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Humanitarian Crisis Looming for the Kurds in Northern Syria

Humanitarian Crisis Looming for the Kurds in Northern Syria

Dr. Dave Campbell

The Kurdish population in northern Syria faces the existential risk of displacement, harm and death. As large numbers of those living in Kurdistan along the Syrian-Turkish border are moved out of their homes by Turkish, Russian and Syrian forces, hundreds of thousands of Kurdish civilians are facing a humanitarian crisis of dramatic proportions. This is not the Kurds first encounter with forced expulsion from their homeland. Former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s regime forced many to flee from cities to the mountains many years ago. This time the Kurds expulsion has been triggered by the abrupt withdrawal of United States military forces, after President Trump’s announcement October 7. They are leaving regions of northern Syria they have called home for years.

In the expulsion process, Kurdish men, women and children are evacuating as refugees without a country to call home. As refugees they are non-combatants, with profound risk of inadequate food, lack of safe drinking water, scant if any medical care and marginal if any housing.

South Florida Sun Sentinel this Thursday reported the observations of a group of South Florida physicians just returned from the affected areas of Kurdistan, where they were providing both medical care and training to local doctors to create a sustainable improvement of healthcare delivery once they vacated the region. Dr. Aaron Epstein who founded the humanitarian organization on the ground in Kurdistan, Global Surgical and Medical Support Group in 2014, was in Kurdistan when President Trump’s abrupt military withdrawal caught everyone by surprise. He is now back at his emergency medicine residency training program in Buffalo, New York. He said, “Unfortunate timing in that we’re all training and treating the Kurds when Trump made the decision to pull out.”

The Sun Sentinel had previously reported on Turkey’s President Erdogan staging the military offensive called, “Operation Peace Spring”, that aimed to take control of the region which heretofore was home to hundreds of thousands of ethnic Kurds.

On Twitter, Mustafa Bali, the spokesman of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) wrote, “Turkish warplanes have started to carry out airstrikes on civilian areas. There is a huge panic among people of the region.” The Sun Sentinel reported that the SDF, which has been the main partner allied with the United States in defeating Islamic State, had controlled this homeland of the Kurds, in a large region along the north-eastern regions of Syria, along the Turkish border to the north.   

As United States troops have departed Syria for other posts in the Middle East, the Kurds living in the northern reaches of Syria have come under increasing pressure to leave or face combat forces threatening sniper fire, bombs and incendiary devices.

Last Friday, The Guardian reported the United Nations (UN), is investigating alleged use of burning white phosphorus in Syria. The Kurdish Red Crescent has reported six people, some civilians, and children, hospitalized with mysterious burns. The UN has stated their chemical weapons inspectors are gathering information. The Guardian reported one chemical weapons expert that looked at the photographs of one victim and said it was likely they showed chemical burns.

Peter Beaumont with Guardian’s Global Development desk reported white phosphorus a to be a chemical weapon used in the past as part of the targeting of civilians in the Syrian civil war. He wrote, “WP is a chemical that burns fiercely in contact with air, producing thick acrid smoke and a white light… International humanitarian law allows the use of white phosphorus in munitions for making smoke to mask troop movement and for illumination purposes. Its use as an incendiary weapon is generally understood to be forbidden in all circumstances where there is a risk to civilians, i.e. against military targets located amid concentrations of civilians.”

President Trump’s U.S. brokered temporary ceasefire between the Kurdish people of northern regions of Syria and Turkey and now the promise of a permanent ceasefire is a fragile safety net for thousands looking for safety and the basic-necessities of life.

Representative Ted Lieu said on Twitter Wednesday, “Trump told the American people he was bringing our great soldiers and military home from Syria. Today in @HouseForeign, Ambassador Jeffrey confirmed that’s not exactly true. Sadly, Trump’s disastrous decision has resulted in a great loss for America, and a win for our enemies.” He said in Congress, to Ambassador Jeffrey, “Turkish forces are slaughtering our allies the Kurds.”

The Washington Times (WT) reported on Wednesday that while Kurdish officials publicly remain grateful for the U.S. role in the ceasefire, neighboring Turkish and Syrian government forces, and those from Russia, are driving hundreds of thousands of Kurds, with no state of their own, from the regions they call home along the Turkish-Syrian border. WT also reported the combat offensive waged by the Turkish military against the Kurds has resulted in dozens of civilians being killed.

Since the start of Erdogan’s Operation Peace Spring started, other reports place the number of injured and killed much higher. The New York Review (NYR) reported Wednesday some 235 civilians have been killed, including twenty-two children, with a further 677 people injured.  

WT reports humanitarian observers saying that the fighting in the homelands of the Kurds in northern Syria has driven more than 200,000 people from their homes. This number of displaced Kurds in just the most recent refugee crisis of the long-standing Syrian civil war and has been independently confirmed by the NYR.   

The New York Times (NYT) reported on Wednesday that since the humanitarian and refugee crisis began to unfold in Syria in 2011, Turkey, the large country to the north, a United States ally, has absorbed 3.6 million Syrian refugees and is host to the world’s largest refugee population. This is compared to only one million Syrian refugees in all of Europe. While the current crisis may seem small in comparison, it is a humanitarian crisis early in its development. Many are concerned that it will get worse before it gets better.

Besides reports of incendiary devices, intentional targeting of journalists, humanitarian workers and other civilians, including Kurdish civilians, has caused an exodus from the regions. CNN reports international humanitarian workers with Doctors Without Borders, Mercy Corps and Save the Children all said that they had evacuated foreign staff.

Refugees fleeing northern Syria, besides the risk of burns, bullets and bombs, face the stress-related mental health illnesses of post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression and others. Uncertainty of when or how the next meal will arrive will be hovering like clouds over the refugees. And winter is rapidly approaching. Blankets, clothing and shelter are sure to be in short-supply as Kurdish refugees see the number of aid workers dwindle.

The mental health consequences of war and displacement from home are under-reported.  On October 23, CBS This Morning presented Former President George W. Bush discussing how The Bush Center is working to address the problem on American soil. It’s not a stretch to relate President Bush’s message to the Kurdish civilian refugees, as thousands endure horrendous circumstances that will create long-lasting mental health consequences. Anxiety and fear of the unknown will be pervasive.  Where will they go?  Who will house them?  How can the children be provided with enough food, water, healthcare, clothing and shelter? Will they be targeted by snipers, bombs or incendiary devices?

“The first step to addressing mental or brain health is also the bravest- asking for help,” said President Bush. “In the time I have spent with men and women in the military, I have learned that the invisible wounds of war like post-traumatic stress can have a stigma.” Kurds has been allies in the U.S. fight against ISIS.  The atrocities committed by ISIS extremists against not just ethnic Kurds, but others that do not share their ideology created a bond between the United States troops and Kurdish people. Kurdish civilians are more like average American civilians going about their everyday lives than they are different.

President Trump this week announced from the White House that the cease-fire in Syria has held. “Over the last five days you have seen that a cease-fire that we established along Syria’s border has held, and it has held very well, beyond most expectations,” he said. “Early this morning the government of Turkey informed my administration that they would be stopping combat and their offensive in Syria and making the cease-fire permanent. I have therefore instructed the Secretary of the Treasury to lift all sanctions imposed on October 14 in response for Turkey’s original offensive moves against the Kurds in Syria’s northeast border region.”

The White House @WhiteHouse this week reported, “Eight long years after President Obama’s ill-fated push at regime change, U.S. troops are still on the ground in Syria. More than half a million people are dead, hundreds of thousands are terribly injured, and millions more Syrians are displaced.”

It’s important to humanize the Kurdish people victimized by the geo-political machinations of Syria, Turkey, Russia and the United States. Even though they are on the other side of the world from the United States, they are men and women striving for a country of their own, raising their children in a hostile environment with love, compassion and, above all, concern for the well-being of their loved ones.