The United States Officially Sells Out the Kurds

On December 28, 2018, I wrote “Trump’s Disgraceful Betrayal of the Kurds.” Here is the most important section of that piece:

In the case of the Kurds, the president impulsively sold them out while talking on the phone with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. He clearly did not understand the implications of what he was doing. Almost immediately, our best allies in the region applied for protection from the government in Damascus…

…For my part, I’ve been concerned about our reliance on the Kurds ever since I was given an off-the-record briefing by three senior Obama Administration officials in September 2014 in which they spelled out their strategy for taking back Mosul and defeating ISIL’s “caliphate” in Syria. I spent that call pulling my hair out mainly because I didn’t think it was going to work in the long term. I didn’t want us investing in a problem we couldn’t solve, and I didn’t think we’d be able to stick with the Kurds even if they enjoyed victories because their more powerful Arab and Turkish neighbors would eventually turn on them.

That is coming true now, but for a reason a lot different from what I anticipated. I did not expect an American president to simply give Turkey a green light to slaughter them. Fortunately, some people in the administration convinced Erdoğan to delay the ethnic cleansing that Trump so breezily approved, but that doesn’t seem like it will last.

In January, the Monthly also published a piece by Jonathan Dworkin called “Abandoning the Kurds Isn’t Realism. It’s Tragedy.” Dworkin is a doctor specializing in infectious diseases who has worked in Kurdish regions of Iraq and Syria going all the way back to Saddam Hussein’s brutal chemical weapons attack on Halabja in 1988. He has a familiarity and love for the Kurdish people that provides him with a perspective we ought to respect.

The United States deployed 2,000 soldiers to help the Kurds defeat ISIS in 2014, but that didn’t happen because of an eagerness to intervene. It happened when President Obama realized it was the only way to defeat ISIS—and that there was only one reliable group with which the Americans could partner…

…Trump’s sudden retreat caused a wave of resignations by the people around him, most notably James Mattis, his secretary of defense. That was followed by surviving officials, like Vice President Mike Pence, struggling to explain the new reality. Defending the rapid turnabout required callousness and amnesia in equal measure. Just three months before Trump announced his Syria pullout, he said of the Kurds: “We have to help them. I want to help them … they fought with us. They died with us.”

There is a dreadful human cost to this sellout. Unless the Kurds’ autonomy is protected, our former allies will be forced to choose between a future in which one of two dictators effectively control their part of Syria: Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan or Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. Their best bet, if they want to avoid a repeat of the Turkish army’s Afrin ethnic cleansing in March, is to accept the embrace of Assad, a man who uses chemical weapons and is busy emptying his jails with mass murder.

Dworkin also pointed out in that piece that the Kurdish regions have served as a haven for refugees, especially religious minorities, throughout the sectarian civil war in the region, including the rule of ISIS. This is one of the only things that has put a check on the migration crisis that has roiled Europe’s politics and given rise to a revival of fascistic right-wing politics there.

Back at the beginning of the year, there was enough pushback against Trump’s endorsement of a Turkish invasion to cause a delay. That resistance has since crumbled. The New York Times reports on Monday morning:

In a major shift in United States military policy in Syria, the White House said on Sunday that President Trump had given his endorsement for a Turkish military operation that would sweep away American-backed Kurdish forces near the border in Syria.

Turkey considers the Kurdish fighters to be a terrorist insurgency, and has long sought to end American support for the group. But the Kurdish group, known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, or S.D.F., has been the United States’ most reliable partner in fighting the Islamic State in a strategic corner of northern Syria…

…“Turkey will soon be moving forward with its long-planned operation into Northern Syria,” the White House said in a statement released just before 11 p.m. in Washington. “The United States Armed Forces will not support or be involved in the operation, and United States forces, having defeated the ISIS territorial ‘Caliphate,’ will no longer be in the immediate area.”

This is the fulfillment of my worst nightmare. In 2014, I opposed using the Kurds as proxies because, “I didn’t think we’d be able to stick with the Kurds even if they enjoyed victories because their more powerful Arab and Turkish neighbors would eventually turn on them.” In other words, I couldn’t support using the Kurds in a cynical way even if it made military sense in the short run. I was unwilling to accept the risk that one day we would sell them out and allow them to be slaughtered not by ISIS but by our allies.

I knew there would eventually be tremendous pressure on us to allow the destruction of any power or territory the Kurds gained, and I wasn’t confident that any American president would resist that pressure. If I had known in 2014 that Donald Trump would become our president, I would have been even more emphatic in my doubts.

Many American foreign policy hands are concerned that ISIS is reconstituting itself and that America’s footprint in Syria is too small. They feel like the Turkish invasion will exacerbate this problem. I don’t dismiss their warnings, but my primary objection here is moral rather than strategic. It’s simply wrong to turn on the Kurds like this after all they have done and sacrificed. We can list out all the potential consequences we can think of, but at the root, this is an unnecessary betrayal. It’s not a policy that has a lot of genuine support even within Trump’s government. It appears to be based on little more than our president’s bizarre affinity for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

This will be a black stain on America’s record. Nothing will erase it.

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Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at ProgressPond.com