Attacks from advancing Turkish forces intent on creating a buffer zone inside Syria have been persistent. They targeted the SDF, which has controlled the area since establishing a semi-autonomous area in 2016 populated with Kurds, Christians, Yazidis, and Arab Muslims. That zone was upended on Oct. 6 in a White House announcement by President Donald Trump withdrawing troops from Syria.
With Trump’s go-ahead, Turkey invaded Syria starting the next day, and it has relied on proxies from the Free Syrian Army and Syrian National Army militias to battle the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
Those militias—first organized under defectors from the Syrian army—have grown into armies of transnational jihadists, funded and trained by Turkey since 2016, and largely composed of al-Qaeda militants. Working in tandem with Turkish air and ground forces, the militias overwhelmed the battle-hardened SDF, which already has seen 11,000 soldiers killed in U.S.-led coalition battles against ISIS.
In a bit of foreign-policy jiujitsu, the administration condemned Turkey for an invasion Trump had welcomed. But the five-day cease-fire agreement between Pence and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reaffirmed their NATO partnership and acknowledged Turkey’s concerns about protecting its border with Syria. Kurdish forces, while staking out a claim for control in Syria’s northeast, have respected that border and haven’t made cross-border incursions. Turkey’s army has been heavily fortifying the border for the past year.
Details of the cease-fire agreement weren’t discussed with the SDF, according to commanding general Mazloum Abdi. But SDF agreed to the pullout from two cities, Ras al-Ain and Tel Abyad, while Turkey agreed to pause its offensive and pledged to “ensure safety and well-being of residents,” in the language of the cease-fire agreement. Instead, Turkey repeatedly struck civilian targets, earning accusations of war crimes.