by BOBBY GHOSH & CLIVE CROOK/ pic by AFP
“TURKEY will soon be moving forward with its long-planned operation into northern Syria,” the White House announced late on Sunday. US forces “will no longer be in the immediate area”. The Trump administration thus granted Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan tacit permission to attack Kurdish forces in Syria — forces that have been vital US allies in the fight against Islamic State (IS).
This abrupt shift in policy is both ill-considered and shameful.
Evidently, for President Donald Trump, the Kurds are expendable. His determination to bring home the US troops remaining in Syria outweighed any consideration of what might happen to the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) once American protection is removed.
Erdogan said Kurdish militias are aligned with co-ethnic separatists in Turkey; he views them as a national threat.
Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad sees the SDF as standing in the way of his reclaiming, with Russian and Iranian help, the whole of Syria. For the US, though, the SDF has been an indispensable ally in the fight against the IS militant group — a fight that, contrary to Trump’s apparent reasoning, is not yet over.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, usually among the president’s supporters, called the decision “a disaster in the making” and predicted an IS comeback.
Other Republicans, as well as many Democrats and former foreign-policy officials, also deplored the move.
Trump responded to the criticism in predictable fashion, betraying a suspicion of doubt in a declaration of unwavering confidence, in terms that defy parody: “If Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey (I’ve done before!).”
Critics of the new policy are right: It does not serve US interests. And aside from this hard-headed calculation, the US simply owes the Kurds its loyalty.
Granted, the situation is fraught, because the US has been allied to both Turkey, a NATO partner, and to the SDF. But the policy that Trump just abandoned — exerting pressure on Erdogan to refrain from confronting the Kurds in Syria — was both wiser and more honourable than this peremptory abandonment.
Doughty fighters, the Kurds will not easily cede ground. Having been cast aside before, they will not take the news as a total shock. Nonetheless, the Kurds now stand to be crushed between Erdogan’s hammer and Assad’s anvil. The cost of this coming conflict could dwarf Kurdish losses in the fight against IS. (The SDF said 12,000 of its fighters have been killed, and 20,000 injured.) A wave of refugees is to be expected. Most will head for the Kurdish regions of Iraq, adding to the burdens of a government that is already at war with its own people.
The fallout won’t end there. With the Kurds forced into a fight for their own survival, they cannot be expected to maintain pressure on what remains of IS in Syria. Nor can they be asked to guard tens of thousands of imprisoned fighters and their families. The Trump administration said Turkey will henceforth do that — a very optimistic assumption.
This lamentable decision may already be too late to reverse. If so, the very least the administration should do is work to provide the Kurds refuge. Trump should prevail on regional allies and Europe — which has also benefitted from the SDF’s fight against IS — to provide humanitarian support. He should urge the United Nations (UN) to establish safe zones for Kurdish refugees, ideally within Syria, but if necessary in Iraq, and press the governments in Ankara and Baghdad to allow this. And he should work with Congress to push through legislation granting Kurds asylum in the US.
But none of this should have been necessary. Now and then, in costly and complex conflicts, countries have no choice but to abandon their allies. This was not such a case. Trump’s rash decision will harm US interests and is a discredit to the nation. — Bloomberg
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners