28 May 2022|1945|Michael Rubin
The callousness of President Donald Trump’s betrayal of the Syrian Kurds was shocking. A little phoned-in flattery by his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan was all it took for Trump to greenlight a Turkish invasion of portions of northern Syria that the largely Kurdish Syrian Defense Forces controlled. Both Defense Secretary James Mattis and Brett McGurk, the special envoy to counter the Islamic State, resigned in disgust.
At a time when Turkey enabled and supplied the Islamic State, the Syrian Kurds were the most effective fighting force against the terror state. They broke the siege of Kobane and led the drive that culminated in the Islamic State losing its capital Raqqa and its would-be caliphate in both Syria and Iraq. While U.S. air power and Special Forces mattered – as did the contributions of some largely Shi’ite Iraqi militias – it was the indigenous forces that tipped the balance.
Compounding the betrayal was the fact that the Syrian Kurds and their Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria represented the most moderate, stable region of Syria. Joe Biden himself said Trump “sold out” the Kurds and “‘betrayed our word’ as a nation.”
Today, Biden is betraying the same Kurds.
Two weeks ago, the Biden administration agreed to back Turkey’s proposed purchase of several dozen F-16s and F-16 upgrades. It was appeasement, plain and simple, meant to win Turkey’s cooperation on a host of other issues, including NATO enlargement. Indeed, it was part of an unfortunate pattern in which the White House and European foreign ministries offer Erdoǧan concessions for which others – Kurds, Cypriots, and Armenians – must pay the price.
Biden, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan may look at the F-16s as one tool in which to compel Turkey to cooperate on other matters but to endorse the sale without considering why Turkey wants F-16s and how it might use them is irresponsible.
The best indicator of how Turkey might use new F-16s is how it uses its current fleet of F-16s today. Rather than contribute to counterterrorism or deter Russian aggression, Turkey uses its fighter jets to bomb Kurdish villages and farms in northern Syria and Iraq. While Turkish officials say the F-16s are bombing terrorists, they provide no proof because there is none.
I have traveled to both areas and seen the aftermath of the bombings. Most residents say the victims had nothing to do with terror. Turkey’s cheerleaders may dismiss such eyewitness accounts, but the names, occupations, and ages of the victims suggest it would be cavalier to easily dismiss. I have criticized the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in the past – and still disagree with much of their platform today – but to paint Syrian Kurds with the brush of 1980s-era PKK and ignore 40 years of the group’s intellectual and political evolution is lazy. The most vigorous opponents of working with Syrian Kurds in Washington-based think tanks today are those who have never bothered to visit the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria to see the situation for themselves.
Nor is it clear whether Turkey truly needs the F-16s. If Turkey cared about its air defense, it would not have decapitated its officer corps. As a result of Turkey’s purges, it has two F-16s for every pilot not in prison.
It is no coincidence that Erdoǧan announced an impending 30-kilometer drive to create a “buffer zone” into Syria in the days after Biden endorsed Ankara’s desire to purchase the F-16s. Rather than assuage the Turkish leader, Erdoǧan interpreted Biden’s olive branch as a signal that he would face no serious consequence for aggression.
Erdoǧan’s goal is not counter-terrorism; it is demographic change. Most of the Kurds, Yezidis, and Christians in the region live within 30 kilometers of the Turkish border. The last time Turkey occupied a border district, it ethnically cleansed the occupied region. Erdoǧan is quite open that this is his goal today.
The Syrian Kurds, like the Ukrainians, deserve more from Washington. In both cases, they did the right thing. At a tremendous cost in blood and treasure, they chose freedom and liberty. And, in both cases, the immediate reaction of the White House was cynical betrayal. To Biden’s and Sullivan’s credit, they have reversed course from their initial counsel to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to surrender or flee, and now provide him with the weapons he needs to resist aggression.
Biden should likewise reverse course on the Syrian Kurds and Turkey. First, there should be no jets for Turkey or, for that matter, any other weaponry. Second, it is time also to provide Syrian Kurds with the means to resist Turkish tanks, armored personnel carriers, helicopters, and F-16s. The Syrian Kurds have suffered enough betrayal. It is time for Biden to end his.
Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).