Turkish Invasion of Kurdish Syria Will Have 'Disastrous' Humanitarian Consequences, Human Rights Watch Warns

As Turkish forces and proxies gather at the country's southern border, the Kurdish communities on the other side of the frontier are bracing for violent upheaval.

With U.S. forces ordered out of northeastern Syria, Turkish troops now have a free hand to launch President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's long-desired operation to create a "safe zone" between Turkey and Kurdish-administered Syria, called Rojava by the authorities there.

"Operation Peace Spring," as it has been dubbed, will target the Syrian Democratic Forces—a coalition of Arab, Assyrian, Armenian, Turkmen and Chechen militias led by the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG).

Ankara considers the YPG an extension of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, which has waged a guerrilla war in Turkey for decades. But in recent years, the YPG has become America's most effective ally in the battle against ISIS.

The planned operation has raised concerns for the communities—whether Kurdish or otherwise—living in the border region. Many are expected to flee to avoid the fighting and possible human rights abuses by Turkish forces and the proxy militias fighting alongside them.

But with much of Syria still at war and surrounding nations hostile to the Kurds, those escaping the coming violence have few options.

Sara Kayyali, a Syria researcher for Human Rights Watch, told Newsweek that any kind of Turkish incursion into northeastern Syria will result in "massive displacement" and subsequent "strain on a humanitarian response that is already at its limit."

Not all of the area in question is predominantly Kurdish. Border towns such as Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ayn, for example, have majority Arab populations. Asli Aydintasbas, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, explained that these areas will offer less of a problem for Turkish forces.

But she told Newsweek that the Kurdish communities may feel "compelled to move" rather than live under Turkish control. Aydintasbas added that even if invading forces refrain from persecuting those Kurds with no YPG affiliations, many might not think it worth taking the risk.

Turkey has already conducted one major operation against Kurdish-held areas of northern Syria. In 2018, Operation Olive Branch sought to clear the northwestern region of Afrin of Kurdish forces.

Kayyali said some 150,000 people fled their homes during Olive Branch because they were scared of what Turkish forces might do. She warned that Peace Spring could prove an even bigger operation.

The Kurdish population of Afrin has been dealing with a "quite problematic" situation since Turkey and its allied militias invaded the region, Kayyali reported.

Aydintasbas said the Turkish military has been mostly professional and disciplined, but noted the same cannot necessarily be said of the militia groups fighting alongside them. "I think these the Kurds living in this area might be more scared of them rather than the Turkish army," she explained.

Kayyali said these militias have regularly engaged in arbitrary arrests, beatings and property confiscation from those who stayed behind or were unable to leave. And all the while, Turkey has turned a blind eye.

Extrapolating this to northeastern Syria suggests "significant panic form the population" if Turkey does invade, Kayyali suggested. "There are families near the border that are already leaving."

But civilians fleeing the advancing Turkish troops have few options. Displacement centers in the rest of Rojava are already at breaking point, prompting fears that under-fire SDF troops won't even be able to secure the prisons holding ISIS fighters in the event of a Turkish attack.

Elsewhere, the rebel-held area of Idlib already has "a huge displacement crisis," Kayyali said, and is currently under regular bombardment by government forces and their Russian allies. Though the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq would seem a natural choice, the authorities thee "can take very little of these people," Kayyali added.

Alternatively, refugees could go back to government-controlled territory. But the Assad regime is brutal, authoritarian and vindictive, and it is unclear how the Kurds would be treated. "It's really unclear to us what the answer to this is," Kayyali explained. "What is clear is it's going to have really disastrous consequences."

Erdogan eventually wants to re-settle millions of Syrian refugees—currently in Turkey—in the "safe zone" his offensive will carve out. Some Kurds have equated this to ethnic cleansing of the local Kurdish population there.

Aydintasbas suggested that Turkish forces will likely not be actively "cleansing" the area of Kurdish communities, though "it's clear that there will be problems for people that are directly affiliated with local administrations, and that have been involved in the management of the towns, whether they're Arabs or Kurds."

"It may just be that people are scared enough that they end up moving," she added.

Some have expressed concern that the operation could result in large-scale demographic re-engineering, but Kayyali noted it is still too early to characterize any outcome as that.

This article has been updated to clarify a comment from Sara Kayyali.

Syria, Turkey, Kurds, invasion, human rights watch
Turkish-backed Syrian rebel fighters head to an area near the Syrian-Turkish border north of Aleppo on October 8, 2019 NAZEER AL-KHATIB/AFP via Getty Images/Getty