Color us, and much of the rest of the world, confused. President Donald Trump last week removed U.S. troops from northern Syria, abandoning our Kurdish allies, clearing the way for Turkey to invade the war-torn country and opening the door to a reemergence of the Islamic State.
The president justified the ill-advised withdrawal, which was announced just hours after Trump spoke by phone with Turkish President Recep Tyyip Erdogan, by arguing that Middle Eastern conflicts are so complicated and long-standing that it is futile for the United States to try to solve them. We agree with the president — to a point. While many conflicts in the Middle East have simmered for centuries and therefore defy simple or quick resolution, once the U.S. is involved, as we were in Syria, we cannot precipitously turn our back on our partners when they face imminent danger, even death.
Trump’s shaky rationale for pulling troops out of northern Syria was undermined later in the week when it was announced that 2,800 U.S. troops were being sent to Saudi Arabia — which, last we checked, is also in the Middle East — after an attack on the country’s oil facilities.
The Kurds are the fourth largest ethnic group in the Middle East, but they lack a home state and are instead spread from Iraq and Iran through Syria to Turkey and Armenia. Their defense forces in Syria, the Syrian Democratic Forces, are an important ally in the fight against ISIS. In northern Syria, the Kurds were working to institute a democratic society and to further women’s rights.
Saudi Arabia is run by an autocratic monarchy that has rolled back democratic reforms. Women’s rights are severely limited. The regime has been implicated in the grisly murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. It is worth noting that the Saudi royal family and Saudi lobbyists have spent lots of money at Trump properties in Washington, D.C., and New York. There is also a Trump Tower in Istanbul, Turkey.
Then there’s Trump’s claim that the U.S. was justified in abandoning the Kurds because “they didn’t help us with Normandy.” This is absurd — and historically inaccurate. There is no Kurdish state or government, and there wasn’t during World War II, so it was not possible for the Kurds to send troops or equipment to help America and its allies in the European fight. Saudi Arabia did not help the allies at Normandy, either.
The consequences of the departure of U.S. troops are already bad and likely to get worse. In recent days, Turkish armed forces have killed an unknown number of Kurdish fighters and civilians, even posting horrid videos of some killings. A top Kurdish politician and women’s rights leader was pulled from a vehicle and killed as she tried to flee the escalating violence.
Islamic State militants who had been imprisoned by the Kurds, are escaping from prisons and camps amid the Turkish incursion. Many are likely to rejoin ISIS, empowering the terrorist group that had been greatly weakened, in part because of U.S. involvement in the region.
The Kurds are likely to turn to Russia and the Syrian government for help in their fight against Turkey, which wants to clear the Kurds out of northern Syria so it can resettle refugees from the Syrian civil war there. Sanctions and tariffs that Trump said he may impose on Turkey won’t undo the damage done by the troop withdrawal. The Trump administration is right to call for a ceasefire but could have avoided this situation in the first place by not withdrawing troops.
Yes, the conflict is complex and long-standing, but it is already clear that abandoning the Kurds will haunt U.S. foreign policy and American interests for years to come.