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.
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.