Security Brief

Syrian Refugees Accuse Turkey’s Proxy Army of Abusing Civilians

Those displaced in northeastern Syria have called the operation a form of ethnic cleansing.

Syrian security forces stop civilians from approaching the site of an explosion in Qamishli in northeastern Syria on Nov. 11.
Syrian security forces stop civilians from approaching the site of an explosion in Qamishli in northeastern Syria on Nov. 11. DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Security Brief. What’s on tap today: Displaced residents of northeastern Syria accuse Turkey’s proxy army of atrocities in the “safe zone,” Germany announces plans to increase its defense spending, and could blimps be back? 

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Turkish Proxies Accused of Ethnic Cleansing

Displaced residents of northeastern Syria are blaming Turkey’s proxy army, which swept into the region on Oct. 9 as part of Ankara’s campaign against the Syrian Kurdish militia, for widespread abuses of civilians in what they say is a form of ethnic cleansing. 

The families that fled the offensive—more than 200,000 people, according to the United Nations—report that Turkey’s Syrian Arab proxies have devastated northeastern Syria, executing prisoners, carrying out brutal beatings, kidnapping their relatives, and looting their homes. These residents, who have fled to Raqqa and other parts of Syria, say the atrocities undermine Turkey’s argument that it is creating a “safe zone” for civilians. 

Erdogan defends his proxies. Ahead of a planned visit to Washington on Wednesday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan defended the proxy forces, saying they were not “terrorists” but warriors “defending their land.” Washington is bracing for Erdogan’s arrival: During his last visit in 2017, clashes broke out between protesters and members of his security detail. In addition to the situation in Syria, Erdogan and U.S. President Donald Trump are expected to discuss Turkey’s controversial purchase of a Russian missile system, which led the United States to expel Ankara from its F-35 fighter jet program. Trump has yet to decide whether to impose congressional sanctions on Turkey for the purchase.

Residual U.S. force. In his first interview in the job, newly minted Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, the former U.S. Army chief of staff, said Sunday that the United States will leave as many as 600 troops in northeastern Syria to continue counterterrorism operations against the Islamic State. Though Trump has repeatedly said U.S. troops would stay behind “to protect the oil,” Milley did not mention the rich oil fields in Deir Ezzor province.

The Pentagon insists that the mission in Syria is focused on preventing the resurgence of the militant group, which used the oil reserves to generate millions of dollars a week in funding for their terrorist operations. But experts are questioning the legality and credibility of the mission, Lara Seligman reports

Syrian Kurdish leader in London. As skirmishes erupted over the weekend, particularly around the town of Tel Tamir, Ilham Ahmed, the president of the Syrian Democratic Council—the political arm of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces—traveled to London to lobby the British government. There, she accused Britain of being “almost invisible” in its response to the incursion, saying it appeared unwilling to offend Turkey because it feared isolation after leaving the European Union. 

What We’re Watching 

Uncertainty in Bolivia. Bolivian President Evo Morales has resigned after weeks of protests and mounting pressure from the country’s military. Morales, the country’s leftist president since 2006, claimed victory in a disputed Oct. 20 election that his opponents alleged was rife with fraud. Morales’ vice president and the third in line of succession, the Senate president, also resigned amid the protests. Several senior officials have stepped forward to express their willingness to take over for Morales, but it remains unclear who—if anyone—will receive the mandate, or if the country is headed for new elections.

German rearmament? As U.S. president, Trump has repeatedly assailed European countries for not spending enough on defense, singling out Germany in particular as a freeloader on the backs of the U.S. military. Germany appeared to respond last week, with Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer announcing that the government would increase spending on the armed forces. Defense spending will rise to 2 percent of GDP by 2031—a timeline that isn’t likely to satisfy Trump. Kramp-Karrenbauer stressed that the German parliament still has the authority to commit troops abroad, but the move marks a significant shift in the country’s restrained post-war defense policy. 

Trump still eyeing Greenland. Trump’s bid to buy Greenland from Denmark this summer failed, but his administration has a backup plan. The State Department plans to open a new consulate in Greenland next year, marking a new American diplomatic outpost in a region where both China and Russia have boosted their presence. Many in Denmark and Greenland welcome the move, but after Trump’s gambit to buy the island, some are uneasy about a U.S. consulate. Read the full story by Morten Soendergaard Larsen and FP’s Robbie Gramer.

Violence in Iraq. Protests in Iraq took another deadly turn this weekend after Iraqi security forces cracked down on demonstrators in Baghdad and Basra, using live ammunition, tear gas, and sound bombs to disperse protesters, killing seven. This is not the first reported use of violence, however. At least 260 people have been killed in the unrest since early October.

Movers and Shakers

Vindman ousted at NSC. National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien announced that Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who gave scathing testimony in the impeachment inquiry into Trump, will be removed from his post on the National Security Council. Although O’Brien told reporters that the decision was not political, Trump has hit hard against Vindman, alleging he is a “Never Trumper” and promising to release evidence of that claim soon.

There are questions surrounding Vindman’s status, however. POLITICO foreign correspondent Nahal Toosi challenged the news, tweeting “this is NOT true. Vindman is still at the NSC. He will leave when his detail expires ‘as scheduled.’”

Foreign Policy Recommends

Trying to move on. As the United States commemorates Veterans Day, a widowed mother of seven despairs over the death of her husband, a member of the Utah National Guard killed in Afghanistan last year. Her questions about the circumstances of his death have only mounted, but it highlights the sacrifices and hardships the families of members of the armed forces undergo, W.J. Hennigan reports in TIME.

Quote of the Week

“[Former White House Chief of Staff John] Kelly and [former U.S. Secretary of State Rex] Tillerson confided in me that when they resisted the president, they weren’t being insubordinate, they were trying to save the country.”

Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, describing attempts by senior U.S. officials to recruit her to join their efforts resisting Trump, in her new book, With All Due Respect

Odds and Ends

Airships bouncing back. Blimps dotted the skies in the early 20th century until a series of disastrous crashes hastened the transition to long-range aircraft. Now, safer technology under development in China and Britain may revive the market for airships, potentially transforming air transportation. But the U.S. national security community likely won’t forget the U.S. Army’s doomed blimp program, which Congress essentially cancelled in 2016 after one blimp broke free from its mooring in Maryland and floated into Pennsylvania, eventually landing in a field. 

That’s it for today.

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Dan Haverty contributed to this report.

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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