U.S. steps aside as Turkey attacks Kurdish allies
Turkey launched a military offensive against U.S.-allied Kurdish forces in northern Syria this week after President Trump appeared to green-light the operation—a decision that sparked rare bipartisan backlash in Washington. The Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) played a key role in the U.S.-led battle against ISIS but is regarded by Turkey as an offshoot of the PKK, a guerrilla group that has fought for a Kurdish homeland in southeastern Turkey for decades. During a weekend phone call, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told Trump that he intended to begin a long-delayed plan to roll back the SDF. Trump said a moderate incursion would be acceptable, U.S. officials told NBC News, and following the call the White House ordered the withdrawal of roughly 100 U.S. troops stationed in the border area. Both Republicans and Democrats reacted with surprise and anger. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said Trump had “shamelessly abandoned” the Kurds and ensured “the re-emergence of ISIS.” Trump pivoted in the face of criticism, warning Turkey that if it did “anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits,” he’d “totally destroy” the country’s economy. Erdogan appeared not to take the threat seriously, and Turkish forces were soon pounding SDF targets. The Turkish leader said the operation was needed to “prevent the creation of a terror corridor” along his nation’s southern border and to establish a “safe zone” that could accommodate millions of Syrian Civil War refugees now living in Turkey. The SDF called the U.S. decision a “stab in the back” and vowed to “defend our land at all costs.”
What the editorials said
Trump has made “a serious mistake,” said NationalReview.com. By the Pentagon’s own reckoning, ISIS still had up to 18,000 fighters in the field as late as August. “If Kurdish forces are fighting for their lives against a Turkish invasion,” they can’t mop up those jihadists. And what of the 11,000 suspected ISIS fighters being held in SDF detention camps? Trump says Turkey will take custody of the camps, but most are located far beyond the 20-mile deep, 300-mile-wide strip of land Erdogan hopes to seize. Most likely, the Kurdish guards will walk away to defend their homes, and the jihadists will go free.
The president claims he’s fulfilling a promise to stop America’s “endless wars,” said The Washington Post, and he’s indicated that he might pull all 1,000 U.S. troops out of Syria. But unlike the massive missions in Afghanistan or Iraq, Syria has been a “light-footprint, low-cost operation—and a striking success.” By backing SDF fighters with our air power and Special Operations troops, we’ve destroyed ISIS’s would-be caliphate and prevented Iran from entrenching its forces along Israel’s border with Syria. In five years, only 17 U.S. soldiers have been killed in action in Iraq and Syria combined.
What the columnists said
Our “betrayal of the Kurds is a gift to Russian President Vladimir Putin” and Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, said Nick Paton Walsh in CNN.com. Abandoned by the U.S. and in need of military support, the SDF will have to strike a political deal with the genocidal Assad and his sponsor in Moscow. Assad’s other backer, Tehran, will also benefit from a new alliance between the Kurds and Damascus, which will give Iran “an almost clear run of friendly territory” from its borders to Lebanon. Hezbollah’s Israel-hating fanatics might soon find it a lot easier to get Iranian missiles shipped to their door. “These are all the ugly results of an absurd Syria policy,” said Daniel Larison in TheAmericanConservative.com. For years, the U.S. has been fighting an illegal war in Syria that required our military forces to “keep the peace between mutually hostile ‘allies.’” Eventually, the U.S. was going to have to choose a side: Fellow NATO member Turkey or a proxy “that has proven to be useful over the last few years.” The Kurds never stood a chance.
“Letting our allies get annihilated is a fast way to ensure that we never have allies again,” said Graeme Wood in TheAtlantic.com. The Kurds “died in the desert by the thousands” fighting ISIS “so that we Americans didn’t have to revisit our bad dreams of the Iraq War.” Now Trump has abandoned them on a whim to “the mercies of their most powerful enemy.” What a “sickening betrayal”—and one that will surely come back to haunt America. ■