After Putin and Erdogan reached an agreement on Tuesday to cement their military presence in northeastern Syria, fears and reports of ethnic cleansing and mass displacement are coming to a head. For vulnerable populations, especially women and girls, such growing instability and conflict could mean increased exposure to sexual violence and a reduction in basic human rights and justice. It is imperative that the US employs diplomatic resolutions and renews humanitarian assistance to stymie the effects of this abrupt troop withdrawal without exacerbating the perpetual state of conflict.
President Trump’s decision to pull US troops from Syria and abandon our Kurdish allies gave Turkey tacit approval to begin a military campaign in the region. The abrupt nature of the exit threatens the fragile stability achieved with the reclamation of territory from ISIS through American cooperation with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and allows for greater Russian and Turkish intervention in the region.
After the five-day ceasefire brokered by Turkey and the US concluded, Russia and Turkey negotiated a bilateral deal to deploy their forces across northeastern Syria, thereby solidifying their control in the region. The agreement mandates a complete Kurdish withdrawal within 150 hours, after which only Russia and Turkey will maintain patrols along the Syria-Turkey border.
We have already begun to see the humanitarian consequences of the Turkish offensive. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Turkey’s operation displaced over 300,000 civilians with 120 civilian casualties in 12 days. Turkish-backed factions reportedly looted and burned down homes, stole livestock, and kidnapped a man for ransom. Just this week, Hevrin Khalaf, a female Kurdish politician, was brutally attacked by these forces and executed. This precipitating violence harkens back to the spring of 2018, when Turkey launched a military campaign against the Kurds. Videos posted online displayed Turkish-backed forces mutilating the corpse of a female Kurdish fighter and raping a girl in a refugee camp.
Advocacy groups, politicians, and academics have debated many questions from the safety of their office chairs… But the fact of the matter is that American involvement has consequences and we have to decide what role, if any, the US should play in ameliorating the risks that vulnerable groups now face.
Military conflicts often lead to a higher prevalence of sexual exploitation and abuse, human trafficking, lack of access to justice, and a curtailment of reproductive healthcare. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimates that 12,000 suspected ISIS members held by Kurdish militia are at risk of escape. The resurgence of ISIS would be particularly disastrous to the safety and security of women. ISIS is known to enslave, rape, and murder Kurdish women and other ethno-minority groups in the region, including the Yazidi — nearly 3,000 Yazidi women and girls are still missing from Northern Syria and Iraq.
In the fight against ISIS, Rojava — the Kurdish-held region in northeastern Syria — was a critical victory for the US and its allied Kurdish forces on the ground. These forces included the Women’s Protection Unit, which fought on the ground with YPG members. Although controversial, the Kurdish governance model in Rojava allowed for “equal representation of women and minorities, fair distribution of land and wealth, a balanced judiciary, and even ecological preservation of northern Syria’s rural landscape.” These gains at democracy-building and women’s rights are hanging on by a thread.
Advocacy groups, politicians, and academics have debated many questions from the safety of their office chairs: Should the US have kept troops in Northern Syria indefinitely? Should it have intervened in the first place? Does ending endless wars mean pulling out troops at all costs? But the fact of the matter is that American involvement has consequences and we have to decide what role, if any, the US should play in ameliorating the risks that vulnerable groups now face.
Without the assurance of security, civil society cannot flourish. American military presence overseas should be replaced with diplomatic solutions and humanitarian aid efforts. The tenuous assertion, relayed by President Trump, from the Turkish government that the ceasefire is permanent should be backed by a formal and comprehensive resolution between Syrian and Turkish forces in order to reduce potential military conflict and regional instability. Previous peace negotiations between Russia, Iran, and Turkey have not been effective in the cessation of hostilities or in the protection of civilians and provision of humanitarian aid. Therefore, it is crucial that the US does not forfeit all control over these negotiations to Russia, which does not seem to prioritize the safety and wellbeing of the populace.
Additionally, preventing the 19-mile-deep “Safe Zone” on the Syrian side of the Turkey-Syria border from becoming a death trap is of utmost concern. Turkey’s plan is to reclaim this territory — both to subdue the Kurds and to initiate plans for forced resettlement of Syrian refugees — has major humanitarian consequences. In diplomatic talks, the US should condemn using the “Safe Zone” as an excuse to create a military campaign and forcefully resettle Syrian refugees in Kurdish-majority territory.
Once a resolution is reached to end active conflict, the United States should offer direct humanitarian assistance and support local and regional organizations working to mitigate the effects of displacement. Kurdish-led democratization and increases in women’s political participation in areas like Rojava will not be able to progress without a base level of humanitarian aid and conflict resolution. Fowza Youssef, a senior Kurdish politician, who fears more kidnapping and rape by Turkish-backed factions during the offensive, asks “that the American people support women to continue in the efforts of maintaining this democratic system we have established.” The US should heed her call by supporting sustainable, Kurdish-led programming.
After the US exits a conflict militarily, it must use diplomatic and humanitarian solutions to mitigate the consequences left in its wake.
Corey Greer is the Communications Director at Women’s Action for New Directions. She holds an MA in International Human Rights from the Josef Korbel School of International Studies and previously worked with the United Nations Development Programme in Istanbul, Turkey.
Sumaya Malas is a 2019 Herbert Scoville Jr. Peace Fellow at Women’s Action for New Directions. In addition to working at the United Nations Population Fund and as a field translator in Al-Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, she earned her BAs from Michigan State University in International Relations and Comparative Cultures and Politics.