Operation Peace Spring, a military offensive launched by Turkey in northeastern Syria on October 9, promises to create yet another humanitarian crisis. This Turkish military operation against the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), composed primarily of Kurdish, Arab and Assyrian militias, came on the heels of the United States announcing the withdrawal of American troops in the region. The SDF is led by the People’s Protection Units, a Kurdish militia abbreviated as YPG. The U.S. considered the SDF as its key ally in the fight against ISIS. Turkey, on the other hand, considers the group a terrorist organization with links to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), with whom it has a troubled and bloody past.
The Trump administration’s October 6 decision to withdraw its troops was seen as a “green light” for Turkey’s operation to expel the SDF from the Syria-Turkey border region, creating a 30 km-deep safe zone inside northern Syria, where it plans to resettle the 3 million Syrian refugees it is currently hosting.
A day after announcing his decision to withdraw American troops, U.S. President Donald Trump on October 7 tweeted: “As I have stated strongly before, and just to reiterate, if Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey (I’ve done before!). They must, with Europe and others, watch over the captured ISIS fighters and families. The U.S. has done far more than anyone could have ever expected, including the capture of 100% of the ISIS Caliphate. It is time now for others in the region, some of great wealth, to protect their own territory…”
On October 14, the U.S. did impose sanctions against Turkish officials and institutions over the country’s incursion into Syria. Trump has also spoken to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, calling for an immediate ceasefire as Turkish troops move further into Syria.
Now in its sixth day, heavy fighting continues, with reports of dozens of military and civilian deaths and over 100,000 displaced. According to numerous reports, because of Turkish airstrikes, SDF fighters have had to abandon positions guarding prison camps, where ISIS fighters were being detained. Many have reportedly since been able to escape. SDF forces were also forced to leave posts at a refugee camp from which an estimated 800 ISIS brides and children have fled. Iraq has sent troops to fortify its border with Syria under fears it could be subjected to an ISIS resurgence.
The SDF, which had been administering the region without Damascus’ involvement, struck a deal with the Assad government to hand over the border towns of Manbij and Kobane. The deal was brokered by Russia, which has an interest in Assad reconsolidating his grip on the country, and will ultimately end several years of semi-autonomy for the Kurds of northeastern Syria.
It’s a complicated geopolitical battleground where many international and regional players, with varying interests and means, clash violently. Sadly, ordinary civilians pay the ultimate price. We see this same scenario being played out over and over again, from Yemen to Myanmar and beyond.
The overriding majority of Armenians, both in the Republic of Armenia and dispersed throughout the Diaspora are closely following the Turkish offensive in Syria, as they did when the Syrian conflict first began. Aside from the uprooting of strong, vibrant Armenian communities from Aleppo to Latakia to Damascus and many places in-between, there is something that cuts much deeper.
During the Armenian Genocide, 1.5 million Armenians were killed, many during a forced exile into the deserts of Syria by Ottoman Turkey. They perished, wiping away several millennia of existence on their ancestral homeland. Some of the survivors stayed in Syria, many in orphanages, and many more left to go on to other countries on other continents. They took a piece of their historic homeland with them and memories of Syria were embedded in their consciousness.
The human cost of the Syrian war has been great for both the Syrian people themselves and the ethnic and religious minorities who lived alongside them. Armenians, who remained in Syria after having found refuge there following the Genocide, were forced into exile again, for a second time within 100 years. Armenia and Armenian communities everywhere opened their hearts and homes to the Syrian Armenians, most of whom had lost everything.
This latest offensive by Turkey has rattled us once again. When the perpetrator of our calamitous loss is granted permission to secure “safe zones” – the depressingly-ironic Orwellian term itself is chilling – by removing the majority Kurdish population of northeastern Syria from their ancestral homeland, it strikes a deep nerve in a still-open wound that sets off alarms in our consciousness.
The deeply-rooted generational trauma that silently seeps through our veins is not something we acknowledge or confront on a daily basis. We carry on with our lives, we raise families, we build careers, we travel the world and we try and create a new Armenia wherever we go. For those of us in the Republic of Armenia, this very small piece of the homeland that has survived, we work hard to rebuild, to recreate, to innovate and, by doing so, honor the memory of everything and everyone that was taken from us.
Many people often ask us, “Why do you insist on holding on to the past? You have an independent country now, move on, get busy building.” We don’t hold on to the past because we want to. The past won’t let go of us.
Generations later, we experience trauma on top of trauma because the original crime was never acknowledged by the perpetrator. It is also not lost on us that the country that gave its tacit consent to this latest episode has been dragging its heels on recognizing the Genocide for decades. We were right not to let go because we knew that history would repeat itself.
And yet, that is no consolation. Although Armenians across the world participated in Kurdish solidarity protests this past weekend, feelings of helplessness and futility are crippling. When our forefathers were being slaughtered, we wanted the world to stand up and stop it. But weary from war, no Great Power was willing to put troops on the line to take the Armenian Mandate, to protect the survivors in a new country that the Paris Peace Conference had promised them. Turkey consolidated its gains in a land emptied of Armenians. Is that the legacy we want to leave to the grandchildren of today’s Kurdish survivors?