Turkey has launched an aerial and ground assault on northern Syria targeting Kurdish-controlled areas. The offensive began Wednesday, just days after President Trump ordered U.S. troops to fall back from their positions on the Turkish-Syrian border. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reports at least 16 Kurds have been killed so far. Turkey is claiming the death toll is far higher. The Trump administration has faced widespread criticism from both Republican and Democratic lawmakers for abandoning the stateless Kurds who had helped the U.S. fight ISIS. Turkey is claiming the assault is needed to establish a “safe zone” in northern Syria where Turkey could relocate Syrian refugees who fled over the past eight years of fighting, but the Kurds see the offensive as part of a decades-long attack by Turkey to crush their attempts at greater autonomy. The Kurds have been responsible for holding over 10,000 ISIS fighters and their families in detention. While Trump has claimed Turkey will take control of the makeshift jails, there is growing concern many former ISIS fighters will be able to escape during the Turkish assault. At least one Kurdish prison has already been shelled. To discuss the implications of Turkey’s assault, we speak with Elif Sarican, a Kurdish Women’s Movement activist and anthropologist at the London School of Economics. We also speak with Ertuğrul Kürkçü, honorary chair of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party in Turkey, known as the HDP. He is a former member of Parliament in Turkey.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Turkey has launched an aerial and ground assault on northern Syria targeting Kurdish-controlled areas. The offensive began Wednesday, just days after President Trump ordered U.S. troops to fall back from their positions on the Turkish-Syrian border. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reports at least 16 Kurds have been killed so far. Turkey is claiming the death toll is far higher. Some of the heaviest fighting has been in the Syrian town of Tel Abyad. Turkish jets and artillery have reportedly hit at least 81 targets east of the Euphrates River.
The Trump administration has faced widespread criticism from both Republican and Democratic lawmakers for abandoning the stateless Kurds who had helped the U.S. fight ISIS. Turkey is claiming the assault is needed to establish a, quote, “safe zone” in northern Syria where Turkey could relocate Syrian refugees who fled over the past eight years of fighting. But the Kurds see the offensive as part of a decades-long attack by Turkey to crush their attempts at greater autonomy.
AMY GOODMAN: Fear is also growing that the Turkish assault could lead to the mass release of ISIS fighters. Up until now, the Kurds have been responsible for holding over 10,000 ISIS fighters and their families in detention. While President Trump has claimed Turkey will take control of the makeshift jails, there’s growing concern many former ISIS fighters will be able to escape during the Turkish assault. At least one Kurdish prison has already been shelled. The New York Times is reporting the U.S. military has moved as many as several dozen Islamic State prisoners to more secure locations. This includes two British members of ISIS who are accused of beheading Western hostages, including the journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff.
The Turkey assault is facing international condemnation. The U.N. Security Council is expected to meet later today. The European Union has warned Turkey’s hostilities would, quote, “further undermine the stability of the whole region.” Earlier today, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has threatened to send millions of Syrian refugees to Europe if Turkey’s assault is criticized.
PRESIDENT RECEP TAYYIP ERDOĞAN: [translated] Hey, European Union, pull yourself together. I say it again. If you try to label this operation as an invasion, it’s very simple: We will open the gates and send 3.6 million refugees your way.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: On Wednesday, President Trump described Turkey’s assault as a “bad idea” but defended his decision to shift U.S. troops away from the Syrian-Turkish border.
Here in New York, protesters demonstrated on Wednesday in front of the offices of Democratic Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand in New York City, demanding the U.S. defend the Kurdish autonomous region known as Rojava. This is Ozlem Goner, an assistant professor of sociology and anthropology at CUNY, the City University of New York.
OZLEM GONER: Kurds have lost thousands, tens of thousands of lives, their homes, their lands, their agricultural production — so, all their livelihood — in order to defeat ISIS so that European and U.S. citizens are comfortable in their homes. And now they are once again paying with their lives for having protected our lives.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re starting right now with two guests. In London, we’re joined by Elif Sarican, a Kurdish Women’s Movement activist. She’s an anthropologist at the London School of Economics. In Brussels, Belgium, we’re joined by Ertuğrul Kürkçü, the honorary chair of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party, known as the HDP. He’s a former member of Parliament in Turkey.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Elif Sarican, let’s begin with you. Let’s start at the beginning, what we understand and what you understand is happening on the ground now. You have this conversation last Sunday between President Trump and the Turkish President Erdoğan, and apparently Trump tells him the U.S. will pull troops back in northern Syria, and Erdoğan makes very clear he is going to attack this area with Turkish troops. Explain what has happened since.
ELIF SARICAN: I mean, just to give it some context, you know, this is not a new development. Erdoğan has been trying to push for this for many months, if not years. And finally, somehow, through quite a mysterious and unclear phone conversation, Trump agreed to withdraw the few U.S. soldiers that were positioned there. And just to make clear that the U.S. Army, the U.S., Trump himself, the Syrian Democratic Forces and Turkey were well aware that these troops still remained posted there essentially to act as human shields to stop a Turkish invasion.
Now, what we saw yesterday was the beginning of this invasion, the long-promised invasion by Turkish President Erdoğan. And, you know, as many people have said, as there’s a consensus all around the world and with public opinion, is the consequences of this can be grave and will be grave. It’s not only that it’s essentially threatening a Kurdish genocide; it will — it’s not even just a possibility, it will — create and cause the resurgence of ISIS. It will add to the international refugee crisis. But also, equally as importantly, it will crush the democratic, ecological and women’s liberationist experiment that has been happening there, as well as the Kurds fighting against ISIS.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Elif, the situation is quite extraordinary. A U.S.-NATO ally, Turkey, is relentlessly attacking, with U.S.-made arms and ammunition, a U.S. ally, the SDF, the Syrian Democratic Forces, who were also trained and armed by the U.S. Now, what do you understand is happening today? In these last two days, what do we know about casualties, both civilian, Kurdish civilian casualties, as well as casualties among the SDF?
ELIF SARICAN: So, because the situation is unfolding so quickly, it’s quite difficult to get any precise figures at this moment, but some of the official figures that we’ve had in the last 24 hours is that there’s over 10 civilians that have been killed, there’s at least 15 injured civilians. And also CNN reported Clarissa Ward was going through part of the region yesterday and reported quite horrific scenes of civilians killed but left on the street, because people can’t get to them because the shelling is so intense. And in terms of the SDF, again, we don’t know the exact figures. We know there’s clashes, with the six coordinated attacks in six border areas of northern Syria, and the Turkish Army with its allied jihadi forces don’t seem to want to stop, by any means.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to bring Ertuğrul Kürkçü into the conversation and get your response to what President Trump is now just saying. Kurdish forces have fought alongside the U.S. against ISIS for nearly half a decade, nearly 11,000 fighters dead. On Wednesday, Trump criticized the Kurds, saying they didn’t help the United States during the battle of Normandy in World War II. This is Trump speaking to reporters at the White House during an event in the Roosevelt Room.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Now the Kurds are fighting for their land, just so you understand. They’re fighting for their land. And as somebody wrote in a very, very powerful article today, they didn’t help us in the Second World War. They didn’t help us with Normandy, as an example. They mention names of different battles.
AMY GOODMAN: And he also said — The Washington Post is reporting the U.S. military has no plans to intervene if Syrian Kurdish forces leave their posts guarding ISIS prisons, raising the question of what will happen to the 11,000 ISIS militants and their families currently detained in some 20 prisons and camps under Kurdish control. So the president, Trump, was asked about this Wednesday.
REPORTER: ISIS fighters escape and pose a threat elsewhere.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Well, they’re going to be escaping to Europe. That’s where they want to go. They want to go back to their homes, but Europe didn’t want them, for months.
AMY GOODMAN: Ertuğrul Kürkçü, you’re honorary chair of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party. If you could respond to both of these points, that the Kurds didn’t help the U.S. at Normandy in World War II and if the ISIS prisoners get freed, they can — they will go to Europe?
ERTUĞRUL KÜRKÇÜ: Yeah, this is horrific, not only for the Kurds, but for all the world and for the Americans themselves, that they are governed by the most ignorant person in the world as a statesman. He doesn’t even know that the Kurds didn’t have a stake: They were not a party to the Second World War. They were enslaved by four different countries in the Middle East. And he is now speaking about the war in Normandy and why the Kurds weren’t there. So he is totally ignorant of the realities of the world order, which was based on the outcome of the Second World War.
And secondly, he has no understanding of ISIS and what it means for the civilized world and Middle East and Europe, why ISIS is a problem not only the United States or Europe, but for the United Nations. ISIS is one of the two groups — one is al-Qaeda, and the second on is ISIS — which is pinpointed by the United Nations as the terrorist organizations which could be — whom should be stopped by international cooperation. And that’s why the United States is having a function in the Middle East. This was not Trump’s own idea.
What I would like to say, that it was the worst idea also by the Obama administration to intervene in the Middle East affairs, to export regime change in Syria, which deeply changed all the course of things in the Middle East and in Syria. And at the middle of the road, the Obama administration changed their course and took the ISIS as the enemy number one. This was a better understanding of the course of things.
But Trump doesn’t understand why this was an immense problem for the American interests, as well as the Syrian interests and as well as the Kurdish interests. So, it’s a pity that the United States and the world is now — is between the lips of an ignorant and a reckless person who is the leader of the United States, the number one country in the world, which assumes huge responsibilities for the peace in the world, for the stability in the region, and therefore a world where people will have to live in reconciliation. So, now Donald Trump himself may be the biggest problem for the Middle East peace.
AMY GOODMAN: And his response, what will happen to ISIS prisoners that escape from prisons, that they’ll simply go to Europe?
ERTUĞRUL KÜRKÇÜ: Actually, the real situation in the field is even more problematic than Donald Trump believes to be. They are not only going to escape to Europe; they are going to operate in Turkey. And until this day, during ISIS massacres, around 200 Turkish people, 99% of whom are government dissidents, have been killed. And today, in a very interesting statement, the Turkish minister of domestic affairs, or the interior minister, in response to a question, says, ”ISIS doesn’t have any other opportunity than to cooperate with us, because they are at loggerheads with all the world, so they should coalesce with us.” Now we have a country led by a government, an interior minister, who believes ISIS will be their ally.
So, we have done two problems. One is the Turkish official approach to ISIS, a kind of an ally against the Kurds. And the second one is that Donald Trump, that ISIS is a European problem, so that Europeans should tackle with the problem. It doesn’t mean anything for Donald Trump. But he forgets 9/11, I think. They were in the United States and cost the lives of 3,000 Americans. It’s a pity that, really, this guy is leading the United States. Where? Into an abyss, I see.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break, then come back to this discussion. Ertuğrul Kürkçü, honorary chair of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party, is speaking to us from Brussels, Belgium. And Elif Sarican is a Kurdish Women’s Movement activist, speaking to us from London. We will also be joined by Debbie Bookchin, co-founder of the Emergency Committee for Rojava. This is Democracy Now! Back in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: “Dear Viyan” by Miranda De La Frontera. This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. Our guests are Ertuğrul Kürkçü, the honorary chair of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party, joining us from Brussels in Belgium, and Elif Sarican, a Kurdish Women’s Movement activist. Also, Debbie Bookchin is with us in New York, co-founder of the Emergency Committee for Rojava.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: I’d like to ask Elif — you said earlier, of course, that there is a real risk of a Kurdish genocide, given what’s happening. And it’s important, I think, to remind people that over 10,000 SDF fighters have died in the fight against ISIS. And the question is: Now, given this overwhelming Turkish assault in northeast Syria, are the Kurds likely to receive any support from anybody? Some have said that they’re likely to be forced to turn to Assad in an attempt to defend themselves against this assault. Could you talk about whether you think that’s true and what the implications of that would be for the Kurds?
ELIF SARICAN: So, Amy [sic], as you say, there’s been 11,000 people martyred in the fight against ISIS. There’s 22,000 wounded in this fight, including many international volunteers, from the U.S., from the U.K., as well, and other countries included.
Now, to see what the consequences of a Turkish invasion will be, we don’t have to look too far. In January 2018, the Turkish Army, again allied with ground jihadi forces, invaded Afrin, causing, in a couple of months, 1,000 — killing 1,000 people, mostly civilians, causing the displacement of 300,000 people, out of a population of 800,000, again, mostly Kurdish people. So, even at that time, and now it continues, the Syrian Democratic Council, which is the umbrella formation that also includes the Syrian Democratic Forces, have said they will negotiate, and they will sit at tables — at a table with any actor in the region to bring about a peaceful solution to the conflict and the situation of the region and, you know, the effects of it on the wider Middle East and also the world.
So, this does bring the question of the ultimate aim of all of this needs to be, of course, as we said, the U.S. was — the U.S. soldiers were acting as human shields, essentially, but, you know, that was always going to be a solution that expired. So, the solution must be that — and, you know, the recognition is that this is, in some ways, less about the U.S., but more about the Turkish invasion, if that makes sense. So, therefore, the solution must be, you know, whether it’s including Syria, as well, and Russia and the U.S. and all of the actors in the region, including Turkey, too — why not? — to be able to come to a political, diplomatic and peaceful solution to the future of the people of Syria, in general, which means the Syrian Democratic Council being included in the rewriting of the Syrian constitution, and being included in political developments of the region, as well.
And this is one of the reasons why the situation has got to where it has got to today, because there was a tactical alliance between the U.S. and the Syrian Democratic Forces in the fight against ISIS, but strategically there was never any political alliances. And this is what needs to be developed right now, because the question isn’t — I don’t think the question should be whether U.S. soldiers should return there or not. Of course, as a short-term solution, that would solve — you know, solve the or push back the invasion, and therefore save the lives of millions of people. But ultimately there needs to be a political solution, and that’s what the people of northern Syria and the Syrian Democratic Council have been continuing to call for.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Elif, as you know, one of the principal objectives that Erdoğan has said for the military invasion is creating a safe zone to which millions of Syrian refugees can be returned. But there have been numerous reports of Turkey recently violently deporting thousands of Syrian refugee men and boys back to Syria. Turkish border guards have reportedly shot and killed Syrians when they tried returning to Turkey to reunite with their families. Now, you’ve spent time talking to Syrian refugees who have attempted to flee through Turkey. What did the Syrian refugees tell you about how they’ve been treated by Turkey?
ELIF SARICAN: So, I was in a refugee camp in Greece in 2016, and I spent a short time with them and, you know, talking with them, discussing with them. Most of them, at this camp, happened to be Kurdish, but there was also Syrian Arabs and other peoples at this camp, as well. And it was a — you know, it was almost every single person we spoke to, spoke about the brutality of the Turkish authorities at the border of when they were trying to cross, the extortion of these people, making — you know, confiscating their belongings, their goods. If they had any gold or money on them to, obviously, try and live and look after their families, a lot of the time these were confiscated. They reported things like doing work for — working at some of these — trying to work at local places, and because there was no protection, their wages not being paid. And, you know, so, therefore, shooting refugees trying to flee into Turkey in the first place is not a new thing. Now the forcing of Syrian refugees back into Syria, again, almost entirely, is not a voluntary move.
So, Erdoğan declaring at the General Assembly of the United Nations on the 24th of September, with a map, essentially declaring that he was going to alter the demographic of this region and, quote-unquote, “settle” his Syrian brothers and sisters in this region, is absolutely unprecedented, because often world leaders do not declare beforehand that they’re about to commit war crimes. You know, firstly, an unprovoked attack is, obviously, by definition, by the U.N. and Nuremberg principle, a war crime. But also, to force the movement of people involuntarily and also to alter the demographic of a region is, again, by definition, ethnic cleansing. And Erdoğan declared all of this publicly at the United Nations a few weeks ago. But for some reason, he can do it and get away with it, which, to us on the receiving end, seems bizarre. But it also seems like he’s very, very good, as you’ve already mentioned today, at blackmailing Europe with the 3.5 million Syrian refugees that he holds in Turkey — unfortunately, in very bad conditions. But nonetheless they’re there, and he’s somehow preventing them from getting to Europe.