Trump's 'Blind Eye'

President Trump's policy shift ignores Turkey’s slaughter of Kurds in Syria.

David L. Phillips
October 08, 2019

President Trump succumbed to Turkey’s demand for a “safe zone” in North and East Syria, announcing that the U.S. is pulling back forces that have deterred Turkey’s invasion of Syria. Reversing years of U.S. policy, the pullback is strategically flawed, tactically incoherent and morally repugnant.

More than 11,000 Kurdish fighters have died and 22,000 were wounded fighting ISIS in North and East Syria. U.S. cooperation with the Kurds dates back to the fall of 2014. The Kurds liberated the capital of the ISIS caliphate in Raqqa, and in March 2019, after weeks of intense fighting, they defeated ISIS in Baghouz, destroying its last sanctuary in Syria. The ISIS caliphate may be destroyed, but ISIS is far from defeated. U.S. Special Forces counted on the Kurds to keep the pressure on ISIS.

Abandoning the Kurds, America’s only ally in Syria, will result in a bloodbath. Tayyip Erdogan, the president of Turkey, has pledged to cleanse Kurds and make way for refugees to resettle in Syria. Kurdish defenders are no match for Turkey’s air power, armor, and criminal proxy, the Free Syrian Army.

As Kurdish fighters redeploy to counter Turkey’s aggression, ISIS detainees will escape and rejoin their Turkish compatriots. Without U.S. protection, the Kurds have no place to turn except to the Syrian regime and Russia. Washington’s withdrawal will cause France and Britain, who support the Kurds, to pull back their forces.

The flight of Kurds will destabilize Iraq, which is struggling with domestic unrest. Iraqi Kurdistan already hosts hundreds of thousands of displaced persons from the war in Syria and sectarian conflict in Iraq. Kurdish solidarity risks violent conflict between the Kurds in Turkey and the Turkish state.

Trump’s wrong and short-sighted decision not only betrays the Kurds, it also discredits the U.S. and undermines the global fight against ISIS. Who will fight and die for the U.S. the next time we need friends to counter violent extremism?


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David L. Phillips is Director of the Program on Peace-building and Human Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. Her served as a Senior Adviser to the U.S. State Department during the administrations of President Clinton, Bush and Obama. His most recent book is The Great Betrayal: How America Abandoned the Kurds and Lost the Middle East (Bloomsbury). His forthcoming book is Front Line Syria: A Political and Military History of the Civil War (Bloomsbury). This column is editorially independent of Columbia News.