The United States is pulling out of Northern Syria, having given absolutely no warning to the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces, who have played a pivotal role in the defeat of ISIL forces in Syria. Turkish forces stand poised to create a 30km deep “safe zone” in Northern Syria – and they will almost certainly do this by invading Northern Syria and driving out Kurdish forces. Trump’s move to pull forces out has drawn bipartisan criticism from hawks such as Lindsey Graham, as well as doves such as Bernie Sanders.
The Kurdish question is an incredibly vexing question for the United States. There is no doubt that the Kurds have been a very vital ally against ISIL – they have thousands of ISIL prisoners under their control, and have lost thousands of fighters driving ISIL out of Syria. On the other hand, the Turks – who view Kurdish forces as terrorists – have had a convoluted relationship with the United States. Turkey’s role in the Cold War cannot be understated – its presence between the Soviet Union and the Middle East greatly aided in preventing communist domination of the Middle East – but Turkey’s current government completely fails to uphold secularism or the virtues which Turkey was founded upon. Moreover, Russia isn’t the enemy it once was, and Turkey’s presence on the Black Sea does nothing to counter Russian cyber-aggression, nor to counter the main American threat in the People’s Republic of China.
Nations have no moral obligations to each other, or to the groups or proxies they support and fund. But they do have precedents – a nation which does not keep its word will have trouble garnering support for its initiatives on the global stage, or finding allies. The United States has had a long history of flip-flopping on Kurdish policies – sometimes to appease the American-backed Shah of Iran during the 1960s, and during the 2000s, to appease Istanbul. But does the US need to appease Istanbul?
Under my ideal foreign policy, Israel, along with a more secular and less anti-Kurdish Turkey, and an Egyptian secular dictatorship, would be our chief allies in the Middle East, and American-Iranian and Israeli-Iranian relations would be vastly improved over their current state. Make no mistake – Turkey’s location, along with its vast military makes it far too valuable as an ally to ignore. Naturally, America’s enemy would not be Assad or Khamenei, but Mohammed Bin Salman’s regime in Saudi Arabia, along with the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. Saudi money has been used to fuel radical Wahhabism across the Middle East, directly leading to the propagation of extremist groups from Mauritania to Mosul. 19 of the 23 9/11 hijackers originated in Saudi Arabia. America’s goal would be the ultimate defeat of the jihadist threat and the promotion of nationalistic secularism (rather than democracy or Islamic theocracy) across the Middle East.
Sadly, my ideal version of American policy in the Middle East is quite distant from the reality on the ground. America’s relationship with Saudi Arabia has never been stronger, and America is in total enmity with Iran. The American-Turkish relationship is murky, convoluted, and lukewarm and best. It is unlikely that this will change under the Trump administration, nor under a potential Biden (or another establishment Democrat) administration.
If the US has chosen Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt as its chief allies in the Middle East, there is simply no room for the Turks to be a major ally of the United States. Erdogan’s chief goal is to be viewed as the leader of the Islamic world – a goal obviously opposed by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The Kurds, meanwhile, are America’s best asset. They are an incredibly effective fighting force, having carved out a massive chunk of Northern Syria and Iraq as a home for the 40 million stateless Kurdish people. By in large, the Kurds respect human rights and secular values – at the very least, far more than the Saudis or Turks or Iranians.
The move to remove protections for the Kurds, therefore, makes no strategic sense. Thousands of ISIL prisoners, currently held by the Kurds, will likely be set loose to wreak havoc across the planet once more. America’s soft power will decrease, as America once more abandons a loyal and effective ally. Turkey will likely take its gains in Northern Syria – slaughtering innocent Kurds on the way – and then pivot back towards Russia, as it has been doing for the past several years. At the end of the day, the Levant will return to chaos, with Turkish-backed forces fighting against Assad for control over Northern Syria.
Trump has made a grave blunder in withdrawing American support for the Kurds. While the Kurds could put up an effective fight against the Turks – turning Northern Syria into a Turkish Vietnam – the success of January 2018’s Afrin operation renders chances of Kurdish success slim. Once more, America is condemning the Kurds to genocide and human rights abuses. Once more, America is blundering away a key ally in the fight against Islamic extremism. America’s mistake will not be forgotten, nor forgiven by the Kurds – and the world will be a less safe place because of it.