Judith Miller: Trump's Syria move all wrong – It jeopardizes costly victory over ISIS, betrays the Kurds

The United States has done it again. After a telephone chat with President Recep Erdogan, Turkey’s Islamist autocrat, President Trump has abruptly reversed U.S. military policy against the advice of the State Department and Pentagon and paved the way for a Turkish invasion of northeastern Syria.

His stunning decision has not only jeopardized a costly victory over the Islamic State, it has betrayed the Kurds, people who were pivotal in defeating the Islamist militants.

By now, the Kurds should be accustomed to betrayal. Being double-crossed by Washington has been an enduring feature of U.S. Kurdish relations under Republican and Democratic presidents. But conservatives should be particularly outraged that the latest treachery has been perpetuated by a president who has never stopped crowing about having defeated the Islamic “caliphate” and having restored U.S. credibility with traditional Mideastern allies.


Trump’s sudden pivot was too much for at least one of his most vocal supporters: Republican Senator Lindsey Graham condemned the move in an interview with Fox News Monday morning, calling the decision to withdraw U.S. forces from northeastern Syria and permit a Turkish invasion a “stain on America's honor" and “unnerving to its core.”

Bravo Sen. Graham. And shame on President Trump. For while Washington has repeatedly abandoned the Kurds for what the French call “raison d’état” – or, presumed short-term national security gains -- never has the betrayal felt so naked – or unwise.

Senior State Department and Pentagon officials had repeatedly urged the president to maintain a small troop presence in northeast Syria to continue operations against the Islamic State and to prevent Russia and Iran, in particular, from strengthening their influence there. That goal, too, is now in clear jeopardy.

The White House statement issued Sunday night also appears to give Turkey responsibility for some 90,000 IS fighters and supporters captured in the past two years whom the Kurdish forces have been holding in camps across the Syrian province.     

Bravo Sen. Graham. And shame on President Trump. For while Washington has repeatedly abandoned the Kurds for what the French call “raison d’état” – or, presumed short-term national security gains -- never has the betrayal felt so naked – or unwise.

Like so many of his more erratic moves, President Trump appears to have reversed U.S. foreign policy with scant consultation or warning. The move clearly shocked not only European allies, concerned about the possible return of ISIS fighters to their countries, but the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Defense Forces (SDF) without whom the Islamic State in Syria would not have been defeated.

In a statement, the SDF accused the administration of having betrayed a dependable ally and endangered the defeat of ISIS. The SDF claims to have lost 11,000 fighters, with 24,000 wounded in the campaign to defeat ISIS. The U.S. death toll fighting the Islamic State in Syria was fewer than 10.

Trump’s decision, however, delighted President Erdogan, who considers Kurdish forces in Syria as “terrorists” and seeks to create a “safe zone” inside this predominantly Kurdish area where it can resettle many of the estimated 3.5 million Syrian and other Sunni Muslim refugees who fled the Syrian civil war, many of whom now live in Turkey. America’s move undoubtedly now leaves the Kurds, who fear being outnumbered in what has been their traditional demographic stronghold, utterly at Turkey’s mercy.

This is hardly the first time that America has betrayed a commitment to the Kurds. With a population of some 30 million divided over four states—Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria—the Kurds have repeatedly fought and died seeking freedom and nationhood. Each time they came close to achieving their goal, the U.S. or other influential allies have turned on them.

After World War I and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Kurds in modern-day Turkey were promised a referendum on independence. But the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne guaranteed Turkish sovereignty over what they hoped would become independent Kurdistan.

Forty years later, Iraqi Kurds, supported by the shah of Iran with the blessing of the U.S., fought two wars against Baghdad during the 1960s and 1970s. But they were betrayed again in 1975 when the shah struck a deal with Saddam Hussein, abandoning the Kurds to their fate. Tens of thousands were slaughtered and displaced by Saddam’s brutal retaliatory campaign against them.


Iraqi Kurdish hopes for independence were re-ignited yet again after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. Though some Kurds yearned for independence, they settled for the creation of a federal region within Iraq and considerable autonomy.

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When ISIS emerged in the wake of the U.S. invasion and spread like wild-fire across Syria and Iraq, occupying territory the size of Great Britain, Washington again sought Kurdish help. In 2014, Iraqi and Syrian Kurds readily joined the American alliance to fight the group which directly threatened them. Once again, they had hoped that loyal support for America would be rewarded by Washington’s support for Kurdish national objectives. Yet now, once again, Trump has betrayed them.

Stung by the unusual bipartisan condemnation of his decision, President Trump tweeted Monday that based on his self-described “great and unmatched wisdom,” Turkey understood that he would “destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey” if Ankara did anything “off-limits.” But denigrating as mercenaries the Kurdish fighters who made his proclaimed triumph over ISIS possible, he added that while the Kurds “fought with us,” they were paid “massive amounts of money and equipment to do so.”


Given this reaction and America’s long history of betrayal of the Kurds, why should they, or any U.S. ally, for that matter, depend on Washington to reward support and loyalty?

This is clearly what infuriated Sen. Graham, R-S.C., who lashed out against Trump in a fierce tweetstorm. Graham warned that his decision “Ensures ISIS comeback” and “Forces Kurds to align with [Syria’s President] Assad and Iran.” “This decision virtually reassures the reemergence of ISIS. So sad. So dangerous,” Graham tweeted. “President Trump may be tired of fighting radical Islam. They are NOT tired of fighting us,” he warned.

Sadly, he is right. Who will help us fight ISIS next time?