By Brandon Heiblum
"I could have prevented this calamity which befell my people, had I not fully believed in the promise of America.” -Mustafa Barzani
The Trump Administration has announced a major shift in United States military policy, withdrawing troops from Northern Syria and endorsing a Turkish invasion of the region that will devastate Kurdish forces. The Syrian Democratic Forces, or S.D.F., which these Kurdish forces are part of, have long been the U.S.’s most reliable partner in the fight against the Islamic State. Turkey, however, sees the S.D.F. as a terrorist insurgency linked to Kurds in Turkey who seek independent sovereignty. Turkey has long oppressed and mistreated its ethnic Kurdish minority but had been constrained from conducting major operations against Kurdish fighters by U.S. pressure. The decision to end this pressure and abandon the Kurds came despite the objections of top Pentagon and State Department officials and surprised members of Congress and global allies. Worse, the Trump Administration did not forewarn the S.D.F., who reacted to the betrayal with shock and outrage. “The Americans are traitors,” one Kurdish official told NBC News. “Stabbed in the back,” said another.
While this is certainly not the first time that U.S. policy has failed the Kurds, Trump’s unilateral withdrawal presents particularly disastrous potential consequences, including the geopolitical bolstering of Iran and Russia, human rights abuses, future uncertainty in U.S. reliability, Kurdish strategic realignment with Assad’s brutal regime, and most severely, the resurgence of the Islamic State. This is not merely theoretical, and the Times of Israel reports that Turkish forces have already begun operations and that Kurdish deaths have already been recorded. This paper will contextualize the Kurdish struggle and their important role in the Syrian Civil War, detail the dire consequences of policy change, and present the responses of various relevant actors.
The Kurds are the fourth largest ethnic group in the Middle East and whose population of between 25 and 35 million is concentrated between Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Armenia. Following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, nationalists were elated by the inclusion of a provision calling for a Kurdish state by the Western Allied Powers in the 1920 Treaty of Sevres. The provision was nullified, however, three years later by the Treaty of Lausanne, which set the modern borders of Turkey. Since then, the Kurds have struggled for independence and autonomy in their respective countries. These countries, however, have resisted and repressed such activity to brutal effect.
In Iraq, Saddam Hussein had long antagonized the Kurds, and after the US pulled out from protection commitments in the 1970’s, the Iraqi military decimated Kurdish communities. As a result, the name of Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State at the time, “is known, and reviled, by nearly every Kurd.” A Kurdish leader wrote years later to President Jimmy Carter “I could have prevented this calamity which befell my people, had I not fully believed in the promise of America.” In 1988, Hussein initiated the Anfal Campaign, which saw the reprehensible genocide of Iraqi Kurds and was the first time a government used chemical weapons on its own people. Iraqi soldiers were ordered to bomb the Kurds indiscriminately, in order to kill the largest number of persons present,” and told to execute any prisoners between the ages of 15 and 70. In Iran, Amnesty International has documented widespread discrimation against the Kurdish minority in the areas of housing, employment, culture, and education. In Turkey, the Kurdish struggle is most pronounced due to a powerful independence movement that began after the creation of the PKK, a leftist Kurdistan Workers Party, which began to violently agitate for a state. Even as they embraced non-violence, Turkey has violently repressed the movement, arresting and censoring activists.
The Kurds are by no means a homogenous group, but many of the leading political parties and militias adhere to a generally secular, leftist, anti-hierarchical philosophy. The PKK, for instance, employs an anti-capitalist, Democratic federalist strategy that centers feminism and was developed by guerilla-leader Abdullah Ocalan. Ocalan is currently imprisoned on a Turkish island called Imrali after his death sentence was commuted following Turkey’s 2002 abolition of the death penalty in a bid to join the European Union. The autonomous enclave of Rojava in Northern Syria is a fascinating polity, centering libertarian-socialism, environmental sustainability, direct democracy, gender equality, secularism, and tolerance.
During the Syrian civil war, Turkey has attempted to paint both the Kurds and the jihadist Islamic State with the same broad brush of “terrorism.” However, once Turkey announced it was ostensibly joining the fight against the IS in 2015, it actually directed the bulk of its airstrikes against Kurdish forces. This bolstered the Islamic State, and should be condemned as not only misguided but cruel.
Syrian Kurds have played a large role in Syria’s civil war, and the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, have successfully repelled the Islamic State since 2013. Iraqi Kurds sent their armed wing, called the Peshmerga forces, to positions that the Iraqi Army abandoned in 2014, preventing The Islamic State from fully conquering Iraq. In late 2017, the SDF Kurdish coalition was responsible for capturing the Islamic State’s de facto capital of Raqqa, the group’s last major hold in Syria. Over the last two years, the Kurds have been disproportionately responsible for dealing with captured IS jihadists and their families, which has been a costly and dangerous task. Consistently, Kurdish forces have played a central role in fighting the most pressing evils gripping the Middle East. They have spilled blood and they have sacrificed their future, yet their allies consistently mistreat them.
Facing a Turkish offensive, Kurdish forces will be forced to shift their strategy in Northern Syria. That could bring massive uncertainty in the status of up to 10,000 Islamic State prisoners of war in makeshift prisons operated by the Kurds. In order to survive, they may have to abandon those prisons to take up defensive positions against Turkey, even as such prisons have developed into hotbeds of terrorist ideology. In the worst case, many of these prisoners could escape and rejoin terror groups. Even in better cases, though, Turkey, Syria, Russia, or Iran could take control of the prisoners, which they could use as leverage in various arenas and negotiations.
A greater focus on Turkey also necessitates less focus on fighting resurgent IS fighters who are still active in the area. This, tragically, benefits the despotic Islamic State by fracturing their most effective enemies. Despite characteristically Trumpist boasts to the contrary, the Pentagon and the Intelligence Community assert the presence of thousands of Islamic State fighters still in the area. The Kurds may be forced to align more closely with brutal dictator Bashar al-Assad, Putin’s Russia, or Iran’s Revolutionary Guard for want of regional support.
Turkey seeks to establish a 20-mile deep “safe zone” into Syria, without Kurdish presence, and where they hope to resettle up to 2 million Syrian refugees currently residing in Turkey.
Trump’s Conflicts of Interest
One of the most worrying aspects of Trump’s decision to withdraw from Northern Syria is the uncertainty over his motives, and almost any investigative avenue leads to perilous conclusions. A now-viral 2012 tweet from Ivanka Trump thanks Turkish president Erdogan for joining in on a celebration for Istanbul’s new Trump Tower. In fact, Trump himself acknowledges this impropriety, although mostly to brag about it. During a 2015 interview with a Breitbart Radio show, Trump said of Turkey “I have a little conflict of interest ’cause I have a major, major building in Istanbul. It’s a tremendously successful job. It’s called Trump Towers—two towers, instead of one, not the usual one, it’s two.” Now in control of America’s foreign policy, Trump hands Turkey the geopolitical equivalent of a Christmas gift.
A second possibility centers on Trump’s cozy relationship to Russian leader Vladimir Putin, which has been at the center of U.S. politics since more than a dozen intelligence agencies concluded that Russia had actively interfered in the 2016 election in order to help elect Trump. Trump has refuted this, despite copious amounts of evidence to his contrary, stating after a two-hour meeting in 2018 between the two that "President Putin says it's not Russia. I don't see any reason why it would be." That same summer, the Washington Post reports that according to aides, after US and UK intelligence officials blamed Russia for a nerve-gas attack on English soil, Trump argued with then-Prime Minister for over 10 minutes, asserting his doubt in Russian guilt. Consistently, Trump fawns over Russia’s repressive leader, once even proudly admitting “If he says great things about me, I'm going to say great things about him,” as if childish narcissism was a wholesome building block of democratic leadership. Many of Trump’s unilateral foreign policy decisions disproportionately and incomprehensibly benefit Russia, and this most recent betrayal of the Kurds is certainly no exception.
A third possibility is simpler: Erdogan, a brutal and repressive dictator, is precisely the kind of world leader that Trump reveres, a pattern made abundantly clear by his fawning over other murderous regimes. To illustrate this pattern, some juxtaposition:
North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un: "If the American imperialists provoke us a bit, we will not hesitate to slap them with a pre-emptive nuclear strike. The United States must choose! It's up to you whether the nation called the United States exists on this planet or not."
Trump, speaking about Kim: “we would go back and forth. And then we fell in love. No really. He wrote me beautiful letters. They were great letters. And then we fell in love."
The Phillipines Rodrigo Duterte: "Just because you're a journalist, you are not exempted from assassination, if you're a son of a bitch," and a second quote for emphasis, "Forget the laws on human rights. If I make it to the presidential palace, I will do just what I did as mayor. You drug pushers, hold-up men and do-nothings, you better go out. Because I'd kill you. I'll dump all of you into Manila Bay, and fatten all the fish there."
Trump, speaking about Duterte: “I just wanted to congratulate you because I am hearing of the unbelievable job on the drug problem.”
It should also be noted, to further emphasize a pattern of conflicting interests that should already be abundantly clear in this era of blatant self-enrichment, that Trump recently built a tower in Manila, and that Duterte appointed the businessman who developed the building as Special Envoy to the U.S.
Even if none of these theories carry true explanatory power and Trump is acting against the advice of the military, his advisers, and our allies out of his own uninfluenced will, that they are plausible and are part of a well-defined pattern illustrates the crisis of today’s American foreign policy.
Even Trump’s most obsequious sycophants, Senator Lindsay Graham chief among them, levied sharp criticism of the move. Trump, notably, had not been on the receiving end of Republican indignation for past infractions like sexual assault or the courting of foreign election interference, both things he has admitted to doing on tape, but seemingly the betrayal of key allies crosses the line. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said in a statement: “A precipitous withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria would only benefit Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime. And it would increase the risk that ISIS and other terrorist groups regroup.” Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi went on record saying “This decision poses a dire threat to regional security and stability, and sends a dangerous message to Iran and Russia, as well as our allies, that the United States is no longer a trusted partner.”
The Kurds themselves did not hold back strong words. “Turkey's unprovoked attack on our areas will have a negative impact on our fight against [IS] and the stability and peace we have created in the region in the recent years," the SDF warned on 7 October. "We are determined to defend our land at all costs."
French, British, and German officials expressed immediate concern that the move places into question the status of captured jihadists and risks the resurgence of regional terrorism. Trump had not forewarned these key European allies, who were surprised and disappointed.
There is a tendency among observers of today’s political absurdity to paint Donald Trump as an aberration; an uncomfortable but temporary detour in an otherwise acceptable trajectory in the American project. Although he may be unmatched in his ignorant, shameless narcissism and although he has successfully corroded vital institutions, American Foreign Policy has long been shameless, and many of those institutions have long suffered from severe corrosion. American presidents have before betrayed allies, and future ones are certain to as well. Nonetheless, this most recent betrayal of the Kurds is an embarrassment and deserves intense scrutiny, further clouding what had already been a foggy future in Syria and in the Middle East more broadly. This does not matter to Donald Trump, because nothing matters to the leader of the free world except for, of course, himself.
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