Welcome back to the Kurdish Peace Institute newsletter, where we break down the latest developments in Kurdistan, explain how they impact the Middle East and the world, and share our expert analysis.
This week, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan wants a quid-pro-quo on NATO and F-16s, North and East Syria is headed towards a new constitution and potential elections, and impunity for the atrocities of the 1990s reigns in Turkey. From the U.S.-Mexico border, journalist James Stout tells the stories of Kurdish refugees from Turkey making the dangerous journey to the United States. And from Washington, yours truly explains why Congress is asking the wrong question on U.S. policy towards Syria.
Thanks for reading!
— Meghan Bodette (@_____mjb)
What We're Watching
By Meghan Bodette
Erdogan ties Sweden’s NATO accession to new F-16s. After getting a laundry list of concessions on Swedish policy towards the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the civil and political rights of Kurdish and Turkish dissidents in Europe, Turkey has now made its implicit position on another concession—the sale of new fighter jets, which the Biden White House supports but Congress largely opposes— more explicit.
While Erdogan and his American advocates see this potential quid-pro-quo as a simple matter of NATO security, the reality is more complicated. Turkey's jets aren’t used to defend NATO, counter Russia, or for any other tangible security gain for Turkey’s Western allies.
I’ve seen firsthand that they’re almost exclusively used against Kurds, Christians and Yezidis in Syria and Iraq. This year, I visited the ruins of Zergele—a village in Qandil destroyed by Turkish jets in the summer of 2015, now home to a museum dedicated to local civilian victims of Turkish and Iranian cross-border bombing. I’ve spoken to dozens of civilians across Iraqi Kurdistan and North and East Syria who tell me how they have lived in fear of Turkish air raids since Erdogan restarted the war on the Kurdish movement nearly 10 years ago.
At KPI, we’ve covered the aftermath of Turkey’s last two air operations against the AANES and SDF, the historic Yezidi-led case taking Turkey to the UN over the bombing of a medical facility in Sinjar, and the story of how the State Department gave credence to a Turkish cover-up when Turkey used its F-16s against its own people in the 1990s.
North and East Syria may soon have a new constitution, a step towards more sophisticated governance and potential new elections. The region’s previous social contracts attracted international attention for their bold commitments to gender equality, pluralism, and freedom of religion.
In 2021, a drafting committee was formed to update those documents, following consultative meetings between the Syrian Democratic Council and communities across the region. That committee has finally voted to send a draft social contract to the AANES Executive Council for approval.
When I met committee members in September 2021, they highlighted attempts to bring in civil society, political parties, and experts, the 50% quota for women in the drafting committee, and efforts to standardize and improve procedures for how government works in a region where local administrative structures and processes were often haphazard.
The AANES announced earlier this year that the adoption of the document will be followed by elections—the first to be held in the territory since 2017. If the social contract is well-received and those elections happen successfully, it could be a major step forward for the AANES and its people amidst serious military, political and economic setbacks.
The 30-year statute of limitations has run out in a criminal case concerning the murder of nine members of a Kurdish family by the Turkish military in Vartinis (Altinova), Mus province, in 1993. Of the countless atrocities committed by state and state-affiliated forces against predominantly Kurdish civilians in Turkey’s southeast at the height of the war in the early 1990s, only a handful have been brought before a court.
But even those cases may end without justice. The investigation into the enforced disappearance of Kurdish politician Vedat Aydin reached the statute of limitations in July 2021 without a verdict. The case concerning the assassination of Kurdish writer and activist Musa Anter was dropped for the same reason in September 2022.
We’ve published a report on how impunity for disappearances and other serious crimes drives Kurds to take up arms, became a key sticking point of the 2013-2015 Turkey-PKK peace process, and has influenced the destabilizing pattern of human rights abuses in areas of northern Syria under Turkey’s control. While these cases don’t make the news, they’re far from ancient history—they contribute to a pattern of oppression and exclusion that shapes ongoing conflict and security dynamics in the region today.
New From Our Experts
The Kurdish Refugees at the Southern Border
By James Stout
In the freezing desert winds of Jacumba, 90 miles east of San Diego, California, Omer and his friends spent much of their afternoon picking up trash. The thousands of water bottles that are distributed each week have ended up littered across the landscape or been burned at night, and they wanted to help clean up the fragile high desert environment that had briefly become their home.
When Omer first set foot in the United States, walking through a gap in the border wall, he and his friends were met by Border Patrol agents who gave them wristbands denoting the day they arrived. These wristbands help U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) remove asylum seekers for processing in the order of arrival. But even with this system in place, many of the Kurdish men I spoke to had spent several nights sleeping outside in temperatures that hover around freezing.
Omer said he spent two nights shivering by a fire in the high desert. “At first, we didn’t think we would need a shelter,” he said. “But at night it was so cold, I just sat really close to the fire to stay warm. Imagine if I had fallen asleep and fallen into the fire.”
Like thousands of other migrants in the past three months, the young Kurdish men were detained by CBP for several nights in an Open Air Detention Site (OADS) on the southern border. Some will not spend a night in the camps—especially women and children, who are taken first. Others have spent as many as six days in outdoor detention, where, most of the time, the only services are provided by a group of local volunteers.
CBP denies that these sites are detention facilities, calling them migrant “gathering areas.” But when one group of Kurdish migrants left to walk several miles to a local Subway, they were met by CBP personnel and told to return to the camps once they’d finished eating their lunch.
“It was very cold, ” Omer says, adding that the worst part of his journey from Turkey to the U.S. was his time in these open air detention sites. He also expressed his thanks to the volunteers who have been feeding migrants and providing them with blankets, water, and medical aid. When I went to meet him in his new home in Orange County, after he was released from CBP custody, he remembered some of them by name.
On Syria, Congress Asks the Wrong Questions
By Meghan Bodette
Last week, the Senate voted 84-13 to reject a resolution that would have required the U.S. to pull troops from northern Syria. The vote was the most recent of multiple unsuccessful Congressional efforts to force a withdrawal. In March of this year, a similar resolution introduced in the House by Rep. Matt Gaetz failed 321-103.
Underlying the debate is one major problem: the U.S. does not have a long-term political strategy for northern Syria. Neither the strongest proponents of staying nor the strongest proponents of leaving have put one forward and explained how their position on the military presence will advance it.
That’s because of a failure of imagination and political will when it comes to the Turkish-Kurdish conflict. Because of its inability to resolve its own domestic Kurdish issue, Turkey views any form of Kurdish autonomy and political rights in Syria as an existential threat.
As a result, the most significant threat to stability and security in northern Syria is the prospect of a Turkish ground invasion and occupation of territory now held by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). An overnight U.S. withdrawal would all but certainly precipitate an immediate ground attack. Even with a continued U.S. military presence, the threat of a Turkish ground invasion is not off the table—and Turkey appears to have a U.S. green light to attempt to degrade the SDF by all means short of a ground operation in the interim.
KPI in the News
With world's eyes on Gaza, Turkey attacks Syria's Kurds again - Amberin Zaman / Al-Monitor
“While Turkish strikes are not as intense currently as they were in October, Turkey is now quietly benefiting from Iran’s strategy of responding to the war by destabilizing the SDF and AANES (the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria) in eastern Syria,” observed Meghan Bodette, director for research at the Kurdish Peace Institute in Washington. “Iran’s attacks significantly facilitate Turkey’s strategy of attempting, short of a new ground war, of pushing the AANES to collapse,” Bodette told Al-Monitor.”
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