When President Trump gave a green light to Turkey’s invasion of northern Syria last week, politicians and pundits from both the Left and Right accused him of recklessly upending U.S. foreign policy. (See Main Stories.) The Syrian Kurds now being attacked by Turkey were America’s frontline troops in the five-year war against ISIS. Betraying these brave allies, critics said, was a stain on America’s conscience. But while Trump’s decision might appear ugly and strategically unwise, it is far from unprecedented. He is, in fact, the latest in a long line of U.S. leaders to walk away from the Kurds in a moment of crisis. In the aftermath of World War I, President Woodrow Wilson championed self-determination for the non-Turkish inhabitants of the destroyed Ottoman Empire. The leader of a Kurdish delegation arrived at peace talks in Paris in 1919 with Wilson’s words bound into his Quran, hoping his long-oppressed people would finally be granted their own state. Instead, Wilson signed off on new national boundaries pushed by France and Britain that divided the Kurds between Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria.
More disappointments followed. In the 1970s, the U.S. encouraged Iraqi Kurds to rebel against the regime of Saddam Hussein—the chief rival of America’s close ally, the Shah of Iran. But a year later, the shah and Saddam struck a deal. The U.S. cut off support for the Kurds, thousands of whom were slaughtered by the Iraqi military. Asked by Congress how he could justify this betrayal, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger replied, “Covert action should not be confused with missionary work.” Then in 1991, following Operation Desert Storm, President George H.W. Bush hinted that the U.S. might support a popular uprising against Saddam. Iraq’s Kurds and Shiites did rise up, but American support never arrived and they were gassed and gunned down in the tens of thousands. Trump’s abandonment may have angered Syria’s Kurds, but it surely can’t have surprised them.