MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Wednesday, the 23rd of October, 2019. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.
NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. First up, the war in northern Syria.
Kurdish forces completed their pullout of an exclusion zone in northern Syria on Tuesday. That announcement came hours before a ceasefire in the region was set to expire. But fighting in the area continues. And it’s not clear how the territorial dispute between Turkey and Syria will end.
WORLD senior editor Mindy Belz has been following the situation closely and joins us now to help unpack the details.
Good morning, Mindy!
MINDY BELZ, GUEST: Good morning, Nick.
EICHER: Most of the reports on this conflict, Mindy, mention two groups: Turkey and the Kurds. But I understand it’s a little more complicated than that. Start by explaining for us who the actors are.
BELZ: Well, besides the United States being in a somewhat unclear state of withdrawal from Syria—we still have some U.S. forces on the ground, we have some that have departed and have moved into Iraq. We now have a new actor and that is Russia. Late yesterday, Turkey and Russia signed an agreement that will allow Russia to move into this disputed region with Syrian forces. That turns the scene into something new again. We now have one major world power out of the region and one major world power in. And so we have Syria and Russia on one side of the line. The Kurds somewhat still in the middle with a lot of civilians who have been put on the run by this entire two-week situation. And then we have Turkey still pressing down at the border with groups like the Syrian Free Army.
EICHER: Well, let’s talk about them. Let’s talk about who the Syrian Free Army is and what role they’re playing.
BELZ: This is an interesting bunch. The Syrian Free Army began with defectors from the Syrian government army who wanted to fight the Assad regime. But throughout the course of a long war in Syria, that group has morphed into an Islamic jihadist group. It is full of al-Qaeda militants. It has some ISIS militants in it. One of the monitoring groups in Syria early last week identified at least 40 former ISIS fighters who were part of this group, probably a lot more than that. But so we know it’s an Islamic jihadist group.
EICHER: So, ISIS fighters clearly are exploiting the chaos here.
BELZ: Yes. And it’s important to understand the Syrian Free Army, starting in 2016 has been funded and has had training from Turkey. This is one of the things I think we misunderstand in all this. We have Turkey the NATO partner. We have Turkey the jihadist supporter.
EICHER: Let’s talk about that ceasefire. You made a mention of it just a minute or so ago. Didn’t last very long. But you’ve been in contact with the groups on the ground. What are they telling you about the ceasefire.
BELZ: Ceasefire was not really a ceasefire. We never saw Turkey pull back under the terms that it was supposed to abide by in the agreement. We did see the Kurds pull back as they were asked to do. They pulled back out of Ras al-Ain and Talkalakh, two of the main cities in this region. They have been holding those cities since 2015 when they fought and won them back from ISIS. I think it’s important to underscore here that the Kurds have lost 11,000 fighters since 2015 and that’s because they were doing the bulk of U.S.-supported fighting on the ground to rid this region of ISIS. So when we look at the situation we want to look at cities that the Kurds had under their control, they fought for. And the people living in this region, especially those that have been forced to flee again because of new fighting, this is the second or third time for most of them. They had to flee ISIS. They had to flee these groups like the Syrian Free Army. Now they’re fleeing again because they don’t know who’s in control.
EICHER: We’re hearing a lot in other media reports about how this is affecting the Kurds. So what about Christians and other minority groups in the area?
BELZ: We know that most of the Christian villages in this region have been emptied within the last 10 days or so since the announcement by the Trump White House giving a green light to Turkey moving forward with this planned invasion. Turkey has been talking about doing this for a long time. It’s only been this small contingent of U.S. forces on the ground that have kept them from moving in as we now are seeing. If you listen to what Erdogan is saying, he wants to resettle this region with, he says, Syrian refugees. Most of those are Muslim, Arab, and many of them are going to be Free Syrian Army types. They are going to be al-Qaeda supporters. They’re going to be a much more radical element. And we know this scene. We’ve watched it happen in Iraq. We’ve watched it happen in other parts of Syria. When they come into this region, they will target and want to eliminate Christian communities—Yazidi communities, non-Muslim communities.
EICHER: Mindy Belz is WORLD’s senior editor and chief international correspondent. And I’m grateful to you, Mindy, for your time and the work you’re doing watching this for us.
BELZ: Thanks so much.