90 Miles From Tyranny : 10 Questions To Ask About Trump’s Removal Of Troops From Syria

Thursday, October 24, 2019

10 Questions To Ask About Trump’s Removal Of Troops From Syria

Trump’s critics appear to believe that backing a Marxist splinter group aligned with the anti-American, pro-Iranian axis in its war against a NATO ally is sound policy.

The U.S. foreign policy establishment has gone into meltdown mode since President Trump announced last week a withdrawal of several dozen troops from a corridor in northern Syria. American forces had been there since 2014, joined with a Kurdish splinter group to fight the notorious Sunni Arab terrorist organization, the Islamic State (ISIS).

Trump made his decision after a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, but it was a long time coming. The Turks have been critical of U.S. support for an armed Kurdish organization they have considered the country’s most serious national security threat for five years. Trump’s move then should be seen in the context of his efforts to undo Obama administration policies, particularly its initiative to tilt away from traditional U.S. allies, like Turkey, and toward the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The bipartisan anti-Trump din (amplified by prominent GOP lawmakers) denouncing the withdrawal has obscured not only Obama’s disastrous 2014 decision to team with a terrorist organization at war with a NATO member but also basic facts about the ongoing conflict, the region, and the significant actors. The following ten questions are designed to illuminate the central issues for U.S. policy.

1. Who Are ‘the Kurds’?

The Kurds are an ethnic minority spread across the Middle East, from Syria in the West, through Turkey and Iraq, to Iran in the east, and further divided into various political groupings. America’s longtime ally among the Kurds is the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq, comprising the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). The KRG’s Peshmerga militia has fought alongside U.S. troops in Iraq.

But the present uproar is about an entirely different Kurdish political institution, which the Obama administration tapped in 2014 to fight ISIS—that’s the Democratic Union Party (PYD) with its military wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG). This is the Syrian franchise of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Marxist outfit that has been at war with Turkey since 1984. The PKK is responsible for tens of thousands of deaths and is listed by the U.S. State Department, European Union, and Turkey as a terrorist organization.

After Obama administration officials counseled YPG leadership to camouflage the group’s roots in the PKK, they rebranded themselves as the Syrian Democratic Forces. The promise of U.S. arms and funds brought Arabs under the SDF banner, but the organization’s command structure is dominated by the PKK.

2. Why Does Erdogan Hate the Kurds?

Former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen recently told an audience in Chicago that “Turkey’s leadership, Erdogan in particular… would kill every Kurd they possibly could and they’d label them all PKK.”

That’s nonsense. Turkey has Kurdish partners, like the U.S.-allied KDP in northern Iraq. There are between 10 to 15 million Kurds living in Turkey, many of whom support Erdogan. Turks are divided along many lines—the urban middle-class, for instance, tends to support secular political parties, while more traditional Turks prefer Erdogan’s Islamist party—but are unified regarding the terrorist organization the Obama administration armed, trained, and funded, the PKK.

Most American commentators, including Mullen, seem unaware that Erdogan has done more than any other Turkish leader to seek peace with the PKK. When he embarked on a peace process with its leadership in 2012, he came under heavy criticism from the left and right. The ceasefire ended in 2015 when the PKK killed four Turkish policemen.

3. Don’t the Kurds Deserve Their Own State?

There are between 30 and 40 million Kurds in Western Asia inhabiting enclaves in Syria, Turkey, Iran, and Iraq. With the post-World War I dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, there were proposals for Kurdish statehood, but the reason there is no Kurdish state and will likely never be one is not due to the world’s indifference. Rather, it is because of geopolitics.

The Kurdish region as a whole (a.k.a Kurdistan) is land-locked with two major powers on its borders, Turkey and Iran. These former empires have dominated Middle Eastern politics for thousands of years and shaped those of the smaller ethnic groups and tribes around them, including the Kurds.

That’s partly why the Kurds, as a whole, do not have a coherent national project. Power politics demands that smaller polities orient themselves according to the larger powers in whose shadow they live. The less powerful seek patronage from the stronger, to protect themselves and to advance their interests against those of their closest rivals, often from their own community.

Thus, Kurdish factions typically align themselves with one or the other major regional power, Iran or Turkey. The KDP in Iraq, for instance, has ties to Turkey and its rival the PUK has ties to Iran, and fought each other in the mid-‘90s. The PKK’s Syrian franchise is suspected of assassinating Kurdish rivals and refuses a power-sharing arrangement similar to that of the Iraqi Kurds.

It is not the role of foreign governments, including the United States, to formulate a coherent national project on behalf of the Kurds, especially since it would require U.S. troops to enforce it against internal dissent and perhaps civil war, while redrawing regional borders to eliminate historical geopolitical entities, like Turkey.

Even U.S. support for a PKK mini-state in northern Syria would require a permanent U.S. deployment to protect it not only from Turkey but also Arab forces, while Kurdish terrorists chipped away at the geographical integrity and political sovereignty of a NATO member.

4. Does Trump’s Turn Against the PKK Make the U.S. an Unreliable Ally?

Sen. Mitt Romney and others say Trump betrayed the Kurds and thus shows that the United States can’t be trusted as an ally. That’s nonsense. There is no sub-state actor in the world that does not envy the PKK for the gifts Washington showered on it and dream they may someday enjoy the same munificence.

The world long ago accustomed itself to the fact that for all its fine rhetoric the United States, like every other country, pursues its own interests, often subject to the political winds governing the White House. Further, allies and adversaries alike know that no matter what the Americans say about staying the course, one day they will cross one ocean or the other to return home. The game is to get as much as possible from them before they leave.

In this respect, the PKK succeeded beyond its wildest dreams. President Obama, then Trump, armed and funded its efforts to carve out an autonomous zone in northern Syria, for the purpose of building a statelet on the Turkish border to serve as a platform for the group’s long-running war against Ankara. Trump’s withdrawal should now encourage the PKK to end its war and return to the peace process initiated by Erdogan.

5. Didn’t Trump’s Withdrawal help Russia, Iran, and Assad?

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