Drawing Down Troops Has a Human Cost

Updated: Apr 8, 2020

By Corey Greer and Sumaya Malas

This piece originally appeared on Inkstick.

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.

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.