You turn to us for voices you won't hear anywhere else.

Sign up for Democracy Now!'s Daily Digest to get our latest headlines and stories delivered to your inbox every day.

Kurds Turn to Bashar al-Assad for Protection as U.S. Abandons Former Allies to Turkish Assault

Media Options

Syrian troops are massing near the Turkish border, one day after Bashar al-Assad’s government reached a deal to help protect the Kurds from Turkey’s deadly air and ground assault. On Sunday, the Kurds agreed, in a deal brokered by Russia, to hand over two border towns to the Syrian government in exchange for protection. The Kurds had been allied with the United States up until last week, when President Trump abruptly pulled U.S. troops from northern Syria, paving the way for Turkey’s assault. More than 130,000 people have already been displaced over the past five days since Turkey invaded northern Syria. The death toll is unknown. Turkey is facing increasing international condemnation for invading northern Syria. The European Union has called on all member states to stop selling arms to Ankara. We speak with Ozlem Goner, an assistant professor of sociology and anthropology at the City University of New York and a member of the Emergency Committee of Rojava.

Related Story

StoryFeb 16, 2023Syria Faces “Nightmare Situation” as Aid Stalls Amid Sanctions and Earthquake Death Toll Keeps Rising
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Syrian troops are massing near the Turkish border, one day after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad reached a deal to help protect the Kurds from Turkey’s deadly air and ground assault. On Sunday, the Kurds agreed, in a deal brokered by Russia, to hand over two border towns to the Syrian government in exchange for protection. The Kurds had been allied with the United States up until last week, when President Trump abruptly pulled U.S. troops from northern Syria, paving the way for Turkey’s assault. On Sunday, Defense Secretary Mark Esper announced the U.S. had ordered all remaining U.S. forces out of northern Syria.

More than 130,000 people have already been displaced over the past five days since Turkey invaded northern Syria. The death toll is unknown. Turkey says more than 500, quote, “terrorists” have been “neutralized.” Turkey frequently refers to Kurdish groups as “terrorists.” The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights is reporting Turkish-backed proxies have shot dead nine Kurdish civilians, including a prominent political leader, Hevrin Khalaf, who was killed along with her driver on Saturday. She was the secretary-general of the Future Syria Party.

Kurdish authorities are reporting 785 people affiliated with the Islamic State, including many women and children, escaped from a Kurdish-controlled displacement camp in northern Syria. The escape occurred as Turkish-backed forces shelled nearby targets. On Sunday, President Trump’s former Defense Secretary James Mattis warned the current turmoil will lead to a resurgence of ISIS. This comes as The New York Times is reporting U.S. forces failed to transfer five dozen “high value” Islamic State prisoners out of Syria before Trump withdrew troops from northern Syria.

Turkey is facing increasing international condemnation for invading northern Syria. The European Union has called on all member states to stop selling arms to Ankara.

To talk more about the situation in northern Syria, we’re joined by Ozlem Goner. She is an assistant professor of sociology and anthropology at the City University of New York and a member of the Emergency Committee of Rojava. She is from Turkey and of Kurdish origin.

Professor Ozlem Goner, thanks so much for being with us. Can you talk about what you understand to be the latest situation now in northern Syria?

OZLEM GONER: Thank you for having me, Amy.

Well, the situation, as you just said, that Kurds needed to have a deal. So we need to just look at the situation just a little back and see that last year — actually, the beginning of this year, in January, President Trump once again said that he’s going to withdraw the troops from Syria, and so leaving the Kurds alone. And this didn’t happen because there was a lot of reactions against this. And then, at the time, he had said that, “Well, we’re going to do this, but in time and in due warning so that our allies there can protect themselves.” But this didn’t happen, because just a random phone call this past week between Erdoğan and Trump, he all of a sudden decided to take all troops out of there, without any notification, without any time for the Kurdish troops to protect themselves.

So, once they were left unprotected — and it’s important to realize that it’s not just President Trump, but we tried very hard to develop international solidarity against this, to call for a no-fly zone, so that even if the U.S. troops get out of the place, that the Kurds can be protected with their self-defense measures combined with a no-fly zone, so that Turkey cannot do air attacks, which is the majority of losses last time happened because of this. So, this did not take place. This did not go through. There’s no protection, no protection from the U.S. whatsoever. It was just very prompt taking of the troops out of there. So, the Kurds, in order to escape genocide, had to make a deal. And this is a shame, because they had to make a deal with a regime that has been repressing them for decades now in order to protect themselves.

AMY GOODMAN: So, explain what this deal is, how it happened. It was brokered by Russia.

OZLEM GONER: Yes. Yes, it was brokered by Russia. Russia — basically, once the U.S. withdrew from the region, Russia became the major power in the region, controlling and negotiating between Turkey, Assad forces and the SDF, the Syrian Democratic Forces. So Russia is the only actor in the playing field right now, in addition to Iran, but right now we’re speaking of the Russian leadership. And so, the terms of the deal are still unknown, because, you know, for the part of the Kurds, their urgent need for self-protection and to prevent genocide made them just urgently accept this offer from the Assad regime. Their hope is that they can keep their autonomy. This was what the leaders of the Syrian Democratic Forces were saying, that this is just to protect the borders for now and to prevent the Turkish invasion, Turkish war, Turkish genocide — I mean, Kurdish genocide at the hands of Turkish forces.

And especially, just you mentioned this, and it’s very important to understand, that Turkey — it’s not just the ISIS fighters escaped. Turkey actually bombed the ISIS prisons so that they can escape. So Turkey is — I mean, actually, Süleyman Soylu, the Turkish interior minister, five days ago, when asked at a TV program, when Turks were concerned about the potential ISIS attack, he was like, “Be comfortable. No need to be concerned. They don’t have any option but to ally with us.” So they’re very openly allying with ISIS.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s go to President Trump, who was responding to questions from reporters last week —


AMY GOODMAN: — asking what will happen to ISIS fighters in the region who are imprisoned and who could escape. He said, “Well, they’ll escape to Europe.”


AMY GOODMAN: This is what he said.

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 from us.

AMY GOODMAN: Your response to what Trump just said?

OZLEM GONER: Well, this is — I mean, you know, this is just outrageous. This is just outrageous. I mean, there is the reemergence and resurgence of ISIS that happened because of Trump’s sudden decision to withdraw the troops, without any protection whatsoever, without any plan to do something with these ISIS fighters and also their families. And it’s very important to understand what we call ISIS families is women and children. These are fighters. They have done enormous human rights violations in the regions. There’s tons of interviews with these women in the camps, in the refugee camps. And so, they are letting them free to kill the Kurds aligned with the Turkish forces. So, Trump says that it’s Europe’s responsibility, but, obviously —

AMY GOODMAN: Trump said, actually — he said that —


AMY GOODMAN: Oh, the ISIS fighters — 

OZLEM GONER: They will — yes.

AMY GOODMAN: — will go to Europe.


AMY GOODMAN: But he made very clear they will not come to the United States.

OZLEM GONER: Well, I mean, we know what happened. We know how they can mobilize to attack and make terrorist attacks in all parts of the world. So, this is — I mean, and especially for someone who’s been using this discourse of terror for such a long time and threat for such a long time, it’s outrageous not to see the imminent threat. And it’s outrageous to not see the cooperation of Turkey and the open statement that we’re going to cooperate with ISIS, that we’re going to use the forces, the jihadists, the ISIS, in addition to the Turkish land forces and air forces, to attack an unprotected territory. And the only means that these people have is self-defense. And it’s important to understand that this is not just the Kurds in the region who are under threat, but the minorities and religious minorities who have been especially targeted by ISIS. So they are looking for revenge. They’re looking for, first, exterminating these leftover populations, that they started — you know, the Yazidi genocide that they had committed and enslaved thousands. I mean, and letting them both operate in that region and then saying they will go to Europe, and we know the danger that they impose to world, this is basically President Trump’s fault. But also — yes.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you say about Trump tweeting today, “Kurds may be releasing some to get U.S. [sic] involved” — “to get us involved”?

OZLEM GONER: Well, this is — I mean, we all — tweeting. Who tweets about these issues? Who tweets — seriously. Why would Kurds do that? We know — I mean, we just — this is — just to bring a human face to this, we saw a woman holding her baby, crying — her dead baby — saying that “We have fled Kobani.” Her husband died in Kobani. Now her daughter died, again at the hands of Turkish forces, again cooperating with the jihadists and ISIS. Why would they do such — I mean, ISIS, the major — the losses that the Kurds suffer at the hands of ISIS is 11,000 people. And these are civilians.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain, 11,000 people who —

OZLEM GONER: Eleven thousand people fighting against ISIS were killed. So the major losses —

AMY GOODMAN: In northern Syria.

OZLEM GONER: In northern Syria. I mean, so, Trump, as we know, historically, there is the role of Europe by colonizing this region of the world, by separating Kurds into four different nation-states, who repress Kurds in different forms, and we weren’t able to build international solidarity to protect, to do something against this colonization over the century. And then, this is important because then the U.S., when he — it’s important to say that when he says, “We don’t have a responsibility. It’s not our fault,” who created the jihadis? Who created ISIS? Who made it in such a big threat to the world in the first place? So we need to understand U.S. involvement in this region.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain that history.

OZLEM GONER: So, if you look at it, Europe, first, because it was the colonizing agent of the early construction of this region and early separation of Kurds under four nation-states, denying their sovereignty, so denying their self-defense. And also, right now everybody is like, “Who is terrorist? PKK.” And Erdoğan is using this, that they are terrorists: “We have annihilated 400, 500” — they are called “terrorists,” because Europe had denied sovereignty from them. And so, when they were denied to be a nation-state, their forces of self-protection, self-defense was called terrorism.

And so, and then, we know the World War II and the U.S. involvement in this region, and so how the U.S. has created these — first, it initiated, you know, the Assad regime, these regimes, these repressive regimes, to suppress the left in the Middle East in different countries, the Baath regime in Iraq and the Turkish Sunni Islamic, neoliberal, capitalist regimes, the right regimes, against the Turkish left. So they have cultivated this region. And then we know, since early 2000, especially following September 11, it’s created this war on so-called terror, reviving, recreating these jihadist forces, these Islamic forces, and letting them to run the region according to the U.S. interests. You know, so the major role that the U.S. has played in creating these monsters, that then killed, massacred the people of the region, and then denying responsibility for this is outrageous.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask you — I want to ask you about Hevrin Khalaf.


AMY GOODMAN: The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that Turkish-backed proxies shot dead nine Kurdish civilians, including —

OZLEM GONER: That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: — this prominent political leader. She was the secretary-general of the Future Syria Party. Who was she?

OZLEM GONER: Well, she was a human rights defender. She was also working — as you know, one of the major successes of the Syrian revolution has been to promote women and has been to fight against patriarchy. So, she was one of these major figures, a human rights defender, who was very active. And this is — you know, they attack — they will attack, first, human rights defenders. They will attack women, as this act is showing, that especially the jihadi and ISIS forces have been very famous in attacking. And as you know, she was — you know, we don’t know the exact what happened there exactly, but we know that there was sexual violence. And so, this is very important that they are going to attack these people who have been cultivating a democratic, nonpatriarchal, gender-egalitarian system, because this is what — not just ISIS, but the Turkish government is standing with the jihadis, who are very suppressive, very patriarchal, and who want to — who can’t tolerate women being in the forefront. And so, women have been the targets first. Women, and then it’s going to be the religious minorities, obviously all Kurds.

So, there is — you know, I mean, it’s just outrageous, not just what the Trump administration did. But I think it’s time for also the left to rethink about Turkey’s attempts to become the regional power, and to see how Turkey’s colonizing these places, these people, with the use of the jihadis and ISIS, and to be against this, to be against — really create a strong stance against this.

AMY GOODMAN: So, President Trump, at about the same time that he had his conversation with Erdoğan two Sundays ago and then announced that the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops — not that he’s saying they’ll go home, because it was then almost immediately announced that the Pentagon is going to send 1,800 more troops —

OZLEM GONER: Yes, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: — on top of the thousands more they had already said a few weeks before, to Saudi Arabia.


AMY GOODMAN: The significance of this?

OZLEM GONER: So, thank you so much for bringing that, Amy, because people think, “Well, they celebrated.” And this was — this is why I’m —

AMY GOODMAN: Well, antiwar forces who really want to end the war.

OZLEM GONER: And I’m emphasizing — and this is what I am saying that the U.S. left should really reconsider, its foreign policy and its understanding of the region, and how this region and the cultivation of this region has been based on colonialism and imperialism, and because — because the troops are a very minor part of the role of the U.S. in the region. Well, first of all, it’s replacing these troops, so we’re not even talking about the troops leaving the region. It’s just putting the troops, taking them from here and putting them there, so letting these people get massacred because “I made a deal with Turkey” and then because we’re in good relations with — so, we’re going to send them there. So, first of all, troops, even though it’s a minor issue in the whole region and the governing of the region, even the troops are not brought back to the U.S. They’re just replaced. But also there’s much more. I mean, the armament deal, where is Turkey getting its weapons? Where is Turkey getting its airplanes to attack one of the most defenseless populations of the world? It’s getting it from the U.S. and European companies. So their complicity in this war against Kurds in the past century, and especially this recent episode, is very striking and is —

AMY GOODMAN: Trump also, after announcing they were withdrawing troops from that area, not necessarily bringing them home, also announced he’ll be having a meeting at the White House with Erdoğan. The Washington Post ran a piece saying Trump’s decision on Syria crystallizes questions about his business and his presidency.


AMY GOODMAN: The article notes Trump himself has acknowledged his conflict of interest with Turkey. Even after Trump became president, Trump Towers Istanbul remained part of the Trump Organization, continued to generate revenue for Trump himself.

OZLEM GONER: Exactly. Trump doesn’t have business interests in Rojava. When he’s saying, “Well, we don’t have interests in there,” he doesn’t have interests in there. He doesn’t have hotels, he doesn’t have companies in Rojava. And we all know that Rojava is an anti-capitalist, anti-patriarchal, ecologically friendly, ecologically sensitive democracy, pluralist democracy.

AMY GOODMAN: This area of northern Syria.

OZLEM GONER: This area of northern Syria that’s led by Kurdish coalition forces and also other ethnic minorities, religious minorities, who were able to live peacefully in a region that was under the attack of ISIS. And in the midst of the war, they were able to create a pluralist, feminist, ecological democracy. So, obviously, Trump’s interest does not lie with this. His economic interest does not lie with this region. His ideological interest does not lie with. So, that is why it is us, the U.S. and the left, who needs to see and see what’s happening and to support this region.

AMY GOODMAN: As we wrap up, what happens now? The Kurds have made a deal with Syria.

OZLEM GONER: Yes. So, what happens now is that we really need to push for the Kurdish autonomy. Mazlum Kobani, one of the leaders, commanders of the Syrian Democratic Forces, said that we had to make this deal to protect our people against genocide. So, and it’s important because we need to make sure that we create international solidarity, that, first of all, I mean, there are economic sanctions against Turkey, to try everything to bring, you know, the Turkish occupation down, but, at the same time, to make sure that Syrian Democratic Forces is a legitimate political actor, while we’re pushing the leaders to bring Turkey to make peace in the region, and Syrian Democratic Forces to establish its autonomy, because this is under threat. And right now they’re making this deal. They might lose their autonomy. They might be giving in to the regime. The regime, the Assad regime, has been —

AMY GOODMAN: Which they have fought for so long.

OZLEM GONER: The Assad regime has been violent against Kurds for decades. It’s not like they want to make this negotiation. They have to, because the U.S. left them unprotected, because the U.S. was not able to establish a no-fly zone that would give them some protection. And now Assad can imprison, can torture, can kill, can murder the leaders of the Syrian Democratic Forces. And this really reminds me of, you know, early Turkish massacres where the leaders of the Kurds, such as in Dersim, which is my region, had to negotiate with the Turkish. They had to give in, themselves, and to protect their people. So, they’re doing this to prevent a genocide, because Trump administration betrayed them and because the U.S. left does not — and the European left, the world left has not developed mechanisms and solidarity to protect them. So, it’s a shame that they had to turn to another dictator to protect themselves from one dictator.

AMY GOODMAN: Ozlem Goner, I want to thank you for being with us — of course, we’ll continue to follow this — assistant professor of sociology and anthropology at the City University of New York, member of the Emergency Committee of Rojava.

This is Democracy Now!, When we come back, cities and states from coast to coast are celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day today. Stay with us.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

Next story from this daily show

“We’re Still Here”: Indigenous Peoples’ Day Celebration Reflects Ongoing Resistance to Colonization

Non-commercial news needs your support

We rely on contributions from our viewers and listeners to do our work.
Please do your part today.
Make a donation