Last week, India’s capital, New Delhi, experienced its worst communal violence targeting a religious minority in more than 30 years. The death toll currently stands at 43 and parts of northeast Delhi remain under lock-down.
As per usual after incidents of violence against minorities in India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi responded with days of silence. Finally commenting on Twitter, he said, “peace and harmony are central to our ethos” and appealed for “peace and brotherhood at all times”.
But under Modi, India’s ethos is Hindu, and peace and brotherhood requires religious minorities to know their place. It is this sort of Hindu nationalism that led to the attacks on Muslims, their homes, schools and their places of worship.
Modi was elected in 2014 on the promise he would bring his “Gujarat model” of high growth rates driven by private-sector-led manufacturing to national prominence.
But the Gujarat model also involved the promotion of a vicious right-wing populist politics, which sought to create and elevate a Hindu majority out of a socially and economically diverse population to act as a voting bloc for Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
This strategy relied on the creation of a common enemy in Muslims and secular liberals. It involved the strategic use of violence to polarise communities in areas where the BJP faced the most electoral competition.
Critics warned that although Modi had seemingly adopted a technocratic focus on governance and development during the election campaign, his right-wing populist politics of division bubbled just below the surface and would be unleashed if the BJP came to power.
As polarisation has intensified over the past six years, the critics were proven right.
Muslims and Dalits have been the targets of lynchings by Hindu activists in the name of protecting cows, a long-standing Hindu nationalist preoccupation.
Yogi Adityanath, a militant Hindu monk, was also appointed as chief minister of India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh.
Since being reelected in May with an even bigger majority, the Modi government has claimed a mandate to fulfil long-standing Hindu nationalist demands to further marginalise minorities in India.
The Citizenship Amendment Act was one of these demands. The act violates the non-discriminatory spirit of India’s constitution by allowing persecuted Hindus, Parsis, Jains, Buddhists, Sikhs and Christians from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan – but not persecuted Muslims – a fast-tracked route to citizenship.
Modi’s government has also promised a National Register of Citizens that will require Indians to provide documentary evidence of their citizenship.
A version of this exercise was conducted in the state of Assam, with disastrous effects. About 1.9 million Assamese were declared non-citizens and will now have to go through a long appeals process in special courts that function poorly.
The joint CAA-NRC agenda of the Modi government has stirred millions of Indians into peaceful protests around the country, showcasing a spirit of collective resistance not witnessed since India’s independence movement in the 1940s.
The most powerful protests have been led by Muslim women – a first in Indian history – in Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh area. The protesters have occupied a public space here for two and a half months, braving the bitter cold of northern Indian winters.
Shaheen Bagh has also inspired over a hundred other women-led permanent protests around India.
Last week’s violence in New Delhi is a consequence of the ruling regime’s campaign against the protests. This campaign intensified during the BJP’s election campaign when the party mobilised public support against the protesters by accusing them of fomenting violence and disrupting public order.
Travelling to Delhi to energise voters, Adityanath, the militant Hindu monk in Uttar Pradesh, said the protesters should be fed “bullets”. Anurag Thakur, a BJP member of parliament and minister of state, chanted “shoot the traitors” at an election rally, referring to protesters.
This was followed by two incidents of shootings at students and protesters by individuals who identified as Modi supporters.
Despite being roundly defeated in the Delhi election, BJP leaders have continued their campaign of polarisation in preparation for future elections.
Last week’s violence was sparked when BJP leaders and supporters mobilised to break up protests against the CAA and NRC in Delhi. It was no accident the violence was concentrated in fiercely contested electorates where BJP leaders had urged voters to show their anger against the Shaheen Bagh women by voting for the party.
The perpetrator of the hate speech that sparked the violence, BJP leader Kapil Mishra, continues to make provocative statements against opponents. The police, who are accused of being indifferent and complicit in the violence, have yet to charge him with an offence.
While parts of Delhi burned, Modi was entertaining US President Donald Trump, who praised India’s tolerance. Australian Trade Minister Simon Birmingham was also visiting India with a large trade mission and touted India’s rule of law and tolerance as its strengths. Both declared the violence to be a matter for India.
The tide is beginning to turn, however. Potential Democratic presidential nominees Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have both criticised the Modi regime. (The BJP president, BL Santhosh, responded by threatening to interfere in the 2020 US presidential election.)
The Greens’ Mehreen Faruqi, meanwhile, has moved a motion in the Australian Senate that is critical of the Indian government.
Mounting international criticism is unlikely to alter the BJP’s policies or approach, which are rooted in its Hindu nationalist raison d’etre.
But international support will bolster resistance within India against a regime striving for political domination through violent polarisation.
The US has signed an historic agreement with the Taliban that sets Washington and its NATO allies on a path to withdraw their military forces from Afghanistan after more than 18 years of unceasing conflict.
It is now hoped the deal will lead to a more complicated process of negotiations between the Taliban and Afghan government – starting as early as next week – to work toward a complete ceasefire and new political roadmap for the country.
This is critically important because until now, the government has been absent from the peace process at the insistence of the Taliban.
The opening of this window to end one of the world’s most debilitating and protracted conflicts has been welcomed by many US allies, including Australia.
However, many seasoned observers, including prominent American politicians and former diplomats and military leaders, are concerned the agreement concedes too much to the Taliban without requiring it to make any substantive commitments to ensure a genuine peace process.
The deal has completely sidelined the Afghan government and civil society and does not provide any explicit references, much less guarantees, for the protection of human rights in Afghanistan, especially for women and minority groups who were suppressed and persecuted by the Taliban.
Indeed, cracks have already begun to emerge in the deal. On Monday, the Taliban refused to take part in the intra-Afghan talks until the government released 5,000 Taliban prisoners, which President Ashraf Ghani has refused to do.
As a result, many Afghans are worried that rather than being the start of a comprehensive peace process for the country, the deal is merely a cheap withdrawal troop agreement intended to serve US President Donald Trump’s political interests during an election year.
The agreement is to be implemented in two separate processes. The first commits the Taliban to take measures to prevent al-Qaeda and other terror groups from using Afghanistan as a safe haven from which to threaten the US and its allies.
In return, the US and NATO have agreed to a complete withdrawal of all forces from the country within 14 months. It is scheduled to begin with the departure of over 5,000 troops and the closure of five military bases within 135 days of the signing of the agreement.
In the short term, the Taliban will likely tactically reduce its relations with certain elements of the local al-Qaeda network to demonstrate its commitments under the deal. But its relationship with these international terror groups is far more complicated and nuanced than the agreement recognises.
Research has shown the Taliban sees foreign militant groups as valuable allies due to their shared ideologies and longstanding material support for one another. This is provided these groups don’t directly challenge their power in the country.
This explains why the Taliban’s ties with al-Qaeda are so enduring, despite the US-led military campaign in Afghanistan aimed at dismantling the terror group. In particular, the Haqqani Network, a semi-autonomous component of the Taliban movement, has a long history of working closely with al-Qaeda and other groups.
On the other hand, the Taliban has fiercely resisted groups such as the Islamic State when it has threatened to seize Taliban territory.
As a result, the Taliban is likely to intensify its attacks on already weakened Islamic State affiliates in Afghanistan, rather than going after more dispersed elements of al-Qaeda under the agreement with the US.
But verifying the group has followed through on its commitment to completely sever ties with al-Qaeda and other terror groups may prove to be extremely difficult in the long run. Especially after the withdrawal of the US military and intelligence assets from the region.
For negotiations between the Taliban and Afghan government to succeed, both sides will need to find a compromise on the future of the country’s political system. This would require the Taliban to abandon its goal of restoring its ultra-conservative Islamic Emirate, which it sought to establish from 1996-2001.
The Taliban will also need to make robust guarantees for basic civil and political rights and to shut down its safe havens for militants across the border in Pakistan.
The Taliban has so far steadfastly refused to directly negotiate with officials of the Afghan government, which it describes as an illegitimate imposition of western powers.
The divisions that have intensified within the government since September’s presidential election will only serve to strengthen the Taliban’s position. And the implementation of the first stage of the US military withdrawal is likely to further weaken the government and embolden the Taliban.
Consequently, it is highly doubtful a complete and durable political settlement will be achieved within the 14 months of the complete foreign troop withdrawals.
Yet, despite the failings of the government, the public has not shifted its support to the Taliban. Last year, a national survey by the Asia Foundation found 85% of Afghans had no sympathy for the Taliban.
Taliban negotiators have said they are not seeking to monopolise power and are willing to recognise the rights of women and freedom of expression according to Islam. But given the group’s draconian interpretation of Islam, it is far from certain it is ready to recognise the vibrant role Afghan women now play in the public sector and civil society.
The rights of ethnic and religious minorities also remain a concern. The Hazaras, for one, have been relentlessly persecuted by the Taliban since the 1990s.
Finally, the Taliban’s sanctuaries and power bases in Pakistan will undoubtedly remain a sticking point in any peace talks on the future of Afghanistan. A durable peace is unlikely to materialise when an insurgent group can wage wars from across the border with impunity and backed by elements of a powerful neighbouring state.
Despite these challenges, the fact a peaceful resolution to the war is on the agenda of regional and global powers is a positive development. A genuine peace is likely to be the outcome of trials and errors, a long process that requires patience and sustained international commitment.
The small number of Australians being held in prison camps in northern Syria has been an ongoing, albeit low-level, challenge for the Australian government. There are believed to be eight Australian fighters for the Islamic State in captivity, along with around 60 Australian women and children.
Despite its reluctance, the Australian government may eventually feel obliged to bring many or all these people home.
So far, the Australian public seems to have accepted the government’s line that it’s too dangerous to extract them from Syria. As Prime Minister Scott Morrison succinctly put it:
I’m not going to put any Australians in harm’s way.
The government believes there are valid security concerns in bringing these people back to Australia. Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton has claimed some of the women are “hardcore” and “have the potential and capacity to come back here and cause a mass casualty event”.
Identifying these people, gathering evidence about their crimes and managing domestic fears would be a big challenge.
However, the government’s position on extracting them from Syria has become less tenable after the Turkish invasion of northern Syria in October. This followed US President Donald Trump’s announced withdrawal of the American military buffer in the region.
The invasion added uncertainty to an already fraught situation. The Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces, who were central to the defeat of the Islamic State, were compelled to reinforce their forces on the border with Turkey.
Many of their forces have been engaged in controlling prison camps in northern Syria, where about 12,000 men and boys suspected of Islamic State ties, including 2,000 to 4,000 foreigners from almost 50 countries, are held. Some camps also hold about 100,000 Syrian and foreign family members of IS suspects.
The invasion focused attention on the state of the camps, which are overcrowded, unsanitary and experiencing considerable unrest. There have been some escapes from the camps, and many fear they are close to collapse.
The situation increases the possibility that young people in the camps will be radicalised.
Last week, the US government, which has repatriated some of its nationals, offered to help allies, including Australia, rescue their citizens from northern Syria. On the same day, Turkey called on Australia to repatriate its IS fighters and their families in Turkish custody.
Groups like Save the Children and Human Rights Watch have also called for the repatriation of women and children in the prison camps.
In Canberra, shadow home affairs minister Kristina Keneally has also argued Australia has a moral obligation to repatriate the women and children who were taken to Syria against their will.
While Australia has not joined the Dutch in outright rejecting the US offer, the Morrison government has shown no enthusiasm for the idea.
Its position has been further undermined by the actions of other nations with citizens in the camps. Kosovo, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan, for example, have already repatriated hundreds of prisoners.
And Britain is considering options for repatriating its citizens. A government document reported on last month said,
While difficult, the practical challenges in arranging and implementing an extraction (of IS suspects) are likely to have solutions.
Australia, by contrast, has continued to focus on the difficulties of extracting its citizens from the area, rather than tackling the legal challenges associated with bringing them home. Our legislative framework is still not sufficiently robust to deal with returnees.
The government has had many years to figure this out. In 2014, the UN passed a resolution obliging all countries to adopt measures to deal with the issue of foreign fighters.
There are ways to try those suspected of crimes committed in another country. The principle of universal jurisdiction, for example, would allow Australia to interrogate and prosecute those currently held in Syria.
Lower-level suspects who are desperate to escape from Syria could also be required to accept certain conditions, such as restrictions on movement and contacts and participation in re-education programmes. The Australian women in the camp have already indicated they are open to this.
But instead of looking at these options, Australia has endeavoured to keep out returning fighters and their families. Laws have been passed to strip some of their citizenship, running counter to several international conventions, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
And the temporary exclusion orders bill passed in July gives Dutton the power to bar Australian citizens from returning home for up to two years if they are suspected of supporting a terror organisation.
Some governments have suggested that IS captives in Syria should be transferred to Iraq, where trials of suspected IS members have already been held. The problem with this idea is that Iraq’s justice system is deeply flawed and has imposed the death penalty after some highly dubious trials.
For example, France sent some suspects there only for them to be summarily sentenced to be hanged.
Equally unacceptable would be to allow the Australian prisoners to fall into the hands of the Syrian regime.
In coming months, as conditions in the camps deteriorate and Syrian government forces expand their control of the area, we can expect mounting pressure on governments like Australia’s to repatriate their citizens.
In the long run, these are Australian citizens who should be entitled to the benefits that come from that, including due process of law. It is hard to see how the government can continue to deny their rights.
“A very bad man” has been killed and “the world is now a much safer place”. The sentiment behind US President Donald Trump’s announcement of the death of Islamic State (IS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is difficult to argue with. Baghdadi was certainly a very bad man. And under his decade-long leadership of the Islamic State (IS) movement, many thousands of people in the Middle East and around the world suffered terrible brutality or death.
Common sense would suggest the world is indeed now a much safer place with Baghdadi’s passing. Unfortunately, however, there is no guarantee this will prove to be true in practice.
The 18 year-long so-called Global War on Terror in the wake of the September 11 attacks – the international military campaign to fight al-Qaeda, and then IS – has been almost entirely reactive and tactical.
It has lacked any consistent strategic purpose, whether in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, the Philippines or anywhere else.
The strongest military coalitions the world has ever seen have fought the largest and most powerful terror networks that have ever existed. And this has led, directly and indirectly, to hundreds of thousands of lives lost, trillions of dollars spent and remarkably little progress overall.
The special forces raids targeting Baghdadi, in Idlib, and his deputy, IS spokesperson Abul-Hasan al-Muhajir, in Aleppo, were undoubtedly significant achievements representing tactical victories of great consequence.
IS has been dealt an enormous blow. But just how long its impact will last is not clear. The lessons of the past two decades make it clear this will certainly not have been a fatal blow.
The IS insurgency, both on the ground in Iraq and Syria, and around the world, was rebuilding strength before these strikes and will not be stopped in its tracks by losing its two most senior public leaders.
Baghdadi may not be irreplaceable but in many respects he was uniquely suited to the times in which he led. He oversaw the rebuilding of IS from its previous low point a decade ago. He played a key role in expanding into Syria, replenishing the leadership ranks, leading a blitzkrieg across northern Iraq, conquering Mosul and declaring a caliphate. In the eyes of his support base, his credibility as an Islamic scholar and religious leader will not easily be matched.
He was not a particularly charismatic leader and was certainly, as a brutal, fundamentalist loner, not truly inspirational. But he played his role effectively, backed up by the largely unseen ranks of former Iraqi intelligence officers and military commanders who form the core of the IS leadership.
He was, in his time, the caliph the caliphate needed. In that sense, we will not see his like again.
Incredibly, 15 years after Abu Musab al-Zarqawi established al-Qaeda in Iraq, and almost ten years after Baghdadi took charge of the Islamic State in Iraq, there is so much about the leadership of IS we don’t understand.
What is clear is the insurgent movement benefited enormously from so-called “de-Baathification” – the ridding of Arab nationalist ideology – in the wake of the 2003 invasion of Iraq and toppling of the authoritarian regime of Saddam Hussein. The sacking of thousands of mostly Sunni senior military leaders and technocrats proved to be a windfall for the emerging insurgency.
IS has always been a hybrid movement. Publicly, it presents as a fundamentalist religious movement driven by religious conviction. Behind the scenes, however, experienced Baathist intelligence officers manipulated religious imagery to construct a police state, using religious terror to inspire, intimidate and control.
This is not to say Zarqawi and Baghdadi were unimportant as leaders. On the contrary, they were effective in mobilising religious sentiment first in the Middle East and then across the world. In the process, more than 40,000 people travelled to join the ranks of IS, inspired by the utopian ideal of religious revolution. Baghdadi was especially effective in playing his role as religious leader and caliph.
An optimistic take on Baghdadi’s denouement is that IS will be set back for many months, and perhaps even years. It will struggle to regain the momentum it had under his leadership.
Realistically, the extent to which this opportunity can be capitalised upon turns very much upon the extent to which the emerging leaders within the movement can be tracked down and dealt with before they have a chance to establish themselves.
It would appear IS had identified the uncontested spaces of north-western Syria in Idlib and Aleppo, outside of the control of the Assad regime in Damascus, of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in Northeast Syria, and beyond the reach of the Iraqi government in Baghdad, as territory in which its leadership could relocate and rebuild.
Continuing the optimistic take, there is the slim hope that the success of Sunday’s raids in which the partnership between US special forces and the SDF was so critical will lead to Trump being persuaded to reverse his decision to part ways with the SDF and pull out their special forces partners on the ground, together with accompanying air support.
The fact Baghdadi and Muhajir were both found within five kilometres of the Turkish border suggests Turkish control of northern Syria is, to say the least, wholly unequal to the task of dealing with emerging IS leaders.
A reset to the pattern of partnership established over the past five years with the largely Kurdish SDF forces in north-eastern Syria could prove critically important in cutting down new IS leaders as they emerge. It’s believed the locations in northern Syria of the handful of leaders most likely to step into the void left by Baghdadi’s passing are well-known.
But even in the best-case scenario, all that can be realistically hoped for is slowing the rebuilding of the IS insurgency, buying time to rebuild political and social stability in northern Syria and northern Iraq.
“Remaining and expanding”. The propaganda tagline of Islamic State (IS) has rung hollow since the collapse of the physical caliphate. But recent developments in northeastern Syria threaten to give it fresh legitimacy.
US President Donald Trump lifted sanctions on Turkey after he announced the Turkish government agreed to a permanent ceasefire in northern Syria.
In a televised speech, he pushed back against criticisms of his decision to remove 1,000 troops from Syria, abandoning their Kurdish allies.
This decision allowed Turkish forces – a hybrid of Turkish military and Free Syrian Army rebels, including jihadi extremists – to surge across the Turkish border and begin intense bombardment of towns and cities liberated from IS.
Just how quickly and how far IS will rise from now remains unclear. One thing that’s certain, however, is that IS and the al-Qaeda movement that spawned it, plan and act for the long-term. They believe in their divine destiny and are prepared to sacrifice anything to achieve it.
In speaking about the resurgence of IS, we risk talking up the IS brand, the very thing it cares so very much about. But the greater risk is underestimating the capacity for reinvention, resilience and enduring appeal of IS.
And complacency and short-sighted politics threaten to lead us to repeat the mistakes of a decade ago that saw a decimated Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) insurgency roar back to life.
In 2006, Sunni tribes in northwestern Iraq killed or arrested the majority of ISI fighters with US support, reducing their strength from many thousands to a few hundred.
But with no backing for the Sunni tribes from the poorly functioning, Shia-dominated government in Baghdad, the outbreak of civil war in Syria, and the draw-down of US troops, ISI launched an insurgency in Syria before rising triumphant as Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
ISIS quickly became the most potent terrorist group in history, drawing more than 40,000 fighters from around the world, and seizing control of north eastern Syria and north western Iraq.
The final defeat of the IS caliphate in north eastern Syria came after five hard years of fighting and 11,000 lives from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), largely composed of members of the Kurdish YPG.
To the US, the SDF fighters were local partners and boots-on-the-ground after multiple false starts and expensive mistakes from allying with rebel groups in the Free Syrian Army. Without this SDF alliance, the IS caliphate could not be toppled.
Donald Trump’s betrayal of the SDF in recent weeks is disastrous on several levels. It ignores the threat IS represents and validates ISIS’s central narrative.
What’s more, it contributes to the very circumstances of neglect, cynical short-term thinking and governance failures that lead to giving the IS insurgency an open pathway for recruiting.
Trump’s reckless move to withdraw 1,000 special forces troops from Syria comes from an impatience to end an 18-year long “Global War on Terrorism” military campaign of unprecedented expense.
This is somewhat understandable. After almost US$6 trillion of US Federal expenditure and two decades of fighting, surely enough is enough.
But the inconvenient truth is IS and al-Qaeda jihadi fighters around the world have increased, in some estimates nearly four-fold, since September 11.
Still, betraying the SDF and pulling out of Syria for small short-term savings risks jeopardising all that has been achieved in defeating the IS caliphate in northwestern Iraq.
IS will never return to its days of power as a physical caliphate, but all the evidence points to it tipping past an inflection point and beginning a long, steady resurgence.
IS has thousands of terrorist fighters still active in the field in northern Iraq. They’re attacking by night and rebuilding strength from disgruntled Sunni communities, as well as having thousands of fighters lying low in Syria.
But in recent months, the tempo of IS attacks has shifted from Iraq to Syria with the previously hidden insurgency reemerging.
As many as 12,000 terrorist fighters, including 2,000 foreigners, are detained in prisons run, at least until this week, by the SDF. Many are located in the border region now being overrun by the Turkish military and the Syrian jihadi it counts as loyal instruments.
Elsewhere, in poorly secured overcrowded camps for internally displaced peoples (IDPs), tens of thousands of women, many fiercely loyal to IS, and children are held in precarious circumstances.
In the Al Hawl camp alone there are more than 60,000 women and children linked to IS, including 11 Australian women and their 44 children, along with 10,000 IDPs.
The IS hardliners not only enforce a reign of terror within the camps, but are in regular communication with IS insurgents. They confidently await their liberation by the IS insurgent forces.
The hope of being freed is neither naive nor remote. Already, hundreds of fighters and IDPs have escaped the prisons and camps since the Turkish offensive began.
From mid-2012 until mid-2013, IS ran an insurgent campaign called “Breaking the Walls”. It saw thousands of hardened senior ISIS leaders, and many other militants who would later join the movement, broken out of half a dozen prisons surrounding Baghdad.
Suicide squads were used to blast holes in prison walls. Heavily armed assault teams moved rapidly through the prisons, blasting open cells and rushing the hundreds of liberated terrorist fighters into tactical four-wheel-drives. They were to be driven away in the desert through the night to rebuild the senior ranks of ISIS.
The liberated fighters were not only more valuable to ISIS after their time in prison, with many switching allegiances to join the movement, they were better educated and more deeply radicalised graduating for what they refer to as their terrorist universities.
It would appear the same cycle is now being repeated in northeastern Syria.
Turkey did not waste much time in launching an attack on Syrian soil just days after US President Donald Trump announced he would withdraw US forces from northern Syria. As this development opens a new chapter in Syria, Turkey maybe unwittingly sinking deeper into that country’s civil war.
This is not the first time president Trump has mentioned withdrawal from Syria – he voiced it in April 2018.
The US government has always been tentative with its Syrian policy, which was openly exploited by Russia in its bid to support the Assad government’s grip on power in the embattled country.
It is also not the first time Turkey has talked about a military presence in Syria. In January 2018, it sent troops to north-western Syria, establishing its control over lands to the west of the Euphrates river. Turkey has increased its military build up on the Syrian border ever since.
The US contained any further Turkish advances by making it clear Turkey was not welcome to the east of the river, especially when the US needed the support of Kurdish forces in ending Islamic States’s presence in Syria.
There are three main reasons Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is eager to send more troops in to northern Syria east of the Euphrates river.
The first is the prospect of free Kurdish states near its borders inspiring the sizeable Kurdish populations in the south east of Turkey to seek similar aspirations. Northern Iraq is slowly moving towards independence. If Kurds in northern Syria were to establish an autonomous region, it would only be a matter of time before the same demands were raised in Turkey.
Fearing this development, Erdogan has pursued an increasingly tough policy on Kurdish political activities in Turkey. The leader of pro-Kurdish party HDP, Selahattin Demirtas, has been in jail for almost three years.
Turkey’s second concern is the reported 3.5 million Syrian refugees living in Turkey since the conflict began in 2011. Although they were initially welcomed with open arms, there is growing discontent in the Turkish media and society, with many calling for their return.
Opposition parties have been critical of the Erdogan government’s inability to effectively manage the refugee crisis, which was one of the key issues that led to Erdogan’s loss in this year’s Istanbul elections.
Erdogan plans to create a safe zone in Northern Syria, establish new settlements within this region and slowly move Arab Syrian refugees back to Syria. This will change the demographics of the region and undermine Kurdish dominance.
Erdogan’s third aim is to make a political investment for future elections. This may be the most important reason, as Erdogan first mentioned a military offensive in Syria soon after his local government election loss in June 2019.
The Turkish leader needs the coalition with MHP, the nationalist party, to maintain his grip on power and enhance his chance of re-election. He needs a war to unify his electorate, please his coalition partner and silence the growing critical voices in the midst of a worsening Turkish economy.
Erdogan made strong hints in August he would send troops to northern Syria against the US-allied YPG, which Turkey considers to be a terrorist group. He was most likely testing international, especially US, reaction. The US responded by offering a joint operation in the region.
It appears Erdogan thought the US involvement was limiting his goals and wasting his time. Perhaps he reasoned the timing was right to make a bold move when Trump was politically weakened by an impeachment inquiry.
It seems Erdogan’s strategy worked. Trump agreed to withdraw from Syria on the condition Turkey took responsibility for handling thousands of IS prisoners and their families in camps.
Trump added a threat to “totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey” if it was to do anything considered “off-limits”. But the move was still a green light for Turkey to send troops to Syria.
Trump’s announcement does not mean the US is pulling out of Syria completely. It’s likely the US will continue to have a presence in eastern Syria to watch developments closely and intervene if the situation deteriorates.
A total pull-out would further weaken Trump. He would not want to risk the already-waning Republican party’s support over concerns about a resurgence of IS in Syria.
Russia seems to be pleased with the developments. Putin knows the US withdrawal means greater Russian influence and shores up the Assad government. Since Erdogan does everything with full Russian endorsement, their close collaboration gives Russia leverage in its political and diplomatic struggle with the NATO.
One possibility is that Turkish forces do not face much resistance. They would then only advance to a limited region, with their stated aim of establishing a safe zone and returning Syrian refugees back to Syria. This may contain the situation without further escalation.
Another possibility is that the US abandoning its protection of the Kurdish YPG forces in northern Syria will have a cascading effects. A sizeable portion of Kurdish civilians may be displaced, and some may flee in advance, fearing the worst.
The Kurdish YPG forces may initially avoid open conflict with the advancing Turkish forces, and look for new alliances in Syria. The most likely candidate for this is Assad, who may see an opportunity to bring the Kurdish populations and regions under his control.
If an Assad-Kurdish partnership eventuates, Turkish forces may be drawn into the war within Syria.
Kurdish populations in Turkey may then become involved, threatening Turkey with what it fears the most – a Kurdish insurrection within its own borders.