Galbraith: Trump decision can lead to chaos in Syria
TOWNSHEND — With Turkish forces crossing the Syrian border and launching operations within Kurdish-dominated areas, one local man with deep ties to the Kurds is concerned the actions could unleash even more instability in the Middle East.
"If the Kurds fight back and pull forces out that are guarding camps and prisons, which are very far from the border, [Islamic State group] captives might escape," said Peter Galbraith, the former state senator from Townshend who acted as an informal adviser to the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq in 2003, helping to draft the Iraqi Constitution in 2005. "There are between 14,000 and 18,000 [Islamic State] fighters still on the loose, in sleeper cells and in the desert. If the 12,000 in the custody of the Kurds escape, they will rejoin the battle. This is one of the consequences of [President Donald] Trump's green light to Turkey."
Late Sunday, the White House unexpectedly announced it was pulling U.S. troops away from the border between Syria and Turkey, a major shift in the nation's foreign policy that quickly followed a phone call between Trump and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the president of Turkey. Erdogan announced he was ordering Turkish troops, working with the Syrian National Army, to target Kurdish fighters and Islamic State extremists.
"Our mission is to prevent the creation of a terror corridor across our southern border, and to bring peace to the area," Erdogan said.
But according to Galbraith, the Kurds have already created an area of stability in northern Syria and have contained Islamic State fighters with the help of U.S. forces.
Galbraith has been making a number of trips to northern Syria since 2014 because of his long-standing ties with the Kurds. He was most recently in northern Syria with Bernard Kouchner, founder of Doctors Without Borders and the French minister of Foreign and European Affairs from 2007 through 2010.
"One of the things we have been trying to figure out, at the request of the Kurds, is what to do with all these people they have captured," Galbraith said.
Galbraith said the Kurds in northern Syria have within their area of control 12,000 Islamic State fighters in jails and another 100,000, mostly women and children, in refugee camps. "Most of them are Syrian or Iraqi," he said. "A lot of the Syrian and Iraqi fighters were opportunistic, with no employment, and were coerced into joining [the Islamic State]. The women and children had no say."
Those people need to be treated differently from the 1,000 or so fighters who chose to go to Syria to fight.
"They all committed a crime, for the purpose of joining a terrorist organization, and they're the most radical," he said. Those who traveled to fight in Syria were responsible for another 10,000 children the Kurds now have loose custody of.
"We are trying to figure out what to do with these different categories of people," he said.
There are thousands of women and children who can't be repatriated to their countries of origin because of their ties to fighters who traveled to Syria to fight with the Islamic State. "We are trying to figure out a solution for these kids," said Galbraith.
He said there are nongovernmental organizations that have another group of children they need to find homes for.
"Yazidi girls and women who were raped by [Islamic State] fighters have 200 children all under the age of 4. And while the Yazidi community has accepted the women back, they have not the children who were the product of rape. These children are no longer in camps, but some solution needs to be found for them."
In addition, there are a multitude of orphaned children and children without parents who also have no homes to return to, he said.
"These are the issues we have been trying to sort out," Galbraith said. "Now it's all that much more complicated as a result of the Turkish invasion."
The semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan, broken into self-governing cantons, stretches across northern Syria and Iraq, from Kobani in the west to the border of Iran in eastern Iraq. There is also a large community of Kurds — about 15 million people — in southern Turkey, and there has been a low-level war being waged between Turkish troops and Kurdish rebels, the PKK, there for decades. While there is no official connection to the Turkish Kurds and those in northern Syria and Iraq, Turkey has looked upon them as one culture and has made no secret of its animosity toward that population. In 2015, the PKK declared a unilateral cease-fire with Turkish troops, though there have been minor incidents since then.
Each ruling body in each of the self-governing cantons is half men and half women, said Galbraith, with co-prime ministers, one of each gender. The equality stretches to the Kurdish armed forces, with the Women's Protection Units, or YPJ, fighting alongside the People's Protection Units, or YPG.
Galbraith said the Kurds are intent on building a communitarian society built on the philosophy of Murray Bookchin, an American social theorist who was a pioneer in the ecology movement.
In 1974, Bookchin, along with Dan Chodorkoff, founded the Institute for Social Ecology at Goddard College in Vermont.
When Bookchin died in Burlington in 2006, the PKK released a statement characterizing him as "one of the greatest social scientists of the twentieth century."
"He introduced us to the thought of social ecology, and for that he will be remembered with gratitude by humanity," the statement's authors wrote. "We undertake to make Bookchin live in our struggle. We will put this promise into practice as the first society which establishes a tangible democratic confederalism."
If Turkey does take the battle to the 70,000 men and women who make up the Kurdish forces in northern Syria, it will be a bloody fight, Galbraith said.
"It will not be easy," he said. "A lot of people are going to die."
Galbraith said Russia is the main beneficiary of the chaos unleashed by Trump's green-lighting of the Turkish invasion.
"Trump is in every way pursuing the Russian agenda," he said. "He's against NATO. He's out to destroy the European Union. He's destroying our alliances and making the United States appear to be unreliable. At home he's undermining the United States and democracy. There is no ally [Trump] won't betray and no limit to his treachery. It's hard to imagine anyone doing a better job for Russia than that."
Galbraith plans to return to northern Iraq in November when he will attempt to make a trip to northern Syria as well.
Bob Audette can be contacted at 802-254-2311, ext. 151, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.