Bush publicly stated that “there’s another way for the bloodshed to stop, and that is for the Iraqi military and the Iraqi people to take matters into their own hands and force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside.” Responding to this call for regime change, poorly armed Kurds in northern Iraq rose up in a rebellion which spread to 14 out of the country’s 18 provinces.
Almost immediately, Saddam’s army turned his gunships and tanks on the local uprising setting off a wave of ethnic cleansing that killed thousands of Kurds and drove many others into Turkey and Iran.
When the rebellion had been extinguished, at enormous human cost, the US-led coalition imposed a no-fly zone in northern Iraq that gradually allowed the Kurds to regroup from the disaster, but even as the oil rich area began to prosper, bitter memories of America’s betrayal lingered.
Twenty years later when the Islamic State overran much of Iraq in a startling series of military conquests, the US turned to the Kurds again, using the military from Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan Region – the peshmerga (“those who face death”) – to contain and then eventually defeat ISIL fighters.
It seemed to be a new chance for the West to rectify its many previous volte-faces towards the Kurds.
For despite being the fourth largest ethnic group in the region – after Arabs, Turks and Persians – the Kurds have been stateless since the 1920 Treaty of Sevres separated Iraq, Kuwait and Syria from the Ottoman empire.
Promises of ‘local autonomy’ in the east of modern Turkey were scuttled when Kemal Ataturk came to power and insisted on assimilation.
Ever since, Kurdish populations scattered throughout the region have struggled to achieve self-determination, through fair means and foul, with decidedly mixed results.
An independence referendum two years ago in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region was overwhelmingly endorsed at the ballot but immediately rejected by Iraq – which attacked Kurdish territory – and generally condemned by other regional powers who feared similar separatism in their territories.
With very few exceptions, Western support for Kurdish self-determination has remained vague and non-committal.
In this context, Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from the Syrian border with Turkey and to permit a military offensive against the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, can be seen as merely one more instance of hard-nosed realpolitik.
But the Kurds’ role in fighting against and containing the Islamic State – they currently detain 90,000 suspected ISIS supporters in four camps in Idlib province – means that this latest betrayal could easily revive the Islamic State and further destabilize the region.
The Guardian Middle East correspondent Martin Chulov writes that “The spectre of a jihadist juggernaut once again roaming the plains of Iraq and Syria having used captivity to regroup … now hangs heavy over [the] region…” Noting that the unilateral US decision caught European states completely unawares, he adds: “Trump’s transactional worldview offers no place for history or morality.
His ruthless short-term realism ignores the fact that the regional interests he does want to secure – containing Iran and securing Israel – are jeopardized by such a blatant betrayal.”
The abandonment of the Kurds is one of the few decisions which prompted public dissent within the higher echelons of the GOP, most notably by Sen.
But otherwise there has been an almost complete silence from former Trump appointees who know exactly how foolish, strategically and politically, this whimsical decision will prove.
Only Brett McGurk, a former presidential envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, has condemned Trump’s “impulsive decisions with no knowledge or deliberation … He blusters and then leaves our allies exposed when adversaries call his bluff or he confronts a hard phone call.” Gen.
James Mattis, Lt.
McMaster, and Rex Tillerson – former defense secretary, secretary of state and national security adviser respectively – have yet to offer an opinion.
As impeachment proceedings uncover further evidence of Trump’s chaotic often improvised policymaking, it has become chillingly clear that the sophisticated machinery of US foreign policy has now succumbed to Trump’s narcissistic personality and deeply uninformed grasp of history and geopolitics.
Unwilling, or unable, to digest briefing books, Trump governs by instinct, stumbling repeatedly from one amoral misjudgement to the next.
His abandonment of the Kurds not only sets the stage for another crisis of his own making but one that will likely have tragic regional repercussions, all too soon.