Trump’s Withdrawal From Syria: Betrayal of Kurds or End to Endless War?

October 9, 2019

President Trump's intention to withdraw from Syria was met with outrage on many sides, with people calling it a betrayal of a key ally in the Syrian conflict. Kurdish expert Edmund Ghareeb says there is probably a deal between Trump and Erdogan.

President Trump's intention to withdraw from Syria was met with outrage on many sides, with people calling it a betrayal of a key ally in the Syrian conflict. Kurdish expert Edmund Ghareeb says there is probably a deal between Trump and Erdogan.


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Story Transcript

GREG WILPERT: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Greg Wilpert in Arlington.

Late Sunday night, President Trump abruptly announced over Twitter that he plans to withdraw U.S. forces from Northern Syria; saying that from now on, Turkey, Europe, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Russia, and the Kurds will now have to figure out the situation. The announcement took practically everyone by surprise and also angered many Republicans. For example, Senator Marco Rubio called it a grave mistake. Senator Mitt Romney, referring to the Kurds who supported the U.S. fight in Syria, called it a betrayal. Senator Susan Collins called it terribly unwise. And Senator Mitch McConnell said the move would only benefit Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told Trump in a call on Sunday night that Turkey would finally move against Syrian Kurds as he had long threatened to do. Trump responded to the threat as follows:

DONALD TRUMP: I told President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, “You got to… It’s going to be your responsibility now.” Really, who’s responsible? It’s really Russia, it’s Turkey, it’s Iran, it’s Iraq, and it’s Syria, and anybody else in the neighborhood. We did a great service to the world. Right now we’re at a position where if Turkey does anything out of what they should be doing, we will hit them so hard on the economy. Let them take care of it. We’re policing. We’re not fighting, we’re policing. We’re not a police force.

GREG WILPERT: Joining me now to discuss the situation in Northern Syria and of the Kurds that lived there is Edmund Ghareeb. He’s a historian and expert on the Kurds, Iraq, and the Middle East. He has written or co-written books on the Kurdish nationalist movement. Thanks for joining us today Edmund.

EDMUND GHAREEB: Thank you. It’s a pleasure.

GREG WILPERT: So as I mentioned in the introduction, President Trump quite explicitly threatened Erdogan with destroying Turkey’s economy should Erdogan do anything that Trump considers to be off limits. Now, this is actually the words that he used in the tweet actually, and he only mentions the captured in the tweet; he mentions the captured ISIS fighters and their families as being possibly one of these things that are off limits. Now, do you think that this threat for the U.S. to act against Turkey will hold Erdogan back from invading or somehow intervening in Northern Syria to attack the Kurds, which clearly Turkey believes to be a threat to Turkey?

EDMUND GHAREEB: There’s no doubt that the U.S. and Turkey have been in negotiations for months now, if not for longer, to try to agree on what kind of policy they are going to pursue and a tolerance in Northern Syria towards the Syrian Democratic Forces, which are led by the PKK which are primarily Kurdish forces. The U.S. and Turkey finally agreed that there should be a safe zone on the border. The question, however, was that there were differences over the size of that security zone. The U.S. and the Kurds agreed to something between 5 and 7 kilometers in depth and maybe 150 kilometers to 200 kilometers. Turkey, however, wanted 30 to 35 kilometers deep and about 400 kilometers; basically all the way to the Turkish-Iraqi border. Since the meeting between President Trump and President Erdogan at the United Nations, there seems to be something going on between the two sides, some kind of agreement.

I think the U.S. has tried up until last week when the Secretary of Defense and the new Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff went to Turkey, but apparently the disagreements were still there until Saturday night when there was a conversation between President Trump and President Erdogan; and that’s when the decision was made. It seems that both sides agreed on an area to be where Turkey could move into in Northern Syria. This in fact was a surprise to many. Although in reality it should not have been a surprise, partly because of the talks that were being held; partly because about five days ago there was an American official who spoke to the media without allowing his name to be used, saying a big storm is brewing in that part of that area and that the United States may not have sufficient forces and that we may be forced to withdraw. So basically that should not have been a surprise.

Also, if you look at the situation and our historical perspective, the Kurds who have relied on superpowers have often been betrayed once they fulfilled the jobs that they were expected to do. This happened in Iraq in the early 1970s when the U.S. provided assistance to the Kurds. The CIA was involved, Israel was involved, Iran was involved; but when the Shah of Iran and Saddam Hussein met in Algiers and reached an agreement to solve their problems, the United States dropped the Kurds and Kissinger said that the United States is not in the business of missionary work. Basically what they are saying: “We are not in the charity business.” So they were dropped.

Before that, the U.S. and Britain also supported the Shah of Iran to defeat the only Kurdish Republic ever established in history–and this was the Kurdish Republic of Mahabad in 1946-47, which at the time was supported by the Soviet Union while Britain and the U.S. supported the Shaw–and brought down that republic. Its leader was executed with many top leaders and there was suppression of the Kurds at that time. There were numerous other incidents where not only the U.S. but Britain, the other European countries, and sometimes regional players betrayed the Kurds. The question is why didn’t the Kurds learn a lesson from all these betrayals?

GREG WILPERT: Well, that actually brings me to the question. You would basically characterize this move by Trump to withdraw as another betrayal. If that’s the case, does that mean that the U.S. troops should remain in Syria?

EDMUND GHAREEB: Regardless of what we may agree or disagree with them or think of it, Trump has been saying since he was a candidate he wants to withdraw from Syria, he wanted to withdraw from what he called these “unending wars”–the last time I think he used the word “stupid wars”–where the U.S. has paid a heavy price and it was the U.S. that has carried the burden. However, he has been unable to fulfill that promise primarily–at least in Syria or in Afghanistan–and he has criticized President Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq. It’s very unclear how sometimes the President is operating and what he’s thinking. He has more than once said that he wants to withdraw and let the people in the region basically carry the burden because the United States cannot be the world’s policeman.

However, here I think there have been promises made to the Kurds–if not by the President, certainly by other officials–that if asked they will back them. At the same time, the U.S. however also wanted to maintain its relationship with Turkey, which has been an important ally. I think this may have been also a factor that when it comes down to basically deciding on who is the best ally wherever the U.S. should go. There have been a number of statements from former senior U.S. diplomats, from some current officials that in the end, that Turkey is far more important than the Kurds. So in a way this should not, as I mentioned earlier, have come as a surprise.

I asked you the question, and I think that’s the real question: Should the U.S. stay in Syria? What is the U.S. doing in Syria? What are the purposes? It does not seem that there is current U.S. policy towards Syria. And on top of that, the U.S. is not in Syria with the backing of the United Nations Security Council; the U.S. does not have a Congressional resolution authorizing the presence of U.S. forces in Syria. And also the Syrian government, which is still the internationally recognized government, has not asked for United States to be present in Syria. So basically the Syrians have been saying that the U.S.–like Turkey, like other actors who are non-Syrian appliers–are occupation forces and should leave. So to return to the issue, what does the U.S. want from Syria? Many of course believed that the U.S. wanted to blockade, prevent Iran from expanding its influence all the way through Iraq, through Syria to Lebanon where it supports Hezbollah, and maybe even all the way to Gaza.

But at the same time, Iran has allies among the Kurds, whether it’s Iraqi Kurds or even among some Syrian Kurds as allies among Iraqi militias. And it already has been and is still supporting Asbala in Lebanon. So basically, the U.S. cannot realistically blockade Iran. What else does the U.S. want to continue? The tension put pressure on the Syrian government so that the U.S. could remain a player when a final agreement is made in Syria? And for this, the U.S. actually supports the Syrian Democratic Forces. They control a quarter to a third of Syrian territory. Some of the richest soil agricultural areas in Syria are in this region, and that’s where there are also serious oil and gas fields. So basically is this also a weapon that the U.S. is trying to use? What is the objective?

It does not seem that the U.S. is very clear on that. In the long term, the U.S. position is tenable, particularly after the Syrian government has regained control over most of the territory of Syria, except for the two areas of Idlib where you still have Al Qaeda and some other Syrian opposition forces. And you have these Syrian Democratic Forces where Syria considered these Kurdish forces to be a part of the PKK, which is the Kurdistan Workers Party, which has been fighting against Turkey since 1982. And basically, many of the Kurds in this area also are seen by Turkey as terrorists. Primarily, this put the U.S. in a very difficult position. And in the long run, it is in an untenable position.

GREG WILPERT: Okay. Now, one of the other main points that critics have made of the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from Syria is that it would revive ISIS in Syria; the Islamic State. Now here’s what Senator Lindsey Graham had to say about that issue.

LINDSEY GRAHAM: This is going up lead to ISIS reemergence. Nothing better for ISIS than to create a conflict between the Kurds and Turkey. The Kurds will now ally them with Assad because they have nobody to count on because we abandoned them. So this is a big win for Iran and Assad, a big win for ISIS. I will do everything I can to sanction Turkey if they step one foot in Northeastern Syria. So to those who think ISIS has been defeated, you will soon see. And to Turkey, you have destroyed the relationship with the U.S. Congress and I will do everything I can to sanction Turkey’s military and their economy if they step one foot into Syria.

GREG WILPERT: So Edmund, what do you make of that argument that Senator Lindsey Graham–and of course many others–have made, that this would only lead to the revival of ISIS?

EDMUND GHAREEB: What’s interesting first, I find, is that it seems that neoliberals as well as neoconservatives, the hawks and maybe we can call them doves–although they do not seem to be–are on the same page when it comes to maintaining an empire or continuing to wanting to preserve to keep U.S. forces in numerous places all over the globe. But to specifically talk about ISIS; we have heard time and time again–we heard from the president, we’ve heard from senior U.S. officials, from some members of Congress–that we have defeated ISIS and that we have dismantled the caliphate. Although the reality is most of the actual work has been done by the Syrian military and their allies, whether it’s Russia, Iran, or Hezbollah, but not by the international coalition. ISIS is now very much isolated. There are still there maybe a couple of thousand fighters in Syria and maybe something similar or a little less in Iraq.

Yes, there is a chance that they might reemerge. But in fact, if we take a look at the situation on the ground, we find that ISIS now and Al Qaeda have spread beyond Syria, beyond Iraq. We find them in Libya, we find them in Africa, we find them in Afghanistan, you find them in Asia. So basically, these interventions that have been made by foreign powers including the U.S.–whether it was the Iraq war, whether it was the Libyan war, whether it was Syria, whether it was Afghanistan–foreign interventions have led to chaos and in many ways to the death and wounding of millions of people if you count all over the whole time. And add to that thousands of Americans and the wounding of tens of thousands and to the loss of trillions of dollars. But some people estimate it as somewhere between eight and ten trillion dollars has been the cost of these wars, which could have been used to build the infrastructure in the U.S., to take care of the healthcare, to improve education, or in many other ways.

Basically, the argument is not a very sound argument. Because it was actually the interventions that people like Senator Graham supported very strongly, in Iraq and other areas, that contributed to the rise of ISIS; have contributed a rise of radical extremists. And minorities in the region, be they the Yazidis, be they Christians, be they Kurds, be they Sunnis in non-Sunni areas, be they Shia in non-Shia areas, these are the people who have paid a very, very heavy price in terms of their lives, in terms of their daily basically life, and in terms of their property; and many of them have been forced out. There used to be, for example, about one million four hundred thousand Christians in Iraq. If there are still two hundred and fifty thousand there, that’s probably a high figure. So basically, these people have paid a heavy price for these interventions.

So I do not see the argument as a very rational argument that reflects the realities. If it’s Iran, did Iran benefit? Iran has very good friendships, good relationships with some of the Kurds in Iraq, some of the Kurds in Syria. That has not been a block from maintaining its relationship. Is Russia really benefiting from this? Russia does not want Turkey to intervene. I have said they want to maintain serious territorial integrity. This is the number one issue for them. While they understand its security issues, it should not intervene in Syria without the approval of the Syrian government. So basically, yes, Turkey may benefit. President Erdogan who has faced problems recently because of the presence of large numbers–three and a half million Syrian refugees in Turkey. And apparently, recently, we have seen reaction mounting in Turkey against the Syrians. The Turks wants them out.

Erdogan may have lost the elections in Istanbul and Ankara because of this. There were other factors as well, also because of his Syrian policy. So basically, he may benefit from this. This may make him look good. Basically his defending Turkey’s territorial integrity. Also it may appear he is basically trying to resettle the Syrian refugees in this security zone. And this is going to be a big issue if there is no understanding between the U.S. and Turkey, basically because you cannot settle one and a half million to two million in that area. But even if you do succeed, this is going to be a major problem because this is going to create friction between the people who are living in this area, the indigenous inhabitants and the newcomers. And it’s also not sufficient, the area that has been agreed to, at least by the U.S. Initially–I don’t know now–it would not have been sufficient to settle a couple of million Syrian Kurds. So it’s really going to be a big problem down the road.

So ultimately, this argument that we have been hearing does not work. The Syrian regime may benefit, but only if there is an agreement reached. I hear that already there is some dialogue going on right now between the Kurdish forces and the Kurdish leadership in Syria and the Syrian regime in Damascus. If that reaches an agreement where we’re all understanding, this might lead to some kind of a settlement whereby this would accelerate the movement towards some kind of agreement, an overall Syrian agreement between the regime, the opposition, the Kurds, and others. If that happens, that might be a positive step. But there are a lot of ifs here.

GREG WILPERT: Okay. Well, we’re going to have to leave it there. But I’m sure we’ll come back to you soon because the situation continues to develop. And it’s a really a very key issue not only for the region, but also actually it’s playing into the West’s politics quite intensely. So we’ll probably come back to you. I was speaking to Edmund Ghareeb, historian and expert on the Kurds. Thanks again, Edmund, for having joined us today.

EDMUND GHAREEB: Thank you.

GREG WILPERT: And thank you for joining The Real News Network.

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