Early on in this presidential administration, Donald Trump's advisers told the public to take his statements seriously, not literally. That may explain the latest walk-back. At least let's hope so.
There's an old Kurdish saying: Our only friends are the mountains. And over the years, that's been proven true over and again. Abandonment, they're used to. It goes back to at least the Nixon administration, when the U.S. encouraged an uprising of Kurds in Iraq as a favor to the Shah of Iran. Fat lot of good it did the Kurds.
Then, after the First Gulf War, the U.S. encouraged the Kurds to rise up against the government of Iraq, only to abandon them to Saddam Hussein's tender mercies. The situation with the Kurds in Turkey/Iraq/Syria seems to prove the old line: It's dangerous to be America's enemy in this world, but it can be fatal to be her friend. What's amazing is that the Kurds still consider America their great ally.
Just before Christmas, the current president seemed to follow several of his predecessors by turning his back on the Kurds, this time in Syria. He announced, quite casually and quite unexpectedly that the United States was pulling out of Syria, pronto, because ISIS was defeated. (It's not.) The decision was a reversal of on-the-record United States policy and not only surprised the Kurds, but the president's own advisers, the president's party, and American allies elsewhere. Soon after the announcement--on Twitter--the Turks began massing tanks near Kurdish positions all along its border with Syria.
(The Turks consider the Kurdish fighters terrorists. Like most things in the Middle East, it's complicated.)
But after American allies gasped, American enemies applauded, and at least one American Cabinet member resigned over the decision, the administration is walking back President Trump's tweets. The latest came last week when a senior administration official told The Washington Post: "The United States is not leaving the Middle East. Despite reports to the contrary and false narratives surrounding the Syria decision, we are not going anywhere."
The always blunt John Bolton, the president's national security adviser, told the papers that any withdrawal from Syria is conditional. First, ISIS will have to be defeated in something other than the president's Twitter account, and Turkey would have to assure the safety of the Kurds in Syria.
John Bolton, who has always told it with the bark off, said there is no timetable to the pullout, but that the fight in Syria won't be unending for his country. Which sounds completely reasonable. So much so that even the president seems to have new talking points: "We're pulling out of Syria," he told the press at the White House this weekend. "But we're doing it and we won't be finally pulled out until ISIS is gone."
Again, completely reasonable. Finally.
John Bolton is said to be on his way to the Middle East, specifically Turkey, to talk turkey. Reports say the United States will insist that Kurdish allies in Syria won't be swept away by Turkish tanks once the Americans do leave. What reassurances Recep Tayyip Erdogan can give Mr. Bolton is anybody's guess. But it would seem to be in the American interest to protect the Kurds--and all the Kurdish fighters who acted as American infantry in this fight against ISIS.
Not only to protect Kurds today, but Americans tomorrow. One day, the United States will need allies on the ground again. Maybe this time the United States' treatment of her Kurdish allies will provide an example to emulate, not beware.
Editorial on 01/08/2019
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