies were funding HTS.

Ammar Abdullah/Reuters

Sources: Al Jazeera, Reuters, BBC, Reuters

 



The Berlin-Baghdad railway was meant to go from Berlin, Germany to Baghdad, Iraq, traveling through Turkey and Syria along the way. Construction took from 1903 to 1940; the train ran though Gaziantep Turkey and Aleppo, Syria on its way to Baghdad. Parts of the rail were still in use as of 2010.

Mohammed Ameen / REUTERS

Sources: Pacific Standard, The Guardian, BBC