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Blunder after blunder: Trump withdraws from northern Syria

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As the conflict in northern Syria worsens, President Trump has withdrawn U.S. support for Kurdish troops (Screenshots via YouTube - edited)

Trump’s sudden withdrawal from northern Syria and the ensuing media reaction only underscores the ignorant, short-sighted foreign policy that has led to this disaster.

‘I am trying to end the ENDLESS WARS,’ he tweeted on Thursday and, a day earlier, ‘GOING INTO THE MIDDLE EAST IS THE WORST DECISION EVER MADE IN THE HISTORY OF OUR COUNTRY’.

He might have thought such pacific intention would have been lauded by some, despite having just sent 2,000 more troops to Saudi Arabia to guard the oil fields.

But instead, his actions have drawn furious condemnation from just about every corner of mainstream America, including the State Department and Pentagon, as well his most loyal Republican colleagues.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said:

“The Kurds stepped up when nobody else would to fight ISIS, if we abandon them, good luck getting anybody to help America in the future.”

A line echoed by Fox News host Brian Kilmeade when he said:

“The Kurds did all of our fighting [against ISIS]. Now we’re saying, ‘okay Turks, go and wipe [the Kurds] out.’”

Susan Rice, former U.N. Ambassador and National Security Advisor for President Obama, appeared on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and described the Kurds thusly:

“These are the people who, for the last four years, have been fighting on our behalf to defeat ISIS… and we’ve basically just said to them ‘see ya,’ and let the Turks – who are the hungry wolf trying to kill the lamb – go for it. And it’s just appalling.”

The notion that the international community might stand by in the face of a possible ethnic cleansing or other abuses should rightly be cause for alarm. Yet two aspects of the above commentary merit further contemplation.

The first is the realpolitik tone which emphasises American interest over universal human rights or moral principles. Graham further opined that “it’s never in [American] national security interest to abandon an ally who’s helped us fight ISIS”. That’s not surprising, but it does underscore the hypocrisy in chiding Turkey for acting in an equally self-interested way.

The second is the ignorance on display of the historical reality of the situation in northern Syria. Listening to the above, one might think that the Kurds were some disinterested third party who happened to decide of their own volition to involve themselves in America’s defence against an Islamic State knocking down the free world’s door.

The reality is the complete opposite — ISIL invaded northern Syria and Iraq, not the United States. While their rhetoric and several terrorist attacks inspired or distantly controlled by them might lead one to believe otherwise, the actual war was chiefly between them and the Syrian Democratic Forces.

Talk of using the Kurds in our fight against ISIL hardly helps us in understanding the complex power dynamics and political struggles of a region that we – compared with the motivations and investment of those who actually live there – almost arbitrarily decided to involve ourselves in.

It is no surprise, then, that the U.S. leaves only further chaos and bloodshed in its wake when it just as blindly decides to withdraw.

What’s more, the black-and-white characterisation of the Turks as “the hungry wolf” and the Kurds as “the innocent lamb” speaks to the alarmingly childish moral lens with which the situation is viewed.

It is right to decry the abuses committed by the government of Turkish President Erdoğan against his own people over the last decade. And it is easy to feel an affinity for the Kurds in northern Syria, who have been roundly championed by the media over the past few years as the new hope of a liberal, democratic society in the Middle East.

But there are no easy answers to the complex, violent history of Turkey’s relationship with the Kurds.

You might have noticed in some official responses to Turkey’s actions – from NATO, the EU and even some Pentagon officials – the admittance of Turkey’s “legitimate security concerns”. The media usually explains this by briefly mentioning the connection between the Syrian Defence Forces and the separatist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

For the past 40 years, the PKK and its affiliates have waged a campaign of domestic terrorism in Turkey that has targeted both state and civilian targets as recently as last month, with separatists presumably responsible for the bombing of a police bus in the country’s south.

In 2016, an explosion at an Istanbul football stadium killed 38. While in 2015, ISIL militants targeted a 2015 political rally in the capital, Ankara, claiming 109 lives — the deadliest attack in modern Turkish history.

Since the beginning of the PKK’s insurgency in 1978, more than 40,000 people have died. That’s an average of approximately 0.5 per cent of Turkey’s currently 80 million people per year (which is a low-ball calculation, considering the population has doubled from 40 million since 1978.)

By contrast, in the attacks of 11 September 2001, almost 3,000 lives were lost, or approximately 0.001 per cent of the country’s then 285 million population.

This kind of calculus is a gross simplification, but it can provide some context for us to understand the attitude of Turks faced with “troubles” of their own that, per year and per capita, have claimed 500 times the toll of the terrorist attacks that led the United States into the longest wars of its own history. Wars that went on to claim at least 200,000 civilian lives in Iraq and Afghanistan.

PKK insurgents are undoubtedly based in northern Syria. For years, Turkey has wrangled with the Syrian Government and, more recently, with the U.S. to crack down on them. That the Turks might be frustrated by its NATO ally consistently relegating its treaty obligations in favour of an informal alliance of convenience, in which the Kurds were supplied heavy weapons that later targeted the Turks, is understandable.

None of this seems to be sufficiently explored or understood by Western media, which often exhibits a clear bias against Turkey. While concern is rightly expressed over the possibility of war crimes committed by Turkish sponsored forces, I have not found any mention of the over 600 mortar attacks carried out by PKK rebels across the border into Turkish towns since the invasion began, which have so far killed eight civilians.

None of this is to endorse the Turkish aggression or to suggest that the international community should not do everything it can to protect the civilians of northern Syria, who have suffered for decades from persecution and repression on all sides.

But it is to suggest that, before we go blindly criticising Turkey’s actions, we should take a moment to try and move beyond our own narrow self-interest and understand the complex history of the region. Only then might we better understand our own roles in that history and make more informed strategic decisions in the future.

Carey Robinson is a writer currently living in Turkey.

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