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Paul Iddon

Worse than 1975: Trump's cynical betrayal of the Kurds

Syrian Kurds demonstrate against Turkish threats around a US armoured vehicle [AFP/Getty]

Date of publication: 8 October, 2019

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Comment: Paul Iddon details just how profoundly President Trump has betrayed the US' former Kurdish allies.
US President Donald Trump's decision to withdraw US troops from northeast Syria's border regions and green light a Turkish ground incursion there is a breathtakingly cynical betrayal of America's Syrian Kurdish-led allies against the Islamic State (IS), and will lead to even greater instability in Syria. 

Mere hours after Trump had a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, US troops near the Syrian border began to withdraw. The White House released a statement saying the US military will not support any Turkish operation but will withdraw from the border areas where it will take place, effectively authorising it. 

This amounts to a cynical betrayal of a reliable ally that sacrificed more than anyone else to rid Syria of the Islamic State's self-styled caliphate, an endeavour that ultimately cost the lives of 11,000 men and women of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

But Trump's desire to withdraw US troops from Syria isn't the only thing making this a betrayal. After all, the Kurds and the SDF never really expected the US to safeguard their long-term post-IS interests in Syria and knew the partnership was purely ad-hoc.

It's also betrayal because of how Trump essentially scrapped the "safe zone" plan for northern Syria after the US got the Kurds to make major concessions in order to make it work. 

With US troops leaving the border, most of Syrian Kurdistan's cities are now going to be even more vulnerable to Turkish attack than before

Beginning in August, the US began the rapid establishment of the so-called "safe zone" on the Syrian border with Turkey to dissuade Ankara from launching a cross-border military operation. The SDF was compelled to make concessions to stave off any potential attack against it, which in August seemed imminent. 

The group immediately complied. It removed heavy weapons from the border regions and also destroyed its defensive fortifications there. 

Turkey was given the right to monitor the zone through joint patrols on the ground and helicopter flyovers to verify the SDF's compliance with the agreement. Despite all this, Ankara expressed dissatisfaction and continually threatened to launch a unilateral operation anyway.

Now, Trump has essentially decided to let Turkey attack, barely a month after the US convinced the Kurds that by destroying their defensive positions Ankara could be appeased. With US troops leaving the border most of Syrian Kurdistan's cities are now going to be even more vulnerable to Turkish attack than before.

This surely constitutes an incredibly cynical act of betrayal. 

A Turkish attack on northeast Syria could spark a war across hundreds of kilometres of the border. Large numbers of Kurdish and Arab civilians in this hitherto stable part of northern Syria would likely become internally displaced persons or refugees.

On top of this, thousands of IS militants are held in prisons in SDF-controlled territory and could potentially escape if the SDF has to divert its resources to try and fend off a Turkish invasion of their homeland.

Such a disastrous outcome is surely the very last thing this war-weary region needs. Also, a Turkish attack would be both unjustified and certainly an unprovoked act of aggression. 

While the largest component of the SDF - the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) who are the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) party - was founded as a branch of Turkey's arch-enemy, the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), the YPG never attempted to use the vast border territories it controls in northeast Syria to harm Turkey. 

They pledged they wouldn't do so back in 2012 and have remained true to their word. 

This was despite the fact that since then Turkey destroyed large swathes of towns and cities in its Kurdish-majority southeast during the military campaign against the PKK in 2015-16 and also invaded the northwest Syrian Kurdish enclave of Afrin without provocation in early 2018, killing several YPG fighters and displacing over 100,000 Kurdish civilians. 

If Trump's decision isn't ultimately reversed, as his prior order to immediately withdraw US troops from Syria last December was, this could amount to the most cynical betrayal of Kurds since 1975. 

In the mid-1970s, a joint covert action project by the United States, the Shah's Iran and Israel supported the Iraqi Kurds in their war against Baghdad. 

The covert effort was run from Iran and consisted of arming and paying the Kurdish Peshmerga. This enabled the Kurds to keep on fighting the much larger and better-equipped Iraqi Army. 

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But in 1975, the Shah decided to completely ditch the Kurds to reach a deal with then-Iraqi Vice President Saddam Hussein that gave Iran sovereignty over half of the Shatt al-Arab waterway. 

Since Iran was the conduit for equipping the Kurds, the project collapsed shortly thereafter. A vengeful Iraqi army overran Kurdistan and 250,000 bitter and disillusioned Iraqi Kurds became refugees in Iran.

A US investigation into the programme the following year, the Pike Report, discovered that the CIA had suspected the Shah would sacrifice the Kurds to reach a deal with Saddam over two years prior, but was ordered not to warn the Kurds so the Shah would have "a card to play" in negotiations with Saddam.

As cynical as that whole episode was, Trump's decision today is arguably even worse

The report also found that the US and Iran had hoped the Kurds "would not prevail" since they preferred a continuation of "a level of hostilities sufficient to sap the resources of our ally's [Iran] neighbouring country".

"Even in the context of covert action, ours was a cynical enterprise," the report aptly noted. 

As cynical as that whole episode was, Trump's decision today is arguably worse. 

Back then, the US and Israel completely relied on Iran to supply the Peshmerga, and the Shah did not give them any known forewarning of his decision to meet Saddam and sign the agreement, meaning there was little they could do after the Shah pulled the plug on the whole project.

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In today's Syria, the US has a mere 1,000 troops to assist in anti-IS operations. Out of these, only 150 were working with Turkey on establishing the "safe zone". This minuscule number is all that was needed to ensure no unilateral Turkish operation can happen without Erdogan running even the slight risk of killing or wounding American military personnel. 

By staying, the US would essentially have forced Erdogan to adhere to the safe zone agreement, which is actually quite a good deal for Ankara since it addresses any legitimate security concerns it has. 

But Trump has made clear that he is unwilling to do even this to help an ally that has sacrificed so much to combat the marauding threat IS posed to the world.

A cynical enterprise indeed.

Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.

Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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