The Kurdish Situation in Northern Syria: What Must be Done to Stop Violence

As an anti-war organization, Science for Peace opposes military intervention, both as an ethic and as a researched conclusion about the catastrophic practices and outcomes of war. Trump’s withdrawal of U.S. troops from northern Syria, leading Kurdish civilians to flee en masse from the Turkish military intent on ethnic cleansing, has led to calls from across the political spectrum for a short-term U.S. military presence. Trump leaves a small military force in Syria to protect oil fields but not the Kurdish people who had been U.S. allies. While there is widespread horror about the betrayal of the Kurds, absent is consideration of a range of possible immediate non-military interventions or of addressing the underlying causes, not only of the Kurdish disaster but of the failed states and massive civilian casualties in the Middle East and North Africa. A report just released states that U.S.-led wars since 9/11 killed 801,000 people, with the researchers warning that the true toll is likely 3.1 million people – mainly civilians.Read More


Information about the Syrian Kurds has already dropped from the news. The situation is complicated and there is widespread ignorance, difficulties in verifying facts, and other severe global crises. This brief Science for Peace position statement focuses selectively on the urgent need to stop violence against the Syria Kurds. International law expert Richard Falk summarizes the complexity: “The situation has converted the customary fog of war into an impenetrable black box. None of the intervening political actors including Turkey, United States, Iran, Russia, Israel, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia calculated correctly, nor did the various non-state extremist groups associated with al Qaeda and later ISIS, as well as a variety of anti-Damascus Syrian insurgencies. No international conflict has ever been quite as opaque, multi-faceted and beset by the play of contradictory, and even self-contradictory national, regional, and global political forces. What is said and what is done diverge so dramatically that all efforts at understanding are contingent and need continual updating.”

It is hard to obtain up-to-date information. It is known that in 2018 Turkey succeeded in expelling 200,000 Kurds from Afrin, and it is known that 400,000 people are deprived of potable drinking water due to damage to the Alouk water station. Immediately after Trump’s announcement, 190,000 Kurds were forcibly displaced from northern Syria (Rojava).

Background information: The world order changed dramatically in the 20th century, culminating in two world wars and the Cold War, the end of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires and the re-writing of nation-state boundaries, the failed attempts by the League of Nations and the United Nations to “end all wars”. The new global economic order which has caused the most extreme global economic inequities in history, the dismantling of public infrastructure, and the imposition of suffocating debt on the impoverished, global majority population. The Kurds are the world’s longest occupied ethnic group. They live as ethnic minorities in Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Syria. The current Turkish offensive targets the Kurds who live in Syria, whose military arm is the YPG. The dispersed Kurds were betrayed in devastating ways in the 20th century: Winston Churchill approved using mustard gas on Kurds; and they were left unprotected and betrayed by their U.S. allies in 1993 when they were victims of Hussein’s chemical weapons in Halabja, leading to approximately 17,000 deaths.

In the current battles against ISIS in Syria, the Kurds of Rojava lost an estimated 12,000 fighters while Trump claimed credit for defeating ISIS and then left the door open for Turkey’s expulsion of the Kurdish population. Erdogan fears that a coalition of Syrian and Turkish armed Kurds, the YPG and the PKK respectively, would destabilize the Turkish state and planned to repopulate the area with the Syrian Arabs. There are approximately 2 million Syrian Kurds in northern Syria, and 3 million Syrian Arab refugees in Turkey.

Out of these conditions in the Middle East (and North Africa) has come state-sanctioned terrorism imposed by authoritarian militarized states, and reactive terrorism from non-state actors. Detailed studies of late 20th century and early 21st century terrorism {for example, see Robert Pape and William Polk) indicate that terrorism from “below” ends when occupations end. These occupations are administered under brutal militarization and policing that combine torture, depriving civilian populations of basic water/food/health care, and psychological torment and humiliation of Arabs such as at Abu Ghraib. The post-Cold War Arab nations that are now failed states did have functioning education and health care systems in which women were making strides, and they were ethnically-mixed societies in which there was intermarriage. Contrary to representations of endemic Arab violence, the Arab states absorb enormous refugee populations with minimal state and non-state violence against these refugees.

U.S.-led “scorched earth” wars resumed immediately after the end of the Cold War. The Syrian Kurdish situation is but one example of violent collapse and the creation of failed states. The rapidly shifting alliances and provocations in the Syrian proxy wars has caused enormous civilian death, even threatening to expand into direct conflict between the major powers with the terrifying possibility of nuclear war.

There are immediate and long-term options to address the immediate disaster and the underlying causes. The following demands reflect well-researched methods of stopping violence. We do not examine the political feasibility but note that currently, there are emerging public, often multi-ethnic protests demanding fundamental structural changes in many countries, including Sudan, Chile, Lebanon, and Hong Kong.

Immediate Interventions: Protecting People

The Canadian government, journalists, and educators must update and report to the public the current, actual living conditions of the Syrian Kurds and the military actions of the Erdogan government, and report responsibly the horrors of displacement and war.

Tweeting policy decisions is dismissive of the actual suffering and is disrespectful to those on all sides of this war. The public needs more than brief messaging: in the interest of peace and of responsible citizenry, the government, especially Foreign Affairs, should inform the public about the suffering and social breakdown caused by military interventions from all parties.

The Canadian government cut off arms to Turkey, but it is well-known that arms are lucrative and flow easily across borders: the Canadian government must disclose to the public the status of arms transfers to the relevant countries involved in the Kurd disaster, including Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Israel.

  1. Provide humanitarian relief, especially through the UN High Commissioner on Refugees.

  2. Strongly and clearly state that there is no military solution: that military interventions have consistently proven to increase terrorist recruitment, and that military interventions have led to immeasurable suffering in the civilian populations.

  3. As a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, Canada must demand that all nuclear weapons be taken off high-alert status.

Long Term Interventions: Addressing the Causes

As early as 2001, the late Arab activist intellectual Eqbal Ahmad recommended avoidance of double standards: don’t condone state terrorism while condemning non-state reactive terror. He advised reinforcing and strengthening the framework of international law and the international courts. Canada should press for examination of the effectiveness of international laws and UN resolutions.

As the world lurches from one militarized crisis to another with nuclear war hovering as a last resort, Canada must sign the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and actively ensure its enforcement.

Canada, along with the “coalition of the willing” led by the United States and NATO, must confront its complicity in US military operations in Syria and in other countries accused of harboring terrorists, and begin the long process of apology, truth-telling, and reparation.

Canada as a middle power, ostensibly seeking a peaceful world order, must contribute much more monetarily to the United Nations agencies. Kurdish refugees, together with over 65 million displaced people worldwide, including environmental refugees, are the innocent victims of powerful states and international financial institutions, and are unconscionably underserved by the United Nations.

The Kurdish situation is one in a continual line of human catastrophes due to military interventions, tangled politics, economic strangulation, public ignorance, and national and United Nations failures. The call for military intervention to protect the Kurds, and the vagueness of calls for negotiation, is a betrayal of the victims.

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