The US Tore the Middle East Apart. Can They Abandon It on a Whim?

October 22, 2019

The Kurds fought in U.S. wars. Iraq and Syria are dismembered. Why is no one talking about diplomacy and aid?

The Kurds fought in U.S. wars. Iraq and Syria are dismembered. Why is no one talking about diplomacy and aid?


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Story Transcript

MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. Great to have you all with us.

That footage from the Guardian Newspapers shows the frustration, anger, and some might say hopelessness on the part of the Kurds that they feel in the wake of this unexpected withdrawal of American forces by Trump. Once again in their 100-year-old fight for a national homeland, they were hung out to dry. For those in our country who oppose regime change wars and those who live in the Middle East who oppose the postcolonial despotic regimes they live under, how do you respond to this, to Trump’s policies that seem to evolve on a whim or come to his mind after a phone call or a conversation with another national leader, and he acts by tweet? And what about the reality that it is our policies of intervention that brought these wars to life, by our invasion of Iraq and the disruption of any form of stability in the Middle East? In efforts to disengage, mustn’t the United States take some responsibility for the world they’ve torn asunder? What could and should happen next? What should be the policy?

We’re once again joined by Dr. Edmund Ghareeb, who is an internationally recognized historian; expert on the Kurds, Iraq, the Middle East, the Arab and the American media, U.S.-Arab relations, and was the Mustafa Barzani Distinguished Scholar in Global Kurdish Studies–the first person to hold that chair. He launched his first regularly offered courses on Kurdish history, politics, and society in the United States. And he co-authored and authored numerous books, including Kurdish Nationalist Movement, War in the Gulf, The Kurdish Question in Iraq, and the Historical Dictionary of Iraq. And he has worked as a journalist, analyst, and commentator throughout the world. And Edmund, welcome back. Good to have you with us.

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

MARC STEINER: So let me begin. This is a clip that came from MSNBC. Charles Dickey was being interviewed, and on the heels of a book he wrote. And this is the clip.

BRIAN WILLIAMS: Chris Dickey, how do you explain over there words from our president like a “tough love approach”?

CHARLES DICKEY: He’s delusional. That’s the kind of tough love approach applied by a husband beating his wife.

NICHOLAS KRISTOF: A former UN diplomat told me that this is a little like the 1938 Munich Agreement, except that even Neville Chamberlain didn’t agree to move out the Czechs from Sudetenland. And that’s what the U.S. has agreed to do to help, not only let Turkey march in and get this safe zone but help remove the Kurds from this area.

SPEAKER: It’s not just abandoning our ally or betraying our ally. We’re leaving a vacuum there. And who’s going to fill that vacuum? Who wins?

NICHOLAS KRISTOF: I think the beneficiaries here are, well, the Syrian government, Iran, Russia. With Trump, so many roads lead to Russia, of course.

MARC STEINER: So I’d like to hear your analysis of that. I mean, if you were being asked those same questions on MSNBC, what would your response have been, Edmund?

EDMUND GHAREEB: Well, first of all, there is no doubt that the United States has decided to give up on the Kurds, to give up the support of the Kurds. This came about after a long period of trying to hold the stick in the middle, basically trying to balance its interests with both the Turks and the Kurds. So I think toward the end, it became obvious that Turkey was probably more important for the United States than the Kurds are. And this argument has been going on within the administration for a while. And it’s a reflection of the problems that face United States strategy, United States policy in Syria vis-a-vis Turkey, vis-a-vis the Kurds, primarily because there was no coherent strategy. And it did not really start with Trump, although Trump amplified it to new levels. But this started long before Trump. So basically, there was a problem with United States policy towards Syria, and I think the Kurds, the Syrians, and even the United States… Just a few minutes before we started talking, I saw a news item where the commander of the Syrian Democratic Forces gave an interview to a Kurdish publication where he said that SDF, Syrian Democratic Forces, basically which are Kurdish-led forces, is at its lowest in history now as a result of U.S. policies.

So in a sense, this is what we are seeing, these policies. And as you correctly pointed out earlier, these policies are a continuation of–or a result of or the consequence of–the U.S. policy of regime change that the United States government has pursued in a number of countries all over the world, whether it was in Afghanistan, whether it was in Libya, whether it’s in Syria, whether it was, of course, Iraq. Iraq was the most important because that probably was the beginning. And that policy in Iraq brought about the destruction the Iraqi state, led to the death of over a million Iraqis and heaven knows how many others. At the same time, thousands of American troops, close to 4,500, were killed. And probably nobody knows the real figure of the wounded, probably in the tens of thousands. And the United States paid trillions of dollars in that war. So that war had tremendous consequences. It led to the rise of ISIS. It led to the rise of extremism in Iraq. It led to the Lebanonization of Iraq, whereby instead of helping Iraq build, develop a new government that would be, yes, representative, more democratic, but not a government that’s based on ethnicity and religion.

If you take a look at what’s going on now in Lebanon, what has been going on in Lebanon, it’s, to a large extent, a consequence of the policy of sectarianism, where positions are assigned in the government in accordance with their sects, or their religious sect, or at times, their ethnic background. And this is what happened in Iraq, where the government was established on the basis of ethnicity and religion, where the president became a Kurd, but the real authority or most of the power, was in the hands of the prime minister, who was a Shiite Muslim, and the Speaker of the Parliament was a Sunni Muslim. So this is one example of the problems that Iraq is facing, and the region are facing. Because, yes, the United States was able to bring about the collapse, the fall, of a dictatorial government, authoritarian government, in Baghdad, led by Saddam Hussein. But translating a military victory to a political victory was next to impossible. It was very, very difficult to translate that military victory to a political victory. And numerous, numerous errors were made during those years when the U.S. ruled Iraq.

MARC STEINER: So in the time that we have together, let’s talk a bit about what should come next. And there are three things here, a), let’s first look at Donald Trump. This is his response to what’s going on, in a couple of different clips. And then I want to read you the statement from Ro Khanna, who is a progressive Congressman, who has his thoughts on it. And we can wrestle with just what should happen now.

DONALD TRUMP: The Kurds are much safer right now, but the Kurds know how to fight. And as I said, they’re not angels, they’re not angels. If you take a look, you have to go back and take a look, but they fought with us, and we paid a lot of money for them to fight with us. And that’s okay. The situation on the Turkish border with Syria, to be, for the United States, strategically brilliant.

Now, the PKK, which is a part of the Kurds, as you know, is probably worse at terror and more of a terrorist threat, in many ways, than ISIS.

MARC STEINER: Okay. Sometimes it’s difficult for me just to listen to him, but we had to at that moment. Sorry. But let me read this piece, this one is an interview that John Nichols did with Ro Khanna in The Nation. And this is the quote he had from Ro Khanna: “While I support removing troops from Syria, which were never authorized by Congress, withdrawing U.S. troops for the purpose of allowing Turkish forces to attack Kurdish communities is incomprehensible. A responsible withdrawal acknowledges the limitations of American military power to reshape and restructure societies abroad, but we have a clear moral obligation to protect the lives of people who will be impacted by our decision.”

And let me conclude that with… And you can respond to all this, Edmund. As I said before we went on the air, a dear friend of mine, another scholar who I interviewed many times, was in a debate on my radio show. His name is Thabit Abdullah. Dr. Thabit Abdullah was debating Phyllis Bennis from the Institute for Policy Studies. And he said even though he fought against Saddam, opposed the invasion of Iraq, he said, “You just can’t walk away now. You’ve destroyed our country and torn us all asunder.” So how do we take these three different kind of ideas? What’s the approach that should be taken now? What is the advice about where we should go? How do we address this?

EDMUND GHAREEB: Before we go beyond that, first of all, the president also said, “It’s not only that the Kurds are not angels, but they didn’t fight with us in Normandy.” But the problem is that there are people within the last, maybe two, three decades… I don’t know if you agree with that or not, but the United States has been relying more and more on sanctions, on the use of force, and less and less on diplomacy. What makes America great is its principles, its ideals, this idea of the right of people to self-determination, the right of people to speak freely, the right of people to worship freely; the separation, in a sense, of church and state. These ideas are what made America the shining star for a lot of people. It was this idea that appealed to a lot of people all over the world. However, when it is America that is using force, it’s America going back and adopting policies similar to the policies that were adopted by colonial states and imperialist states in the 19th century. And it’s not what a lot of people in the world admire or like about the United States.

So the United States seems to have deviated a little bit from, over the past few decades, as I said, especially the last three or so, from these important principles. The other problem is that the United States did not understand the history, the culture, many of the… When I talk about the United States, of course there are people in the United States who know very well, who understand the issues, who understand these societies, but the decision makers did not appear to understand what these people in many of these areas are all about. They didn’t understand the culture. They didn’t understand the politics. They didn’t understand the importance of nationalism, of religion. And as a result, the United States made a lot of mistakes which helped create a vacuum, this vacuum that we’re seeing now. And we’re seeing other powers, with the rise of China, with the return of Russia, to play, to fill that vacuum, to play that role, that perhaps to a certain extent, some of it, the United States used to play. The last couple of weeks, we saw the Russian president visiting a number of countries in the Middle East. That’s I think very significant. So that’s one thing.

So in a way, I think it’s very important for the United States to reassess. And when you make a commitment, I think that commitment… Of course, some people deny that a commitment was made to the Kurds, for example, but when the Kurds fought alongside the United States, they decided to lay their lives. Yes, it’s true that they also had an interest. They were very fearful of Turkey. But I think it’s important for a country like the United States to take the interests of these people into account. And the problem is, as I’m sure you know, the United States had abandoned the Kurds a number of times. Probably the first major time was when the United States, with the help of Britain, brought down, helped bring down the Kurdish Republic of Mahabad. This is the first and only Kurdish republic to have been established. It was established in Iran after the Second World War. It was supported by the Soviet Union. And it was crushed by the Iranian government with the help of the United States and Britain.

There are a number of other times also. But the second most important was when Dr. Henry Kissinger, under Nixon and the Nixon administration, promised to help the Kurds. A part of it had to do because the Shah of Iran wanted them to help at that time, but when the Shah reached an agreement with Saddam Hussein, the Kurds were dropped like a hot potato. And when Kissinger was asked about this, he said, “The United States is not in the business of missionary work.” I tried to interview him, and later it didn’t work. But basically, one time he mentioned–he said, “We are realists. The United States is realist. And we have to take our interests into account,” and that the U.S. was not a sort of charitable organization. So in a way, this is something that I think is very important. And this is something that sends the wrong message about the United States.

MARC STEINER: Edmund Ghareeb, it’s always a pleasure to have you on The Real News Network with us. And I look forward to some deeper conversations with you as this, unfortunately, unfolds. We’ll see what happens. Thank you for your work. Thank you for your study. Good to have you with us today, as always.

EDMUND GHAREEB: Thank you very much.

MARC STEINER: And I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Thank you all for joining us. Let us know what you think. Take care.