America has lost three wars in the Middle East in this century — not counting the one with our most persistent foe, Iran.
We lost the war in Afghanistan we embarked on eighteen years ago in the wake of 9/11. Our enemy there, the Taliban, are stronger than ever. The day we leave (if we ever do), they’ll take the country back. Until that day comes, they still run more of it than they actually did when they were in power.
We lost the war in Iraq, which, in toppling Saddam Hussein, we handed over to Iran as a puppet state and a corridor to its power and influence in Syria and Lebanon.
We encouraged a rebellion against Bashar al-Assad in Syria that turned much of Syria, and a good part of Iraq as well, into a terrorist “caliphate.” This plunged its captives into a medieval horror and cost 500,000 lives in Syria alone. Assad aligned himself with Russia, which was happy to reassert itself in the Middle East after 40 years of exclusion, and with Iran, which was able to project military bases up to the borders of Israel. He is still in power, or at least the symbol of a Russian asset.
Oh, and yes, Iran’s advances helped provoke a shooting war with our ally Saudi Arabia in which the Saudis have clearly been getting the worst of it, as well as a proxy war in Yemen that has virtually destroyed that country.
You couldn’t do worse, could you? Probably not, until Donald Trump came along.
Like a stopped clock, Trump is right twice a day. He was right that China’s trade policies were eating our lunch. He challenged that by embarking on a tariff war that has only damaged both sides. He said that we were wasting blood and treasure in the Middle East for no good reason. Then, after lurching between withdrawal and recommitment, handed our one fighting ally over to slaughter after forcing it to disarm. Call it the reverse Midas touch: Trump can’t touch anything in the world without making it worse.
Abandoning the Kurds is the oldest story in the Middle East. A distinct community with their own language and culture, the Kurds were promised statehood at the end of World War I, only to be left high and dry in the postwar political settlement. Their problem, thus far an insoluble one, is that their population is spread out over five different countries, from Turkey to Iran, none of which wants to cede territory to a Kurdish state. The best bet is the territory in northern Iraq known as Kurdistan, where the Kurds have de facto control over a compact region within a weak Iraqi state. The Kurds there fought against Al Qaeda and ISIS, in their interest as well as ours. They have received nothing diplomatically for their efforts.
The Syrian uprising against Assad offered another opportunity. The Kurds live south of the Turkish border, just below the large Kurdish population in southeastern Turkey. A low-grade conflict has been going on between the Turkish Kurds, and the government in Ankara since the founding of the modern Turkish state, which regards the Kurds’ leadership in their territory as terrorists (a designation we formally accept). The Syrian Kurds, seeing opportunity to create a buffer zone of their own between Syria and Turkey, did heavy lifting for us by fighting to destroy the remnants of the ISIS caliphate in northeastern Syria, gaining control of a sizable, though narrow, territory. This cost them an estimated 11,000 casualties, although the precise number is unclear. From our point of view, that was a very big favor. From Turkey’s, it was an alarming security threat. A large Kurdish army would be just to its south, in close contact with Kurdish separatist leaders in Turkey itself.
The Turks had another and scarcely less pressing problem, namely the presence of more than three million refugees, the spillover of our failed wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. Europe paid the Turks to keep them, but there was no permanent solution in that, particularly for the defeated Arab militia fighters among them who were a security threat of their own.
For Turkey, the best way to kill two birds with one stone was to use these fighters, backed by Turkish air power and artillery, to destroy Kurdish military forces in their Syrian base, ethically cleanse the Kurdish civilian population and create an enclave for refugee resettlement. All that stood in its way were a hundred or so American Special Forces advisors attached to the Kurds. All it needed was their withdrawal to greenlight an invasion. That is what Donald Trump gave them.
The result has been what is politely referred to as a humanitarian disaster. Our military, blindsided as usual by Trump’s precipitate order — reported as an impulsive response to a phone call with Turkey’s dictator, Recep Tayipp Erdogan — has had to rescue American forces by air. Some commentators, searching for an explanation, have pointed to Trump’s large commercial investments in Turkey. That’s always a factor with him, as is his indifference to tactical planning, but there’s a more comprehensive explanation. Turkey, a well-armed country of 80 million and a host to American bases that include nuclear weapons, is a critical ally; the Kurds are disposable mercenaries who, having served their purpose, can be left to their fate.
No one should be surprised at this outcome, and no one really is. The Kurds always get the short end of the stick, and, without the state no one wants them to have, they always will. They got it in 1974 when Henry Kissinger dropped them with the comment that American policy was not a missionary crusade. They were left to be gassed and shot after being encouraged to rise against Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War in 1991. They received nothing for aiding in the recapture of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, from ISIS in 2017. You had to see this one coming too, with the Kurds’ entrenchment of themselves across a broad band of northern Syria being a clear provocation to Turkey. As Donald Trump put it with his usual flair, they were “no angels” — meaning, they had their own interests but overplayed their hand.
Still, Trump has managed as usual to do the morally repugnant thing — dump an ally who bled for us in a war we didn’t want to fight on our own — in the most blatantly and ineptly offensive way possible. He claimed the war the Kurds had won as a personal triumph for himself; likened the invasion he had unleashed on them to a schoolyard brawl in which he had no part; driven the Kurds into the arms of Assad and the Russians, hitherto their sworn enemies and dishonored our own military by forcing it to cut and run like a defeated army. Mitt Romney has called this a bloody stain on American history. And that is true — but not nearly as bloody as the three wars of the Bush clan, all waged under false pretenses, that have led to the dark night of the present-day Middle East. Call Trump the foul-mouthed, would-be tyrant he is, by all means. But let’s remember who and what made him possible.