American forces abandoned Kurdish allies in Syria in October, breaching their trust after years of Kurdish sacrifice and leaving them exposed. This erratic American behavior overseas is not atypical since the beginning of Trump’s presidency, but every American should know that this is no small matter. Our actions hurt our allies and our reputation shrinks with every betrayal like this one.
American troops were present in Syria and working with Kurdish forces in 2015. Americans were there to combat ISIS with help from Kurds. American forces also worked to prevent the spread of the Assad regime, an established adversary to the United States, and to limit Iran and Russia, backers of Assad, in their regional influence. Since 2015, ISIS had lost all of its territory in Syria. The most that remained of ISIS were sleeper cells and sympathizers.
The key to the success in the fight in Syria against ISIS has been the Kurds. The Kurds are an ethnic group, the fourth-largest in the Middle East, but the largest with no defined state of their own. This automatically makes them a vulnerable minority wherever they are. Kurds are mostly spread out over Iraq, Iran, Syria, Armenia and Turkey. The Kurds are enemies to ISIS as much as the U.S. is, and they have proven to be such reliable allies to American forces that some Kurdish tactical calls were de facto commands for Americans. That’s a high level of trust. American troops lost six lives in this most recent conflict, while Kurds lost 11,000, with 24,000 casualties. Throughout Trump’s presidency, he has been hinting at pulling American troops out of Syria, but that has consistently been prevented by American military command because it would be a violation of our responsibility to our allies.
But on Oct. 6 of this year, Trump got on the phone with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. There is a Kurdish group called the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, that commits atrocities and is a terrorist organization in the eyes of Turkey. Erdogan equates the PKK to the Kurds, who the U.S. has been working with for years. They are not the same — the PKK are not American allies, nor are they working with Americans in Syria in the fight against ISIS — but Erdogan does not care to differentiate. He wanted to bring Turkish forces over the border into Syria to attack the Kurds there. Trump, unlike the previous American diplomatic M.O. of finding a middle ground where we protect our Kurdish allies from Turkish offense, easily conceded to Erdogan’s plans. That same day, he announced that American forces were to withdraw from Syria. Defense Secretary Mark Esper worked with Trump to deliver these plans quickly. There was essentially no time to prevent it, unlike Trump’s previous attempts to back out of Syria. Two days after American troops left, Russian troops were on Syrian ground and Turkish troops were murdering Kurds. The U.S. had stepped aside to make way for its own adversaries.
Active-duty military in Syria had already considered how to handle an American withdrawal previously. The conclusion was that it was indefensible. There would be essentially no way we could have a clear conscience leaving Kurdish allies. This is still the case. A room full of military and intelligence personnel and veterans could not defend our betrayal of the Kurds once we did withdraw, and they had never advised it in the first place. Trump has never gone to war, and even after years as Commander-in-Chief, he has evidently no earthly idea what soldiers do. So it’s possible that the American public cannot lucidly expect Trump to grasp the magnitude of relationships he has broken between American soldiers and Kurdish allies. But the rest of us, as Americans, still have the responsibility to try to understand the gravity of breaching Kurdish trust.
Editor's note: the final sentence of this column has been updated to better reflect the author's intent.