Trump said Erdogan will “eradicate” ISIS in Syria and praised the Turkish leader as “a man who can do it.
The Syrian war has become a global conflict involving not only Syria, but Russia, Turkey, Lebanon, Israel and most particularly, Iran. And despite US President Donald Trump’s announcement of “victory over ISIS,” the Islamic State has not been defeated, although much of its territory and thus oil revenues have been captured by Western and Kurdish forces. The road to the long-term degradation of ISIS runs through Kurdistan at the nexus of geopolitical forces generated by Ottomans, Persians and czarists. The United States should recognize Kurdistan as an essential component of regional politics.
The Alignment of Malign Powers
America’s long-term involvement in the Middle East was disrupted following the fall of the Shah of Iran and the rise of the Islamic Republic. For the subsequent four decades, the Mullahs have pursued the creation of a “Shi’ite Crescent” connecting Iran to the Mediterranean Sea. The “crescent” threatens America’s Sunni allies – Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Jordan and Egypt – all of which will fall under it.
More recently, Turkey, under Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has been pursuing the Sunni caliphate across some of those same lands.
For the time being, two historic rivals have been colluding with one another as well as with Qatar and Russia at the expense of the status-quo states and the United States. And the Kurds. Under Russia’s watchful eye, Turkey has been crushing the Kurds while ceding influence to Iran elsewhere in the region.
Kurdish aspirations for independence were overwhelmingly endorsed in the September 2017 referendum, conducted in a fashion consistent with the Iraqi constitution, but against the demands of the United States. The US ignored this fervent democratic expression of well-justified aspirations while siding with Baghdad (and Iran, Turkey and Russia).
The alleged Kurdish “overreach” was quickly punished, as Iranian-supported militias in Iraq were permitted to wrest control of Kirkuk and vast areas of Kurdistan from the Kurds, who had liberated those regions from the Islamic State. The Kurds were America’s only reliable regional military force.
Cantons taken from Kurds in northern Syria around Afrin have already been demographically changed by replacing Kurds with radical Muslims Arabs and Turks. To finish the job and eliminate any Kurdish territorial remnant able to create even a quasi-independent federated entity modeled after Iraq, Turkey now plans to invade northeastern Syria. Kurds are rightly bitter.
The administration initially announced that the decision to effect a quick withdrawal from Syria had been conveyed to “America’s partners in northeast Syria, namely the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).” But the Kurds and others see this as a betrayal, portending both a forced alteration of regional demographics and a revival of Islamic State terror.
Desperation has prompted the Kurds to mobilize against a potential Turkish attack by approaching Iran as well as Russia and even Syrian President Bashar Assad. The release of 3,200 Islamic State prisoners is a possibility as Kurdish forces on the battlefield need the manpower presently used to guard them.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said the US withdrawal will not impede the war against Islamism, and the administration pledges to maintain a presence after the pullout. But the administration appears poised to repeat President Barack Obama’s mistake by invoking disproven claims that our troops will remain on-call just over the horizon.
What to Do
To help protect minorities, as the Kurds have done by creating protected sanctuaries, American troops could be replaced with a French-led military force coalition, perhaps buttressed by a newly-recognized expression of urgency from France, Great Britain and Germany. They also could be augmented by a (principally Sunni) pan-Arab Army, perhaps organized under the aegis of the 56 participants in the Riyadh summit.
Former administration counter-terrorism adviser Sebastian Gorka recently observed that the Trump doctrine mandates that America will reliably help friends (particularly Sunnis) who do not need nation-building. This could incline the president to recognize and support the Kurds’ unique potency and reliability against the Islamists of both Iran and Turkey.
The president could modernize the process of assembling coalitions-of-the-willing to accommodate contemporary conditions. Joining Kurds could be carefully populated coalitions comprised primarily of Sunni Arabs (including from the Gulf States), Christians and other oppressed minorities.
• They would be aligned against Islamist non-governmental terrorist groups – including al-Qaeda, al-Nusrah Front and the Muslim Brotherhood – who are committed to combating American interests and overturning the same governments that were targeted during the past decade.
• They would be aligned against terrorist-funding Iran as well as against Iran’s intention to control the production and export of oil from Iran, Iraq and Syria.
• They could be aligned against Russia’s intention to become the dominant regional superpower, an objective that appears increasingly likely.
It’s past time for such coalitions to be formed and activated, for the interests of America and Kurds to mesh.
Yet, during the week following Trump’s withdrawal announcement, matters have worsened for Christians who remain at-risk of extinction in the land where Christmas began. Only America can ensure they won’t have to choose – along with other minorities protected by the Kurds – between annihilation and mass emigration.
Turkey’s demand that Google removes its “Kurdistan” map telegraphs the punch that it appears to be starting to deliver against defenseless Syrians, for Turkey has already massed troops and allies near a Kurdish-held Syrian town.
Yet, after Trump said Erdogan will “eradicate” ISIS in Syria and praised the Turkish leader as “a man who can do it,” in response to a direct question as to whether Erdogan provided any reassurance that the Kurds wouldn’t be annihilated, a White House spokesperson said only that a “very strong message” had been sent.
The president can still act to defend the Kurds. Having signed the Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act, which makes it American policy “to regard the prevention of genocide and other atrocities as in its national security interests,” the Kurds would seem to be first in line for protection.
Sherkoh Abbas is President of the Kurdistan National Assembly of Syria. Robert Sklaroff is a physician-activist. This article constitutes the policy of the Kurdistan National Assembly of Syria. The authors are grateful for the suggestions from Jerry Gordon of Israel News Talk Radio – Beyond the Matrix and Shoshana Bryen of the Jewish Policy Center.