The way you frame a question can shape the answer you’ll get.
On October 6, 2019, the US removed its troops from the Kurdish region of northeast Syria, clearing the way for the Turkish invasion of the region that followed three days later. Trump’s decision was born of a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Since that time, debate has raged over whether Trump should have pulled the troops or stayed to protect the Kurds, who had allied with America in the fight against the Islamic State.
Contrary to congressional objections, the decision to withdraw US troops from Syria is not only correct but long overdue. However, it is not correct to frame the decision as a dichotomy between leaving Syria or protecting the Kurds. That misleading way of framing the question has shaped the distorted debate.
It is not obvious that either of the disjuncts of the decision is true. It is neither obvious that Trump intended to leave Syria at this precise time nor that the withdrawal was incompatible with protecting the Kurds.
The original October 6 White House statement did not mention leaving Syria: it said only that when Turkey began its invasion of northern Syria, "The United States Armed Forces . . . will no longer be in the immediate area." The original order was not to leave Syria, and the troops were not originally ordered home: they were, as Middle East expert and professor of politics and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of San Francisco Stephen Zunes has reported, "removed from the border area where Turkish forces are now attacking . . . and . . . simply being redeployed elsewhere in northeastern Syria."
As the redeployment – and the story – evolved, US troops were still not coming home, though, technically, they were now leaving Syria. But not really. Defense Secretary Mark Esper clarified that the US troops in Syria would redeploy, simply inching just across the Syrian-Iraqi border from where they could still conveniently stage missions into Syria. The decision to actually lift US troops out of the general area and the fight in Syria came only after Iraq refused to host them.
The evolving statements make clear that the intent was not to leave Syria at the time but to pull back to permit a Turkish invasion of the Kurds. That decision was made in full knowledge that the redeployment would facilitate the Turkish invasion. The October 6 White House statement expressed clear knowledge that "Turkey will soon be moving forward with its long-planned operation into Northern Syria." It added, just for clarity, that "The United States Armed Forces will not . . . be involved in the operation" because they "will no longer be in the area." Trump knew that Turkey would invade the Kurds, and he pulled back to make it possible. If there was any doubt that Trump knew his redeployment was an abandonment of the Kurds, his most recent statement obliterates it: "We fought with them for three and a half to four years. We never agreed to protect the Kurds for the rest of their lives. Where’s an agreement that said we have to stay in the Middle East for the rest of humanity, for the rest of civilization to protect the Kurds?" No where. But leaving Syria didn’t necessitate betraying the Kurds.
The second disjunct is no more obvious than the first. Leaving Syria did not necessitate abandoning America’s Kurdish allies. The US could have left Syria, but left it in a condition that protected the Kurds. Contrary to the way the question is framed, there is no dilemma in Syria: the US can satisfy both disjuncts by engineering a diplomatic solution that protects the Kurds prior to pulling out. It never had to be one or the other. The Kurds certainly seem to have thought the US had promised to protect them before they went home. Kurdish officials insist that the US "promised they would not withdraw U.S. forces until a political settlement was in place to secure their future in the Syrian political system." The US could have negotiated a settlement with willing partners or imposed a settlement on an unwilling Turkey by withholding arms from the country it provided $3.7 billion worth of weapons between 2011 and 2018. Stephen Zunes has pointed out that "A more effective deterrent than simply keeping US troops in Syria would be for Washington to make clear to the Turks that the United States will suspend all arms transfers and strategic cooperation with Turkey if it moves any more troops into Syrian territory." Leaving Syria and protecting the Kurds would have been consistent if the US had as fully engaged in the diplomatic arena as they did in the military one.
But they didn’t. And the Turks rolled into Kurdish territory as Trump promised they would, leading a Kurdish general to cry, "You have given up on us. You are leaving us to be slaughtered.”
That is not the first such cry of the Kurds. Only a year and a half ago, as America watched Turkey invade and bomb Afrin and the surrounding Kurdish villages into "mounds of smashed masonry," senior Kurdish politician Aldar Khalil cried out that the US “should meet their obligations toward this force that participated with them.” “How can they stand by and watch?” he asked.
But that too was not the first such Kurdish cry. In March of 1975, the desperate Kurds begged the CIA: “Our people’s fate in unprecedented danger. Complete destruction hanging over our head. No explanation for all this. We appeal you and US government intervene according to your promises.”
The promise to which they were referring this time was the American promise to support the Kurds if they would provide the troops for a covert action against Iraq.
In the 1970’s, Iran and Iraq were quarreling over border disputes. In the hope of keeping the Iraqis preoccupied, the Shah offered money and arms to the Kurds to fight Iraq. But the Kurds didn’t trust the Shah and made their acceptance conditional upon an American guarantee that Iran would not cut the lifeline to the Kurdish uprising. Against the counsel of the CIA and the State Department, Kissinger and Nixon traveled to Tehran and gave that guarantee. Nixon signed off on the covert operation on August 1, 1972, and Kissinger made the arrangements for the covert CIA war. The support took the form of $5 million and weapons, but by the next year, Kissinger had backed, and Nixon had approved, US aid that would eventually reach over $20 million dollars and more than 1,250 tons of weapons and munitions.
Three years later, America broke its promise and betrayed the Kurds. The Kurdish uprising was stalling, and the Shah, who was providing even more money than the Americans, was not willing to provide the military support the Kurds needed. So, he negotiated a border settlement with Iraq that gave up the Kurds: Iraq gave Iran territory and Iran ended support for the Kurds. It was Kissinger – one of the guarantors of the promise to support the Kurds–who hammered out the agreement between the Shah and Iraq and abandoned the Kurds.
The States cut off aid and arms and Iraq slaughtered perhaps as many as 182,000 Kurds. Kurdish leader, Mullah Mustapha Brazani cried out to Kissinger that "We feel . . . the United States has a moral and political responsibility toward our people who have committed themselves to your country’s policy.”
Kissinger never answered, though, according to CIA expert John Prados, his station chief in Tehran had argued that he should and gave him options. Kissinger abandoned the Kurds with the famous reminder that “Covert action should not be confused with missionary work.”
Years later, in 1991, at the end of first Gulf War, the Kurds would be asked by the US to rise up against Saddam Hussein a second time. This time, the request came from the CIA. And, again, despite assurances of support, the Kurds were abandoned by the Americans. And, again, thousands of them died in Saddam’s retaliation, and tens of thousands were forced to flee. The very helicopter gunships that pounded the Kurds were deliberately left out of the ban the US placed on Iraqi military aircraft.
But even that wasn’t the first cry. The first cry came a hundred years ago. In 1920, the map drawn by the Treaty of Sevres included an autonomous Kurdish region of Turkey and allowed for a referendum on independence within a year. But the Kurds quickly lost their territory back to Ataturk and the Turks, and the international community abandoned them. In 1923, the Treaty of Sevres was replaced by the Treaty of Lausanne, which entirely ignored the Kurds: the US supported the new treaty. The Turks found themselves in the vulnerable position they are in now, scattered across Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq.
Since those several American betrayals and Kurdish cries, the Kurds have been attacked, bombed, gassed and assaulted with chemical weapons: with the full knowledge of the US.
Leaked cables reveal a picture of US cooperation with the Turks against the Kurds. A 2004 embassy cable promises Turkey "that the US would reinvigorate . . . discussions of the [Kurdish] issue" and lists “significant efforts the USG [US government] is undertaking to ameliorate the PKK [Kurdistan Workers Party] threat.” It boasts that their efforts have led to successful COIN [counterinsurgency] operations."
A leaked 2007 cable promises Turkey "’actionable intelligence’ to use against the PKK." With the help of that intelligence, "Turkish forces have launched targeted air and ground strikes against PKK camps and other facilities. . . ." The cable concludes with the sinister line, “They have expressed satisfaction with their results.”
With this hundred year history of broken promises, abandonment and betrayal, it is no surprise that the Kurds feared American betrayal this time. A year ago, growing ever more nervous that the US would betray and abandon them, the Kurds opened back channels to Syria and Russia as an insurance policy against US betrayal. This wariness of America, taking out of insurance policies, and flexibility in allegiances was one hundred years in the making and came only after the many cries of the Kurds.
Ted Snider writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.