Ishaan Tharoor: 'Incoherent move by president is just latest in a long tradition of US betrayals of the Kurds'
Already locked in a heated impeachment battle, President Donald Trump found a new way to upset Washington this week. The White House announced it would not impede an imminent Turkish invasion into north-eastern Syria. The US began withdrawing troops from the Syrian-Turkish border, where they had been stationed alongside US-allied Syrian Kurdish fighters. Within 24 hours, there were already reports of Turkish artillery shelling and airstrikes on Syrian Kurdish positions.
The moves followed a phone call between Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose government considers the main Syrian Kurdish faction that fought Isil to be as much of a danger as the Islamist militants themselves. That's because of their direct ties to the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, an outlawed separatist group in Turkey that's designated as a terrorist organisation by Washington and Ankara.
Erdogan and his government long resented the outsized influence of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the coalition of Kurdish-led militias that was instrumental in rolling back Isil, as well as the outside support they received from the US and other European partners.
No matter the thousands of lives lost by the SDF, Trump now appears to have given Erdogan what he wanted - an open invitation to weaken if not break Rojava (what Syrian Kurds call an enclave in northeastern Syria largely administered by the SDF) and potentially repopulate a belt of territory with Syrian refugees currently living in Turkey.
A definitive US withdrawal from northern Syria could have serious ramifications. If Turkey pursues a significant ground invasion, it would overrun SDF defences, fracture their fighting forces, compel a possible exodus of Syrian Kurdish refugees toward Iraq (a country that's hardly stable itself), and, as many security analysts fear, create enough of a security vacuum to pave the way for Isil's resurgence.
Many Trump allies expressed outrage with his decision. Nikki Haley, Trump's former ambassador to the UN, tweeted that leaving the Syrian Kurds "to die is a big mistake". Senator Lindsey Graham, who has carried water for Trump on almost all other fronts, warned that a Turkish foray into Syria would provoke sanctions from Congress and a move to suspend Ankara's participation in Nato.
Senate Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters that "a precipitous withdrawal of US forces from Syria would only benefit Russia, Iran" and the Syrian regime.
Trump predictably justified his actions not with a strategic vision for a troubled region, but campaign talking points. He told reporters on Monday that he was following through on what he "got elected on" - in this instance, disentangling the US from the Middle East's intractable conflicts. He said it was the responsibility of other countries, including Turkey, to deal with what's left behind.
For good measure, he threatened Ankara with crippling economic sanctions if the Turks did anything "outside of what we think is humane".
Whatever Trump thinks "inhumane" may mean, it was a far cry from the somewhat rambling remarks he made a year ago hailing the United States' Kurdish partners.
"We do get along great with the Kurds. We're trying to help them a lot," the president said then in response to a Kurdish journalist's question about US interests in Syria and Iraq after the defeat of [Isil].
"Don't forget, that's their territory. We have to help them... They fought with us. They died with us. They died. We lost tens of thousands of Kurds, died fighting [Isil]. They died for us and with us. And for themselves. They died for themselves. They're great people. And we have not forgotten. We don't forget."
The Middle East's largest stateless ethnic group, close to 40 million Kurds are scattered throughout Turkey and parts of Iran, Iraq and Syria. They are hardly a monolith; numerous political and factional divisions exist within Kurdish communities. But they all share a long history of frustrated national ambitions, punitive state violence and abandonment.
Betraying the Kurds is, at this point, an American tradition. In the early 1970s, as a favour to the shah of Iran, the administration of Richard Nixon helped foment a Kurdish uprising in Iraq. But once Baghdad and Tehran mended fences in 1975, the US turned its back on the insurrection, many of whose combatants were slaughtered or driven into exile. In 1991, President George HW Bush called on Iraqis to rise up against the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. But the US then stood by as Iraqi forces brutally crushed separate Kurdish and Iraqi Shi'ite rebellions.
What distinguishes the current Kurdish betrayal from earlier eras is its seeming strategic incoherence. Officials in the Pentagon and State Department voiced bewilderment over the president's tweeted announcements; reports suggested that neither the SDF nor other US coalition partners on the ground were given warning of Trump's decision.
Brett McGurk, Trump's former top diplomat in the war against Isil, savaged his ex-boss. "The value of an American handshake is depreciating," he said. "Trump today said we could 'crush [Isil] again' if it regenerated. With who? What allies would sign up? Who would fight on his assurances?" (© Washington Post)