Syria, the Kurds, Turkey, and the US

Middle East War Room

Earlier this week I heard from the chief of staff of a Massachusetts member of Congress who asked about my take on Trump’s decision to partially pull back US troops in Syria to clear the way for a Turkish invasion. My initial response of our back and forth is posted as “On Trump’s Proposed Withdrawal from Syria”. Turkey has been occupying parts of northwest Syria for years, while facilitating the arming of radical religious extremists, with no rebuke from the US. Now that the Turkish invasion of Eastern Syria has begun (I later wrote):

I believe the most useful Congressional action now is to condemn and sanction the Turkish invasion and ongoing occupation of Syrian territory that preceded the current military moves — while supporting the withdrawal of US and all fo reign troops that are not in Syria legally. We should move in the UN to defend the safety of the Syrian Kurdish population and all people/minorities threatened in Syria.

Toles Cartoon on SyriaThen, we should join in diplomatic efforts to end the fighting, reconcile the various factions in the country, reunite Syria and rebuild with international support. 

Our country owes a lot to Syrians for the destruction we have brought about in their country, either directly by flooding the place with arms or looking the other way while our allies have done even worse by supporting radical jihadist elements and directly launching military invasions.  Sadly, this began with Obama, not Trump.

US political elites are crying crocodile tears over the fate of the Syrian Kurds, but don’t be fooled. Imperial powers have always manipulated ethnic rivalries and discontents in the Middle East and elsewhere in the service of their own power.  “DIVIDE AND RULE” has been the method of empire since Roman times. Today, it is still the keystone of Israeli international relations.

In this sordid history, Kurds have been both victims and perpetrators. During the first World War, the Ottomans mobilized Kurds to massacre and expel Armenians and Syriac Christians; the Kurds were alternately supported by the US, then themselves suffered repression in US-allied Iran and Iraq during the 1970s and 80s. When they were being targeted with poison gas by Saddam Hussein – then allied with the US against revolutionary Iran – he was shielded from accountability at the UN by the Reagan administration.

There is much that is attractive about the Kurdish national movement in Syria — local democracy and support for women’s rights not the least.  But we must bear in mind that there are no ethnically pure regions in the Middle East, where there continues to exist a historic geographic mosaic of ethnic, linguistic and religious communities across the region.  Even in the supposed “Kurdish” area of Syria, the Kurds are a bare majority in only a small territory in the far northeast Hasakah province. In the entire region east of the Euphrates controlled jointly by the Kurds and US occupiers, ethnic Arab Muslims and Christians are the majority, and they have been chafing under Kurdish rule.

We tend to accept as a given that ethnically homogenous nation states are the norm. But in fact, this idea – partly imaginary and still incomplete – has developed quite recently, even in Europe, and was the outcome of centuries of wars, ethnic displacement, repression, forced cultural assimilation. This is not a process we should want duplicated in the Middle East. Instead, we should recognize that our wars and interventions have accelerated ethnic cleansing.

A progressive future for the region – as for the rest of the world, including Europe and the Americas – will start with democratic, secular states that overcome narrow nationalism while recognizing and supporting religious, ethnic and cultural diversity. (Syria, for all its repressive authoritarian politics and despite its long mistreatment of the Kurdish minority, has been, socially at least, a relatively positive example; Syrian cities are all multi-ethnic and multi-confessional.) Eventually, we should look for a peaceful evolution toward more porous borders and transnational institutions. Progressives support this development in the US and Europe, recognizing the dangers of racialized nationalism and militarist exclusion as the dangerous threats that they are. But we should not fall victim to an orientalist exceptionalism in the Middle East by idealizing ethnic particularism and the fragmentation of post-colonial states. Other forms of conflict and repression are the inevitable result.


President Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from the border region in northeast Syria is exceptionally rare in drawing fire from Republicans at least as much as from Democrats who oppose him on a multitude of other issues. Because of this rarity, the political contours of the debate threaten to overshadow the substance. Democrats, outraged by many other things Trump has done, may be tempted to throw this issue into the bin of reasons Trump must go and to be leery of expressing support for the president lest this support detract, amid an impeachment inquiry, from all those other reasons. Republicans may welcome an opportunity to demonstrate that they are not slavish apologists for Trump…  Critics of the decision to withdraw seldom address the long-term question of how their recommended course of action ends. The vision seems to be a permanent U.S. protectorate of a Kurdish-controlled part of a still-divided Syria, with a never-ending American troop presence that doesn’t really leverage anyone but instead functions as a trip-wire that raises the risk of war with Russia, Iran, or even fellow NATO member Turkey.  More

UN Accuses US-Allied Forces of War Crimes in Syria

The UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria released a report on September 11 drawing attention to “large-scale operations by the international coalition led by the United States of America, and the Syrian Democratic Forces, which led to near complete destruction of towns and villages in and around Hajin and Baghuz”—the last specks of land under the control of the Islamic State (ISIS). Tens of thousands of people—including ISIS fighters and their family members—had crowded into a handful of hamlets scattered across farmland near the Iraqi border. Many, often with great difficulty, fled the attacks. Others never made it out.  More  (More here and here)

 Withdrawal of all US troops from Syria — not a partial repositioning — is needed

Aside from missing this obvious reality, however, entirely absent from the torrent of criticism is any analysis of what is presently at stake for the United States, and whether the military’s operation there ever made sense. Spoiler alert: it didn’t…  Then-President Obama announced his intention in September 2014 to engage in combat operations in Syria — without bothering to seek, much less obtain, required Congressional approval — to, “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State…  Obama progressively deepened and expanded U.S. military engagement in Syria… as we effectively loaned the U.S. Air Force to the Kurds to level Raqqa and drive ISIS out of their cities and villages.  More