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What Donald Trump's decision to abandon Kurdish fighters in Syria means for the Kurds, Assad and Russia

In a move likely to further destabilise the situation in Syria and the Middle East, Donald Trump appeared to give Turkey the green light on October 6 for a military operation into northern Syria. The area is currently controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces, led by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, who the US worked closely with in the battle to defeat Islamic State (IS). Kurdish forces described Trump’s decision to pull US troops out of the area as a “stab in the back”.

Amid mounting criticism of the decision, Trump seemed to pull back, taking to Twitter to warn Turkey not to go too far in its operation. US security officials insisted the administration did not endorse or support the Turkish operation. However, Turkey said its preparations were complete for the military campaign, which aims to establish a “safe zone” along the Turkish-Syria border.

Trump’s decision to withdraw troops appeared to be underlined by his dissatisfaction with European allies who haven’t taken back their citizens from the region. The White House said, it wanted to avoid spending more money from American taxpayers on holding captured IS fighters. During a phone conversation with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Trump reportedly agreed with the Turkish president that Turkey would take charge of these captured fighters.

Relations between Turkey and the US have long been strained by American support for Kurdish fighters in Syria. Turkey believes they are directly connected to the PKK, a Kurdish separatist group recognised as a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the US, and the European Union.

Yet Turkey could find itself in a quagmire that involves a guerrilla warfare waged by the Kurdish forces. According to the Anatolian Agency, Turkey’s official news agency, the PKK is already present in northern Syria. If Turkey goes ahead with a campaign, it will extend the 40-year long conflict between the Turkish military, NATO’s second biggest army, and the PKK beyond Turkey’s borders. However, unlike in previous decades, the PKK will be backed by the YPG, long trained in active combat.

Assad’s next move

It’s unclear how Bashar al Assad and his regime in Damascus will react to a planned Turkish incursion into northern Syria. One possibility is that Assad government forces, backed by Russia, could take advantage of the situation and advance from the south into the Kurdish region. This will force the Kurds to fight on two fronts at the same time – something they are unlikely to survive.

There is another possibility. If the Kurdish political forces are successful in negotiating a deal with Damascus to set up a federal government system, like in Iraq, in Syria, these two forces could unite against the “foreign invader”. Speaking at the UN General Assembly in September, the Syrian foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem, already called for the withdrawal of American and Turkish forces in Syria.

Some Kurdish militia in northern Iraq could also join the YPG in a future conflict against Turkey. In March 2019, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan from Iraq announced its potential support in case of an attack. Such moves would likely disturb stability in northern Iraq, which has had amicable relations with Turkey.

Fate of refugees

The Kurdish region in northern Syria, also known as Rojova, has been one of the most stable in the country throughout the Syrian war. It has provided shelter to those who escaped from IS, Assad forces, and extremist factions within the Free Syrian Army, such as Al Qaeda affiliates.

The destabilisation of the region will likely trigger a new wave of migration from Syria towards northern Iraq and potentially Turkey. Since an informal agreement between the US and Turkey in August to create safe zones in northern Syria, tens of thousands have already fled from Idlib to the Turkish border anticipating a new conflict in the region.


Read more: Syria safe zones: what is driving the unexpected rapprochement between the US and Turkey?


Turkey, which currently hosts more than 3m Syrian refugees, has recently introduced stricter policies and regulations that aim to return some of these refugees to Syria. Erdoğan plans to repatriate them to any safe zone it manages to set up, so it’s unlikely Turkey will accept and host new waves of refugees from Syria. Stuck between a rock and a hard place, refugees will be forced to take irregular migration channels to Europe via Turkey and north Africa.

Russia’s next move is also crucial. The Kremlin, which recognises Turkey’s right to defend itself, also emphasises the need to protect Syria’s “territorial integrity”. Russia has been careful not to alienate the Kurds in Syria completely.

If the Kurds, who feel betrayed and abandoned by the US, move closer to Russia as a guarantor of their autonomy in a federal Syria, this could play in to the Americans’ hands by threatening the growing rapprochement between Turkey and Russia. However, a post-war Syria with a federal system that includes the Kurds and a consolidated Assad regime could strengthen the Russia-Iran bloc in the region, which will disturb both Israel and Saudi Arabia, crucial partners and allies of the US.

The next few weeks and months will determine the fate of Rojova, which will be pressured by both Turkish and Assad forces. Alongside the Kurds, the ethnic and religious groups, such as the Assyrians and Yazidis, who have found shelter in Rojova, will go through a dangerous period. And the cells of defeated IS fighters will be waiting for the opportunity derived from this crisis.

The Conversation

Ali Bilgic does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Arctic breakdown: what climate change in the far north means for the rest of us

Chase Dekker / shutterstock

In the Arctic, a summer of heat, melting and fire was rounded off by news that 2019 saw the second-lowest ever minimum extent of sea ice. That’s the point in early autumn each year when scientists say that the Arctic Ocean will begin to freeze again. By that measure, only 2012 had less sea ice than this year.

Meanwhile, the IPCC’s latest special report on the oceans and cryosphere was full of bad news (the cryosphere is that part of the earth system where water occurs in its frozen form, usually as snow or ice). The region’s glacier ice is retreating, the ground is thawing, forests are becoming a fire risk. Only people in low lying islands are as vulnerable to climate change as those in the Arctic, according to the IPCC.


Read more: IPCC report paints catastrophic picture of melting ice and rising sea levels – and reality may be even worse


So what happened in the Arctic in 2019? And why do Arctic geographers like me say what happens there matters so much for the world?

Let’s start by looking at what made this year so worrying:

Rapid melt of the Greenland ice sheet

Greenland started melting early in 2019 and this reached historically high levels when warm air from Europe’s midsummer heat wave arrived, causing melting over more than 90% of its surface.

While the cumulative area of melting is still smaller than the record-setting season of 2012, the total amount of ice lost is similar, because 2019’s early melting quickly removed the previous winter’s low snowfall and exposed older, dirty ice to the sun’s glare.

Greenland melting in 2019 (red) compared to longer-term average (blue). NSIDC / Thomas Mote

Sustained loss of Arctic sea ice

Scientists also measure the end-of-winter maximum extent of ice cover, and this was also historically low, although not record setting. But lots of melting in spring and summer meant by mid-August there was only fractionally more ice than the same time in 2012, the year of record minimum. Moreover, Arctic sea ice is now less than half as thick as it was at this time of year in 1980, meaning it is less resilient to even moderately warm summers.

Compare this year’s sea ice (white blob in centre) to previous average minimums (red line). NASA Goddard

Extensive wildfires in Siberia and Alaska

Probably most remarkable was the extent of vegetation burning right across the Arctic. By late July these slow-burning, long-duration fires had released 100m tonnes of carbon, an amount similar to the annual output of countries like Belgium, Kuwait or Nigeria. By the middle of August, the smoke cloud covered an area larger than the European Union.

Meanwhile, an extraordinary 32℃ heatwave fuelled a particularly intense fire season in Alaska, which released roughly three times more carbon than the state emits each year from burning fossil fuels.

Wildfires in northern Siberia, July 2019. Pierre Markuse/flickr, CC BY-SA

Turbo charged warming in the Arctic

Air temperatures in the Arctic are increasing at least twice as fast as the global average. This is down to a series of strong “feedbacks” that amplify the initial warming and in turn create more warming. For instance the loss of reflective snow and ice means more solar energy will be absorbed in the ground and ocean, warming the earth, causing more snow and ice to melt, and so on.

These feedbacks make the Arctic particularly sensitive to changes in climate: with 1.5℃ of global warming, one sea-ice-free Arctic summer is projected per century, whereas at 2℃ this increases to at least one per decade.

Everywhere is warming, but the Arctic is warming fastest. The Conversation/HadCRUT v4

Changing Arctic, changing world

Such effects would be bad enough if confined to the Arctic Circle and above, but what goes on up there really does affects almost every human on the planet. Here are a few reasons why:

1. More persistent and extreme mid-latitude weather

The exceptional rate of Arctic warming is shrinking the temperature difference between the far north and the mid-latitudes, and there is mounting evidence that this reduces the intensity of the polar-front jet stream, which crosses the North Atlantic from west to east and determines the paths of weather systems.

The jet stream is becoming more wobbly. NOAA

A slower and more contorted jet stream allows cold air to move further south and warm air to move further north, and it also allows weather systems to persist longer than usual. Under these circumstances, episodes of severe cold or protracted heat, as the UK experienced in spring and summer 2018 respectively, become more likely.

2. The sea level will rise

The Arctic contains the world’s second largest repository of freshwater: the Greenland Ice Sheet. As that water melts into the ocean and raises the sea level, the effects will be felt globally. Under a business-as-usual scenario, Greenland alone could lead to sea level rise this century of at least 14cm and as much as 33cm. By 2200, it could be a metre or more.

Such estimates aren’t very precise, partly because the science is hard, but also because we simply don’t know if we’ll get our emissions under control. Whatever actually happens, it’s clear that many people will be affected: even under conservative growth assumptions, there could be 880m people living in flood-exposed coastal regions by 2030, and more than a billion by 2060.

Elephant Foot Glacier, northern Greenland. Nicolaj Larsen/Shutterstock

3. An unplanned withdrawal from the 1.5℃ carbon budget

In order to have a 66% probability of avoiding global warming beyond 1.5℃, the IPCC says we can release no more than 113 billion additional tonnes of carbon. That’s only about ten years of emissions at the current rate.

Arctic wildfires will eat into that “carbon budget”, and reduce the room for manoeuvre of governments that have committed to the Paris Agreement. These fires have been particularly carbon-intensive as they are burning through peatlands, which are rich in decomposed organic matter and are a vast source of ancient carbon. Until recently these peatlands were frozen solid. Now, many areas are increasingly vulnerable to ignition from lightning strikes or human activity.

Some scientists have therefore suggested that Arctic fire management should be reconsidered as a critical climate mitigation strategy.

Wildfire smoke fills the air. Alaska, July 2019. Chiara Swanson/Shutterstock

Although changes in the Arctic can have global ramifications, it’s important to remember that it remains home to a diverse, partly-indigenous population of several million. Arctic peoples already face numerous challenges including pollution, overfishing, habitat fragmentation, and cultural and economic transformation. The reduction in “reliably frozen” areas adds considerably to these challenges, and its not certain that Arctic people will even share in any benefits from things like a growth in shipping.

Change in the Arctic is largely driven by activity elsewhere. But these changes in turn have an impact far beyond the region, on the atmosphere, sea level rise, or our global carbon budget. This circular process only serves to underline the pervasive character of contemporary climate change.

Click here to subscribe to our climate action newsletter. Climate change is inevitable. Our response to it isn’t.

The Conversation

Richard Hodgkins does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Five weird and wonderful ways nature is being harnessed to build a sustainable fashion industry

Enzymatic textile dyes. Author provided

One of the greatest challenges faced by the textiles and fashion industry is to make itself more sustainable, not just in terms of economic and labour force issues but in the face of ecological necessity. The production of textiles involves a long chain of complex processes to convert raw materials such as fibres or petroleum into finished fabrics or fashion products.

These processes are typically resource intensive, requiring high concentrations of chemicals, large amounts of water and involving high temperatures and long processing times. This commonly results in high energy consumption and waste.

A transition towards a more sustainable textiles and fashion sector requires approaches that can minimise its environmental and social impacts, therefore opting for cleaner manufacturing processes which can dramatically reduce carbon emissions and water use and eliminate the use of harmful chemicals.

Here are five ways nature is being explored by individuals, research teams and industry to help make fashion more sustainable. Scientists are uncovering and exploiting underlying mechanisms and models found in nature to design new materials, processes and products as well as systems of production for the future.

These range from traditional to contemporary processes that use low or high-tech methods, practised by artists in their studios to scientists in labs or artists and scientists working together collaboratively.

Enzymes as new design tools

Enzymes are highly specific biocatalysts found within the cells of all living organisms. They offer the possibility of manufacturing textiles using simpler and less severe processing conditions which can reduce the consumption of chemicals, energy and water and the generation of waste. As a result, enzymes have successfully replaced a range of industrial textile processes, since they started being used in the early part of the 20th century.

Cellulases and another group of enzymes called laccases are used in the production of stonewashed denim fabrics and garments. Stonewashed effects on indigo dyed cotton denim used to be created by pumice stones – but the use of pumice stones caused damage to both fibres and machines.

Working with colleagues from De Montfort University, I have been investigating the possibilities of using laccase and protease as creative design tools to make industrial textile processes more sustainable.

In our research we used enzymes to synthesise textile dyes and pattern fabrics using ambient processing conditions, such as temperatures as low as 50°C at atmospheric pressure. We now have ways to create many different colours with just a slight alteration of processing conditions, reacting enzymes and compounds together in various different conditions in a technique that eliminates the need to use pre-manufactured dyes.

Examples of one-step laccase-catalysed coloration of textiles. Author

New ways to make leather

From collagen: The area of synthetic biology is growing at a rapid rate, and as a result many companies such as New York-based Modern Meadow are exploring the possibilities this area of modern science offers. The company has successfully bio-fabricated a leather alternative called Zoa.

The advanced material is constructed from collagen (a protein) – the main component of natural leather – but Zoa is designed and grown in a lab from animal-free collagen derived from yeast.

The material is capable of replicating the qualities of leather and offers new design aesthetics and performance properties not previously possible – while also eliminating the high environmental impact of raising cows and tanning their hides (which is often a toxic process).

From fungi: Similarly, San Francisco-based MycoWorks – among others – has been exploring the possibilities of creating sustainable materials using fungi. Mycelium, (a mushroom root material) which is grown from fungi and agricultural byproducts is custom engineered in a lab using a carbon negative process.

Mushroom leather made using mycelium. MycoWorks

It is easy to cultivate, fast growing and can be easily manipulated to adopt the properties similar to leather and many other mainstream materials such as wood and polystyrene.

Field work

Grass roots: An interesting project by the artist Diana Scherer called Interwoven explores the fabrication of materials using living plant networks which could be used to construct garments of the future. She has developed a process which manipulates oat and wheat plant roots to grow intricate lace-like textile materials.

She buries templates in the soil that act as moulds, which manipulates and channels the plants root systems to reveal woven structures constructed from geometrics and delicate motifs once the fabric is excavated.

Cow manure: In a circular economy model, nothing is considered waste. In the Netherlands, a company called Inspidere has developed a method it has called Mestic that uses cow manure to produce new textiles. The processing method enables cellulose to be extracted from manure to produce two materials, viscose and cellulose acetate.

The manure is separated and processed in a lab to extract pure cellulose, which is further processed to create viscose (regenerated cellulose) and cellulose acetate (bio-plastic), both of which can be turned into textiles. The group have achieved lab-scale success, the challenge remains to scale this process up commercially.

These are just a few of the ways in which nature is being harnessed to provide the textile and fashion industry with realistic and viable options to move towards sustainability.

The Conversation

Chetna Prajapati has received funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) for the LEBIOTEX Project (AH/J002666/1), a collaborative project between Loughborough University and De Montfort University.

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