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Andrzej Kohut  25 listopada 2019

Is it easy to betray the Kurds? Trump is withdrawing American troops from Syria

Andrzej Kohut  25 listopada 2019
przeczytanie zajmie 8 min

„They didn’t help us during World War II. They didn’t help us in Normandy, for example,” said Donald Trump, quoting a previously read article. This was his attempt to justify the decision to withdraw American troops from northern Syria in the face of the upcoming Turkish military action against the Kurds. Trump wanted to show that America has no obligations towards Kurdish militias who fought against the Islamic State, not so much to support US interests as to simply „fight for their land”. However, public opinion around the world perceives this statement contrary to the intentions of the American president. It is believed that Trump betrayed a tried and tested ally. Concern can also be seen among the close partners of the USA – Israel and Poland.

Why doesn’t Erdogan like the Kurds?

The Kurds are a stateless nation. When the Ottoman Empire collapsed after World War I, for a moment it seemed that it could be otherwise. The 1920 Sévres Treaty even provided for the establishment of an independent Kurdistan, but the creation of a new Turkish state has undermined this. To this day, the Kurds still live divided by borderlines, mainly in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. For each of these countries, they are a problematic minority because they continue to dream of independence. This is particularly true of Turkey, where the Kurdish diaspora is the largest, with over a dozen million citizens. But it is not their number that is the biggest concern for the government in Ankara.

In 1978, Abdullah Öcalan, a thirty-year-old who originally wanted to be a Turkish soldier but became a Kurdish partisan, combined the Leninist-Maoist ideology with Kurdish independence to form the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). His organization formed militias and started fighting against the „feudal oppression” embodied by Turkish landowners. It quickly caught the attention of the local government and the PKK leadership was forced to flee from repression to neighbouring Syria. They returned to Turkey for good in 1984, when the guerrilla war began. It continues to this day, with varying degrees of intensity. It didn’t even help to apprehend Öcalan himself. Only since July 2015, in the fight started after breaking another truce, almost 5000 people have died.

Following the defeat of the Islamic State, a Kurdish territory was formed in northern Syria that was largely independent of Damascus. Ankara immediately began to signal its concern. In particular, the Syrian Democratic Forces, which, with American support, took the region from the jihadist hands, were dominated by Kurdish militias – the General Protection Forces (YPG) and their women’s version (YPJ). These militias were formed as the armed division of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which in turn is the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. This gave Erdogan the basis to demand the liquidation of the 'terror corridor’ lying at the frontier, as the Kurdish-controlled area was called. He proposed a Turkish military action that would clear the area of Kurdish fighters and so avert the danger. On the occupied territory, Turkey would establish an occupied „security zone”.

Not the first betrayal

The USA faced a dilemma: on the one hand, there were Kurdish militias and allies in battles against the Islamic State and on the other hand Turkey, a member of NATO, a long-standing partner (although recently less favoured due to buying Russian weapons) with one of the ten most powerful armies in the world. The Americans wanted to have their cake and eat it, too. They proposed the creation of a buffer zone that would reach several kilometres deep into Syria. The fortifications and troops of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) were to disappear from this area, and Turkish aviation and joint American-Turkish patrols were to oversee the implementation of this decision. An agreement was reached and its provisions began to be implemented in August this year. However, for Erdogan it was still too little – he demanded that the buffer zone be extended and that the Americans stop arming the SDF. Above all, however, he proposed the resettlement of Syrian refugees – more than three million people – in Turkey.

„Turkey is about to launch its long-planned operation in northern Syria. The United States armed forces will not support or engage in this operation” – this is part of Trump’s statement following his telephone conversation with Erdogan. The decision was to be taken by the US President himself, immediately after the conversation. The next day, Trump tried to tone down this statement by tweeting that „if Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off-limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey (I’ve done before!).” However, this attempt at correction did not calm anyone down, because almost at the same time the information about withdrawing American soldiers was spread worldwide. The Americans decided to wash their hands of the Kurdish issue.

Not for the first time. The situation was similar after the First Gulf War when the Kurds started an uprising against Saddam and the USA did not keep its promise of support, leaving the insurgents at the mercy of fate. This happened only three years after Operation Al-Anfal, the planned extermination of the Kurds by the Iraqi dictator’s army, which killed up to 200 000 people (the exact number of victims is impossible to estimate). Having in mind events such as the gas attack on the city of Halabja, which killed almost 5 000 inhabitants of the city, the Kurds rushed towards Turkey. However, they were greeted there by a closed border and many of them died of starvation and hypothermia. Also in recent years has American disloyalty been witnessed. The White House did not support the independence referendum of its allies in Iraq in 2017, allowing Baghdad to take military control of much of the Kurdish territory, particularly its main wealth, the oil fields in the Kirkuk area, through military action. The Americans at the time explained the need to maintain the cohesion of Iraq. Could the Kurds have expected it to be different this time?

Withdrawal of troops

„My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors are strongly held… Because you have the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other issues, I believe it is right for me to step down from my position”, Jim Mattis, the Secretary of Defence, wrote in his letter of resignation. The immediate reason for his decision was the President’s announcement of a plan for the complete withdrawal of troops from Syria. Trump concluded that, since the Islamic State had been defeated, there was no reason for the continued presence of some 2 000 American soldiers in the country. The decision, however, shocked not only allies and public opinion but also the president’s environment. Mattis resigned and the then security advisor, John Bolton, voiced his opposition. After persuasion, the President decided to leave part of the American contingent in Syria for some time.

However, the situation has shown two important features of Trump’s foreign policy behaviour. First of all, impulsivity, which sometimes leads to actions against the opinions of advisers. As in the case of the suspension of aid to Pakistan, which the President announced in his morning tweet, to the dismay of the members of his administration. This impulsiveness became apparent again when Trump, after talking to Erdogan, decided to issue a statement on the withdrawal of soldiers from northern Syria. His own attempts to correct the meaning of this document and the subsequent statements by the Secretary of Defence, Mark Esper, who assured that the USA had not given Turkey the green light for the invasion, show that this was a step taken on the spur of the moment and was not thought through, which does not mean that there were no deeper motivations behind it.

This brings us to the second element which links Trump’s last decision to the one taken almost a year ago on the withdrawal of troops from Syria, and thus to the permanence of his priorities. Priorities that are not always well understood by external observers. Trump’s administration seems to be very militant on the surface. The President is threatening Kim Jong-un with „fire and fury” and announcing that he will crack down on Iran. His advisers suggest that, in the case of the Venezuelan dictator, „all options are on the table”.

But when it comes to final decisions, Trump always withholds his wrath – like when he withdrew from a retaliatory attack on Iran, cancelling the bombardment „10 minutes before”. Trump’s overriding foreign policy principle is not to engage in new military conflicts. This could be seen in the concessions made to North Korea, the attempt to deescalate the conflict in Iran or to silence the Venezuelan cause. Where economic and individual sanctions do not help, Trump simply does not decide on further steps. The counsellor who tried to convince him of a different course of action, John Bolton, is no longer working with him.

The desire to limit military activity is not particularly surprising. America, after the turbulent first decade of the 21st century, has no desire for more battles. Barack Obama had already opted for „renewed American leadership”, which consisted more in diplomacy and the use of other soft power methods than in sending Marines helicopters. In Trump’s case, this direction was further enhanced by isolationist accents in the election campaign, which helped him win the presidential race. Therefore, America’s involvement in another conflict a year before the forthcoming election can be regarded as a sure way of defeating the electoral process.


Turkey entered Syria on 9 October and launched an offensive against the Kurds. It went better than they had assumed. The Americans were quickly forced to withdraw their troops from areas further away from the border as well. The Kurds understood that their help was not to be counted on and they turned in a different direction – to the Assad regime in Damascus, supported by Russia. They quickly reached an agreement and the new allies marched into Kurdish territory to stop the progress of the Turkish army.

The regional strengthening of Russia doesn’t seem to worry about Trump. „Anyone who wants to assist Syria in protecting the Kurds is good with me, whether it is Russia, China, or Napoleon Bonaparte,” he tweeted. This clearly shows, however, that the space left by the Americans will not be empty for long, and the other players are just waiting to take it.

Meanwhile, a storm swept through the US, the President’s decision was condemned from the left and the right, and Trump was backed into a corner, or rather he backed himself there by his action. Apart from bellicose assurances on Twitter he also decided to send a strange letter to Erdogan. „History will look upon you favourably if you get this done the right and humane way. It will look upon you forever as the devil if good things don’t happen. Don’t be a tough guy. Don’t be a fool! I will call you later,” wrote Trump. We do not know how the Turkish leader reacted to that correspondence, but just over a week later (the letter was written on the day the Turkish activities started), the US persuaded Ankara to initiate armistice, arguing that they would persuade the Kurds to voluntarily withdraw from the Turkish-established security zone. The problem is that these days Washington would have to talk not only to the Kurds but also to the Syrians and Russians. Therefore, if the new agreement between the USA and Turkey reduces (at least for some time) the scale of Kurdish suffering, then the complicated situation that arose after the unexpected move of the president will not solve it.

There is another result of Trump’s decision, which is much more serious than the fall in US credibility in the region and the strengthening of the Russians in collaboration with Assad. There were about 10 000 imprisoned fighters of the Islamic State in the Kurdish-controlled area, for watching over whom Washington provided financially to the Kurds. When the Turkish intervention began to materialise, there were many voices that when the Kurds moved against it, the jihadists would be given an excellent opportunity to escape. Although President Trump assured that Erdogan had promised to personally solve the issue of the imprisoned fighters, it quickly became clear that Turkey had no plan in place and that information about more refugees had begun to leak to the media. The revival of the Islamic State is the most dangerous possible consequence of the premature withdrawal of US soldiers from Syria.

What about Poland?

The motivations behind Donald Trump’s actions can be understood as follows: they are due to his reluctance to engage in another conflict in the Middle East that cannot be resolved quickly, the need to limit military involvement, the feeling that the international community once again blames the USA for not wanting to participate in the costs (Europeans did not agree to the American demands to accept the citizens of their countries fighting on the side of the Islamic State, the USA had to finance their detention in Syria), finally, reluctance to speak out against a NATO ally. However, the President’s impulsive decision has made the situation in the region very complicated and may have numerous consequences for the United States.

Do the allies of the USA, like Poland, have cause for concern? False analogies should be avoided. The Kurdish issue is an extremely complex one in one of the most complicated regions of the world. Although on the emotional level it is difficult not to feel compassion for the Kurds (especially taking into account our historical experience), on the moral level one can feel outraged about the unfair treatment or even betrayal of an ally, one cannot forget about the fact that the world of international relations is ruled by cold calculation. It follows from this that the superpower will not risk another difficult war because of its sympathy for a stateless, tactical ally. Poland, on the other hand, is not only a sovereign state but also a part of the European security system, which the Americans guarantee within the framework of NATO. These two situations cannot be compared easily.

Another issue is the disclosure of the impulsive action of the American President, combined with another presentation of a very transactional understanding of relations with other countries. As the Polish government strengthens its alliance with the United States, it should not forget these two characteristics that make the current US administration significantly different from the previous ones. It is also worth remembering that although Trump has repeatedly used the rhetoric of Washington’s „hawks”, in practice he has turned out to be a president willing to make far-reaching concessions to the world’s villains.

Polish version is available here.

Publication (excluding figures and illustrations) is available under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 InternationalAny use of the work is allowed, provided that the licensing information, about rights holders and about the contest "Public Diplomacy 2019" (below) is mentioned.

The publication co-financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland as part of the public project "Public Diplomacy 2019" („Dyplomacja Publiczna 2019”). This publication reflects the views of the author and is not an official stance of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.