The White House announced Sunday that U.S. forces in northeast Syria will immediately pull back and clear the way for an expected Turkish assault on northern Syria. The American withdrawal will mean essentially abandoning our allies, the Kurdish fighters who have stood alongside American forces in the battle to defeat the Islamic State terrorists, who had taken over and brutalized the region.
While Turkey considers the Kurdish forces to be a terrorist organization, and has, for a long time, been trying to get America to end its support for the group, the Kurdish fighters, which are part of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), have been the United States’ most reliable partner in fighting the Islamic State in a strategic corner of northern Syria. To abandon them now is not only shameful, it is strategically imprudent.
A statement from the White House revealed that President Trump had spoken to Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan by telephone, and that Turkey will be moving forward immediately with its long-planned operation into northern Syria.
Long planned indeed. Erdoğan has been threatening to launch a military operation across the border for well over a year, and now he is about to do just that. Turkey views the Kurdish forces as a threat to their country, but both Republicans and Democrats have warned that a Turkish attack could lead to a massacre of the Kurds and send a stark message to America’s allies across the globe that American promises cannot be trusted.
When Erdoğan announced last week that his troops would be going into northern Syria, President Trump waited only a day or two before he rushed to assure the Turkish President that U.S. troops, stationed there to prevent the return of ISIS fighters, would instead leave the area immediately. The exodus has already begun. And once again, America has left its allies, the Kurds, to the mercy of the merciless.
In a long and unusually pompous set of tweets, Trump made it clear what he intended:
“As I have stated strongly before, and just to reiterate, if Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey (I’ve done before!).
“They must, with Europe and others, watch over the captured ISIS fighters and families. The U.S. has done far more than anyone could have ever expected, including the capture of 100% of the ISIS Caliphate. It is time now for others in the region, some of great wealth, to protect their own territory. THE USA IS GREAT!”
A little humility in this situation would be welcome. This is not our finest moment.
So Who Are the Kurds?
The Kurds are the world’s largest nation without a state of their own. They are a people with a population of more than 30 million, divided among six countries. They live mainly in northern Iraq and southeastern Turkey, but with smaller numbers in northeastern Syria, northwestern Iran, and the Caucuses. And they do not have a country of their own.
They are Christians, Muslims, Zoroastrians, Yazidis, Jews, and more. And for generations, they have struggled for autonomy and self-determination. But their struggle has been thwarted by local governments that are jealous of their territory, and global powers with agendas of their own, including the United States. Their story is both courageous and tragic.
Facing Repeated Perfidy
The history of the Kurds and their supposed allies is not pretty. On March 16, 1988, in the Kurdish town of Halabja in northern Iraq, as many as 5,000 civilians, mostly women and children, were killed when Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi fighter planes circled over the town for five hours, releasing a mixture of toxic gases that killed the people on the ground below without mercy. It was believed to have been the worst-ever gas attack targeting civilians.
The first foreign medical mission to reach Halabja was a Belgian-Dutch Doctors Without Borders team. They confirmed the use of mustard gas and probably of cyanide. Two months later, a Belgian toxicologist said that further analysis had showed that several gases were used by the Iraqi planes, including mustard gas and nerve agents.
The U.S. did not intervene in this horrendous attack, although we could have. Retired Air Force colonel Rick Francona, who was a military attaché in Baghdad at the time, later said, “The Iraqis never told us that they intended to use nerve gas. They didn’t have to. We already knew it.” Yet we did nothing to stop it.
Saddam Hussein was convicted of other atrocities and hanged in 2006, which closed a number of investigations against him, including the genocide of the Kurds. In 2010, General Ali Hassan al-Majid, known as “Chemical Ali”, as found guilty of ordering the poisonous gas attacks and he, too, was hanged.
In 2012, the Iraqi government gave the rope used in Ali’s hanging to the Halabja authorities. Too little, too late.
In 1991, at the end of the Gulf War, President George H. W. Bush called on the Iraqi people to once again rebel against the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. In a speech that was broadcast over the Voice of America network, he said: “There is another way for the bloodshed to stop: and that is for the Iraqi military and the Iraqi people to take matters into their own hands and force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside and then comply with the United Nations’ resolutions and rejoin the family of peace-loving nations.”
The people of Iraq took his advice, and they mounted a major rebellion against Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime. In the early days of the rebellion, the Kurds made some major advances, and seized some key towns in northern Iraq. But an even more brutal counter-attack by Iraqi government forces reversed these gains. In the assessment that followed, mass graves were found and it was estimated that as many as 220,000 men, women, and children were slaughtered by Saddam’s soldiers, including as many as 160,600 Kurds. Many civilians were shot by Republican Guard helicopters, which deliberately strafed the long columns of Kurdish refugees, as they tried to escape to safety across the border.
And in spite of Bush’s compelling encouragement, U.S. forces, which still occupied a large portion of southern Iraq, did nothing to support the people’s rebellion, and did not interfere while Iraqi Kurds, Shiites, and others were slaughtered by Saddam’s forces.
By April 1991, while more than one million Kurds had fled from the Iraqi government forces to the relative safety of Iran and Turkey, Saddam’s security forces entered the cities where Kurds still lived, frequently using women and children as human shields. They gathered civilians who were still there, and tortured, raped, or burned them alive. They killed thousands of people in these operations.
In the mean time, the U.S.-backed Turkish regime refused to allow more than 100,000 Kurds to enter Turkey, instead leaving them to die in the mountains, without food, water, or shelter. As many as 1,000 refugees died each day, according to United Nations’ own reports.
Finally, American forces, operating out of its bases in Turkey, began air dropping emergency supplies, soon followed by the deployment of thousands of troops into northern Iraq to provide additional aid and to construct resettlement camps. But, at the request of Turkey, these forces were withdrawn by July, and U.S. ground operations ended in the final months of 1996. Once again, the U.S. had abandoned their allies, the Kurds.
Then, in 1996, President Bill Clinton justified air strikes against Iraq, ostensibly on behalf of the Kurdish “safe haven” and a no-fly zone which was imposed over the northern part of Iraq. But most of the air strikes against Iraq were south of Kurdish territory, so they didn’t help the Kurds at all.
Meanwhile, the Turkish military carried out periodic incursions across the border with Iraq, aimed at the Kurds. Clinton actually defended these strikes by the Turkish troops who also frequently carried out air strikes inside Iraqi territory, in the “safe haven” that was supposed to protect the Kurds. These strikes resulted in the deaths of large numbers of both Iraqi Kurdish soldiers and civilians.
Although these attacks were widely condemned by the international community, Clinton defended them, and, in fact, was the only international leader to openly support Turkey’s military attacks in Iraq. His position was that “Turkey’s an ally. And we have no reason to question the need for an incursion across the border.”
Turkey still considers the Kurdish forces to be a terrorist organization, whether they are in Iraq or Syria, and for a long time has been trying to get America to end its support for the Kurds. But the Kurdish fighters, which are part of the SDF, have been the United States’ most reliable partner in fighting the Islamic State in northern Syria.
The war that has been raging in Syria since 2011 has given Turkey and the U.S. the opportunity to agree to establish a “safe zone” along 300 miles of border between Turkey and Syria. Erdoğan wants this ‘safe zone’ to be 19 miles deep. According to the Turkish plan, up to two million Syrian refugees will be resettled in that area, while the Syrian Kurdish militia (the YPK) and all other Kurds in the region will be ‘removed’ from the area. Turkey considers the YPK “a terrorist organization”.
Turkey has repeatedly warned that it would carry out unilateral military action if its expectations were not met and that it would not tolerate any US attempts to stop or limit the process.
So it was no surprise when, over the weekend, Erdoğan told his parliament that Turkey was tired of waiting. He said that the Turkish military would be crossing into Syria to set up a “safe zone’ for refugees from the Syrian ‘civil’ war – immediately. And he made it clear that in the process, Turkey’s military would be clearing out the Kurds living there now.
Erdoğan told his parliament, “We have not achieved any of the results we desired in the east of the Euphrates. Turkey cannot lose even a single day on this issue. There is no other choice but to act on our own . . . . We plan to settle two million people in the safe zones we will establish. We calculated the costs and we will carry out efforts to improve. We will start taking steps as soon as the region is saved from the invasion of terror,” he said, by which he was referring to the Kurds.
It did not take long for Donald Trump to cave, and on Sunday, October 6, the President announced that the U.S. troops would be withdrawing from the area in advance of the Turkish assault.
Because Turkey considers the Kurdish forces to be a terrorist organization and has been trying to get America to end its support for the group for a long time, the move was no real surprise.
The Kurdish fighters, which are part of the SDF, have been the United States’ most reliable partner in the successful fight against the Islamic State in northern Syria. And now, the U.S. is leaving them to the mercy of the Turkish forces.
America’s history of allegiance to its allies, the Kurds, is nothing less than shameful. The Kurds have been fierce fighters and loyal allies. But yet they have no wealth, no political leverage, no mighty armies. And like every other group and nation, they have their own internal political intrigues and enemies, and, yes, their own corruption. But what they also have is their loyalty to the U.S., although it has often, over the years, seemed to be misplaced.
The Kurds are a long-oppressed minority scattered across multiple countries and without a country of their own. With the American military backing out of Syria, the Kurds now find themselves caught between two old enemies: the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad, backed by Russia and Iran, and the Turkish regime that is about to cross the border.
It appears that I am not the only one to object. President Trump’s decision is opposed by some of the top officials in the Pentagon and the State Department who want to keep a small U.S. military presence in Syria to continue operations against ISIS.
Earlier on, Trump made a proposal for a “safe zone” that would be about nine miles deep and 87 miles long and from which the Kurdish fighters would be withdrawn. But Turkey rejected those boundaries and insisted on a ‘safe zone’ that would be at least 20 miles deep.
The administration has made clear that it cannot, under existing congressional authorities, intervene to protect the Kurdish fighters. So the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, which dominate the more than 60,000-strong army, called the Syrian Democratic Forces, are on their own when the U.S. troops leave.
The Kurds have warned that a fight with Turkey may leave them unable to guard the prisons in eastern Syria where ISIS fighters are being held. There are currently 8,000 Syrians and Iraqis, as well as 2,000 from other countries, who were captured during operations that led to the destruction of the formal ‘caliphate’ earlier this year.
The Kurds have made it clear about their limitations. “Either we will fight” the Turks “or guard” the prisoners, said a leading Kurdish politician in northeast Syria. “We cannot do both together.” And they are concerned that ISIS terrorists in Syrian prisons may now follow the urging of their leader al-Baghdadi and break out, but they also know that in this next war – the one with Turkey – they will be fighting for their lives and the U.S. has abandoned them.
Although the Kurdish forces had earlier agreed with the United States to withdraw from a zone limited to three miles from the border, a 20 mile zone is far too big for them to control. And Turkey’s powerful army will not leave much to chance when they take on the Kurds.
Once the U.S. troops have pulled back from the area, there is also the possibility that they will leave Syria entirely, if widespread fighting should break out between Turkish and Kurdish forces.
We all know that the President Trump promised from the beginning of his presidential campaign, to end the “endless wars”. This decision to leave Syria certainly falls into that framework. But our involvement in Syria was not one of the endless wars, not like Iraq or Afghanistan, and the decision is a stark illustration of what may be Trump’s attempt to start small and work his way up to the bigger wars. But it is misguided.
As he faces an impeachment inquiry at home, Trump appears to be moving recklessly (and compromising our values in the process) in order to win some points by ending a very small war at the expense of our allies.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said, “I want to make sure we keep our word for those who fight with us and help us . . . . If you make a commitment and somebody is fighting with you. America should keep their word.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, one of Trump’s greatest supporters in Congress, said, “If press reports are accurate this is a disaster in the making.”
So here we are. The Kurdish-led SDF is threatening to respond forcefully to any Turkish incursion. “We will not hesitate to turn any unprovoked attack by Turkey into an all-out war on the entire border to DEFEND ourselves and our people,” they said on Saturday. But matched against the force of the Turkish military, they are not likely to prevail and the cost will be high.
U.S. defense leaders have long known that America would not get into an all-out war with Turkey, a NATO ally. But the SDF is justifiably angry. In a word, they have been betrayed.
Earlier this year, Trump said about the Kurds, “We do get along great with the Kurds. Don’t forget, that’s their territory. We have to help them. I want to help them . . . .They fought with us. They died with us.”
The Syrian Kurds have said they do not seek independence, but they hope that a political deal can secure their autonomy and minority rights in Syria. Now the future that they face seems much more bleak. And we are responsible.
A year ago, Washington was considering how an orderly withdrawal from Syria would affect the Syrian Kurds and how it would be possible to prevent Turkey from attacking the Kurds in northern Syria. Those considerations are no longer on the table. Turkey has made its intentions crystal clear, and its march into Syria is no longer theoretical. The U.S. is now making an orderly if rapid retreat that, despite the President’s bold words, will be seen as weakness in the Middle East.
President Trump has damaged America’s position throughout the Middle East and beyond. In a world where influence is equated with strength and determination with power, the President backed down.
This move was ill-considered and is likely to mar his effectiveness in his other dealings with the Middle East and beyond. This great negotiator was out-maneuvered. And by a lesser power than those he still has to deal with. Let’s hope that he can regain his power and remember the values that made us strong in the first place. He will need them.