Kurds have been staunch allies in America's struggle against ISIS. Without them, the U.S. would have paid a far steeper price in blood and treasure to defeat the brutal outfit. That's why President Donald Trump's move to let Turkey into northeastern Syria to slaughter the Kurds there is being greeted with widespread revulsion.
Trump has reportedly cut a deal with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that he will hand over control of this region to Turkey so long as Turkey relieves America of the responsibility of taking care of captured ISIS soldiers and their families. Trump has been trying to reassure everyone that he will "destroy" and "obliterate" Turkey's economy if it treats the Kurds "inhumanely."
His threats would be more believable if he himself treated the Kurds humanely by opening America's doors to more of them. Instead he's been cold-bloodedly deporting those already in the United Sates.
It was a foregone conclusion that Democrats like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi would condemn Trump's Syria decision. But with the exception of Kentucky's Sen. Rand Paul, even Trump's staunch Republican loyalists are voicing their disgust.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R–S.C.), an enthusiastic Trump cheerleader for the last two years, called the Syria decision "unnerving to the core" and a "disaster in the making." Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Trump's former UN ambassador, Nikki Haley, have likewise expressed strong opposition. Most surprising, however, is televangelist Pat Robertson. He convinced his vast evangelical following to ignore Trump's serial adultery and vote for him because he was "God's man for this job." Yet he is now warning Trump that he risks "losing the mandate from heaven" if he abandons the Kurds.
America has a long history of betraying the Kurds, a non-Arab people who tend to be Sunni Muslims. Henry Kissinger notoriously said, "Promise Kurds anything, give them what they get, and fuck them if they can't take a joke."
So what's different this time?
Essentially, there is an acute awareness that without Kurdish assistance, many more Americans would have died in the struggle against ISIS. The Kurds offered not only crucial intelligence to guide America's offensive but also performed the lion's share of the ground combat.
The upshot is that while America lost 11 soldiers in the last five years in Iraq and Syria, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an American-allied group fighting ISIS, lost 11,000, the vast majority of them Kurds. By contrast, during the Iraq War—when America did not have local allies and had to rely on its own soldiers to conduct complex and costly urban military operations—the U.S. suffered 700 casualties, including 82 deaths, during just a single battle in Fallujah, points out Iraq veteran and conservative commentator David French.
Abandoning the Kurds and letting Turkey slaughter them after they put themselves on the line for America's struggle against ISIS is beyond heinous.
Erdogan pretty much abandoned his talk of creating a "20-mile safe zone" for the Kurds the moment he launched his offensive. Turkish soldiers have been brutally targeting not just Kurdish fighters but politicians—and filming the killings to boot. Reports are also filtering in that Turkish warplanes are pounding civilian Kurdish areas instead of sparing them.
Turkey fears that if Syrian Kurds are allowed to retain control of territory in northeastern Syria, right next to the Turkish border, they will join forces with Turkish Kurds who have long wanted to secede from Turkey and form their own separate homeland. Turkey claims the Syrian Kurds are an extension of its banned Kurdistan Workers' Party, which has been fighting for Kurdish autonomy in Turkey for three decades.
Nor is this the first time that Turkey is going after the Kurds. In the last three years, Turkey has tried twice to purge the Kurds from northeastern Syria. In the last operation— ironically named Operation Olive Branch—Turkish forces slaughtered 1,500 Kurdish militiamen along with 300 civilians in just eight weeks, according to the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights, a U.K.–based monitoring group.
America could safeguard Kurdish lives by offering them a quick way out and arrange their evacuation. There are less than a million Kurds in SDF-controlled Syria. Even if they all came to the U.S., America could absorb them without breaking a sweat. And not all of them would even come. Kurds have been fighting for their own homeland ever since the European powers carved the Kurdish population into several pieces after World War I, handing each to Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran. So many of them won't abandon their struggle and flee. But Kurdish fighters may appreciate a safe haven for their spouses and children. The least America can do is give them that option.
Of course that will require Trump to lift his "Muslim" travel ban and revive America's near-dead refugee program. Syria is among the countries—all of them Muslim except for two—from which potential immigrants have been totally banned for the last two years. And even though Iraq is not on that list, the Trump administration has been deporting many Kurdish Iraqis back to that country to face almost certain death. In fact, one of Trump's first immigration crackdowns after assuming office was in Nashville, Tennessee's Little Kurdistan, where many Iraqi Kurds have long lived. It took place during Ramadan, the holiest celebration in Islam.
Trump is justifying his Syria pullout by insisting that he doesn't want America to remain embroiled in "endless war." That's a worthy goal, but it doesn't require us to make sacrificial lambs of our allies. The Kurds deserve better.
A version of this column appeared in The Week.