While no comprehensive timetable was presented, the U.S. military announced on Friday that the U.S.-led military coalition in Syria had begun the process of withdrawing equipment from Syria, as per President Trump’s announcement last month.
The president’s assertion that the Islamic State terrorist group had been defeated and his decision to withdraw the 2,000 American troops alarmed many in the region, and led to the resignations of U.S. Defense Minister James Mattis and the top U.S. envoy to the anti-IS coalition. It also garnered criticism that the U.S. was abandoning its local Kurdish allies amid Turkish threats of an imminent attack.
Earlier last week, though, U.S. national security adviser John Bolton said American troops will not leave northeastern Syria until the Islamic State is totally defeated as a fighting force and the American-allied Kurdish fighters are protected. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, on a tour of the region, also offered reassurance that the Kurds will be safe after U.S. troops leave the country.
But Turkey’s strongman, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who views the Kurds as enemies and has vowed to attack them, quickly rejected the implication that they would be protected from his forces, calling Mr. Bolton’s comment “a serious mistake” and declaring that Turkey “cannot make any concessions in this regard.”
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu echoed that belligerent stance, stating that military action against the Kurds in Syria will proceed whether or not the U.S. has a presence in the area.
“If the [U.S. troop withdrawal] is put off,” he said, “with ridiculous excuses like the Turks are massacring the Kurds, which does not reflect reality, we will implement this decision.”
Unfortunately, fears of a massacre of Kurdish forces most certainly do reflect reality. Turkey is an American ally, but Mr. Erdoğan has shown himself to be an autocratic and confrontational leader with little respect for innocent lives, and has targeted Kurds as “terrorists.”
The Kurds are an ethnic group numbering some 20 million people spread across four nations — Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. They speak a language related to Iran’s Farsi, and are overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim. Turkey views the country’s Kurdish Workers Party (the PKK) as a fifth column intent on forming a country of their own, something that, in the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres, they were in fact promised. The treaty, however, was never ratified, and Kurdish attempts to create an independent country have been repeatedly crushed.
Currently, Syria’s Kurds’ hope is for autonomy in the northeast corner of the country, where their population is concentrated. During Syria’s civil war, as Damascus was busy fighting rebel groups, the Kurds succeeded in setting up a degree of self-rule in that area. Turkey views the main Syrian Kurdish militia, which is linked to Kurdish insurgents in Turkey, as a terrorist group.
The U.S., however, found the Kurds to be a reliable and effective partner in the fight against the Islamic State, and our government has backed them with troops and airpower. Over a year of fighting, Kurdish forces, thousands of whom lost their lives in the fight, helped drive the Islamic State group out of almost all the territory it once held.
Turkey may officially be an American ally, but the relationship between it and the U.S. has soured over the past year, first over Turkey’s detention of an American clergyman, Andrew Brunson, whom Turkey accused of working with the Kurds, and then over a Pennsylvania-based Islamic cleric named Fethullah Gülen, whom Mr. Erdoğan considers an enemy. Turkey is also moving forward with the purchase of a Russian missile defense system, despite warnings from the U.S. that the Russian system could pose a security risk to NATO aircraft and other military equipment.
Meanwhile, the Kurds continue to fight against adherents of the Islamic State, even as they fear for their safety when American forces in the area are gone.
The Kurdish people have been abandoned before by world powers, and it would be tragic were they to be again left to the mercy of their brutal enemies, like the Southeast Asian Hmong were when the U.S. pulled out of Vietnam.
During that conflict, Hmong soldiers fought with the Americans against the Communists in Vietnam and Laos. When American forces left, countless Hmong were massacred by Vietnamese and Laotian Communist forces, and Hmong are still hunted and killed to this day by Laotian soldiers.
“These have been folks that have fought with us,” Mr. Pompeo said of the Kurds last week in Irbil, the capital of Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan region, “and it’s important that we do everything we can to ensure that those folks that fought with us are protected.”
That pledge needs to be kept.