Donald Trump’s capricious decision to remove air protection over northern Syria and pull out of Kurdish lands is a horror story, no doubt about that. It has also united Democrats and …
Donald Trump’s capricious decision to remove air protection over northern Syria and pull out of Kurdish lands is a horror story, no doubt about that. It has also united Democrats and Republicans.
If you’re like most of us, the Turkish attack on Kurdish cities sounds like another inexplicable atrocity as we again watch cities bombed and civilians killed. How to understand?
And, why should we try?
Because this time, if our good name around the world hadn’t already been destroyed, it has been now. Because this is a betrayal, one that again helps Russia expand its interests against American ones in a region we regard as essential to our economic well-being. Because in abandoning a long-term ally, ISIS may come roaring back to threaten our physical security.
I hope you’ll bear with me while I share a bit of essential background. If you already know this info, of course, skip ahead.
The Kurds, with an estimated population of some 35 million people, are the last of the world’s major ethnic groups without their own self-governing territory. Over the millennia they’ve retreated to their mountain strongholds as conquering armies marched mostly past them, maintaining their identity and culture, never having their own country — one they were promised in the aftermath of WWI. Instead, Kurdish territory was divided between Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq.
When I was last involved in Middle East politics, Hafez al-Assad of Syria and Saddam Hussein of Iraq kept their Kurdish populations firmly subjected with ruthless force, exercised each time the Kurds tried to win some autonomy, while the Turks labeled their Kurdish nationals “terrorists” and did their best through periodic military invasions of the Kurdish-held mountains to kill as many of them as possible.
Then came the second Gulf War and its aftermath. The Iraqi Kurds saw an opportunity in the American-led invasion of Iraq and allied its armed elements — the Peshmerga — with the U.S., receiving training and arms in exchange for sending its men to fight and die alongside Americans. More Kurds from Turkey, Syria and Iran joined them. Their goal, of course, was self-government of their territories.
The Iraq problems and the Arab Spring morphed into the Syrian revolution and then ISIS, with Kurdish fighters armed and given air cover by America systematically overrunning ISIS-held territory. Eleven thousand men in the American-Syrian-Kurdish alliance against ISIS, most of them Kurds, died.
Only 11 Americans did.
Bringing us to the present and the Turkish invasion of Kurdish Syria. Turkey is our ally, too, you’re thinking. We have the same goals, don’t we?
The Turks have a long history of fighting to suppress Kurd separatists, have opposed America arming and training Kurds, and are convinced that Kurd separatists within Turkey are using northern Syria as a safe haven.
Here’s a crucial fact: Approximately one in seven people in Turkey is a Kurd. That’s a scary number if you’re sitting in Ankara faced with Kurdish determination to have their own homeland. It’s something akin, but on a smaller scale, to the South seceding from the Union.
This helps to explain why the Turks took immediate advantage of Donald Trump’s agreement to withdraw from Kurdish Syria. How Erdogan persuaded Trump to commit such an egregious betrayal of an important American ally is another matter. The fact is that during yet another infamous phone call, Trump agreed to give Kurdish northern Syria to Turkey. Erdogan acted immediately.
Note: The U.S. ground presence in northern Syria was more symbolic than anything else. It was U.S. air cover that kept the lid on. As soon as American planes left the air, Erdogan’s forces invaded, occupying the border areas immediately, bombing cities and civilians, catching withdrawing American troops, AID workers, missionaries and journalists between armies and endangering American lives.
And, here we are. The results of the Trump-Erdogan phone call, as Republicans recognized, were predictable and inevitable. Republican leadership is right in declaring this to be an unmitigated disaster for American foreign policy and human rights as well as wrong on political, economic, and moral grounds.
Too late, Trump was persuaded to change his mind and is busy trying to walk back the inevitable — repeat inevitable and entirely predictable — results of his betrayal of the Kurds. But that is an impossibility. What’s done is done.
In a few days the Turks have advanced to hold the northern half of northern Syria and are rolling south. Their army is in place.
The Kurds responded in the only way they could — reversed course and allied with Syria and Russia.
Assad’s Syrian troops and their Russian advisers have moved into Kurdish cities not already held by the Turks.
ISIS fighters — an unknown number from a pool of around 10,000 prisoners-of-war held in northern Syria, we’re told — have escaped and are headed toward sanctuaries along with a “number of high value” ISIS prisoners. Presumably, an ISIS resurgence has been energized.
Relations with Turkey, never good, are infinitely worse.
Any credibility we have with the Iraqi Kurds, who have been an essential element in maintaining some kind of stability in Iraq, is gone ... an important alliance destroyed.
The overall loser from one order after one phone call by Trump: America loses. BIG TIME.
The overall winner: Russia.