Opinion | Morgan Liddick: Pulling out of Syria a real error
On Your Right
OK, this is a real error: Never mind the frustration of never quite getting the job done. Look past the cost, both in blood and treasure. Forget the whole “promises made, promises kept” thing. American forces should not have been pulled out of northern Syria so that Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was freed to send in the Turkish army to butcher Kurds. Kurds, we should remember, who were our allies in the task of dismembering the Islamic State in Syria. Now we have — there’s no nice way to say this — left them in the lurch.
This abandonment will affect our ability to work toward favorable outcomes throughout the region. It is, from first to last, a bad decision.
To be fair, the problem the administration faced in northern Syria was not of its own making. Its modern iteration goes back to the joint decision by the British and French to carve the moribund Ottoman Empire up like a Christmas turkey following its defeat in World War I. In Paris and London, cartographers and politicians got out maps and rulers and went to town creating mandatory territories, protectorates, puppet states and dependencies.
But some people — Kurds, Yazidis, Assyrians and the like — got nothing. To the first, this rankled. Kurds had lived in the interior of the region, in the highlands and the Tigris-Euphrates watershed, for a very long time. But as empires washed over them — the Umayyads and Abbasids, the Seljuks, Persians and Ottomans — the Kurds never had a state of their own. They requested one, and they had their supporters, but it never happened.
As the wave of national statism washed over the Middle East — making Shi’ites, Sunnis, Khawarjis and Druze into Iranians, Iraqis and Turks, Omanis, Lebanese and others — the Kurds were left to their own devices in states they didn’t create and in which they were forever minorities. From the 1950s forward, they fought with, and were used as proxies by, Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran. Their relationship with Turkey was particularly fraught, since they occupied territory on both sides of that country’s border with most of its neighbors.
Following the collapse of Saddam’s totalitarian state, Iraqi Kurds formed a semi-autonomous republic in the north of the country that was, for the region, relatively enlightened, open and Western-oriented. The rise of al-Qaida in Iraq, and eventually of the Islamic State, plunged their region into war — one reason they were eager to join the anti-Islamic State alliance and to do more than their share of dying in the fighting to eradicate that evil in Iraq.
Syria’s Kurds were instrumental to the Islamic State’s defeat as well but they were far more problematic partners. Not only was their leadership authoritarian, it was avowedly Communist. It was also affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a far-left group named as a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union. Since the 1970s, they have been conducting terror operations inside Turkey, which has responded with several armed incursions into Syria.
A complicating factor in our alliance of convenience with the Kurds against the Islamic State group was President Barack Obama’s cultivation of Turkey’s president Erdoğan, with whom he had what he called a “bond of trust.” Erdoğan is a Turkish politician with a soft spot for Islamists and bitter hatred for the Kurds, regardless of their utility in keeping the Islamic State from Turkey’s border. He was willing to bide his time while the Islamic State was a problem, but now he is unrestrained. Which creates serious problems.
Erdoğan sent the Turkish army into northern Syria to extirpate the Kurds there; evidently, his plans include settling the newly vacant areas with conservative Arabs loyal to Ankara,a move likely to be appreciated in Turkey, but which is fraught with the danger of creating conditions for a resurgence of the Islamic State. It also presents dangers for us, since it is widely believed that President Donald Trump’s order for U.S. forces in northern Syria to stand down gave the “nod, nod, wink, wink,” which the Turkish president took for an OK to invade his neighbor.
It now appears that we have abandoned our ally of convenience in the name of keeping a campaign promise — not a healthy thing in the world of foreign policy. As the stories of atrocities spread, America will be associated with them. And if fighting heats up enough, Syria’s allies Iran and Russia will be pulled in, pitting a NATO ally against them in a war with Trump’s name on it.
Morgan Liddick’s column “On Your Right” publishes Tuesdays in the Summit Daily News. Liddick spent 27 years working for the U.S. Foreign Service, primarily living abroad. He also spent 12 years teaching U.S. history and Western civilization at community colleges in Colorado and Texas. He lived in Summit County as recently as 2015. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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