American president Donald Trump announced this week to withdraw all American troops from Syria. This decision may pay off for him politically in the short term. In the long run, it is a tragic mistake for the United States and the world.
The decision was abrupt and it was not consulted with the European allies – France and Great Britain – the main participants of the coalition fighting the Islamic State in Syria. Neither was it discussed with the leaders of both American parties, nor with the local allies, particularly the Kurds, which the Americans have promised to support. Mr. Trump’s move is contrary to the advice of his closest generals: in protest against the withdrawal from Syria and a partial withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, has submitted his resignation.
There is a very simple method allowing one to determine whether any US decision is a good one or a fatuous one. If Russia condemns it – the decision can be considered good. If Russia praises it – then it clearly plays into Russia’s hand, which means we can consider the decision stupid. The abrupt announcement of the U.S. to pull out from Syria was immediately commented by Putin at a press conference: “If indeed the U.S. has made such a decision, this is the right decision,” he said. From the Russian point of view, this is certainly the case: U.S. troops leaving Syria will strengthen the power of the Syrian dictator, President Assad, who is supported militarily by Russia and Iran. Russia will also be able to quietly expand its Syrian military bases.
Mr. Trump’s policy shift in Syria was based on his campaign promise, when he stated that, as soon as the Islamic State is defeated, American soldiers would be able to return home. And now, as Trump puts it, ISIS is defeated, our boys should come back. It’s just that ISIS is not entirely defeated, as the commander-in-chief knows perfectly well. He was immediately reminded of that by the defense ministers of France, Great Britain and his own outgoing Secretary.
Indeed, Islamic State, which just two years ago ruled over a quarter of the territory of Syria, is now squeezed into a tiny piece of land on the border with Iraq, and instead of a few tens of thousands of soldiers, has at most a dozen thousand or so. The IS fighters, however, are not giving up. They continue to conduct subversive actions and sabotage operations paid by money and gold that they managed to move out of Syria. Their leader, “Caliph” al Baghdadi has not yet been captured and has probably found refuge on the ISIS-controlled territory. As long as he is alive, and the Islamic State controls any piece of land, al Baghdadi’s myth will continue to grow among many Islamic fanatics and his ability to inspire extremists to conduct terrorist acts in the world will continue to spread.
Mr. Trump apparently does not seem to understand that the Islamic State’s influence does not depend on the size of the controlled territory, but on the fact that it exercises control over any area that may serve as the beginning of the “Caliphate”. Therefore, a total destruction of ISIS is necessary, as well as the capture or killing of al Baghdadi. Otherwise, ever new fanatics will appear and announce their loyalty to the “Caliph” or the “Islamic State,” and its leaders will be able to inspire, finance and organize further small and large terrorist attacks. Just like the murder of two Scandinavian tourist girls in Morocco that took place in the same week as Mr. Trump’s announcement.
The fight against the Islamic State in Syria is mainly led by the SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces, also known by the acronym YPG) units organized by the Kurds. Multiethnic and multireligious, the SDF forces consist also of Arab Muslims and Syrian Christians. With the support of the U.S. Air Force and artillery, and the help of some European allies, SDF have effectively ousted ISIS from 99% of their territory, they captured Raqqa, the capital of the self-declared “caliphate,” and freed millions of people from the horrors of living under control of the Muslim fanatics.
For the Kurds, who control about a quarter of the territory of Syria, ISIS never posed an existential threat. Neither side engaged in fighting each other. The SDF units, however, were the only ones that could realistically and effectively fight ISIS on land and, at the request of the Americans, they did so. They did it, believing that, in exchange for help, the Americans would guarantee them the opportunity to live peacefully in their Kurdish, autonomous enclave.
Indeed, the Americans guaranteed that Kurds would not be attacked by Turkey or by Russian air strikes. As recently as September 2018, at a press conference, President Trump said: “They are great people, they are great fighters. We are helping them a lot and we’ve been very friendly with them. As you know we have fought side by side. We have defeated ISIS essentially in a very short while ago in the Middle East. And we did it with a lot of help from the Kurds.”
Kurdish territory in Syria is a phenomenon in the Islamic world. Although Kurds are Muslims, their enclave is secular, democratic and feminist. Women occupy half management positions in the administration; there are women’s military units commanded by women. This left-leaning, Kurdish utopia is the result of the ideology of the Kurdish leader, Ocalan, who has been serving a sentence in a Turkish prison for over a dozen years now. Prison hasn’t stopped Ocalan from writing books and inspiring his followers – not, as in the past, for an armed struggle with Turkey – but for a democratic self-organization.
Kurds, who left the Ottoman Empire one hundred years ago without their own state, were divided among four countries (Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey). They now reside in both, Iraq and Syria, where they formed their autonomous provinces. They serve as an example that Islam, as a religion, does not have to contradict democracy, on one hand, or the equality of women, on the other. This Kurdish model of governance should be supported by the Western world in all possible ways: financially, militarily, politically, economically. President Trump’s plans for a swift withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria is completely the opposite of support – it can lead to the destruction of the Kurdish democratic and feminist experiment in Syria. Worth mentioning is the fact that the Kurdish enclave was the only Syrian territory, where there have been no battles during the Syrian civil war, and where hundreds of thousands of refugees from other Syrian provinces have taken refuge.
Trump is committing a colossal mistake, which consequences will fall upon Kurds, Europe and Americans as well.
Turkey, on one side, and Syria’s Assad, on the other, are preparing to expand their control over abandoned Syrian Kurds. The likelihood of the Turkish invasion is very real and dangerous, as it has already been announced by Turkish president, Erdogan. Erdogan perceives Kurdish troops as allies of Turkish Kurdish rebels from the PKK, against whom Turkey has been waging war for decades. Turkish soldiers, in alliance with Syrian Islamists, have already taken control over some areas dominated up to this point by Kurds, like the province of Afrin. Erdogan intends to control at least a strip of Kurdish land along the border with Turkey.
Until now, the Turkish offensive against the Syrian Kurds was being prevented only by the presence of American troops on Kurdish territory. Erdogan officially stated that, for now, he would stop the previously announced offensive on Kurds and deal with combating ISIS first, but his defense minister’s words foreshadowed a “burial of Kurds in trenches and tunnels”. Against the powerful Turkish army and its air force, the lonely Kurds would stand no chance.
Erdogan’s wish to destroy a U.S.-backed Kurdish militia and its autonomous region in Syria is not prompted by fear of PKK’s attacks against Turkish territory since such attacks have not taken place thus far. The main threat for Erdogan is sheer existence of a democratic, autonomous Kurdish state positioned right on the border, which can serve as an incentive for Turkish Kurds to try and achieve a similar autonomy in Turkey.
In case of a U.S. pullout, Kurds are left with two options. Option one: they can try to convince France to take over the role of the Americans, protecting Kurdish territory from Turkish invasion. France, which after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire ruled over the territories of today’s Syria and Lebanon, may be tempted today to increase its involvement in the region. Its unit of 200 elite soldiers from special forces are stationed currently on Kurdish territory. Along with the airstrikes from the French aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean, the land units are being used to launch raids against ISIS positions. Shortly after immediate Kurdish-French talks that took place on December 29th in Paris, advisers to President Macron declared that they support Kurds and sympathize with them. They did not declare, however, that France would defend them against Turkey.
The second option for the Kurds is to get along with Assad by giving up some or all of their autonomous territory in exchange for protection against Turkey. Practically, it would mean that the Russian air force would protect Kurds against Turkish war planes, while Assad would be able to claim to have control over 90% of the country’s territory. For Syrian Kurds, this would mean avoiding the imminent conflict with Turkey at the price of abandoning their dreams of their own democratic country and agreeing to become second-class citizens yet again – until the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, a significant part of Kurdish population was not considered citizens. Thus they could not receive any benefits, formal education, legal work, or even permission to travel. The Kurds would yet again be subjected to the bloody tyranny of Assad.
Kurds have one more card up their sleeve: a large number of foreign Islamic State terrorists and their families, held in prisons. It is about one thousand terrorists and two thousand wives and children, coming from dozens of countries, including many European countries. The governments of those countries do not wish to accept their terrorists back in, because they are afraid that they will not be able to prove their guilt and sentence them to long prison terms in normal lawsuits. Now, Kurds are “considering” the release of held terrorists, some of whom would undoubtedly return to their home countries.
President Trump’s plans for a rapid withdrawal indicate political gains for his presidency. His voters would appreciate the realization of Trump’s election promise to “bring our boys back home.” The costs of this move, however, would be gigantic, and they would far outpace the gains. Mr. Trump’s decision would expose millions of Kurds to slaughter or exile form the hands of the Turks; it would expose Western countries to subsequent terrorist attacks from the spared Islamic State fighters; it would strengthen Assad’s power; it would strengthen the positions of Iran and Russia, who are the main opponents of America and the Western world. Finally, it would discredit America, who would turn out to be a disloyal ally. It would show that thew US is not worth helping with anything, because they could betray their friends at the first opportunity.
The French minister of foreign affairs from the Napoleonic era, Talleyrand, once said, “This is worse than a crime, it’s a mistake.” Trump is committing a colossal mistake, which consequences will fall upon Kurds, Europe and Americans as well.
The Polish original: Amerykański prezydent zdradził kurdyjskich sojuszników