December 23, 2018
Most Americans have never heard of places like Sinjar, Kobani, Afrin, Raqqa and Manbij. They represent strange names in far-flung places that have little meaning to those more concerned about the price of gas and a gallon of milk. To Kurds however, these places in Syria and Iraq represent pivotal moments when Kurds were forced to battle against genocidal enemies for their freedom.
The Kurds, who number some 30 million souls, are a stateless people spread out over a region called Kurdistan, which encompasses parts of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. All four of these Muslim nations have brutally suppressed the Kurds and have tried to stymie their national aspirations. In 1988, Saddam Hussein poisoned them with mustard gas and nerve agents, killing approximately 5,000, the majority of whom were women and children. Turkey's Erdogan continues to brutalize Kurdish citizens of Turkey, subjecting them to indiscriminate bombing and arbitrary arrest and torture.
In 2013, the Kurds of Syria and Iraq faced a new enemy, the so-called Islamic State also known as ISIS or Daesh. In 2012, an al-Qaeda-linked group, which represented the nucleus of ISIS, took control of the Iraqi city of Fallujah. In response to this disturbing development, Obama, beset by a string of foreign policy failures, downplayed the invasion and pejoratively referred to the group as the "JV" team.
By 2014, ISIS controlled more than 34,000 square miles in Syria and Iraq. They also began sending operatives into Europe and caused a massive refugee crisis with many of the migrants fleeing to Europe. Obama later tried to deny that his JV comment referred to ISIS, a denial rated as totally false by Politifact.
In August 2014, ISIS attacked the Iraqi city of Sinjar leaving some 30,000 Yazidi families stranded. The Islamists began killing men and sexually enslaving Yazidi women. As many as 5,000 women were kidnapped and enslaved by ISIS. Kurdish militias in Syria belonging primarily to the Peoples Protection Units (YPG), managed to open a safe corridor for the Yazidi enabling many to escape the fate of certain enslavement or death.
The Obama administration belatedly recognized the size and scale of the ISIS menace and began a military campaign to degrade ISIS. As with everything touched by Obama, the campaign was a fiasco. Restrictions were imposed on what targets could be hit, and $500 million was spent training and equipping four or five anti-ISIS militia members. It was yet another embarrassing display of Obama's impotence and incompetence. It would be comical if it weren't so sad.
Donald Trump ran on a platform to soundly defeat ISIS and to run no-holds-barred campaign against them. Special Forces were sent to work with Kurdish militias and air strikes against the terrorist group were ramped up. The campaign succeeded. The American-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) — a joint Kurdish-Arab force dominated by the YPG — working side-by-side with a contingent of some 2,000 U.S. troops began systematically liberating land held by ISIS. In October 2017, ISIS's self-declared capital city of Raqqa was liberated.
ISIS was reeling and severely degraded but not yet defeated. The group still held on to pockets in eastern Syria and cells of ISIS bandits were still lurking about.
Last week, Trump unexpectedly declared the defeat of ISIS and announced that the U.S. mission in Syria was over and the troops would be returning home or redeployed elsewhere. Trump argued that the U.S. presence was mission-specific and having accomplished its objective, was no longer necessary. Trump's National Security Advisor, John Bolton opposed the move, and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, registering his unambiguous disapproval, submitted his resignation a day later.
Isolationist extremists like Senator Rand Paul were ecstatic. So were Russia's Putin, Turkey's Erdogan and Iran's ayatollahs. Russia previously regarded Syria as its exclusive domain. Indeed, it was Russia's intervention in Syria's civil war that tipped the scales in favor of the Syrian warlord Bashar Assad.
The Iranians view the American presence in eastern Syria as an impediment to their entrenchment in the region and efforts to use Syria as a land bridge to Lebanon and the eastern Mediterranean. The Turks for their part, despise the Kurds, view them as "terrorists," and have a score to settle with them.
It is safe to say that when the U.S. departs, Turkey will move to conquer the Kurdish stronghold of Manbij and will likely expand their military aggression beyond Manbij. We could witness an ethnic cleansing of Kurds by Turkey and its Turkmen and Sunni Islamist allies. In January 2018, the world witnessed Turkish brutality in the Kurdish-held stronghold of Afrin, located in northwestern Syria, adjacent to the Turkish border. Despite a valiant defense, the better armed Turks overwhelmed the Kurds. Deterred by the U.S. presence in Manbij, Erdogan advanced no further than Afrin. The Turkish president may be a brutal, Muslim Brotherhood thug but he's not crazy and had no interest in embarking on an adventure that he was sure to lose.
It is also safe to assume that the remaining portion of Kurdish-held Syria would fall under the influence of Iran and Iran-backed Shia militias. Iranian-backed Iraqi militias, pledging allegiance to the ayatollahs and trained, armed and indoctrinated by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, are ready to pour over the border at Iran's directive.
Make no mistake; the Kurds are excellent fighters and battle-hardened but their hardware cannot begin to compare with the weapons of their enemies. They have no air force, no sophisticated drones and little by way of modern armor and artillery. In sum, it would be a one-sided slaughter marked by war crimes and ethnic cleansing. It would also spark another refugee crisis.
Trump correctly argues that the U.S. shouldn't be in the business of nation building but no one is asking America to re-build what's left of Syria. The de-minimis presence of 2,000 or so Americans hardly constitutes nation building but does send the appropriate message to those with nefarious intentions.
Leaving Syria now would be a colossal strategic blunder. Even Trump's political allies, such as Senators Lindsay Graham, Tom Cotton and Marco Rubio have voiced serious reservations. Bad actors of the Sunni and Shia persuasion would rush to fill the vacuum and the Kurds would be at their mercy.
It is in America's strategic interest to maintain a stabilizing presence in Syria. Moreover, we have a moral obligation to the Kurds who have been our steadfast allies throughout, including during both Gulf wars. Abandoning them now and leaving them to the mercy of Turkey's ruthless despots and genocidal Ayatollahs would send the wrong message to our allies and enemies.
Let's hope that Trump — who has thus far done a remarkable job on foreign policy matters — reconsiders this rash and unwise decision.