The U.S. foreign policy establishment has gone into meltdown mode since President Trump announced last week a withdrawal of several dozen troops from a corridor in northern Syria. American forces had been there since 2014, joined with a Kurdish splinter group to fight the notorious Sunni Arab terrorist organization, the Islamic State (ISIS).
Trump made his decision after a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, but it was a long time coming. The Turks have been critical of U.S. support for an armed Kurdish organization they have considered the country’s most serious national security threat for five years. Trump’s move then should be seen in the context of his efforts to undo Obama administration policies, particularly its initiative to tilt away from traditional U.S. allies, like Turkey, and toward the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The bipartisan anti-Trump din (amplified by prominent GOP lawmakers) denouncing the withdrawal has obscured not only Obama’s disastrous 2014 decision to team with a terrorist organization at war with a NATO member but also basic facts about the ongoing conflict, the region, and the significant actors. The following ten questions are designed to illuminate the central issues for U.S. policy.
1. Who Are ‘the Kurds’?
The Kurds are an ethnic minority spread across the Middle East, from Syria in the West, through Turkey and Iraq, to Iran in the east, and further divided into various political groupings. America’s longtime ally among the Kurds is the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq, comprising the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). The KRG’s Peshmerga militia has fought alongside U.S. troops in Iraq.
But the present uproar is about an entirely different Kurdish political institution, which the Obama administration tapped in 2014 to fight ISIS—that’s the Democratic Union Party (PYD) with its military wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG). This is the Syrian franchise of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Marxist outfit that has been at war with Turkey since 1984. The PKK is responsible for tens of thousands of deaths and is listed by the U.S. State Department, European Union, and Turkey as a terrorist organization.
After Obama administration officials counseled YPG leadership to camouflage the group’s roots in the PKK, they rebranded themselves as the Syrian Democratic Forces. The promise of U.S. arms and funds brought Arabs under the SDF banner, but the organization’s command structure is dominated by the PKK.
2. Why Does Erdogan Hate the Kurds?
Former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen recently told an audience in Chicago that “Turkey’s leadership, Erdogan in particular… would kill every Kurd they possibly could and they’d label them all PKK.”
That’s nonsense. Turkey has Kurdish partners, like the U.S.-allied KDP in northern Iraq. There are between 10 to 15 million Kurds living in Turkey, many of whom support Erdogan. Turks are divided along many lines—the urban middle-class, for instance, tends to support secular political parties, while more traditional Turks prefer Erdogan’s Islamist party—but are unified regarding the terrorist organization the Obama administration armed, trained, and funded, the PKK.
Most American commentators, including Mullen, seem unaware that Erdogan has done more than any other Turkish leader to seek peace with the PKK. When he embarked on a peace process with its leadership in 2012, he came under heavy criticism from the left and right. The ceasefire ended in 2015 when the PKK killed four Turkish policemen.
3. Don’t the Kurds Deserve Their Own State?
There are between 30 and 40 million Kurds in Western Asia inhabiting enclaves in Syria, Turkey, Iran, and Iraq. With the post-World War I dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, there were proposals for Kurdish statehood, but the reason there is no Kurdish state and will likely never be one is not due to the world’s indifference. Rather, it is because of geopolitics.
The Kurdish region as a whole (a.k.a Kurdistan) is land-locked with two major powers on its borders, Turkey and Iran. These former empires have dominated Middle Eastern politics for thousands of years and shaped those of the smaller ethnic groups and tribes around them, including the Kurds.
That’s partly why the Kurds, as a whole, do not have a coherent national project. Power politics demands that smaller polities orient themselves according to the larger powers in whose shadow they live. The less powerful seek patronage from the stronger, to protect themselves and to advance their interests against those of their closest rivals, often from their own community.
Thus, Kurdish factions typically align themselves with one or the other major regional power, Iran or Turkey. The KDP in Iraq, for instance, has ties to Turkey and its rival the PUK has ties to Iran, and fought each other in the mid-‘90s. The PKK’s Syrian franchise is suspected of assassinating Kurdish rivals and refuses a power-sharing arrangement similar to that of the Iraqi Kurds.
It is not the role of foreign governments, including the United States, to formulate a coherent national project on behalf of the Kurds, especially since it would require U.S. troops to enforce it against internal dissent and perhaps civil war, while redrawing regional borders to eliminate historical geopolitical entities, like Turkey.
Even U.S. support for a PKK mini-state in northern Syria would require a permanent U.S. deployment to protect it not only from Turkey but also Arab forces, while Kurdish terrorists chipped away at the geographical integrity and political sovereignty of a NATO member.
4. Does Trump’s Turn Against the PKK Make the U.S. an Unreliable Ally?
Sen. Mitt Romney and others say Trump betrayed the Kurds and thus shows that the United States can’t be trusted as an ally. That’s nonsense. There is no sub-state actor in the world that does not envy the PKK for the gifts Washington showered on it and dream they may someday enjoy the same munificence.
The world long ago accustomed itself to the fact that for all its fine rhetoric the United States, like every other country, pursues its own interests, often subject to the political winds governing the White House. Further, allies and adversaries alike know that no matter what the Americans say about staying the course, one day they will cross one ocean or the other to return home. The game is to get as much as possible from them before they leave.
In this respect, the PKK succeeded beyond its wildest dreams. President Obama, then Trump, armed and funded its efforts to carve out an autonomous zone in northern Syria, for the purpose of building a statelet on the Turkish border to serve as a platform for the group’s long-running war against Ankara. Trump’s withdrawal should now encourage the PKK to end its war and return to the peace process initiated by Erdogan.
5. Didn’t Trump’s Withdrawal help Russia, Iran, and Assad?
Sen. Marco Rubio and others contend that the withdrawal hinders the United States from contesting Iran and its allies. The Pentagon, however, has shown little interest in such a campaign. The Pentagon perceives its vital interest in the Middle East, Africa, and Central and South Asia to be ongoing counterterrorism operations against Sunni fighters, like ISIS.
To conduct those operations, the United States needs the permission of the forces at its back, which in Syria and Iraq is Iran. Of course, if DOD turned on the Iranians it would not only forfeit Tehran’s permission to continue shooting at Sunnis, it would also put the United States in the middle of a shooting war with a nation-state. On the latter, Trump and the Pentagon see eye to eye.
Some policymakers, analysts, and journalists fear the withdrawal pushed our one-time Syrian Kurdish partners into the arms of the Iranian axis. But the PKK has been aligned with anti-U.S. and revolutionary leftist forces since its inception in the mid-1970s. The reasons are ideological and geopolitical.
“Iran influences the PKK because the PKK is based on the Iranian border,” as one PKK official put it. “When you fight a party, you have to find support from some other party.”
Because the PKK is at war with Turkey, it is positioned alongside the Iranian axis. The PKK has been aligned with Moscow and Damascus for decades. Russia, says Erdogan, has armed the PKK throughout the current Syrian conflict. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s father Hafez supported the PKK and even sheltered its founder, Abdullah Ocalan, until Turkey threatened to invade in 1999 and Assad sent him packing. The CIA helped Turkish intelligence capture Ocalan in Kenya.
Trump’s withdrawal did not force the PKK into the arms of the Iranian axis. It merely clarified its historical geostrategic position—which the Obama administration had intentionally obscured.
6. Wasn’t Trump Taking Orders from Erdogan to Withdraw?
For reasons explained above, Erdogan has been complaining about U.S. support of the PKK since Obama first tethered U.S. interests to those of a terror organization. Trump promised the Turkish president several times he would withdraw troops, as recently as January, and finally acted. The decision may help mend U.S.-Turkish relations, which have been badly damaged the last few years, partly because of Erdogan and partly because of U.S. policymakers.
The United States not only teamed with the organization Ankara sees as its major security threat, it also shelters Fetullah Gulen, the leader of a cult-like religious and educational movement widely believed to be responsible for a failed July 2016 coup that left more than 300 dead.
Gulen has been living in the Pennsylvania mountains since 1999. His application for permanent resident status was rejected by George W. Bush administration immigration officials, a decision overturned by a federal court. Ankara wants him returned so it can put him on trial, but Washington believes the Turks have not provided enough evidence to extradite a U.S. green-card holder.
But it is the Syrian conflict that has most tested U.S.-Turkey relations. For Erdogan, it represents another direct threat to the stability of Turkey, now host to more than three million Syrian refugees. For a time, it appeared to Erdogan that the United States agreed with him that Assad was a problem. But Obama had other ideas.
Obama’s signal foreign policy initiative was realigning U.S. policy with Iran’s interests. That meant downgrading relations with traditional U.S. allies, especially Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, and privileging Iran. The mechanism designed to clinch realignment was the nuclear deal, which simply incentivized the Iranians to hold off on completing a bomb until Obama left office.
To get the Iranians to accept his offer of friendship and more than $100 billion in sanctions relief, Obama acknowledged, as he put it, Iranian “equities” in Syria, meaning Assad and Iran’s Lebanese partner, Hezbollah. Rather than jeopardize realignment, Obama protected Assad, which came at the expense of traditional American allies, including Turkey.
7. Is Erdogan Really a U.S. Ally?
Under Erdogan, Turkey, a NATO member since 1952, has of late often been a very difficult U.S. partner. To take only the most recent example, last year Ankara pushed an intelligence operation designed to damage Trump’s relations with another U.S. Middle East ally. After a team of Saudi operatives killed Saudi national Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul, Erdogan used the murder as a platform to embarrass Riyadh, with the ultimate goal of forcing Saudi crown prince and Trump ally Mohamed bin Salman from power.
Erdogan has also caused problems for another key U.S. ally, Israel. Before Erdogan, Ankara and Jerusalem enjoyed a strategic relationship. For the time being at least, Erdogan has destroyed that alliance, choosing instead to support Israel’s foes, like Hamas, even giving sanctuary to at least one senior Hamas official directly responsible for terror attacks on Israeli civilians.
Israel rightly considers Erdogan an enemy, and Saudi Arabia sees him as an irritant or worse. But as the superpower partner, the United States has to manage a larger regional file, which happens to touch directly on Israeli and Saudi vital interests. Jerusalem and Riyadh agree that their main problem is Iran.
By getting out of the nuclear deal with Iran and re-imposing sanctions on the Islamic Republic, Trump showed that he, too, sees the Iranians as the major threat to regional and global instability. To contain Iran, Turkey is an essential partner. With the second-largest army in NATO, a major airbase at Incirlik, and naval bases on key waterways, Washington needs Ankara to carry part of that load—especially to avoid, as Trump has promised, sending more troops to the Middle East.
8. Isn’t the Anti-ISIS Campaign the U.S.’s Vital Interest in the Middle East?
Sen. Mitch McConnell says if ISIS is “permitted to regroup and establish havens, they will bring terror to our shores.” If so, the failure of leadership is not Trump’s alone but must be shared by lawmakers, including senior GOP officials like McConnell, who will then have failed to ensure the security of our maritime and other borders.
The Pentagon may see fighting ISIS as its vital interest, but the group is not a strategic threat to the United States. Many policymakers see the anti-ISIS campaign as a political chip to be used in the event of terrorist attacks at home. An attack attributed to or inspired by ISIS would expose any administration to catastrophic political fallout. The anti-ISIS campaign abroad gives evidence, should any attack occur at home, that the White House had been pursuing terrorist threats aggressively.
As former Pentagon chief James Mattis told Trump when the president complained about deploying so many troops abroad, “Sir, we’re doing it to prevent a bomb from going off in Times Square.”
But the first line of defense against attacks at home is home defenses. During the second intifada, for instance, Israel built a separation barrier as it sent forces beyond the wall to fight terror. By contrast, the national security establishment’s support for Trump’s border wall and travel ban is mixed, at best.
The Pentagon, for instance, compelled the White House to remove Iraq from the travel ban list. Senior officials reasoned that the United States needed the support of its Iraqi partners to fight ISIS. That is, according to the Department of Defense, keeping Americans safe at home requires granting visas to foreign nationals from terror zones whose identities cannot be verified.
When the national security bureaucracies and Democratic and Republican lawmakers give Trump’s border security initiatives their full support, they’ll show their priority is not an endless counterterror campaign abroad but keeping Americans safe at home.
9. Why Did Obama Partner with the PKK?
If ISIS isn’t a strategic threat, why did Obama partner with a terrorist group to fight it? Trump’s predecessor became politically vulnerable when, after he withdrew from Iraq, ISIS began to expand its sway across the region in a campaign that included the slaughter of minority populations and the murder of two American journalists.
The Obama administration further saw the anti-ISIS operation as an opportunity to advance its larger strategy: integrating U.S. and Iranian interests.
In Iraq, the Obama administration had an easy solution at hand—it worked with the army, under command of the Iranian-allied central government, and the Iranian-backed People’s Mobilization Forces. The anti-ISIS campaign was often just cover for a war of revenge against Iraq’s Sunni community. Sunnis who fought against Iraq’s Iranian-backed security architecture were designated as extremists—i.e., ISIS—and targeted by U.S. forces in coordination with Iranian proxies.
Syria was trickier. Obama could not openly work with an Assad regime murdering civilians on an industrial scale. The catch was to identify a proxy force that would target neither Assad’s nor Iranian forces. The PKK was ideal. It was not going to fight Assad and it was at war with Turkey. Thus, arming the PKK would tie Erdogan down and distract him from pursuing Ankara’s primary interest—containing the regime in Damascus.
Obama didn’t team with the PKK to fight another terror group. Rather, he partnered with a terror group as part of a larger initiative to align U.S. interests with those of a state sponsor of terror, Iran.
10. How Could the U.S. Foreign Policy Establishment Get It So Wrong?
It’s not hard to see why Democrats and their allied media attacked Trump. The president pulled the plug on an Obama initiative to integrate American and Iranian interests. Why Republican lawmakers and the GOP’s institutional infrastructure also went after Trump is more distressing.
Trump’s decision highlights the incoherence of his critics, who appear to believe that backing a Marxist splinter group aligned with the anti-American, pro-Iranian axis in its war against a NATO ally is sound policy. Trump also deserves credit for taking on the Pentagon.
In the three years it took to extricate U.S. troops from the fiasco in northern Syria that Obama designed, Trump must have seen that the Swamp’s center of gravity is not the intelligence community that continues to plot against him, but the world’s most influential bureaucracy.
The Defense Department fought withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan as well as Syria because the anti-ISIS campaign helps feed the Beltway—the defense industry and the various other agencies, contractors, and nongovernmental organizations whose missions are shaped by an open-ended campaign abroad to fight Sunni Arab irregulars—that is, ISIS and anyone Iran and its proxies designate as ISIS.
Trump simply saw U.S. support for the PKK for what it was: America fighting and paying to advance the interests of someone else, in this case U.S. adversaries, like Iran, Assad, and Russia. The complaint of Trump critics that the withdrawal will, conversely, benefit all warring sides—Iran and ISIS, Ankara and Moscow, etc.—is impossible to reconcile with the logic of conflict.
That Trump’s withdrawal showed more strategic clarity than the foreign policy establishment is hardly surprising. He ran against Washington’s post-9/11 foreign policies in the Middle East, in particular novelty items like Bush’s freedom agenda and Obama’s Iran deal.
From Trump’s perspective, those policies defined the divide between the Beltway bubble and the rest of the U.S. public that saw no wisdom in enriching an Iranian regime at war or spending American lives and money to promote democracy in places like Iraq, Lebanon, or the Palestinian territories where elections were certain to empower anti-American forces.
Partnering with a terrorist faction of a sub-state actor at war with a NATO member is in the same category of objectively foolhardy and self-defeating policies. That many Republicans appear to have learned nothing in the last 19 years and chose to join Democrats in protest against the withdrawal shows that the divide is much more profound than even Trump had imagined. It is not only the American public from which the Beltway establishment is separated, but reality.