Trump, Turkey, and the Syrian Kurds: Who Is the US Betraying?

On Thursday, Oct. 10, Turkish military forces mounted an invasion of northern Syria. This so-called incursion is not, however, targeting the Syrian government or their authoritarian president Bashar al-Assad but an ethnic minority group that occupies territory in several neighboring countries: the Kurds

YPG fighters in Northern Syria

The Kurds had been a valued and protected US ally in Syria and instrumental in the destruction of the Islamic State. That changed Sunday when, on a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Donald Trump agreed to pull out American military personnel who were deployed amongst the Kurds as a deterrent against Turkish aggression. The roughly 1000 American Troops had been stationed in Syria’s northern region to coordinate with and supply the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). This Kurdish military group took up arms against ISIS in Syria, proving pivotal to the eradication of the Caliphate, which was all but destroyed earlier this year.

Trump’s sudden withdrawal constitutes a betrayal of America’s SDF allies who agreed to partner with the U.S. against the Islamic State in exchange for protection from both the Assad government and from Turkey, who views the Kurdish minority within their borders as an internal threat. This is by no means an original story. In fact, by the count of Jon Schwarz at The Intercept, this is at least the 8th time the United States has betrayed their Kurdish allies under administrations on both sides of the aisle. 

George W. Bush sold out the Kurds in Iraq in 2007 to a prior round of bombings from Turkey. Before that, Bill Clinton actively armed the Turkish government as they engaged in ethnic cleansing of the Kurdish population inside their borders. This pattern of U.S. interventionism goes back to H.W. Bush, Nixon, all the way back to 1923 when the United States supported the Treaty of Lausanne which eliminated the chance for the establishment of Kurdistan — a sovereign state for Kurdish people. The U.S. government exploiting the Kurds when it is convenient and hanging them out to dry when it is strategic is nothing new. And if past is prologue, this modern incarnation may spell massive bloodshed and instability both in Syria and in the broader Middle East. 

Trump’s move on Sunday essentially declared to Erdoğan that the U.S. is not going to stand in the way of his offensive seize of Kurdish territory in Syria. However, President Trump has been unclear on his position. He unquestionably told Erdoğan he would remove the American troops while simultaneously tweeting a warning that Turkey’s economy would be at risk if they do anything he, “in [his] great and unmatched wisdom, [considers] to be off limits,” without any specifics regarding any actual deterrents from Turkish military action. 

Mostly stateless since the end of WWI and the end of the Ottoman Empire, the Kurdish population is spread out across an area that spans parts of Southern Turkey, Northern Syria and Iraq, and Western Iran. What results is a decentralized organization of armies and militia groups such as the YPG — the military component of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party — and SDF in Syria, as well as the PKK (Kurdish Workers Party) in Iraq and Turkey. It is the latter that has prompted the violent actions by Turkey. The Turkish government considers the PKK’s Kurdish separatist movement illegitimate and thus all violence to that end to be acts of terrorism. 

The SDF and the PKK see sizable overlap both in their membership and in their vision for an autonomous Kurdistan. Erdoğan’s Turkey obviously views this political project to be a threat to the nation’s sovereignty, and the currently unfolding incursion is the latest in a long line of attempts to end it. 

From the standpoint of democratic peace in the Middle East, a strong and autonomous Kurdish society — if not a fully independent Kurdistan — would actually be beneficial, however unlikely. The Kurdish population is multi-religious and generally governs in a secular and democratic fashion. The YPG/SDF, in particular, have also been the practitioners of a rare anarchist political experiment, operating on the principles of Democratic Confederalism, as conceived by American theorist Murray Bookchin and understood by now-imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan

Ali Khamenei meets Bashar al-Assad in Tehran 25 February, 2019

At the time of this publishing, The SDF has announced that they have made an agreement with the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad to allow Syrian troops to move into Kurdish territory to counteract Turkish forces. This shift in alliances by the SDF/YPG essentially eliminates them as an ally of the United States, and pulls them into the political orbit of Iran and Russia. 

Reports of civilian and combatant casualties are escalating, and in the chaos brought on by the violence hundreds of ISIS fighters and their families who had been being held prisoner by the Kurds have escaped custody. With no end in sight, this conflict is likely to worsen, and probability of more ISIS militants being reintroduced to the Syrian battlefield is growing. 

All of this blood and turmoil is in no small way on the hands of Donald Trump, who has betrayed the Kurds yet again, as well as destroyed any progress that had been accomplished against the caliphate of the Islamic State. Having lost so much in the Syrian war-theater, one wonders what, if anything, has been gained.

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