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Who are the Kurds, and why is Turkey attacking them?

Before U.S. troops pulled out of northern Syria, clearing the way for a Turkish invasion, The Post went there and met Kurds who feared the looming assault. (Video: The Washington Post)

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 last 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.”

Russia and Turkey reach deal to push Kurdish forces out of zone in northern Syria

“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.”

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

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. 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. Its parliament was founded in 1992.

“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.”

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.

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.

Why did Erdogan launch the offensive now?

As the SDF 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.

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, 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.

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.

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.

What about the Syrian government?

Until now, the Kurdish forces had restricted their military action to fighting the Islamic State and rebel groups in an effort to avoid clashes with the Syrian government -- another foe. But on Sunday, the Kurds struck a deal with the Syrian government after finding themselves unable to stop the Turkish onslaught. On Monday, forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad took up positions in previously Kurdish-controlled towns across northeastern Syria.

The deal was reached only after Russia intervened and held three days of negotiations between the Syrian government and SDF -- a major coup for Russia-backed Assad and a blow to Kurdish and U.S. influence.

It’s also significant as Kurdish groups had struggled against the authoritarian rule of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for years before.

When popular uprisings swept across Syria in 2011, the Kurds saw an opportunity. In July 2012, Kurdish-led forces drove the regime out of their areas. After that, Syrian Kurds created local councils to replace government establishments, and promoted public ownership of land, water, and other resources, as well as gender equality. Many Kurdish fighters are women.

They have also 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 because of the latest escalation in the conflict. Days into the Turkish offensive, dozens of civilians and fighters have reportedly been killed on both sides.

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.

Over the weekend, gruesome videos circulated online that purported to show Turkish-aligned Syrian fighters committing execution-style killings.

Then on Sunday, a Turkish air strike hit a convoy in the Syrian border town of Ras al Ain, killing at least 14 people and wounding 10 more, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The SDF said the convoy included civilians and journalists.

Asser Khattab contributed to this report from Beirut.

Read more:

A brief history of the Syrian Democratic Forces, the Kurdish-led alliance that helped the U.S. defeat the Islamic State

Actually, President Trump, some Kurds did fight in World War II

Turkey plans a Syrian ‘safe zone.’ Advocates fear a ‘death trap.’