Just days after a critical phone call between US President Donald Trump and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in which Mr Trump appeared to give the green light for an offensive, Turkey’s well-planned air and land assault on northern Syria has rightly left the world reeling in shock and sparked global condemnation. But even as Turkish troops continue with their illegal invasion in the north-east, threatening to further destabilise the war-torn country, with profound and damaging consequences for the future of the nation and the region, there is still a small window of opportunity for the international community to take swift and decisive action to stop this catastrophe from unfolding.
On Wednesday, not long after Mr Trump announced the withdrawal of American troops from Syria, Turkey launched an offensive across its southern border, unleashing a barrage of airstrikes and artillery attacks on Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces that control the region. This is a significant and pivotal moment in the context of the Syrian civil war – and one that Mr Erdogan has long awaited, given his desire to wash his hands of responsibility for up to three million Syrians who have taken refuge in his country. His offensive serves a dual purpose: to forcibly resettle those refugees in a 30-kilometre so-called safe zone carved out of a chunk of Syria on the Turkish border, and to flush out the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), which Ankara considers to be terrorists because of its ties to the Kurdistan Workers' Party, a group that has waged a four-decade war against the Turkish state.
But in taking such a step, Mr Erdogan has launched an attack that undermines the UN peace process and Astana talks. Further, the offensive will have catastrophic security implications in the global fight to curb and contain ISIS. With an estimated 90,000 ISIS fighters and empathisers being held in prisons and camps in northern Syria – including 60,000 in Al Hol camp – there is now a great and present danger of thousands of extremists exploiting the power vacuum by escaping or regrouping to pose an even more lethal threat. Rumours are already afoot of plans to overthrow their Kurdish guards and overrun camps. The SDF, which includes the YPG, effectively functioned as the ground force the US needed to contain ISIS. However, after US soldiers withdrew from their positions in north-eastern Syria and left them to their fate, a resurgence of the terrorist threat is a real possibility. The US's transfer of two of the so-called Beatles – British extremists responsible for some of the group's worst atrocities – to an unknown location underlines that it recognises this threat but doing so is neither a practical nor a legitimate solution to deal with the remaining tens of thousands of prisoners.
Turkey's incursion, predominately driven by its desire to block Kurdish autonomy, will alter the course of the war. The Kurds, squeezed between Turkey to the north and regime troops to the south, might now be tempted to ally with Syrian President Bashar Al Assad for protection from the Turkish bombardment. That will pit former allies – Turkey and the Syrian regime – directly against one another, with the US, a Nato ally of Turkey, serving as no more than a bystander to the horrors unfolding. It also severely tests Nato allegiances, at a time when Turkey has few friends within the organisation, particularly after buying non-compliant S-400 missiles from Russia in August.
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Yet the greatest risk is the cost to human lives. The eight-year war has already claimed more than half a million lives and displaced millions more. In the assaults on Tal Abyad, Ras Al Ain and Qamishli – towns that have already been besieged, ransacked and bombarded many times over – the civilian death count was already mounting yesterday. Their terrified residents have suffered enough – yet their trauma seems never-ending.
Numerous world leaders, politicians and high profile figures have joined a growing chorus of condemnation around the world. The US Congress is considering new sanctions against Turkey. Britain, France and Germany have expressed their deep concern at recent developments while UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Dr Anwar Gargash, called for a return to the "foundations of international law and a common realisation that this step will complicate the already complicated scene".
So far, however, Nato has been passive in its reaction, with secretary general Jens Stoltenberg simply calling for Turkey to “act with restraint”. Members of the United Nations Security Council were meeting today to discuss their response. The longer they dally, the greater the humanitarian cost and the risk of Turkey’s illegitimate action simply being passed off as yet another transgression by an international actor in Syria where there are zero repercussions. While the Turkish dubbed ‘Operation Peace Spring’ is in its early stages, worldwide revulsion must be mobilised to counter what amounts to an illegal occupation. If the international community does not act quickly, its impact could be irreversible.