The Kurds are America’s most steadfast ally in the Muslim world. They fought beside us in Iraq–against Saddam Hussein, against al-Qaeda-allied Sunni extremists, and against Iran-allied Shi’ite extremists. They fought on our behalf against ISIS and were the key forces that destroyed their caliphate, at the cost of 11,000 casualties. They are currently fighting for American interests in Syria. So why are we betraying the Kurds?
Turkey fears that the Kurdish military forces so close to its border with Syria will fuel its own Kurdish separatist movement. So Turkish president Recep Erdogan called President Trump to inform him that he is planning a major incursion into Syria to attack the Kurds. Without consulting with the Pentagon, the State Department, or his own staff and to their surprise, President Trump obliged by ordering the removal of the 50 American military advisors embedded with the Kurds, thus clearing the way for the Turkish invasion.
Now that Turkish troops and planes are pouring over the border–and shelled an American observation post reportedly by mistake–President Trump has ordered the removal of the rest of the Americans in northern Syria, some 1000 in all.
Now other allies–including Israel--are worried that they may not be able to depend on American support after all. Military leaders are saying that the abandonment of the Kurds will hinder us from forming other alliances that we need in the struggle against Islamic extremism. And since our military men and women have a strong sense of honor, the withdrawal especially rankles. One of the Special Forces members who was pulled back said, “I am ashamed for the first time in my career.”
In defending his actions, President Trump dismissed our obligations to the Kurds. In a baffling comment, he said, “They didn’t help us in the second World War, they didn’t help us with Normandy for example.” Huh? They weren’t there for us in the War of 1812 either, but the obligation comes from how they helped us in Iraq and with ISIS. Actually, though, some Kurds, most of whom lived in the British Empire, did fight the Nazis during World War II. Turkey, though, fought on the side of Germany during World War I, but was neutral during World War II.But President Trump had better reasons. He wants to stop America’s involvement in “endless wars.” Which raises an important point. Why should we have gotten involved in Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Syria? If we are to pull out of those intractable conflicts–as Trump campaigned on and as Americans across the political spectrum now wish we would do–it’s going to be disruptive. Why should our troops get caught in the middle of an ethnic conflict that has been going on for centuries?
That’s a strong argument. But, unlike the case in Iraq and Afghanistan, we are not fighting a war in Syria. Though in a dangerous place, our troops are there to train and advise, not to engage in combat. They are also there to deter aggression, not just from Turkey but from Russia, which also has troops in Syria in support of the ruling dictator Bashar al-Assad.
Our troops are “in” lots of places–such as South Korea and Germany–but we are not fighting wars there. Our military presence is in support of our allies for defensive and deterrent purposes. It might well be prudent to pull back from at least some of these entanglements. But this should be done in an orderly and honorable manner, not at the behest of an invader we were supposed to be defending against. The closest parallel to what we have done to the Kurds would be if North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un were to call the American president to say that he is planning to attack Seoul, asking us to please withdraw our military forces to enable him to do so. Or Russian president Vladimir Putin asking us to pull out of Germany so that he can invade Europe. And we obediently comply.
UPDATE: Here is the danger for the United States: Turkey is a member of NATO. Under the terms of that treaty, an attack upon one member nation is an attack against all. Reportedly, the Syrian government (which all the rebel factions including the Kurds wants to overthrow) as supported by Russian troops will fight against the Turkish invasion. Erdogan had better get on the phone with Vladimir Putin, as he did with Trump, to ask if he could recall his troops. I suspect Putin will not be so agreeable. But if Syria attacks Turkey, NATO, including the U.S., would be obliged to go to war with Syria. (The Kurds have no nation of their own. They are an ethnic group scattered throughout Syria, Iran, Turkey, and Iraq, where they have a self-governing region.) And if Russia attacks Turkey, we would be obliged to go war with Russia.
The lesson of World War II is that appeasement in the name of peace does not result in peace, but in war. And the lesson of World War I is that small, apparently trivial beginnings–the assassination of an archduke; a phone call–can, because of treaties, alliances, and other global complexities–can result in a big war that nobody wants or expected.
Photo: Kurds and Americans from Kurdishstruggle [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)] via Wikimedia Commons