Everybody betrays the Kurds. It’s an old Middle Eastern tradition. But given Donald Trump’s reputation for treachery, it’s astonishing how bad he is at it.
This particular betrayal got underway early last week. After a telephone conversation with Turkey’s strongman president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Trump declared that he had started pulling American troops out of Syria. It’s time for U.S. forces “to get out of these ridiculous Endless Wars, many of them tribal,” he tweeted.
Did Trump realize that he was effectively giving Turkey permission to invade northern Syria and expel the Syrian Kurds from their homes? His own officials patiently explained that to him last December when he tried the same stunt for the first time, but maybe he forgot.
So they reminded him again, and by lunchtime last Monday, Trump had changed his tune a bit. “If Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey,” he tweeted.
But Trump did not explain exactly what was “off limits.” Did the Turkish president have a green light to invade northern Syria? Erdogan is going ahead with the operation anyway, assuming that Trump’s threats are just the usual empty belligerence and bluster. It’s a safe assumption.
Calling Trump “transactional” is just a polite way of saying that he has no long-term strategy at all. He doesn’t even understand that his adversaries often do have such strategies, so they run circles around him.
Erdogan’s strategy is quite clear. He said he is going to create a :safe zone” in northern Syria by driving the Kurdish “terrorists” out. It will be 300 miles long and 20 miles deep (slightly bigger than Connecticut), and in this strip just south of the Turkish border he will “resettle” 2 million Syrian Arabs, more than half of the Syrian refugees now living in Turkey.
But this plan sounds quite different when you translate it into plain English. The zone in question is already safe for the Kurdish people who live there and the Arab minority who live alongside them, because they defeated the Islamic State group extremists who were trying to conquer it. There are no terrorists there now.
The army that destroyed Islamic State group was an alliance between the Syrian Kurdish group called the YPG and some smaller Arab militias in the region. It fought in close alliance with the United States and lost more than ten thousand killed. (Only seven American soldiers were killed in action in Syria.) It has now restored peace throughout the area, and there were no attacks on Turkey at any point in the war.
Erdogan’s aim is to drive all the Kurds living within 20 miles of the border out of their homes and replace them with Arabic-speaking Syrian refugees. Almost all of those refugees will be from elsewhere in Syria, but they won’t get any choice in the matter either.
Why is Erdogan doing this? Because it will greatly shrink the number of Arab refugees in Turkey and because, having falsely portrayed the Syrian Kurds to his own supporters as a security threat, he can then claim credit for having solved the problem. It’s brutal and immoral, but it’s sound politics.
What can the Syrian Kurds do to save themselves? They will have a brief opportunity in the next week or two, after U.S. troops have left the “safe zone” and before the Turks have established control.
If the Syrian Kurds can hold off the Turks for a few days, and meanwhile invite Bashar al-Assad’s government in Damascus to reoccupy what is, after all, sovereign Syrian territory, the Turkish invasion might actually stall.
It would only work if the Russians are willing to back that strategy, which is doubtful. But the Syrian Kurds have almost certainly been talking to Damascus about this idea already, because they could see Trump’s betrayal coming a mile off.
The Kurds could probably still get a fairly good deal on local autonomy from Damascus at this point — and Assad, for all his faults, is much more likely to stick to a deal once he makes it than Trump is.
Gwynne Dyer’s new book is “Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work).”