Should Americans Fight to Protect the Kurds in Syria?

The Washington foreign policy outrage mob was at it again, this time wringing their hands in angst after President Trump announced that he would begin drawing down the American military presence in northern Syria and then finally ordered a full withdrawal of around 1,000 U.S. troops from the area. The primary complaint this time around from the permanent war cheerleaders was that pulling U.S. troops out of the region would expose the YPG, the Syrian Kurdish group that has fought alongside the Americans, to an attack by invading Turkey, which considers the YPG to be terrorists and condemns their allegiance to the PKK, the Kurdish militia based in Turkey that is considered a terrorist group by both Turkey and the U.S. To people like Lindsey Graham and Meghan McCain, who referred to Trump and Senator Rand Paul as “Chicken heart isolationists”, it is outrageous and immoral to even consider bringing troops home from an undeclared war halfway around the world in which there is no clear mission and no obvious interests for the American people.

The outrage, however, was not limited to the neoconservatives and neoliberals who invariably favor perpetual U.S. intervention. This time, it even expanded to generally less-hawkish Democrats like congresswoman Ilhan Omar, who parrroted the inane neocon argument that the withdrawal would “reward Russia, Iran, and ISIS”. Never mind that Russia and Iran have vigorously fought against ISIS throughout the Syrian conflict. To the supposed patriots who espouse this line, the interests of American troops, American security, and American taxpayers, all of which would greatly benefit from a U.S. disengagement in Syria, are secondary to the interests of the American empire, which seeks to weaken adversaries like Russia and Iran in order to maintain optimal levels of global dominance. Of course, the hawks have been massive failures even on their own terms, as U.S. intervention itself has been a prime factor in empowering Russia, Iran, and ISIS in the region.

The claim that Trump is leaving the Kurds high and dry is certainly not altogether wrong. The Turks have already proceeded to invade northern Syria and the Kurds are no doubt in a serious predicament without the American support they’ve enjoyed throughout most of the Syrian conflict. Trump had many an opportunity to negotiate a more diplomatic U.S. withdrawal by involving the Syrian government to provide the Kurds with protection against Turkey, although there are recent reports that the Kurds have begun negotiating with the Syrian state on their own. So although this U.S. withdrawal from northern Syria is much needed, it is inaccurate to say that Trump has handled the situation well and it’s not even clear that he is truly pursuing a more non-interventionist strategy in the region.

Trump has made many past promises to withdraw American troops from the Middle East, most notably in December 2018 when he suggested that the U.S. would be reducing its troop presence in Syria and Afghanistan, causing Secretary of Defense James Mattis to resign in disgust. Yet, we still find that Trump has failed to de-escalate any of the existing conflicts he inherited from Obama and has instead increased American involvement in Afghanistan, Somalia, and Yemen, and ratcheted up tensions with Iran. In fact, just hours after declaring that the U.S. would be drawing down in Syria, Trump announced he would be sending hundreds of troops and more weapons to Saudi Arabia to help them continue their genocide in Yemen.

Unfortunately, those who are outraged over Trump’s Middle East policy are seemingly unconcerned over the various ways in which he has escalated U.S. involvement overseas and instead hyperventilate over the thought of America potentially not policing every corner of the globe. The idea of allowing people in other countries to sort out their own problems without the moral wisdom of America to arm or support one side or the other (or in this case three different sides: the Turks, Kurds, and our “moderate” al-Qaeda rebel friends), is inconceivable to Washington talking heads like McCain or chickenhawk Senators like Lindsey Graham.

Congressman Thomas Massie asked a simple question, wondering, “If having troops in Syria is so important, why hasn’t Congress ever voted to send troops there?” One would think that if Trump removing troops from Syria was such a catastrophic mistake, then surely having them there in the first place would be an issue important enough for the Congress to vote on and authorize. Additionally, the fact that removing a small number of troops could lead to such a disaster is a pretty good indication of just how big a failure America’s Syria intervention has been and how farcical the notion that the U.S. has been fighting to create stability in the country is.

Instead of fulfilling their constitutional duties, Graham and the rest of the bipartisan interventionist foreign policy consensus in Congress would prefer to shirk their responsibility to declare war and simply allow the President and the CIA to operate with impunity, and then throw temper tantrums at the slightest sign of a draw down of the troops that were illegally deployed to begin with.

Here’s congressman Dan Crenshaw deriding the “no more endless wars” camp by claiming that, “Removing our small and cost-effective force from Northern Syria is causing more war, not less,” and, “Our presence there was not meant to engage in endless wars, it was there to deter further warfare.” For Crenshaw, the entire history of American escalation of the conflict since 2011 doesn’t matter because he claims we had good intentions to stop further warfare. Forget Operation Timber Sycamore, the CIA’s five-plus year campaign of arming and training jihadists loyal to al-Qaeda that turned initially minor and mostly nonviolent protests against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during the Arab Spring into a full-fledged war that upended the entire country and killed countless civilians. All we need to do in Crenshaw’s mind is focus on the immediate uptick in violence that occurs from Turkey’s offensive after America withdraws troops and never mind the past policies that he championed that turned Syria into such a disaster.

This is a typical warmonger framing of the issue, where, as Robert Higgs puts it, you “truncate the antecedents” and pretend that history starts at whichever point is most advantageous to the narrative that we can’t leave anywhere ever and anything bad that happens is a result of America not being involved enough. In this case, Crenshaw obfuscates the fact that the Kurds would not be in such a precarious position if not for U.S. intervention in the first place and leads the reader to believe that the only thing putting them in danger of being attacked by Turkey is this one act of U.S. disengagement. In reality, America’s support for the jihadist rebels all along has created the crisis in Syria, and America protecting the Kurds and promising them safety, while at the same time supporting Turkey and their jihadist proxy forces has created a house of cards that is bound to fall.

So you have people from all across the political spectrum who oppose Trump’s withdrawal because it has allowed Turkey to invade northern Syria to attack the Kurds. Turkish President Erdogan is an authoritarian dictator, they claim, who has no problem committing mass murder. But curiously enough, you’d be hard pressed to find any opposition to America’s alliance with Turkey by these very same people until just days ago. All along, Turkey has supported some of the most brutal extremist groups in Syria, yet not a peep could be heard from beltway politicians or the corporate media about the evils of Erdogan and real debate about whether we should maintain our NATO alliance with Turkey was nonexistent. In fact, anyone who questioned America’s relationship with Turkey or suggested in any way that NATO and its entangling alliances are bad for the U.S. was smeared as unpatriotic or an isolationist. The American hawks never had an issue with Erdogan’s policy of arming and funding terrorist groups because that was Obama and CIA Director John Brennan’s policy, too. America supporting dictators, only to turn on them when it helps to spin a narrative that will promote further military intervention is of course nothing new, see Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi.

While the Kurds are now more exposed to the danger of Turkish attacks, it is misguided to simply blame Trump’s small scale troop withdrawal and disregard the failed policies of the very people who now say we can never leave that have created this environment of such turmoil and dysfunction in Syria. When you create chaos through constant reckless intervention, as the U.S. government has done throughout the Middle East, there will be consequences when you inevitably have to leave, and the longer you stay, the greater those consequences will be. Blaming U.S. withdrawal for anything bad that happens afterwards is like blaming a hangover on the fact that you stopped drinking and went to bed.

If you pay close attention to the arguments made by the Washington war party, you’ll notice they hardly ever attempt to justify their policies with stories of past successes. Instead, they simply claim how bad things would be if we didn’t listen to their wisdom and that if only they had been allowed to do a little bit more, everything would have turned out great. In this case, the Lindsey Grahams of the world are incapable of providing any real justification for why the U.S. military needs to be fighting in northern Syria, so instead they fear monger and promise that anything bad that happens after we leave will be America’s fault for having left, and therefore we must stay forever.

Rather, the blame should be placed squarely at the feet of those who created this mess in the first place. That means Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, John Brennan, and the rest of the Obama administration for instigating this war by supporting al-Qaeda and helping spur the rise of ISIS and that means Lindsey Graham and the rest of the hawks in government and in the corporate press whose influence ensures that America can never fully escape this quagmire.

 

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