Tue | Dec 10, 2019

Gwynne Dyer | Betraying the Kurds again

Published:Friday | October 11, 2019 | 12:32 AM
In this photo provided by Rojava Media Center, a pro-Kurdish media group, a Syrian family flees Ras al Ayn, in northeast Syria, on Wednesday, October 9. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced Wednesday the start of a Turkish military operation against Kurdish fighters in northeastern Syria. AP

Everybody betrays the Kurds. It’s an old Middle Eastern tradition. But given Donald Trump’s reputation for treachery, it’s astonishing how bad he is at it.

This particular betrayal got under way on Sunday night. After a telephone conversation with Turkey’s strongman president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Trump declared that he had started pulling American troops out of Syria. It’s time for US forces “to get out of these ridiculous Endless Wars, many of them tribal,” he tweeted.

Did Trump realise that he was effectively giving Turkey permission to invade northern Syria and expel the Syrian Kurds from their homes? His own officials patiently explained that to him last December when he tried the same stunt for the first time, but maybe he forgot.

So they reminded him again, and by lunchtime on Monday, Trump had changed his tune a bit. “If Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey,” he tweeted.

But Trump did not explain exactly what was ‘off limits’. Did the Turkish president have a green light to invade northern Syria or not? Erdogan is going ahead with the operation anyway, assuming that Trump’s threats are just the usual empty belligerence and bluster. It’s a safe assumption.

Calling Trump ‘transactional’ is just a polite way of saying that he has no long-term strategy at all – and he doesn’t understand that his adversaries often do have such strategies. So they run circles around him.

Erdogan’s strategy is quite clear. He says he is going to create a ‘safe zone’ in northern Syria by driving the ‘Kurdish terrorists’ out. It will be 480km long and 30km deep (much bigger than Lebanon), and in this strip just south of the Turkish border he will ‘resettle’ two million Syrian Arabs, more than half of the Syrian refugees now living in Turkey.


However, this plan sounds quite different when you translate it into plain English. The zone in question is already safe for the Kurdish people who live there and the Arab minority who live alongside them because they defeated the Islamic State extremists who were trying to conquer it. There are no terrorists there now.

The army that destroyed Islamic State was an alliance between the Syrian Kurdish group called the YPG and some smaller Arab militias in the region. It fought in close alliance with the United States and lost more than 10,000 killed. (Only seven American soldiers were killed in action in Syria.) It has now restored peace throughout the area, and there were no attacks on Turkey at any point in the war.

Erdogan’s aim is to drive all the Kurds living within 30km of the border out of their homes and replace them with Arabic-speaking Syrian refugees. Almost all of those refugees will be from elsewhere in Syria, but they won’t get any choice in the matter either.

What can the Syrian Kurds do to save themselves? Only this. There will be a narrow space in the next week or two while the US troops are leaving the ‘safe zone’ and the Turks have not yet moved in.

The timing would be tricky, but if the Syrian Kurds invited Bashar Assad’s government in Damascus to reoccupy what is, after all, sovereign Syrian territory, perhaps that would protect them from the impending Turkish invasion.

It would only work if the Russians are willing to back that strategy, but the Syrian Kurds have almost certainly been feeling Damascus out about this idea already because they could see Trump’s betrayal coming a mile off.

The Kurds could probably still get a fairly good deal on local autonomy from Damascus at this point – and Assad, for all his faults, is much likelier to stick to a deal once he makes it than Trump is.

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.