Kurdish fighters in northern Syria have served as a crucial U.S. ally in the fight against the Islamic State. But U.S. troops stepped aside this week as Turkey launched an offensive against the U.S.-backed Kurdish forces.

President Trump has faced pressure even from Republicans as he has defended his decision not to intervene against the Turkish incursion, which many see as abandoning an ally in the face of extreme danger. Kurdish forces have described the U.S. departure as “a stab in the back.”

“Some want us to send tens of thousands of soldiers to the area and start a new war all over again,” Trump tweeted Thursday. “Others say STAY OUT and let the Kurds fight their own battles. I say hit Turkey very hard financially with sanctions if they don’t play by the rules.”

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had threatened to move into northeastern Syria for months. Here’s why he went ahead with it.

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Who are the Kurds?

The Kurds are members of a large, predominantly Muslim ethnic group. They have their own cultural and linguistic traditions, and most speak one of two major dialects of the Kurdish language, which is closely related to Persian. After World War I, Western powers promised Kurds their own homeland in the agreement known as the Treaty of Sèvres. But a later agreement instead divided them among Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran.

Today, there are about 30 million Kurds living across the region, with about half of them in Turkey. Iraq is the only country in the region to have established an autonomous Kurdish region, known as Iraqi Kurdistan, inside its borders. Its parliament was founded in 1992.

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“The Kurds have been suppressed in all sorts of ways, often very violently,” said Henri Barkey, a professor of international relations at Lehigh University and adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “They have really suffered at the hands of the four states.”

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Omer Taspinar, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said that for decades Turkey has had a policy of “assimilating the Kurds into Turkish ethnic identity, denial of Kurdish ethnic identity and denial of Kurdish linguistic rights.”

Kurds in Turkey are free to be Kurds, he said, only if they accept that they’re Turkish citizens. “The problem begins when they want a hyphenated identity,” Taspinar said.

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Why is the United States allied with Syrian Kurds?

The United States needed a reliable ally in northeastern Syria in the fight against the Islamic State. In 2015, with Washington’s support, Kurdish forces belonging to the Kurdish People’s Protection Unit, or YPG, joined forces with Arab groups and created the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF. The United States, Britain, France and other countries provided the SDF with weapons. Since then, Kurdish fighters have led the alliance, which was crucial in toppling the Islamic State.

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Why did Erdogan launch the offensive now?

As the SDF and, thus, the Kurds became crucial to the U.S. mission to defeat the Islamic State, Turkey grew fearful that the Kurdish forces were gaining influence close to the Turkish border, establishing institutions and gaining clout with the Americans, experts said.

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Inside its own borders, Turkey has for years tried to counter the threat of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, a militant group that has regularly launched attacks across the country in the name of Kurdish nationalism. Tens of thousands of people have been killed in that conflict over the past few decades.

For Erdogan, as a domestic national security issue, countering the PKK takes precedence over fighting the Islamic State. “There is no real nationalist anger against ISIS, but there is nationalist anger against PKK,” Taspinar said. (The Islamic State is also known as ISIS.) Erdogan sees the Kurdish fighters in northeastern Syria as terrorists linked to the PKK.

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For years, Turkey has hosted millions of refugees from the Syrian civil war. Now, as Turkey faces a severe economic crisis, Erdogan is facing pressure to resolve the refugee and unemployment crises in one go. “People are looking for scapegoats,” Taspinar said.

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Erdogan has pledged to clear this corner of Syria of Kurdish fighters and then set up a “safe zone” to which Turkey will return at least a million Syrian refugees. That plan has raised alarm in humanitarian circles, where advocates fear that refugees will be forcibly returned to a conflict zone in violation of international law. Kurdish forces are guarding a network of Islamic State prisons in the region, raising fears that if they were to abandon their posts to escape the Turkish offensive, those prisoners could escape. Many see the “safe zone” as more of a buffer zone intended to protect Turkey from the Kurdish fighters rather than to protect refugees from war.

But if Turkey returns Syrian refugees to this region, many of them will not be ethnically Kurdish, offering Erdogan an opportunity to dramatically change the demography. Experts warned that could only cause tensions to flare. “Unless the Turks intend to stay there forever, you can be sure the Syrian Kurds will reorganize at some point,” Barkey said.

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What about the Syrian government?

By restricting their military action to fighting the Islamic State and rebel groups, Kurdish forces have avoided clashes with the Syrian government for most of the war. But Kurdish groups had struggled against the authoritarian rule of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for years before.

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“Our people were being detained and tortured in the basements of intelligence branches since 2004," Saleh Moslem, a veteran Kurdish politician, told The Washington Post. “The regime would say behind closed doors that it has two enemies: Israel abroad, and the Kurds at home.”

When popular uprisings swept across Syria in March 2011, the Kurds saw an opportunity, Moslem said.

In July 2012, Kurdish-led forces drove the regime out of their areas. Since then, Syrian Kurds have created local councils to replace government establishments, and have promoted public ownership of land, water, and other resources, as well as gender equality. Many Kurdish fighters are women.

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But they have faced some accusations of abuse. In 2014, Human Rights Watch reported that arbitrary arrests and killings were taking place in Kurdish-controlled areas. And last year, the advocacy group said Kurdish forces were forcibly recruiting children to join their ranks. The SDF has repeatedly denounced these accusations.

What has happened so far?

Thousands of civilians have fled their homes on both the Syrian and Turkish sides of the border, with the United Nations reporting Thursday that at least 70,000 Syrians were already displaced from their homes because of the latest escalation in the conflict. The Kurdish side said at least 10 civilians had been killed by Thursday evening, and local Turkish officials said at least six were dead on their side. In Turkey, one 9-month-old infant was among the dead. Erdogan, meanwhile, said that Turkish forces had killed at least 170 “terrorists,” which has not been independently confirmed.

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On Saturday, the official SDF Twitter account stated that more than 200 people had been killed and wounded since Wednesday. “Today we are fighting on two fronts, one against the Turkish invasion and one against the ISIS mercenaries,” the group said.

Turkish forces clashes with Kurds for control of the Syrian border town of Ras al-Ayn on Saturday, as they attempt to establish a Turkish-controlled area on the Syrian side of the border. The Turkish Defense Ministry said Saturday that the town had been “brought under control” but the SDF denied that claim, and said clashes were ongoing.

Asser Khattab contributed to this report from Beirut.

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