“They’re not angels.” That was U.S. President Donald Trump’s characterization of the Kurds last week. He’s right, of course, but which nation is? I’d like to pay a visit.
Also true: Angels don’t make great soldiers. And the Kurds, with American training, assistance, advice and combat air support, were enlisted to fight the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, a barbaric enemy of Americans, Kurds and other civilized nations.
This partnership stripped the self-declared caliphate of the territories it had conquered, in the process eliminating thousands of terrorists, mass murderers, serial rapists and slave-raiders.
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces sustained more than 11,000 casualties. Eight American lives also have been lost since 2015, each one a tragedy. Militarily, however, this has been an extraordinary achievement—a sustainable model for low-intensity, protracted conflicts.
You know what happened next, more or less. The dominant media narrative has been that Trump, in a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, greenlighted a Turkish invasion of northeastern Syria aimed at driving out the Kurds.
Others have suggested that Erdoğan didn’t ask for permission, but merely warned Trump to get out of the way. “Turkey notified us of an imminent military operation,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper said at a press conference last week.
What should have been Trump’s response? How about: “Erdoğan, my dear friend, our Kurdish partners have done you no harm. We wouldn’t allow that! Nevertheless, you’ve said you want a ‘safe zone’ on your border, and you will have one. Most important: I know you value our alliance and would never endanger American forces. Come visit me at the White House. Together, we’ll work everything out!”
Instead, I fear, Trump said nothing much, as Erdoğan anticipated. Aware how anxious the American president was to withdraw the small contingent of special operators remaining in northeastern Syria, how likely was it that he’d incur any risk at all to keep them there?
Turkish forces soon initiated hostilities against the now-abandoned and outgunned Kurds. A few days later, Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo rushed off to Turkey in an attempt to stanch the bleeding—literal and figurative.
Our adversaries—not least those in North Korea, the Islamic Republic of Iran, Russia and China—will have taken note. Expect unpleasant repercussions.
As for America’s allies and those we might like to include in that category, they now doubt our reliability. That harms our interests. But America is a creedal nation, which implies we have values, too. Not betraying comrades-in-arms—I think that’s among them.
That said, it’s only fair to recall that Trump was saddled with this situation thanks to the weakness, vacillation and bad judgment of the previous administration.
The Islamic State arose following then-U.S. President Barack Obama’s premature withdrawal of American forces from Iraq in 2011. At first, Obama dismissed these self-proclaimed jihadis as a “JV team.” That they were Al-Qaeda 2.0 soon became obvious.
Belatedly and somewhat desperately, Obama decided to utilize Syrian Kurds to battle ISIS. There was no one else—certainly not Erdoğan—who could be trusted to get the job done.
But it was a solution pregnant with problems because many of those Kurds were members of a group (the People’s Protection Units) linked to a far-left Kurdish group in Turkey (the Kurdistan Workers’ Party) designated as a terrorist organization by the United States.
That’s probably what Trump had in mind when he said the Kurds are not angels. But the Kurds, like Americans, are diverse, a term that, properly understood, implies more than colorful clothes and adventurous cuisine.
When the Ottoman empire and caliphate collapsed after World War I, the lands on which the Kurds have lived for a millennium were divided among Turkey (where Kurds comprise roughly 20 percent of the population), Iraq (where they were targets of genocide under Saddam Hussein, but now enjoy substantial autonomy), Iran (where they are sorely oppressed) and Syria.
Today, the 30 million Kurds in the Middle East comprise the world’s largest nation without a state of its own. I’m convinced that most Kurds have no higher priority than to preserve their unique culture, speak their own language (they actually have more than one) and live free from foreign oppression.
I’m going to leave you with a story that may help convince you, too. A few years ago, while traveling in Iraqi Kurdistan, I was invited to dine with Hero Talabani, the matriarch of a distinguished Kurdish family and a renowned Kurdish patriot. At the end of a sumptuous meal, I posed an impertinent question.
I observed that Saladin, the great 12th-century Muslim conqueror, has been memorialized throughout much of the Middle East. But Saladin was not an Arab or Turk. He was a Kurd. So why, I asked, was he not regarded as a great hero here?
Talabani squinted at the floor and took several puffs on a cigarette before responding: “Kleeford, please tell me. Saladin: What did he do for the Kurds?”
Among the many Muslim nations in the world, Americans have had no better friends than the Kurds. Like us, they have an aversion to empire builders, not least those who claim to be waging jihad against disbelievers, heretics and apostates.
“America first should not mean America alone,” Trump has said. Yet today, America is lonelier than it was a few days ago. That’s due to an error the president made—one he should assiduously attempt to mitigate.
Clifford D. May is the founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), and a columnist for “The Washington Times.”
This article was first published by “The Washington Times.”