CommentaryMiddle EastWar

SDF defeated ISIS in northern Syria – the US and its allies should support them in Afrin

For the past 13 days, the armed forces of Turkey have bombarded Afrin Canton, an autonomous region in northwest Syria that is home to nearly a million people, including many internally-displaced Syrians from various parts of the country. In order to ensure a stable and democratic future for Syria, the U.S.-led Global Coalition against Islamic State that supported the Syrian Democratic Forces against ISIS must also support the SDF against this unprovoked campaign of military aggression and indiscriminate violence against civilians.

Turkey’s campaign against Afrin, which employs the full might of the Turkish Armed Forces and is heavily supported on the ground by a variety of jihadist groups of Syrian and foreign fighters, has already resulted in the deaths of 104 civilians, many of them women and children. What was formerly an island of stability within war-ravaged Syria is now targeted day and night by a modern NATO army, with homes destroyed by airstrikes and medical supplies running low.

The jihadist groups that Turkey is employing as proxies to assist with the war on Afrin are now threatening Afrin’s Yazidi and Christian religious minorities, who fear falling victim to atrocities such as those committed by ISIS against the Yazidi population of Sinjar, Iraq in 2014.

Members of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government have referred to the invasion as a “jihad,” and Erdogan himself threatened to “cleanse” Afrin of “terrorists” – by which he means the Kurdish people and all who support northern Syria’s democratic political project. Turkish state television has even admitted the obvious – this is an operation against the civilian population of Afrin.

Despite an escalating civilian death toll and threats of impending massacres, the world has largely ignored Turkey’s crimes. Many leaders have called for restraint on both sides, not acknowledging that this attempted invasion is clearly a one-sided act of aggression, which, if allowed to succeed, will result in countless innocent deaths and further destabilization of the region for years to come.

Erdogan’s attack on Afrin has directly empowered the Islamist jihadist groups that the U.S., NATO, and the global Coalition against ISIS all seek to eradicate. Among the groups partaking in the Turkish offensive against Afrin is Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a jihadist militant group that was formed from the merger of elements of al-Qaida’s affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, and other similar groups such as the Nour-al-Din al-Zenki Movement, which gained international notoriety after its members beheaded a wounded Palestinian boy in their custody on camera in 2016.

Erdogan’s stated goal is to transform Afrin into a so-called safe zone similar to Idlib or Jarablus – both strongholds for extremists who despise the secular and pluralistic values that northern Syria has fought so hard to uphold. Such a Turkish-backed “safe zone” would more accurately be known as a terror zone, where jihadists violently impose their ideology upon locals and plan further attacks against the Syrian people and the world.

Turkey’s ongoing offensive distracts from the fight against ISIS in Deir ez-Zor, where the SDF continues to liberate Syrian territory with coalition support. Following the SDF’s liberation of Raqqa, ISIS’s former de facto capital and worldwide terror planning headquarters, in October 2017, these forces should be allowed to focus on degrading and destroying ISIS, and not have to divert resources to repel an attack on their homeland perpetrated by the Turkish Armed Forces and Turkey’s jihadist allies.

If the international community does not act in Afrin, they will grant ISIS an unexpected opportunity to regroup and prepare to fight another day, and perhaps expand their territorial reach in Syria and Iraq once again, gaining the space to plan additional attacks on European countries and other foreign lands.

In waging war against ISIS, the men and women of the SDF are fighting to protect their homes and those of their neighbors, and they are also acting as the last line of defense against terrorist attacks abroad which would be planned and directed by ISIS from Syria if the terrorist organization is allowed to maintain a presence.

Turkey’s war of choice against Afrin, which has been undertaken with the stated aim of eliminating the U.S.-led Coalition’s most trusted Syrian allies in the battle against ISIS, directly empowers ISIS and other jihadist groups, some of whom are fighting side by side with the Turkish armed forces at this moment.

The SDF’s current resistance against Turkish aggression is a battle to maintain the security of Afrin for its people and the many thousands of internally displaced Syrians living there, and an effort to keep Turkey’s jihadist allies from holding additional territory within Syria – it is another stage in the war against terrorism in Syria which directly addresses a grave global security threat. The SDF fought bravely and made great sacrifices to defend the world from ISIS, and rightly received international support while doing so.

Abandoning them now because they now face direct Turkish aggression along with the ever-present threat of armed jihadist groups, or because the threat is now most acute in northwest Syria as opposed to the northeast, would risk losing the peace and freedom for which they had sacrificed so much, and expose the world to an increased threat of terrorism.

The international community must also acknowledge the nature of the freedom that has been attained by the people of northern Syria through the sacrifices of the SDF and the dedication of the region’s communities. In the face of war, terrorism, and occupation, the people of northern Syria have organized themselves and created a democratic society for all Syrians, regardless of gender, ethnicity, or religion. Women are equal to men in all areas of society and government. Christians, Yazidis, Alawites, and other religious minorities practice their faiths in peace.

The autonomous region held its first two rounds of elections in September and December of 2017 – the first free elections conducted in decades in the country. Northern Syria is a model for post-war Syria: democratic, federal, and inclusive of all of its people and the contributions they make to a pluralistic society. This is what the SDF defends, and what the world loses if it accepts Turkish aggression.

Turkey is a member of NATO and a member of the U.S.-led Global Coalition against ISIS. The U.S. and other states with leadership roles within these organizations have leverage over Turkey’s leadership and must make it clear that the military offensive against Afrin is an attack on an ally and a dangerous threat to the ongoing effort to destroy ISIS.

The U.S. and other leading NATO and coalition members must provide Afrin’s SDF with the guarantees – and resources – that they have given to the SDF in other parts of northern Syria, and they must act to stop the attacks on civilians that have left so many of Afrin’s families grieving and have destabilized the hard-won peace earned through the sacrifices of the people of northern Syria.

The world made the right choice when it stood with the SDF in Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor. It is not too late for the world to stand with Afrin.

Sinam Mohamad is the Foreign Representative of the Democratic Administration in North Syria. She can be reached on Twitter: @sinam56.

All views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of The Defense Post.

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