America abandons the Kurds

Tom Stevenson

Turkey’s incursion into northern Syria has displaced tens of thousands of civilians, most of them Syrian Kurds. As with the Turkish army’s forays into Jarabulus in August 2016 and Afrin in March 2018, its reliance on Syrian Arab militias for the assault has not lessened the impression of vengeful marauding. (Many of the militias were once supported by the United States and Britain in their abortive attempt to bring down Bashar al-Assad.) As before, there are multiple accusations of war crimes. The difference this time is that the incursion and its consequences for the Syrian Kurds have clearly been tacitly authorised by the United States.

The US used the Syrian arm of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in the fight against Islamic State, and gave the impression it would provide protection for an autonomous Kurdish statelet in return. But once IS was defeated, the US always planned to leave the Kurds to fend for themselves.

The faction of DC analysts that wanted an indefinite US deployment in Syria are professing outrage; they see the debacle as evidence that Trump is allowing a decline in American influence and prestige. But the US retreat was if anything overdue. Washington came to terms with the continuance of Assad’s rule under Obama. Robert Ford, a former US ambassador to Syria, predicted a withdrawal in November 2017. Trump threatened to pull US forces out last December, but was talked down at the last minute by advisers who warned that IS may return. That fear remains but with IS militarily defeated a withdrawal was inevitable.

The Kurds must have suspected that the US never intended to stay the course. (Is it betrayal if you know from the beginning that deception is guaranteed?) On 16 October, the US marked its departure in dramatic fashion when it blew up its base at the Lafarge cement complex south of Kobane. In this context, Trump’s absurd letter to Erdogan, the temporary US sanctions on Turkey, Mike Pence’s visit to Ankara and the paper-thin ‘ceasefire deal’ counted for little: an off-key flourish from a departing band.

Whatever horrors are currently unfolding in northern Syria, they are unlikely to match the massacres and destruction the Turkish army wreaked in 2015 and 2016 when it tried to crush the PKK in Turkey’s own Kurdish provinces. At least 4000 people were killed. The historic centre of Diyarbakir was gutted. The entire city of Sirnak was levelled. In Cizre, the Turkish army slaughtered 178 people who had taken shelter in the basements of three blocks of flats. Those crimes have already been largely forgotten.

Turkey’s ability to impose its ugly designs on the predominantly Kurdish borderlands is limited. The dominant foreign power in Syria is Russia, and Putin and Assad have their own ideas about the future of the Syria-Turkey border. Erdoğan travels to Sochi tomorrow for talks. The most likely outcome is a negotiated return of Russian and Syrian government forces to the border. They have already taken control of the Kobane crossing.

The Rojava project, a quasi state of confederated communes operating under the noses of the Turkish, Syrian and Iraqi governments, was always a fragile undertaking. The chaos of the civil war and the enticements of the US gave the PKK the impression it could fulfil its aspirations. Syria’s Kurds may have hoped for a longer period of US protection to establish a defensible polity. Now they must press their claim with Damascus and Moscow.


  • 22 October 2019 at 1:13am
    Graucho says:
    The conclusion that the populace will draw is that if you are smart enough to ally yourself with the Russians as Assad with Putin, they will stick by you. If you are foolish enough to ally yourself with the Americans, they won't. Israel aside that is.

    • 22 October 2019 at 5:31pm
      Bernard Newland says: @ Graucho
      Being distrustful of Trump, he owes his election as POTUS to Russian interference in the US 2016 presidential election. I know it sounds insane to even think that this tweeted action by Trump was payback. But we live in insane times. Russia is the major long term beneficiary.

  • 22 October 2019 at 5:46pm
    markg56 says:
    "The Kurds must have suspected that the US never intended to stay the course. (Is it betrayal if you know from the beginning that deception is guaranteed?)"

    Pretty dumb rhetorical question.

    Firstly, because suspecting something is entirely different from knowing it. Secondly, because, as you later put it, "the enticements of the US gave the PKK the impression it could fulfil its aspirations." In other words, they gave the Kurds something to hope for.

    So yes, of *course* it is a fucking betrayal.

  • 22 October 2019 at 6:58pm
    Patricia Harmanci says:
    Would love for you to comment/write on the role of Western Europe in Syrian peace talks. Why must the U.S. stand alone in Syrian affairs?

  • 22 October 2019 at 7:05pm
    BrianBruise says:
    There are no good guys anymore. The neo-imperial powers, the US, the UK, France, Germany and Russia are run by and in the interests of their respective oligarchs; such interests including massive amounts of arms sales to anyone who will buy them. The "locals", Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the Emirates, are full-fledged theocracies and/or dictatorships, and Israel is, well, Israel and has nukes.The Kurds are composed of numerous factions with differing aspirations who lost one tiny chance at a homeland after WWI when the victors divided up the Ottoman Empire. Canada and various middling EU countries are merely following orders from the big boys. It seems, if you can sort it out amid the confusion and propaganda, supporting the lesser of many evils is the best we can do. Instead of joining the commentariat on sites like this, we might better spend our time raising funds to provide winter clothing for the millions of stranded refugees.

  • 22 October 2019 at 8:27pm
    kynolover says:
    I suspect Erdogan recognized after Trump was elected that given the alliance between the Kurds and Americans, the road to the obliteration of the Rojava rump state by Turks lay through Russia. Hence the warming of Turkish-Russian relations, especially economically. Turkey's purchase of the Russian missile air defense system and nuclear power plant construction contracts with Russia are perhaps the most valuable consideration Russia has received from Turkey, despite that Erdogan surely knew those transactions would draw strong criticism and mistrust in the US. But Erdogan was willing to pay those financial and diplomatic costs since he wanted a friendlier relationship with the man who would be in charge of controlling and supervising Syrian Kurds, Vladimir Putin, once they had been abandoned by the US.

    Moreover, Erdogan knew there would be little, if any, political cost to pay from pissing off the Americans. For anti-Americanism seems to be at an unprecedented high level among Turks since the attempted coup, if not earlier, even among secular, liberal Turks. And Erdogan knows from past experience that nationalism is such a powerful, virulent force in Turkey, any negative political fallout from his upsetting its American and other NATO allies would quickly dissipate once he unleashed the Turkish war-dogs on the Syrian Kurds.

    Now that Erdogan appears he'll be getting what he bargained for with Putin, he will surely find it more challenging to manipulate and outwit his new putative Russian friend than it was with the witless Trump. In fact, now that Putin is calling the shots in northern Syria, Russia may acquired more influence if not indirect control over the Bosporus than it was able to gain in its hapless and not-so-hapless wars against the Ottoman Turks.

    My hope, admittedly farfetched, is that these two ruthless, demagogic autocrats will have a falling out soon and that as a result Syrian Kurds will be able to rebuild their Rojava autonomous state, but this time under Russian protection. As Groucho rightly suggests, the Ruskies will be more reliable than us treacherous Americans (which isn't saying a lot).

  • 22 October 2019 at 10:58pm
    William Jordan says:
    Two things about Americans to remember: we forget what we’re doing and we wring our hands over lost friends (exception was the Vietnamese who were moved to a reopened Army Post in Arkansas for resettlement then integrated into American life and livelihoods fairly seamlessly. The Hmong in Laos, the main combatants of the Secret War didn’t fare as well or integrate into the American fabric as smoothly, but now the third generation seems to be adapting better even though they obviously miss their beloved, sacred mountains.
    One problem for the Kurds will always be the rough neighborhoods they came from: Turkey, Iran, Syria, Iraq with a few I saw in northern Afghanistan a half century ago. It would seem the EU and North America could broker a homeland for them in northern Iraq and perhaps somewhere along the Wakkan corridor or Panshirjh Valley. They deserve something much better than they have now.

  • 22 October 2019 at 11:16pm
    eric d. meyer says:
    Jon Schwarz has recently listed eight times the US has betrayed the Kurds over the past one hundred or so years. (The Intercept, October 7, 2019) The most recent betrayal was after the Persian Gulf War in 1991, when a US/CIA-backed radio station in Saudi Arabia broadcast messages to the Shiites and Kurds to rise up against Saddam Hussein. But when the Shiites and Kurds rose up, they were slaughtered. And the US did nothing... And so in April 2002, when CIA chief John R. Maguire and a SAD/SOG paramilitary team crossed from Turkey into Iraqi Kurdistan to meet with Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani to recruit them for the 2003 Iraq War, the Kurds were skeptical. "Is this real? Is the president serious?" they asked. Maguire swore: "We're really serious. This is not going to be some half-baked effort." And besides: "The president (George W. Bush) is a man of his word." (Cited in Issikoff and Corn, Hubris, 10.) The CIA agents, of course, knew they were lying. But did the Kurds? They had no choice but to believe the CIA, just as after the rise of ISIS, they had no choice but to take President Obama's word that when ISIS was defeated, the US wouldn't just cut and run, leaving the Kurds to be crushed between the Turkish and Syrian armies. Without the support of a Western-style NATO-type or Russian-backed military power, the Kurdish peshmerga, despite their guerrilla fighting skills, are no match for even a middle-weight adversary. And since the Security Council could not reach agreement on a UN peacekeeping mission, the Kurds had no choice but to trust US again. And be betrayed again. And again. And again... And yes, Virginia. It is a betrayal. Or betrayals. Because despite the fact that US Presidents Bush and Obama, like their CIA henchmen, knew they were lying, the Kurds had no choice but to believe them, or to be bulldozed out of the way, when the US invasion of Iraq, the Syrian attack on Idlib, or the Turkish attack on Rojava, began. And this will go on, until there is a sovereign state of Kurdistan, recognized by the UN, the US, and the EU as a sovereign state, with a sufficiently sophisticated military and security apparatus to defend itself against those who want to crush it. With the help of the UN, the US, and the EU, of course...

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