Donald Trump is withdrawing the American troops from northern Syria, where they had previously fought against ISIS and subsequently acted as a trip wire against a major Turkish attack on the Syrian Kurds. The withdrawal has been widely considered to give green light to a Turkish offensive on what it considers to be a terrorist force aiding Kurdish separatists across the border in south-eastern Anatolia. Bombing raids and artillery fire have already fallen within the 32-kilometre zone along the border that Turkey wants cleared of Kurdish forces.
Trump is nothing if not consistent in his hostility to open ended military engagements in far-away parts of the world. His position has always been that (with a few exceptions, like defeating ISIS) locals should solve their local problems without relying on the resources and blood of America the World Policeman.
Whatever the merits of his general approach, he is also wrong in this instance to abandon the Syrian Kurds. Not that there are any easy and costless solutions to the current conundrum.
The fight between Turkey and the Kurds pits two of America’s allies against each other. Turkey is a NATO member to whose defence, if ever attacked, the United States is committed by virtue of the North Atlantic Treaty. The problem is that since the end of the Cold War, Turkey has been a pretty lousy ally, at best taking a neutral position in all the US endeavours throughout the region. Under the Islamist leadership of President Erodgan, the country has also been progressively moving further away from being a secular democracy open towards the West. Erdogan’s Turkey is a spoiler rather than a friend.
The Kurds, next to the Israelis, are arguably the sanest and most pro-American population in the Middle East. In their aspiration for self-determination, they have been strong and genuine allies against all of the regional baddies, who tend to oppress them. Sadly, the Kurds have also been repeatedly betrayed and left to dangle in the breeze over the past fifty years. Most recently, of course, the Syrian Kurds played an instrumental role on the ground in vanquishing the ISIS Caliphate. The American withdrawal from Syria leaves them now fully exposed to Turkey’s wrath. For Turkey, because of its internal problems with own Kurdish population and the assistance they receive from brethren in neighbouring countries, the Kurds have always been the most pressing regional issue, much more important and threatening than Saddam Hussein, Assad father and son, or for that matter Al Qaeda and ISIS. Turkey can tolerate anyone and anything in its neighbourhood except a threat to its territorial integrity and central control.
In an ideal world there perhaps would be a demilitarised zone along the Syrian-Turkish border, protecting Turkey from any Kurdish incursions and the Kurds from any Turkish attacks. But the UN will not send peacekeepers to a country still technically at civil war and with the control of the territory uneasily divided between the central government, the remnants of the armed opposition, and the local Kurdish population. The question was whether the US forces would de facto play that role of human shields; Trump has now answered in the negative, his only continuing interest in that area being the effective confinement of ISIS prisoners (to the extent that he has now threatened Turkey with decimating its economy should its armed intervention result in jihadi dispersement – or anything else that Trump vaguely considers “off limits”).
To leave the US troops in Syria indefinitely might have indeed presented problems in the absence of clarifying their mission and objectives now that ISIS, the primary purpose for their presence there, has been dealt with. Were they to protect the Kurds from the Turks? What about from the ostensible victor of the civil war, the bloody President-dictator Assad, should he decide to reassert his control over the Kurdish areas of Syria? Unlike Russia, the US has largely stayed away from the active military involvement in the country as it has been tearing itself apart the past six years. Should it start now?
The Kurds have been promised their own homeland a hundred years ago in President Wilson’s Fourteen Point of post-WW1 settlement. Needless to say, they are still divided between several Middle Eastern states, none of them keen to cede what they consider their sovereign territory to satisfy the Kurdish desire for self-determination and statehood. The fact that this is unlikely to change – or be forced through – in a foreseeable future is one of the great tragedies and injustices in a region so bountiful in them. The Iraqi Kurds for all intents and purposes now enjoy an autonomy at the expense of the weak central government in Baghdad. With time they should combine with the Syrian Kurds, likewise taking advantage of Assad’s weakness, while it lasts. The best that the United States can do is to make sure that the Kurds are well armed and resourced so as to be able to better protect themselves from whoever next wants to suppress them. And as David Harsanyi writes:
If you want to stop Donald Trump from making unilateral decisions regarding war and peace, then stop letting all presidents make unilateral decisions about war and peace. It’s really quite simple. Trump can abruptly pull back U.S. troops from northern Syria because Congress, having abdicated its foreign policy responsibilities long ago, has no leverage to stop him.
It’s always easy to talk.