Discussions about the United States' withdrawal from eastern Syria pay scant attention to the 200,000 civilians forced to flee their homes by a Turkish invasion that was kicked off by the Trump administration’s Oct. 6 surprise announcement of a troop pullout.
When U.S. Special Envoy to Syria James Jeffrey spoke at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Tuesday his responses did not convey much empathy or interest in the lives disrupted by U.S. policy decisions and the actions of Ankara.
And when President Donald J. Trump couched his announcement Wednesday that such sanctions as he'd threatened against Turkey would be lifted, he claimed credit for saving thousands of Kurdish lives but, as so often appears to be the case, that was all about him, not about them.
The growing cynicism in the U.S., especially in the administration that mocked Syrian suffering as comparable to kids fighting on a playground, is in stark contrast to previous American presidencies a generation ago.
President Bill Clinton articulated a moral necessity behind intervening in Haiti in 1994. It blended democracy and human rights as cornerstones of U.S. interests. George H.W Bush’s "new world order” speech in 1990 hit similar themes. He spoke of a “historic period of cooperation… a new world order can emerge, a new era freer from the threat of terror, stronger in the pursuit of justice, and more secure in the quest for peace.”
The two-week period between Trump’s decision to withdraw from part of Syria on Oct. 6 and the deal between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Oct. 22 was underpinned by relative silence among Western and democratic governments towards the humanitarian needs in eastern Syria.
Aid groups left eastern Syria as the U.S. wrapped up its bases, ostensibly because the Assad regime was returning and they would need to shift operations through Damascus. While European countries did seek to stop arms sales to Turkey and European Council President Donald Tusk condemned Turkey’s invasion, little was done to help those fleeing, until they could get to Iraq where refugee camps were set up outside Bardarash in the Kurdistan region.
The U.S., which played a key role in eastern Syria for five years, showed disregard for the civilians that U.S. forces had worked among. It was emblematic of a wider international collective shrug for the lives of people in eastern Syria blithely brushed aside as Turkey, Russia and Assad carved up the area.
There would be no humanitarian intervention in eastern Syria. Countries have disabused themselves of that 1990s-era hallmark of conflicts such as the Balkans, or Somalia, where Western governments sought to stop abuses and ethnic cleansing. Except for Germany’s too-little-too-late suggestion of an “international security zone” to be run with Turkey and Russia in eastern Syria there was little discussion about doing much about Turkey’s operation.
Turkey told the United National General Assembly in September that it would take over a swath of northern Syria and repopulate it with Syrian refugees, regardless of whether the refugees were from these mostly Kurdish areas or not.
Where did Turkey derive the right to take over northern Syria? International law, under Article 2 of the U.N. Charter, frowns upon threats of the use of force. Article 51 spells out the right for “self-defense,” but Turkey’s claims of “security concerns” showed no evidence of any attacks on Turkey from areas controlled by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces in northern Syria.
Nevertheless Turkey asserted that it faced a “terrorist” threat and would launch its operation on Oct. 9. If Europe or others objected, Turkey threatened to send millions of refugees to Europe, the same refugees Ankara was asserting it would re-settle in the “safe zone” it planned to take over.
Turkey’s ambitions were as transparent as they were Orwellian, describing as “terrorists” the SDF which never launched terror attacks on Turkey, and calling an area that 200,000 people were driven from by bombing a “safe zone.”
Yet there was no international action against Turkey. The U.S., which had forces on the ground, opened the airspace to Turkey bombing the SDF, which the U.S. was still partnered with to fight the so-called Islamic State. Russia and Turkey appeared to partition eastern Syria on October 22 without the say of local people or the Syrian regime.
Is this a new international norm in which assertions of “security concerns” mean countries can take over neighboring countries and redraw ethnic and demographic boundaries?
Increasingly the new world order symbolized by the October 2019 crisis in Syria can be compared with China’s treatment of the Uighurs, India’s revocation of Kashmir’s special status in September, the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya from Myanmar, Saudi Arabia’s campaign in Yemen, the Assad regime’s abuses since 2011, Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, Israel's continuing impunity in the occupied Palestinian territories, and other actions.
These are linked by a notion that great power politics means “might makes right.” Powerful countries can do what they want. This is in contrast to the notions of international law put in place in the 20th century after the Holocaust and colonialism. In general those laws sought to learn lessons from the way authoritarians such as Hitler had preyed on small weak states and peoples, and prevent recurrences.
The foundation of international human rights found in the Geneva Conventions or Universal Declaration of Human Rights, even if they were frequently violated, were a benchmark for more than a century. The Syrian conflict symbolically looks to end this norm by leaving us a Hobbesian world where we barely pay lip service to human rights issues.
Only 14 years after countries signed on to the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) commitment at the U.N., which was supposed to prevent genocide, war crimes and ethnic cleansing, it seems it has been thrown out the window.
Powerful Western countries with armed forces in eastern Syria, including the U.S., U.K. and France, handing over responsibility to Russia, Turkey and the Syrian regime is a milestone. Contrast it with the lofty values, at least paid lip service to, that sent a coalition to eject Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in 1991.
Operation Provide Comfort, which helped Kurds fleeing abuses in Iraq, was an outgrowth of that war. Operation Provide Promise followed in the Balkans, aimed at providing humanitarian aid. Other U.S.-led and international operations followed, including Uphold Democracy in 1994, Deliberate Force in 1995 and Allied Force in 1999 in Kosovo.
This world of 2019, 30 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, now seems set to reverse all of the notions of human rights and international law that appeared so important for generations.
Fatigue over wars in the Middle East, rising populism and isolationism and the ascendance of non-Western, more authoritarian states is challenging these notions.
The Syrian civil war, especially the last days of U.S. involvement, should be seen as a bookend to a more idealized world. That the U.S. could so easily walk away from a peaceful region and watch 200,000 people be uprooted without a Security Council meeting or humanitarian aid being organized is extraordinary.
Washington didn’t even set up camps for the 7,000 mostly Kurdish civilians fleeing into Iraq in mid-October. France took in one burn victim from eastern Syria; the U.S. took none, despite the fact the U.S. had spent years training up to 100,000 members of the SDF.
In this new world order vulnerable minorities and small states should take note: No one is coming to help them. The people of Syria have learned that in spades.