Donald Trump Sent Turkey a 'Very Clear' Message to Begin Syria Invasion, Iraqi Kurdish Representative Says

The London representative of the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government has dismissed President Donald Trump's efforts to wash his hands of responsibility for the Turkish military operation against Kurdish-led forces in Syria.

High Representative Karwan Jamal Tahir spoke with Newsweek on Wednesday, just hours after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan launched Operation Peace Spring into the Kurdish-held part of northeastern Syria, known as "Rojava."

The KRG is the ruling body of the autonomous region in northeastern Iraq. The KRG has deep cultural links with Rojava and the two authorities have cooperated militarily in the fight against ISIS. Nonetheless, the two bodies have significant political differences.

Tahir told Newsweek that the KRG and Syrian Democratic Forces—the coalition of militias currently in control of Rojava led by the Kurdish People's Protection Units, or YPG—had long expected a Turkish military incursion.

Erdogan has long sought to sweep Kurdish forces out of the Turkish border region. The Turkish government considers the YPG an extension of the Kurdistan People's Party, a designated terrorist group which has been waging a guerrilla war in Turkey since the 1980s.

But the presence of U.S. troops in the Syrian-Turkish border region served as a barrier to any assault. That is until Sunday, when Trump abruptly announced he had ordered the small force out of the area.

The KRG released a statement on Tuesday noting it was "deeply concerned by the United States' decision to withdraw from the safe zone in northeastern Syria." It warned that the imminent offensive would "undermine the progress made against ISIS, including jeopardising the secure detention of terrorist fighters."

The withdrawal was not entirely unexpected, Tahir explained. After all, in December 2018, the president announced he would withdraw all U.S. troops—then numbering around 2,000—from Syria.

Though he ultimately walked this back, his desire to disengage, regardless of the cost to the Kurds, was clear.

Since then, the U.S., SDF and Turks have been coordinating to de-escalate tensions and create a "safe zone" in the area. Kurdish forces even recently agreed to destroy their defensive positions along the Turkish border to show their commitment to peace.

"They are supposed to work together," Tahir said of the American, Turks and Kurds, noting that Trump now appears to have ditched the agreement to work on a safe zone.

Turkey, Syria, Donald Trump, Iraq, Kurds, Kurdistan
Turkish armoured vehicles enter northeastern Syria on October 10, 2019 in Akcakale, Turkey. Burak Kara/Getty Images/Getty

Trump has been accused of betraying and abandoning the SDF, which bore the brunt of the campaign against ISIS in Syria. Both the president and the Pentagon have denied that the withdrawal represents a "green light" to the Turkish operation.

But Tahir said the message sent by Trump's withdrawal was "very clear" and certainly provided Erdogan his long-awaited green light.

The early salvos have rained shells and bombs down on SDF targets and civilian areas. Well-populated border town such as Ras al-Ayn and Tal Abyad are in the immediate path of the Turkish forces, prompting masses of panicking civilians to flee south.

But the humanitarian infrastructure in Rojava is already creaking under the weight of people displaced by the war that has engulfed Syria since 2011. Fighting continues in other parts of the country, and many will not want to risk throwing themselves upon the mercy of President Bashar al-Assad's vindictive regime.

If Turkish forces advance far into Rojava, civilians may look towards the KRG as their natural destination. But Tahir warned that the Iraqi Kurds are already struggling to look after more than 1 million people displaced by the civil wars in Syria and Iraq.

Tahir told Newsweek it is the KRG's "fear and worry" that the Turkish operation will create a humanitarian crisis in Rojava.

"The Kurdistan region is the closest and safest place for them," Tahir said. However, he added, "I don't think we can bear more refugees from Syria...This is one of the biggest worries that we have in the Kurdistan region."

On Wednesday, KRG Interior Minister Reber Ahmed warned that the region does not have "the short-term capacity to respond to another influx of refugees," according to statement on the government's website.

Ahmed called on the international community to expand humanitarian assistance in Iraq and Syria to bolster the KRG's ability to respond.

The Turkish assault is in the early stages of what could prove a long and bloody campaign. Erdogan has said he wants to establish a buffer zone of some 20 miles along the border, but the ultimate extent of the advance and fighting remains to be seen.

Tahir called on all parties to de-escalate the situation and solve the Syrian question peacefully. "We all worked together and managed to get rid of ISIS, at least territorially. Now is the time for everyone who participated in this effort to sit down and solve the issues in peace and dialogue."

"The people cannot bear anymore crisis in that area, and there should be a talk between the government—especially the Turkish government, Russia, even the Syrian government," Tahir argued.

Tahir also stressed that the rights of the Kurds must be "preserved, protected within any change that is happening in Syria." The Kurds must also be "part of the dialogue" over the country's future, he added. "They cannot be left out."