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Turkey risks being scapegoated over the West's lethal complacency in Syria

This combination of file pictures created on August 11, 2018 shows Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) deliverling a speech during an AK party's group meeting at the AK Party's headquarters in Ankara, on January 26, 2018; and US President Donald Trump (R) during a joint press conference with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC, July 30, 2018. - US President Donald Trump warned Turkey on Sunday, January 13, 2019 of economic devastation if it attacks Kurdish forces in the wake of the US troop pullout from Syria, while also urging the Kurds not to
 The sacrifices of America's allies in the Middle East must not be in vain Credit: ADEM ALTAN/ AFP

The Kurdish race encompasses some 25 million people, spread across Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey. For decades, they have endured the most challenging existence imaginable, subordinated by dictator after dictator, and only occasionally supported by the free world.  

Between 2015 and 2017, I had the great honour of working with the Iraqi Kurds as the Peshmerga’s chemical weapons adviser in the fight against Isil in Northern Iraq. The Iraqi and Syrian Kurds have done the heavy lifting in defeating these barbarians, and now, with the US no longer willing to perform the NATO heavy lifting in the region, we surely must. 

The Iraqi Kurds were persecuted by Saddam Hussein, whose Anfal Campaign, beginning in 1988, aimed to exterminate the entire race. Around 400,000 were murdered. 5000 alone were gassed at Halabja on 16 March 1988, and the city is still suffering from the after-effects. Though Sir John Major’s imposition of a ‘No Fly Zone’ in 1990 after the first Gulf War helped save the Kurds, this type of action in Syria to combat Assad’s tyranny and keep the Kurds and Turks apart, has been completely missing in this conflict. The US’s pledge to withdraw troops now makes it a necessity.  

I have worked closely with the Turks during the Syrian conflict to enable humanitarian aid to reach the needy, and I cannot blame them for their actions. Beyond the fight with Isil, we ‘Europeans’ have barely helped Turkey accommodate two million Syrian refugees. We have offered no answers to the dilemma of imprisoned Jihadists, save to rule out visiting the camps to find a solution.  

By contrast, Turkey has already set up a Safe Zone in North Western Syria, which is working well. During my most recent visit there, the Turks helped us to deliver medical supplies to hospitals treating the injured and ill in Idlib.  If they did not have this safe zone, but opened their borders, I expect the vast majority of the three million civilians currently trapped in Idlib would stream into Turkey and thence the EU – but at least this might encourage more muscular engagement from Brussels.

President Trump has been signalling for some time that he will not fight foreign wars that do not directly affect the US. Though there are few US jihadists in the prisons of Northern Syria, there are plenty of Brits, French and other EU citizens. All too many European nations have proven negligent NATO members who prefer to rely on the US and UK to fulfill their obligations. Of the major EU countries, only Britain spends over the minimum 2% on defence.

This is simply not good enough. If only these countries, so determined to punish the UK for Brexit, channelled some of their righteous energy towards the Syrian conflict, perhaps we could avoid the dangerous power vacuum created by the withdrawal of US troops.

If we do not help them, the Kurds’ only option will be to turn to Assad and Russia, who would most likely welcome them warmly. Meanwhile, the Israelis would not rest easy with Iran and Russia controlling the Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean. 

The EU in particular needs to step up and help directly with humanitarian and military support, or stop complaining about Turkish actions, designed, they believe, to protect their citizens. Brexit has allowed the EU and UK to sleepwalk into this next challenge. In days gone by, the UN might have stepped in to provide a peacekeeping force to prevent the potential clashes between Turks and Kurds. With the Russians frequently exercising their veto, the UN seems powerless - offering platitudes in lieu of real help.

Much collateral and Coalition blood, including of Turkish, Syrian and Iraqi Kurds, has been spilled over the last four years to defeat Isil. Their sacrifice must not be in vain.

We should take responsibility for the families of UK Isil fighters in Syrian jails but agree the fighters themselves have forfeited our protection. And, with our European allies, Britain urgently needs to work to fill the US void, helping the Turks to prevent further meltdown in the region, and lessening the dominance of Iran and Russia. If we do not, it is highly likely that Isil will regroup and once again bring instability and destruction - both to the Middle East and the complacent West.