Kurdish, Syrian, and Turkish Ironies

Turkish soldiers stand near military trucks in the village of Yabisa near the Turkish-Syrian border in Syria, October 12, 2019. (Khalil Ashawi/Reuters)Critics now upset about abandoning our Kurdish friends demanded abject withdrawals — and the abandonment of friends — in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Outrage met Donald Trump’s supposedly rash decision to pull back U.S. troops from possible confrontational zones between our Kurdish friends in Syria and Recep Erdogan’s expeditionary forces.

Turkey claims that it will punish the Syrian Kurds for a variety of supposed provocations, including aiding and abetting Kurdish terrorist separatists inside Turkey. But what they say they can so easily do and what they really can do inside Syria are, of course, two different things.

A Noble People

Most Americans in general favor the Kurds and oppose the Turks. Aside from Israel, Kurds are about the only American allies in the Middle East who predictably fight alongside our troops against Islamists, theocrats, and Baathists. They admire Americans, and for the most part they do not indulge in the normal anti-American histrionics. They despise ISIS as much we do and are on the front lines combatting ISIS atrocities.

Skeptics might suggest that they do so mostly for self-interested reasons. But all people do that. And what is unusual about the Kurds of Iraq and Syria is the number of times they have risked their lives in battle alongside our own soldiers. For that alone, they deserve special American dispensations and should not be left to the vagaries of Turkish or Russian air power or any combined Turkish, Syrian, Islamist, or Iranian cynical alliance.

Like the Poles, the Armenians, the Greeks, and the Israelis, the Kurds are an honorable, ancient, and brave people who drew history’s unfortunate lot of living in a dangerous geography between much larger and aggressive nations. And, to be frank, all these endangered peoples at some point in their histories, ancient and modern or both, seem to have fought against Turkish forces, been targeted by them, or threatened by Ankara.

So, yes, it is incumbent on the Trump administration in general and on Secretary Pompeo in particular to find ways to prevent mass Turkish attacks on the Kurds, while not inserting American ground troops into a cauldron of fire between Turks and Kurds. That effort will require a great deal of skill and deftness that are weirdly forgotten in the current bipartisan exclamations of “We sold out the Kurds!” — given the labyrinth of paradoxes that surround Turkey, Syria, Kurds, and the U.S. and the lack of information about the actual redeployment of American troops.

The chief problem is that the Kurds are our friends but not our legal allies. In contrast, the Turks are not really our friends anymore but are legal, treaty-bound allies.

No doubt depressed Americans at this point would in theory gladly substitute weaker but more loyal Kurds for stronger and more strategically important but fickle Turks as de facto American allies. Turkey, remember, is also holding the foreign policy of the European Union hostage, as it threatens to open the floodgates of Middle East and African refugees inside Turkey into Europe should the EU lecture Turkey too much or cut off its blackmail money. And for that matter, Ankara in theory can also hold 50 or so American nukes likely based on Turkish soil as well.

Turkey, our Frenemy

More ironies abound. Many of the critics demanding that we restrain our NATO ally Turkey are precisely the same who have damned Trump for undermining the NATO alliance by loudly reprimanding allies for not keeping their promises of military contributions. Yet an American presence in between the Kurdish and Turkish trajectories may not necessarily serve as a successful deterrent to violence given our present limited deployment. If all Trump has done for now is to remove a few dozen Americans from a “trip wire” deployment between the two belligerents, he can hardly have “sold out” the Kurds.

Otherwise, our presence in the firing line could raise the specter that we’d either refuse our Article V (collective defense) commitments to Turkey that Erdogan might cynically invoke in a larger war in Syria, or we’d find ourselves actually killing Turks to save Kurds. Either of these scenarios is theoretically quite possible, and both would be far more injurious to the spirit and cohesion of the presently composed NATO alliance than asking Germany and its followers to pony up the contributions that they had long promised.

As I understand the present outrage, the logic goes like this: It is a sellout to leave the Kurds vulnerable to the Turks, and it undermines our noble promises and our credibility in a way that ignoring our ignoble, legal commitments to Turkey do not. That may be a legitimate assumption that we all would like to embrace, but it is not yet the policy of the United States.

Also, there are Kurds — and then there are Kurds. Given the century of broken promises about the birthing of a Kurdish super state of some 30 million, the Kurds now compose minority populations in Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, among other smaller countries. The agendas of these disparate groups, again in lieu of an independent Kurdistan, are not uniform; they range from advocacy of free markets and consensual government to authoritarian Communism and Islamism.

These sometime disparate factions, to varying degrees, can employ both honorable methods of resistance and occasional abject terrorism against both our Turkish allies and our Iranian enemies. In other words, as minorities that form less than 25 percent of the population of their four host nations, 30 million Kurds are diverse groups that do what they think they must to survive. Their survival strategies do not always assure compliance with U.S. anti-terrorist protocols. Our allied Syrian Kurds of the YPG in Syria, for instance, are also affiliated with the Kurdish PKK inside Turkey — a group that has often committed terrorist attacks on Turkish civilians and authorities.

Then there is the matter of Turkish forces entering the circular shooting arena of Syria, where they will at times be opposed by — and then in league with — a coalition of Iranians, Hezbollah, Syrians, and Kurds with Russians looking to pile on after they see who gets the upper hand. Who believes that the Turks will have an easy time entering Syria, pushing out Kurds, and then establishing and occupying a border corridor to resettle millions of refugees currently on Turkish soil or in Turkish hands? All of that seems a multibillion-dollar, multiyear, multi-casualty undertaking for a country currently in the economic doldrums.

Again, as a general rule, Never Trumpers and progressives are against anything that Trump is for, and they make the necessary ad hoc adjustments. They might have legitimate criticisms against Trump if he, as they accuse, simply flew off the handle in a call with the Turkish president and revoked established policies, and if he were now pulling all U.S. troops out of Syria.

Sunshine Supporters?

But that has not happened — at least yet. It may, or may not, given that we don’t know whether Trump, in art-of-the-deal fashion, was blustering about a radical solution in order to achieve a moderate compromise, or whether he put conditions on the Turkish incursion, or whether he is shifting around rather than removing American troops. For now, only a few American troops have been pulled back from the front-line battle zones, and fewer withdrawn from Syria.

But, again, more irony abounds. Those on the left now screaming about loyal allies, and the ignominy of selling out friends, had no problems abandoning the Vietnamese and Hmong to Communist retaliation. They have demanded abject withdrawals from both Afghanistan and Iraq, which could lead to slaughter in the former case, and actually did in the latter, by creating a void that birthed the mass-murdering ISIS in Iraq.

Many of our newfound Kurdish loyalists supported the Hillary Clinton–Barack Obama misadventure in Libya that bombed the reforming second-generation Qaddafi dynasty out of power in order to support the supposed idealists of the Arab Spring. Yet our air strikes only enhanced a murderous civil war in Libya. And when it got uglier, we fled the ensuing mess, leaving four dead Americans and those idealists, on whose behalf we had intervened, on their own against predatory and opportunistic Islamists whom we had empowered.

Another irony: If Donald Trump announced that he was going to send more troops to save the Kurds from the Turks, he would be immediately damned by his present leftist and Never Trump critics for tearing apart NATO and starting another undeclared Middle East war.

So, yes, let us protect Kurdish lives. But let’s also swear that if we do, we must acknowledge that in the distant miasma of the Middle East, the unexpected should be expected, and those who now support American front-line deployments with the Kurds must equally support the possibly messy, long-haul commitment in which both allies and enemies have at times embraced terrorism. And first, let us make a convincing argument for why a 20-year-old from Ohio should die in the badlands of Syria to keep our NATO ally Turkey from murdering our friends the Kurds. And, second, let’s offer a plan for how we may disengage from any possible war as easily as we engaged, given that no one in this case can define final victory as the likely easy defeat and quick retreat of Turkey.

Then there is the Trump 2016 campaign. It was based on a 90-percent Republican traditional agenda of lower taxes, smaller government, deregulation, more energy development, secure borders, and conservative judges and social policies. But among Trump’s signature orthodox GOP messages (delivered in an unorthodox style) were also his promises to secure the American border, call China to account, restore industry and manufacturing inside the U.S. — and avoid optional overseas engagements that failed the cost-benefit test for American interests.

Call that reluctance mercenary, cynical, cold-hearted, nationalistic, isolationist, anything you will. But do not claim that in October 2019 staying clear of the Middle East infighting is irrelevant to the Trump voter or that it was suddenly sprung on the American public.

This country has a regrettable record of presidential candidates campaigning for non-intervention, only to become interventionist once in office as commander in chief. In the post-war era, this dates back to Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 pledges not to go into Vietnam whole-hog. Barack Obama ran against Bush’s supposed war crimes and the futility of a preemptive war in Iraq, and then he compiled the greatest number of drone assassinations of any administration and waged a preemptive bombing campaign in Libya. George W. Bush in 2000 campaigned against Clinton’s nation-building in the Balkans, and then after 9/11 felt he had to do the same thing in the Middle East. And so on. The point is not that presidents should not react to changing circumstances, but that Trump for the most part has tried to do what he said he would do on the campaign trail.

The Realities of Protecting the Syrian Kurds

Any current critics calling for the use of American trip-wire soldiers to protect Kurds from the Turkish military — in the current stated mission to defeat ISIS and keep it defeated — should at least make the case that de facto fighting against Turkey means that it is therefore no longer a friend and should no longer be a NATO ally, and thus, in extremis, can be opposed militarily, and also that we can do without its geographic access and bases in the Middle East without harming ourselves or our interests. And note they should also assume that Turkey, out of spite, will release millions of refugees into Europe, and it will react to friction with Americans troops in Syria in who knows what fashion to their U.S. counterparts now stationed with nuclear weapons at Incirlik Air Base inside Turkey. Do we really wish to risk a shooting war with a NATO ally while 5,000 American airmen are inside its country equipped with 50 nuclear weapons?

Or barring that, they should at least argue that the current NATO roster is now becoming a farce, and Turkey’s membership in it a cruel joke — and we can therefore ignore all that when we like and as we please.

Something to Consider

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NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Case for Trump.

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