The North Syria Debacle as Seen by One Trump Voter

As I write (10/22/19) the pause or cease-fire in Northern Syria is more or less holding. No one has a clear idea of what will follow it. We will know today or tomorrow, in all likelihood.

On October 12th 2019, Pres. Trump suddenly removed a handful of American forces in northern Syria that had served as a tripwire against invasion. The handful also had the capacity to call in air strikes, a reasonable form of dissuasion.

Within hours began an invasion of Kurdish areas of Syria by the second largest army in Europe, and the third in the Middle East. Ethnic cleansing was its main express purpose. Pres Erdogan of Turkey vowed to empty a strip of territory along its northern border to settle in what he described as Syrian (Arab) refugees. This means expelling under threat of force towns, villages, and houses that had been occupied by Kurds from living memory and longer. This means installing on that strip of territories unrelated people with no history there, no housing, no services, and no way to make a living. Erdogan’s plan is to secure his southern border by installing there a permanent giant refugee camp.

Mr Trump declared that he had taken this drastic measure in fulfillment of his (three-year old) campaign promise to remove troops from the region. To my knowledge, he did not explain why it was necessary to remove this tiny number of American military personnel at that very moment, or in such haste.

Myself, most Democrats, and a large number of Republican office holders object strongly to the decision. Most important for me is the simplistic idea that

the US should not betray its companions-at-arms. I think it’s terrible for our collective morale. I think it’s undoubtedly dangerous because it tells allies, potential allies, and enemies that America lacks staying power. That’s a good reason in itself to try another Pearl Harbor.

I deplore further that decision because it leaves uncertain the durability of our joint victory against the savages of ISIS. The Kurds who guarded something like 10,000 ISIS prisoners may or may not be replaced by Turks or others in good time. Surely the handing down of responsibility between hostile forces can’t go completely smoothly. That barbaric organization, ISIS, executed at least three Americans innocent of any hostile acts against it. It did it publicly, on video, with a knife. It proffered explicit threats against the US. It should not have been that hard to remember why we don’t like them in return. They burned prisoners alive in cages, they drowned others, also in cages. They took thousands of Yazidi and other non-Muslim women into sexual slavery. Hundreds of Yazidi women are still unaccounted for. The ISIS leadership provided clear moral and theological justifications for such treatment of civilians. ISIS is as close to the Black Plague as we have seen since Nazism.

The American abandonment of the Syrian Kurds drove the latter into the arms of “gas-them-all” Assad of Syria. That’s the hereditary dictator who initially faced a peaceful democratic revolt in 2010-2011. The US became involved with a broad consensus to run him out. We lost. That simple. I don’t blame the Syrian Kurds for their new alliance. They had warned that they would chose anything before annihilation. I would do the same. Anyone sane would do the same. It was predictable.

The American abandonment also drove the Syrian Kurds into the arms of the Russians. That must be really good for our national interest (whatever it is)!

Conservatives, and especially libertarians (of all stripes), have advanced excuses (explanations?) for the disconcerting Trump action on that border. Below are some of those justifications. Tell me if I missed one.

The Kurds are not saints.

First, this is mind boggling and deeply original. Nobody said you must only be fair with saints. Second, it’s relatively not true. In a region of boundless savagery, the Kurds appear relatively civilized. As I have said elsewhere, lining up all-female military units is not nothing in that context.

The Syrian Kurds were not really our allies.

They just helped us a little destroy ISIS. No big deal! The Syrian Kurds lost 10,000 people in that fight; we lost a dozen. This must count for something. No?

Any alliance with any Kurds is an incomparable source of endless war for America. They will never be satisfied until they have a sovereign state of their own.

This idea results from a confused amalgam. Protecting the few Syrian Kurds, specifically, from an attack by a powerful murderous neighbor in no way implies espousing the grand Kurd national project across the borders of several countries. You can tell our theoretical ally Turkey, “Don’t attack those particular Kurds or else,” without signifying anything at all about the grand project.

The Syrian Kurds are terrorists (from Pres. Erdogan).

I have been watching and listening carefully. Not a piece of evidence was produced in support. The allegation seems to rest entirely on that the main Syrian Kurdish organization ‘s political alliance with the Turkish Kurd PKK. Not enough for me.

The Syrian Kurds’ main organization is Communist (or communist).

Does this assertion even have a meaning in 2019? What kind of Commies are they, like the Cubans, like the amazingly successful managers of that exemplary fascist state, China, like the North Korean nightmare from yesteryear? In the context of the reactionary and barbarous Middle East, “Communist” means mostly being in favor of girls’ education. What if they take over and nationalize some meager petroleum resources in their area? That will make them even with moderate, reasonable orderly, certainly not Communist Kuwait. What else will they nationalize, apricot orchards? I have met Communists in another Muslim country. I found that I had more in common with them than with anyone else. (And, I am not Communist, I am pretty sure!)

But the Syrian Kurds are not our allies, Turkey is.

Sure thing; that’s what the NATO treaty says. The Kurds die with us (much more than we did. See above.) Erdogan’s Turkey, by contrast, is a permanent ball-and-chain. I am told there is no formal mechanism to exclude a NATO member. That shouldn’t be enough to paralyze us. Let Turkey drift until such time as the rational forces within regain the upper-hand. I refer to the kind of people who recently administered a big defeat at the polls to Mr Erdogan in the matter of Istanbul’s city government. Also, I recall that there was a time when the murderous Soviet Union was formally a US ally. Didn’t have to last forever. It did not.

We never promised to protect the Kurds (Pres. Trump).

Sure thing and there are elementary standards of decency based partly on reciprocity that everyone understands, even in the uncivilized Middle East.

Yes, it’s true that Mr Trump campaigned in part on the promise to stop American participation in those “endless wars” abroad where we regularly lose track of American interests. I understand well the revulsion against the artless attempt to rebuild Iraq from the ground up after a war that the US could have avoided. I even sort of understand the desire to cut and run after failing to eliminate the same Taliban in Afghanistan who sheltered our assassins.

Does this fatigue of war mean that we have to remove our all-volunteer forces from everywhere, right now? How about South Korea where we have been present military for fifty years? Everyone understands that the fewer than 30,000 American personnel there could not fight the huge and well trained North Korean Armed forces to a standstill. Everyone knows that they are only a small adjunct to the large and competent yet insufficient South Korean forces. The strategic bet is that any one of the mad North Korean leaders would hesitate to attack American forces, specifically. The second page of the Americans’ role in South Korea is that they are able to call in airstrike of devastating effectiveness. This calculation has worked well for fifty year and through three different mad leaders.

I am not even completely sure I understand the American interest in South Korea. Should we cut out there too? (We have a treaty but it takes a few days to denounce it.) In the end, long standing American resolve on the Korean peninsula gave us peace.

And if he is bent on bringing the American military home, why did Pres. Trump recently send American military personnel to Saudi Arabia with which we have no treaty?

Abandoning the Syrian Kurds was treacherous. It was dishonorable. It was stupid.

Two disclaimers.

In my travels, I found no one easier to like than Turks. (I even wrote a story celebrating them: “Turkish Savagery”)

Like many or most people of libertarian leanings (and many readers of Notes On Liberty), I believe that military operations abroad, even a mere military presence, reinforce the power of government vis-à-vis civil society. Even simply maintaining a standing army has this effect. This belief is not enough though to make me think that black is white or that the clear evidence of my eyes ought to be ignored. Government can only shrink where a democratic society acts more or less according to basic standards of honesty. Otherwise, Somalia and Libya are closest to any libertarian dream.

9 thoughts on “The North Syria Debacle as Seen by One Trump Voter

  1. This author has been misinformed by all the usual suspects. Thanks to one of the worst medias in the world (America’s) he gets reality near backwards.

    The US should never have been companion in arms with this terrorist organization. It was sold as a marriage of convenience and it is no longer convenient to anger our ally Turkey, the strongest nation in the region.

    The anxiety over ISIS prisoners is a joke. According to Secretary Esper 100 ISIS prisoners escaped, according to the Russians ~500. Many of the camps were not in Turkey’s area of operations. Then ask yourself what kind of fanatic lets himself be taken prisoner. The question is rhetorical. The vast majority of these ISIS members are women and children. This argument was always a bunch of BS packed in a Ziploc bag and tossed around the fake news.

    Ethnic cleansing was never the purpose of the Turks. Repatriating refugees to a region that was once majority Arab (before the YPG appropriated their homes in the chaos of war) is a far cry from ethnic cleansing. This claim is fake news.

    Not only is the YPG not an angelic organization, they are terrorists that have just in the last few weeks indiscriminately targeted Turkish civilians with mortar fire, killing 20 Turkish civilians IN TURKEY. They also launched a suicide attack killing several in one of the cities Turkey is clearing. The YPG is not separate from the PKK because the physical people in the uniforms are not different. US volunteers in Syria confirm that among those the fought with, many were not Syrian but from Turkey. The YPG commander himself was an operations lead for a terrorist cell in Turkey. Every neocon that has seen the evidence (including Graham) has been forced to admit on television that the YPG and PKK are the same organization. Insistence that they are not is just wilful ignorance. Plenty of fake reporters reporting fake news are more than happy to engage in that though.

    Communism is a real thing and it really means to kill millions (again). All that has happened is the murderous party apparatchiks found a way to get personally rich (PRC), just ask the people of Hong Kong. All those university professors that said communism was just misunderstood were again peddling fake crap. You apparently bought it. Reagan-Bush failed to win the cold war, we know that now. Tiananmen was a defeat of great consequence that saved this evil project.

    75% of Turkey’s population and 4 of the 5 parties in the parliament all backed the Turkish attack on the YPG. That includes the new mayors of Istanbul and Ankara. Waiting around for “more rational actors” means waiting around for the neocons in Washington to get out of dodge.

    We actually did promise to protect South Korea just like we did Turkey (BTW the South Koreans love the Turks). I dont know why this is hard to understand. We are legally obligated to protect allies, including Turkey, against third parties (including the YPG). You are on the wrong side of US treaty, enshrined as law.

    • Jaybles: Your first supposition is false. I am not a prisoner of the American media. My first language is French and I follow midEast affairs in French every day. There are millions of Arabic speakers in France, A subset of those are well educated, a subset of this subset are able to deal with midEast brands of Arabic. Not suprisingly, the standard French media cover the midEast more broadly and in greater depth than do the American media. Incidentally, it’s not obvious why you would call the American media the worst in the world. On an average week I consult the media of several countries, in three languages. The American media braodly defined compare well. And, of course, like every educated person in the US, I look into some British media often.

      Further, you fault me for being generally misinformed and then, quickly sow confusion on the matter of ISIS prisoners. You seem to conflate imprisoned fighters with their separately interned families. (It’s some of the latter that broke out a couple of days ago. )

      You ask rhetorically what kind of fanatic lets himseelf be taken prisoner. The answer is a discouraged, hungry, sick , cornered fanatic with wives and children nearby. (In WWII, even SS surrendered.) The other answer is that there are fanatics who are fanatical enough to blow up strangers and to cut off their heads with a sword but not fanatical enough to die a miserable death in abject defeat.

      The information you provide about the Syran Kurdish YPG is potentially interesting and it may be a valid response to my claim that I have seen nothing demonstrating it’s a terrorist organization. It’s worth my attention and that of readers if I/we know the source(s). I am open minded about this although it does not address my main point: Abandoning today your comrades-in-arms of yesterday is dishonarable and dangerous. That’s true even if you make the mistake of having become comrades with a terrorist organization in the first place.

      I don’t belong to the imaginary set of professors you said that communism was misnuderstood. I hated communism with a passion. I wrote about it. abundantly. Hating communism nowadays seems to me a waste of energy. It’s a spent force. The only economically successful Communist Party is not controlling anything like any imaginable version of comunism. China is a successful fascist (corporatist) state. (Incidentally, I wrote at length about communism on my blog,

      “…75%….” is neither a moral nor a geopolitical argument (even if it’s’true which I doubt because it would have to include the Krudish parties) . I know from private conversations that otherwise rational and democratically inclined Turks lose it when it comes to Kurdish areas of Turkey. That’s how cognitive dissonance works.: We have been collectively imprisoning and mistreating a whole people for several centuries; yet, I am a good man; ergo, they must be bad. The mutual inlfiction of atrocities also contributes.

      Of course, you are correct that I am on the wrong side of US treaties. I said it myself. I only brought up Korea to underscore the absurdity of a pretend-removal of America troops from everywhere and to make more concrete the idea of a military tripwire. If there ever was an “endless war,” it’s in the Korean peninsula. Incidentally, I am in favor of staying put there too.

    • I think there are some misunderstandings reflected in your evaluation of the situation. To fully reply, we’d have to go back to the drawing of the modern boundaries of the states in the area and the problems created by Sykes-Picot, the promises made to the Kurds in the treaty of Sevres and the creation of modern Turkey out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire. If the Kurdish nationalists turned to Marxism-Leninism for their ideological inspiration, it was at least in part because the Soviet Union was the only one who took up their cause during the Cold War. The root problem is you have a people who have been the victims of repression in every state. The PKK, is indeed, anything but an angelic organization, having engaged in bombings, forced conscription, assasinations: but the Turkish State has also been anything but angelic, and in fact, acts worse than the PKK. Add to this Erdogan’s support for various Islamicist movements in Syria and his own version of “soft” Islamicism, the result is that this move strengthens the various Islamicist groups in Syria and makes the resolution of the entire situation in Syria more difficult. The YPG is in fact an organization whose ideology is Marxist, which makes their alliance with us a bit odd-it’s hard to understand CIA agents training Marxist guerillas. But as such, the YPG was the only genuine secular group fighting Assad, and there were very effective against ISIS. When you put this into context, there is certainly a lot of space to criticize the way in which we got into Syria at all in the first place. Given the current situation however, simply withdrawing forces who were already acting as a buffer and stabilizer, then greenlighting an invasion and ethnic cleansing, then suddenly opposing it, only adds to the instability. The way to get US forces out of Syria in entirety is to find a comprehensive peace plan for Syria that gets all foreign actors out of Syria. A purely transactional approach to foreign policy is actually not realistic or in our interests.

    • I thank you for the histry lesson but I am quite sure one does not need to know much history to think that betraying comrades-in-arms is dishonorable and dangerous.

      Sorry to sound churlish but I resist systematically any suggestions that things are more complciated than they seem. Very often, they are not. The insistence on brining into the judgment set every possibly related fact is a contribution to the habitual paralysis of intellectuals.

  2. Jacques,

    There are three questions that I would like to put to every critic of the president’s decision. First, how long are we to spend in Syria protecting the Kurds, and how many bodies shall we spend doing so? Two years, 20 bodies? Ten years, 50 bodies? Twenty years, 100 bodies? Thirty years? Fifty? Until the Kurds can defend themselves? Until the Middle East becomes a region of friendly democracies? We’ve been in Central Asia for twenty years now, we’ve been in Germany for seventy. How long in Syria? Maybe until the Kurds reach a deal which Assad…which they won’t do as long as they are protected by the Americans? Ask every commenter, every former general, every foreign politician, and every last twitter user. How long, how many?

    Second, I feel sorry for the Kurds. I do. But I feel sorry for a lot of people. I feel sorry for the Rohingya. It is not an overstatement to say they are in danger of attempted genocide. Should we put troops on the ground to protect them? The Boxer Amphibious Ready Group is in the Philippine Sea now. They could be in the Bay of Bengal in a week offloading 1200 marines. It will unquestionably save innocent lives. Much of the world would applaud it. Is that something we should do? What about the South Sudanese? I feel sorry for the Venezuelan people, shall we land troops there to alleviate their suffering? I feel sorry for the Uighurs, and for gay men in Belarus. And so my second question is, if we are morally compelled to help the Kurds, why aren’t we similarly compelled to help these others, most of whom would leap at the chance to fight by our side if we did so?

    We helped the Kurds fight ISIS, and they helped us fight ISIS. This was a mutually beneficial arrangement. I do not believe it compels us to remain in Syria to guard them from every danger functionally forever. I keep hearing that we “made promises to the Kurds.” Now this is a different matter. If we made promises, then we are compelled to honor them. But I have never been able to run down exactly what these promises were. And I have searched. This is not the first online debate on this subject in which I have engaged. None of those other commenters that I have asked have ever been able to point me to an answer. If you can point me to any cite that answers that question I would be sincerely grateful. What were these promises and from where did they come…State, DoD, CIA, the White House, CENTCOM, a staffer, an ambassador, SOF…who? So the third question that I would put to all of the president’s critics re Syria is, exactly what promises were made, by whom were they made, and when were they made?

    Beyond those three questions, I will add that anyone who claims to have been surprised by this move is lying, not paying attention, or very, very stupid. I might have barely been able to buy this coming as a surprise to observers the last time the president ordered an immediate withdrawal from Syria. At that time his staff argued him out of it, saying (again) they needed time to work out the details and they really mean it this time, and then doing nothing (again), apparently hoping to wear the president down or that he would just forget. Everyone should have spent the last six months getting ready for this.

  3. I am very very stupid.

    Please, don’t use me to address other commentators who have disappointed you. I am only responsible for what I say. Tough enough.

    1 Give the Kurds of Syria a deadline: After such and such a time you are on your own. It certainly would have to be more than a year. Support them with weapons as long as they don’t do anything at gross variance with anounced US policy. Implying a kind of neat reciprocity between the Syrian Kurds and us in fighting ISIS is strange. The disparity in blood shed counts for something, in my book, for a lot but that’s subjective, of course. It’s also a matter of honr. I think nations have honor which serve the same functions as it does for individuals.

    2 I said nothing about feeling sorry for the Syrian Kurds. It’s all in your head or part of a discussion you are having with someone else.

    3 I said nothing about promises. You utterly fail to address my clear arguments: It’s dishonorable; it’s bad for us because it encourages enemies and discourages potential allies.

    Having to remain militarily present abroad is another argument. I think it’s often the lesser of several evils, irrespective of general American fatigue. Korea is a case in point. Cutting out is often – not always – an infantile, self-indulgent action. The fact that you mention seventy years of American presence in Germany suggests confusion. I don’t think there is American personnel in Germany mainly to protect the Germans. We have useful American military bases in Germany. How useful, I don’t know. It’s above my pay grade.

    • Jacque, I believe you misunderstood me. I was actually replying to Jaybles and Robert Rodrigues to make the point that a purely transactional, ahistorical approach to situation in Syria does not lead to positive outcomes for anyone. Though I have long been critical of our presence in Syria, I do not support Trump’s decision and I do not support an abrupt and unplanned exit.

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