Zaman: Abandoned Allies, Again

The abandonment of the Kurds is a part of a greater pattern in U.S. history.

by Raniyan Zaman | 10/22/19 2:15am

Last week, President Donald Trump suddenly announced his decision to withdraw American troops from northern Syria. The withdrawal effectively made way for the Turkish military to move in and seize land that had previously been held by the Kurds, who are often referred to as “the largest ethnic group in the world not to have a state of their own.” Countless Kurds have been slaughtered, and Trump has faced bipartisan condemnation for abandoning our Kurdish allies, who have long aided American forces in the fight against various terrorist groups. 

Now, these same Kurds whom American troops have cooperated and fought alongside with for so long are experiencing an entirely preventable ethnic cleansing. And it’s far from unprecedented; in fact, the United States’ abandonment of its Kurdish allies is part of a broader pattern in U.S. history. Time and time again, the United States has cooperated with foreign troops when it was politically beneficial, only to back away when they needed American support most.

The United States’ past history with the Kurds reveals a historical precedent for the present-day desertion of the Kurds. The Kurds have long been disappointed by Western nations, even before the U.S. became directly involved; promised a state by the Treaty of Sèvres in 1920, the Kurdish people instead watched as their territory was carved up and doled out to several nations. 

Historian Bryan Gibson has studied the way America’s policy of noninterference shifted in 1972 after years of tension brewing in neighboring Iraq. He has argued that it was “the Soviet-Iraqi threat to Western interests” that finally motivated America into helping the Kurds, even though the Kurds’s requests for American assistance against the Iraqi government had fallen on deaf ears for over a decade. 

But the aid was short-lived; just three years later, in 1975, as the Iraqi military displaced and slaughtered thousands of Kurds, America stood by and did nothing to provide help. Years later, in 1991, the Kurds led an uprising against the Iraqi military under the impression that they would receive U.S. support, which they did not. 

These events could be viewed in a different light if the Kurds were a people with a country to call their own. But in a region landlocked and surrounded by hostile forces all sides, the Kurds are among the most vulnerable people in the world. Evidently, leaving the Kurds behind to be slaughtered by Turkey’s military would fit a recurring pattern in a line of American betrayals of the Kurdish people. But they are far from the only people that have suffered this kind of treatment at America’s hands. 

A well-known example that comes to mind is the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. A group of Cuban refugees trained and ostensibly backed by the Central Intelligence Agency and U.S. government invaded Cuba in the hopes of leading an uprising against Fidel Castro’s government. The attack quickly fell apart as Castro’s military took out the rebels. The U.S. withheld air support and instead, simply stood by as their allies were slaughtered. 

Several politicians, from both parties, have criticized this move as un-American, but history seems to suggest it is very much American. And many more have denounced the damage that Trump has done to American credibility. But more than mere credibility is at stake; America’s integrity has been tested. This takes America from a nation that is not only increasingly unwilling to do anything about refugee crises, to a nation that creates such crises both within and outside of its borders.

Among those most familiar with our Kurdish allies are American soldiers, many of whom have expressed anguish and dismay at this new policy. Military personnel have spoken movingly and hauntingly of the loss of their Kurdish comrades-in-arms who they fought shoulder to shoulder with. 

In a video op-ed published in the New York Times, Captain Alan Kennedy of the Colorado National Guard who served in northern Syria this summer, reveals that “ever since [Trump’s announcement to pull U.S. troops from Syria], I haven’t been able to sleep at night.” The disparity between an officer who feels genuine concern and empathy for the Kurdish people, and the commander-in-chief, who seems to regard the entire affair as a game, is jarring. In Trump’s letter to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the cavalier attitude (and multitude of exclamation points) demonstrate the absolute lack of gravitas Trump brings to this issue. 

The lives of American allies  are not chess pieces to be seized or discarded at will. It’s time that our elected officials began to act like it.