A Know-Nothing President Steps Into a Turkish/Kurdish Minefield

October 11, 2019

The U.S. is deeply involved in the region surrounding Syria. Its actions helped lay the groundwork for the current struggle faced by the Kurds.

The U.S. is deeply involved in the region surrounding Syria. Its actions helped lay the groundwork for the current struggle faced by the Kurds.


Kurd Trump

Story Transcript

DONALD TRUMP: I wrote in a very, very powerful article today. They didn’t help us in the Second World War, they didn’t help us with Normandy as an example. They mentioned names of different battles. But they’re there to help us with their land and that’s a different thing. In addition to that, we have spent tremendous amounts of money helping the Kurds in terms of ammunition, in terms of weapons, in terms of money, in terms of pay. This is like Israel and the Palestinians. Okay? There’s only one difference, maybe the hatred’s even greater. Is that possible? Maybe not.

MARC STEINER: I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network.

That was the voice of overt imperialism we just heard. It was almost untenable to hear what the President of the United States just said; it’s like the man sitting next to you on a bar stool who knows nothing about anything he’s talking about it but wants to talk about it anyway. It’s a madman stirring the madness of the Middle East pot. This is a direct lineage in many ways to Bush’s War in Iraq, to Obama-Clinton’s War in Libya, to what we’re facing today in Syria. Once again, the Kurds are being deserted by their seeming allies. For a hundred years, the Kurds have been fighting for national independence. It’s a very complex issue given the world we live in today, where the Kurds align with Israel and the U.S., yet they are on the left.

So today we’ll try to parse out this complex moment and the history that made it with Dr. Khury Peterson-Smith, who’s a Middle East Research Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. Khury, welcome back. Good to have you with us.

KHURY PETERSEN-SMITH: Thank you. Good to be here.

MARC STEINER: This is really complex. Well, let’s just start with what you just saw, what we just saw. I mean, so clearly what happened here, Donald Trump read an article in the right wing press and created that as historic fact about the Kurds not helping the United States and the Western Allies in Normandy. What the hell does that mean?

KHURY PETERSEN-SMITH: Yeah, that’s a good question. I think there’s two things from that clip. The first is what he ended on, which this is like Israel and the Palestinians except the hatred is greater. I mean there’s so little conversation in the U.S. about these entanglements that the U.S. is involved in the Middle East. And when there is as right now–given what Trump decided to do this past Sunday–these are talked about in terms of these intractable ethnic conflicts that are rooted in hatred as opposed to decisions and power and control of land and oppression, which is what this is actually about. Really, the United States shares quite a lot of the blame for the nightmare that Kurds are facing today. This isn’t just about hatred. This is about decisions that are made and in particular decisions that are made by powerful forces like the U.S.

The piece about Normandy; it’s interesting. On one hand, it’s so out of left field, but on the other hand, what he’s saying is you’re only deserving of something depending on your loyalty to the United States, as though the criterion for the Kurds not being delivered to their brutal oppressor, the Turkish government is their loyalty to the United States. In that regard, Trump is actually not the only one. The critics of Trump who are within the U.S. establishment, people like Former Ambassador Nikki Haley has spoken up. Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham have spoken against Trump’s decision to move troops away from the Turkish border. Of course folks, Democrats like Hillary Clinton as well, what they have said, they’ve framed this in terms of, “Look, the Kurds are still loyal to us. How can we do this?” It’s like actually, the question really shouldn’t be about the Kurd’s loyalty to the United States. That’s not what their right to exist depends on.

MARC STEINER: No, that’s true. I think when you look at the press political situation, clearly when you look at what the destabilization in the Middle East caused primarily by our governments, whether it’s Libya or whether it’s Iraq and what’s happened now in Syria and other parts that when you look at this is part of that destabilization and if it wasn’t for the Kurdish armies, especially the ones in Syria that fought ISIS, ISIS may never have been defeated the way they’d been defeated in that part of Northern Syria and Western Iraq. I think people A, forget about that and B, what seems to be politically, we talked a bit about this before we went on the air, in a historic sense and in a present political sense, this is a very odd situation.

I mean, this disruption in the Middle East has brought what are clearly left-wing and revolutionary Kurdish movements, whether they’re in Iraq or whether they’re in Turkey or in Syria. But now we’re talking about the Syrians, who are clearly revolutionaries and on the left who are fighting to build a different kind of society with full equality for women and more; a cooperative communal society in terms of their economic view. I mean, that’s their idea. But they are in this alliance in some ways with both Israel and the United States, given who their other enemies are. I mean, there’s a complexity here that I think people need to understand and have it parsed out a bit.

KHURY PETERSEN-SMITH: Yeah, it’s extremely complicated. And as you’re saying, this region of Syria, Rojava, has been not only a place… I mean, we hear about it in the conversation in the mainstream media here as a frontline in the fight against ISIS. Well, that’s true, but actually also it has been a kind of experiment in an effort to have a freer society that’s led by Kurdish forces. Of course ISIS threatens that kind of thing, so the Kurds are really fighting for their lives in terms of they’re fighting of ISIS. It’s worth actually talking about that as a way of parsing out what has been U.S. and Kurdish collaboration in the fight against ISIS. Because part of the critique that we’re hearing from, again people who are in the Pentagon or the State Department or have been in the past and in the mainstream media.

Part of the critique of Trump’s decision is it rests on this kind of rosy idea that the U.S. and the Kurds were involved in this fight together against ISIS and that was great and now we should just return to that. You know, why is Trump departing from that when in fact that was going so well? While on one hand, again, I think the Kurds have been fighting for their lives. The United States operations against ISIS are really worth talking about. I mean this involved an air bombardment of the city of Raqqa, which Amnesty International and other organizations have documented mass civilian casualties as well. So at first of all, I just think it’s worth talking about what the U.S. has actually done when it comes to ISIS. Then when we’re talking about the Kurds, they are again fighting for their lives and in that context they enter into these temporary alliances with forces like the United States I think with the knowledge of history, which is that the U.S. has betrayed them before as have so many forces.

MARC STEINER: So the question is: Where does this go from here? When you look at what’s happened here in the United States between Donald Trump and even members of his own political party as well as the Democrats… And you I think aptly described that in the beginning of our conversation. But it shows even if you don’t agree with the policy of formations of most of the centrist Democrats, the policy formation of the Republicans specifically as well, that it’s clear there what’s happening right now in the White House. He has no understanding about what’s really going on and fostering these policy moves that could disrupt even the establishment points of view about what should be happening in the Middle East.

KHURY PETERSEN-SMITH: That’s why people like Lindsey Graham and Mitch McConnell are speaking up. I mean, notice what they tolerate from Trump. I mean, commenting on the Nazis in Charlottesville and saying that there’s good people on that side. I mean any number of horrendous things that Trump has done, but they have repeatedly spoken up when Trump makes a move that they believe threatens U.S. power abroad. So that is what this is about. This does on one hand introduce a new round of chaos into a chaotic situation which could threaten U.S. power as the very question of what the direction of Syrian society is, is very much up for grabs. Folks in the establishment want the U.S. to be a big player at that table to determine what Syria looks like. They’re concerned that Trump is threatening that.

But it’s worth us of course, having a completely different critique and among other things, looking at the hypocrisy of the fact that the United States was working with and funding two allies, the Kurdish forces and Turkey who are both at bitter odds with each other. This is not some huge surprise that the United States, which has given more than $300 million in military aid to Turkey over the course of the War on Terror, it’s not some shock that the Turkish Government then uses that weaponry to attack the Kurds who has an ongoing a war with. I understand the anxiety in the halls of power in Washington about this threatening U.S. power, but really no matter how you slice it, the question of the Kurds wellbeing and the question of human rights is absolutely not what’s guiding U.S. policy. That really needs to be what’s guiding our thinking. I mean, we should be concerned about the fate of Kurds and other folks in the region.

MARC STEINER: Let’s conclude with that. The issue you just raised, and the question is: How do people respond to this? How do progressive people in this country looking for not just a policy of fixing United States internally, but a different foreign policy? I mean, how do you begin to address this? I mean, what should it be, the things that people should be talking about and saying and forcing a conversation about?

KHURY PETERSEN-SMITH: Right. It’s complicated, but I can think of two things right off the bat. The first is cut all U.S. military aid to Turkey. I mean these attacks that Turkey is carrying out right now are likely being carried out with the U.S. weapons. So if we’re concerned about the human rights abuses that Turkey inevitably will commit, which already has done so many against the Kurds, that we should cut us military aid to Turkey.

The other thing I can think of is a question of refugee policy, and that’s a question not only of the refugees who are allowed into the United States. We know that the Trump administration is basically trying to eliminate the U.S.’s refugee program and trying to make it so that no refugees are allowed in. We need to oppose that and all restrictions on people being allowed in the country. But the other thing is that the U.S. is supporting its allies in the region in terms of a strengthening the borders in the Middle East and their refugee policies. One of the things that Turkey is doing, they’re not only attacking the Kurds, they’re trying to deport Syrian refugees to the same zone and we should oppose all of that.

MARC STEINER: So that’s a big part of what Turkey’s doing is pushing the Kurds out, blunting their power so they can force Syrians who used to live in that zone at the top of Syria on the border of Turkey.

KHURY PETERSEN-SMITH: Exactly. That’s about dealing with the refugees in Turkey who everyone wants to get rid of. It’s about putting Arabs into… It’s basically part of an ethnic cleansing campaign in the Kurdish Region of Syria as well. Again, that’s done with the support of the United States and support of the European Union as well, who has outsourced their refugee… They’ve made it so that Turkey is the holding cell for refugees who are trying to get into Europe. So there’s a lot of blame to go around here and we should be demanding that the U.S. and the EU stopped supporting Turkey as it does these things.

MARC STEINER: So we have to end this; conclude our conversation, unfortunately. But one of the things that you said, I just want to ask another question about. If the United States and European Union end aid to Turkey, given the reality of politics in the world, that would mean someone else would step back into Turkey, like Russia, let’s say for example. So that wouldn’t end the conflict. That wouldn’t end the madness of what’s happening there, but it just means someone else’s funding it. So we would have to play a different kind of role that goes beyond just not funding Turkey.

KHURY PETERSEN-SMITH: Right. I mean, I think what we see here is this is an extremely messy situation and the more the U.S. is involved, the messier it gets. To my knowledge, there’s no easy or straightforward solution or way out of this situation. I can’t imagine an easy road forward, but we know that U.S. involvement is a problem. That’s the first thing.

The second thing is actually, I believe, I think that we progressives, leftists, we should believe in the capacity of ordinary people and impress people to figure things out themselves. I mean, look at what the Kurds have been able to do despite the fact that they’re so besieged. If they actually had the support, the solidarity of movements here in the U.S. and around the world, perhaps they would be that much in a better position to determine their own fate rather than the United States and other powerful forces around the world.

MARC STEINER: Yeah. It is really interesting to watch the Kurdish movements of established self-government, how women have full rights. You saw in those videos of women standing with men fighting. That’s something we should examine in some depth I think, with folks who are participating in that, to really get a real feel for that and understand that. And I always enjoy talking to you, Khury Peterson-Smith. It’s always enlightening, very clear. And I look forward to talking to you very soon again.

KHURY PETERSEN-SMITH: Likewise. I’m always so grateful to talk about these things with you.

MARC STEINER: All right. Take care. We’ve been talking to Dr. Khury Peterson-Smith, who is a Middle East Research Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC. I’m Marc Steiner here with The Real News Network. I want to thank you for joining us. Go to our website, let us know what you think. Take care.

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