Americans are understandably war weary. Therefore, contrary to the claims of foreign policy hawks, President Trump's decision to pull U.S.
troops out of Syria wasn't too soon—but not soon enough.
But that doesn't mean that America can simply walk away, leaving the Syrian Kurds, who aided our efforts against ISIS, more vulnerable than when it intervened. The best way of arranging their security is by letting all those who want to flee come to America.
Trump told the American troops he visited in Iraq that America can't keep playing "policeman of the world." We are "doing the fighting for every nation on earth" without being "reimbursed," he complained. "We're no longer the suckers, folks." It's funny he should say that because many groups in countries that the U.S. has invaded and destabilized since World War II feel the same way. America uses them to advance its (often inchoate) ends and, once they have served their purpose, hangs them out to dry.
Arguably, the group most used and abused by America is the Kurds, who happen to be non-Arab Sunni Muslims. When it comes to them, America seems to have embraced notorious war-monger and Nixon-era Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's advice. "Promise [Kurds] anything," he said, "give them what they get, and f–k them if they can't take a joke."
At the end of World War I, victorious Western powers backtracked on their promises to give them a homeland and, instead, partitioned the Kurdish populated areas in the Middle East among Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey. Since then, America has cynically exploited the Kurdish aspiration for statehood at every turn.
When the United States was allied with the Shah of Iran against Iraq during the Nixon era, it funded the Kurdish peshmerga struggle for autonomy against the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein. But it yanked its support once Saddam signed the Algiers Agreement with Iran in 1975 and studiously looked the other way as he cranked up his persecution machinery against the Kurds — which reached its zenith on the eve of the first Gulf War in 1988 when he gassed thousands of Kurdish men, women, and children.
After that war, President George H.W. Bush called on the Kurds and other Saddam opponents to overthrow the dictator, something he himself had (rightly) resisted doing. However, when they heeded his call, assuming that Bush was signaling that the United States had their back, he balked. Even though America had munitions and men at hand, it stood by and watched as Saddam engaged in massive reprisal killings, slaughtering about 100,000 rebels in six months. A million Kurds fled to neighboring Turkey and Iran. Afterwards, the U.S. started enforcing a no-fly zone against Saddam in the Kurdish-dominated Northern Iraq, finally creating a safe haven for a semi-autonomous Kurdish enclave (that within two decades became the most stable and prosperous area in the war-torn region).
The Iraqi Kurds repaid America's support in kind when President George W. Bush decided to march into Iraq in 2003 to topple Saddam. They fought alongside U.S. troops to help Bush finish his dad's job.
Later, they also joined their counterparts in Syria to assist America in its struggle against ISIS, doing the lion's share of the fighting since 2014. Indeed, President Trump boasts that "he" has defeated ISIS, an exaggeration on many levels. Whatever headway America and its Western allies have made against ISIS is in large part due to the Kurds. No doubt, the Kurds weren't helping purely for selfless reasons given that ISIS threatened them too. But if America hadn't intervened, they would have made an alliance with Syria's brutal dictator Bashar al-Assad to defeat ISIS, an outcome that America was desperate to avoid. Instead, they alienated Assad and fought on the frontlines against ISIS, sparing America major blood and treasure.
That's why it'll be an abdication of epic proportions if America does not do something to safeguard them as it withdraws. Turkey has long considered the Syrian and Iraqi Kurds its mortal enemies because it fears that if they manage to cobble together a state, they'll enflame the separatist sentiments of its own Kurdish population. So Turkish President Recep Erdogan is expanding his troop deployment along Kurdish-dominated areas on the Northeastern Syrian border in preparation for a massive offensive. In fact, he told Trump as much when he talked Trump into withdrawing American troops — which is why some Kurds are condemning America as a "traitor" right now.
America can't remain in Syria indefinitely — but that's precisely why it should develop evacuation plans for those who want to escape. There are only about two million Kurds in Syria, so it would be hardly beyond our capacity to absorb those among them looking for a safe haven.
But, sadly, Trump has offered no signs he would do that. Quite the opposite.
One of his first acts as president was to issue a travel ban on immigrants from several Muslim-majority countries, including Syria, and an indefinite ban on Syrian refugees. He also slashed the annual refugee quota by more than half from 110,000 to 45,000 and is on track to not even fill half of that. The upshot is that in the last fiscal year, America admitted less than 100 refugees from Syria — very few of them Kurds.
Worse, Trump has actually cracked down on Kurds already in the United States. He took Iraq off his travel ban in exchange for it accepting Iraqis he wanted to deport. And then, as part of his broader anti-Muslim jihad, he cracked down on Kurdish-settled areas in Nashville and elsewhere, rounding up Kurds who'd been living in America for decades for minor crimes and sending them back to Iraq for certain persecution and even death.
At the end of the Vietnam War, after Saigon fell in 1975, the United States evacuated Americans and their immediate South Vietnamese relatives but left behind hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese who had aided it. Many of them ended up in prison camps — or "re-education centers" as the communist regime called them — where they died of starvation and disease or while being forced to sweep minefields. The shock and horror shamed America into eventually admitting several hundred thousand "boat people" who flocked to its shores.
So it will be interesting to see if the prospect of Turkey's impending onslaught similarly jolts Trump out his moral ennui to do the right thing by the Kurds.
America needs to shrink its massive military footprint in the world. But it needs to do so with more thoughtfulness than what it showed when it went in. If it fails to tie loose ends before exiting, it'll leave the world infinitely worse off and sow the seeds for future blowback that'll only spur more overseas militarism.
Just as soldiers don't leave their wounded comrades behind, America shouldn't leave vulnerable Kurds behind.
This column originally appeared in The Week