The United Nations had just opened its general assembly in late September last year when President Donald Trump gave a rare, 81-minute press conference. Kurdish journalist Rahim Rashidi, who was born in Iran and had fled to Iraq, then Turkey, then claimed refuge in Sweden before settling into a new life in Washington, raised his hand to ask a question of the free world’s leader.
“Yes please, Mr. Kurd,” Trump responded flippantly, raising eyebrows and cackles across the world. But Rashidi didn’t miss a beat, asking Trump about U.S. relations with the Kurds and American commitments against regional powers—Iran and Turkey—that always seemed to want to steamroll the ethnic minority into oblivion. “We do get along great with the Kurds, we’re trying to help them a lot,” Trump answered:
Don’t forget, that’s their territory. We have to help them. I want to help them. They fought with us, They fought with us, they died. We lost tens of thousands of Kurds [who] died fighting ISIS. They died for us and with us. And for themselves, they died for themselves. But they’re great people, and we have not forget [sic].
It was the rare moment in which Trump’s brand of blather matched longstanding U.S. rhetoric about the Kurds, who, as “the world’s largest stateless nation,” number 20 to 40 million Middle Eastern people living mostly in enclaves spread across Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. For three decades, Kurdish nationalists have been Our Men In The Middle East, reliable proxies and allies in U.S. struggles against Saddam Hussein, Tehran’s government, and Islamist terrorists.
Given that history, Rashidi said last year that he was proud to receive the “Mr. Kurd” moniker from Trump, an obvious ally in his people’s plight for recognition and a homeland. “I loved it, because all the time our identity is ignored by the Turkish government, by the Iranian government,” he told The Washington Post. “We are proud of our struggle for democracy, for justice, for freedom.”
That struggle took an unrecoverable blow Sunday night, when, after a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan—a fellow embattled strongarm “populist”—Trump announced that the United States was withdrawing its troops from Northern Syria to permit a Turkish military incursion, giving Erdoğan a free hand to smash America’s Kurdish allies there. (The U.S., the White House said, would also force its Kurdish now-ex-partners to turn ISIS prisoners over to the Turks.) By Monday afternoon, Turkish jets were already dropping bombs at the Syrian border.
Even Trump’s allies are mind-boggled. Erdoğan has made no bones about the fact that he wants to smash the Kurds, whom he considers a terrorist insurgency, and who make a fitting punching bag for Ankara’s electorally vulnerable nationalist leader. The Pentagon does not want this. James Mattis did not want this. Mitch McConnell does not want this. Lindsey Graham really does not want this, and is working with a Democratic senator to mitigate the considerable potential damage. Hell, even Trump claimed not to want this last summer; in June, he bragged to reporters that his personal touch had kept untold millions of Kurds from being crushed by Turkey, saying, “[Erdoğan] had a 65,000-man army at [Turkey’s] border [with Syria], and he was going to wipe out the Kurds, who helped us with ISIS … [but] I called him, and I asked him not to do it.”
Trump’s new round of duplicitous kowtowing to Erdoğan’s wishes may seem unthinkable, but it’s not without precedent. In fact, the United States has a long history of selling out Kurdish interests. Though Trump may have bumbled into this clusterfuck as only Trump could, his move looks an awfully lot like his predecessors’: the political and military exploitation of a large, politically provocative ethnic group in the cold-blooded pursuit of America’s national interest.
U.S. geopolitical engagement with the Kurds began in earnest in the mid-1970s. The Americans and Israelis had brokered a deal with the Shah of Iran to permit the establishment of a large autonomous Kurdish enclave in Northern Iraq, which could help antagonize Saddam Hussein’s regime in Baghdad. (The Kurds had already rebelled against Iraq several times in the 1960s, conflicts that left tens of thousands dead and made refugees of hundreds of thousands more.) But, as The New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins has noted, the Shah and Hussein struck a peace deal in 1975, and the new Kurdish stronghold was ultimately left unprotected. The Iraqi army immediately sent the Kurds to ground. This tragedy, Filkins wrote, left an indelible mark: The name of Henry Kissinger—who as Gerald Ford’s secretary of state and national security advisor oversaw the U.S.’s disengagement—“is known, and reviled, by nearly every Kurd.” The Kurds’ de facto leader later wrote an unnerving lament to Ford’s successor, President Jimmy Carter: “I could have prevented this calamity which befell my people,” he said, “had I not fully believed in the promise of America.”
By 1988, near the end of the Iran-Iraq war, Hussein initiated the “Anfal campaign,” a genocidal offensive against the Kurds that killed perhaps 100,000; Iraqi units were ordered to bomb indiscriminately “in order to kill the largest number of persons present” and execute any prisoners between the ages of 15 and 70. Arguably the worst of these attacks occurred in Halabja that year, a town bombarded with mustard gas and nerve agents, making Iraq the first known state to use chemical weapons against its own people. An estimated 5,000 people, many women and children, died in that strike.
Throughout the Iran-Iraq war, the U.S. had long known about Hussein’s chemical attacks, tolerated them, and even provided targeting information used by chemical units (against the Iranians, not the Kurds), all because he was their bulwark against Tehran. As Bush’s predecessor, Ronald Reagan, once wrote into the margins of a Pentagon intelligence report: “An Iranian victory is unacceptable.”
But three years later, as U.S. armor repelled Hussein’s soldiers from neighboring oil-rich Kuwait, President George H.W. Bush suddenly rediscovered the Kurds as a possible check to Baghdad’s power. “The Iraqi people should put Saddam aside, and that would facilitate the resolution of all these problems,” Bush said in early March of 1991, as U.S. victory seemed imminent. Believing that Bush had their backs, Kurds in the north and Shi’a Iraqis in the south launched uprisings against the Saddam regime.
But the U.S. did not have the Kurds’ backs. Despite their territorial gains and open call for Hussein’s arrest, the American commander, General Norman Schwarzkopf, did not advance to Baghdad; instead, he negotiated a settlement that permitted Iraq to use helicopters for logistical purposes. The Iraqis instead used helicopters as gunships, raining steel and chemicals down on Kurdish positions, killing thousands and displacing many more. The U.S. more or less looked the other way as Kurds fled for safety under a no-fly zone in the north. “We don’t think that outside powers should be interfering in the internal affairs of Iraq,” State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said at the time.
Nevertheless, the U.S. soon engaged northern Iraqi Kurds as only they could: by setting up a CIA station. Led by operations officer Robert Baer, the CIA in 1995 negotiated a truce between rival Kurdish factions and worked with them on a plan to capture or kill Saddam. “It’s the most efficient group we’ve dealt with in the past 20 or 30 years,” Baer told me today. “They’ve got their own agenda, no doubt about it, but they are the only proxies we have in that part of the world.”
Baer, the Kurds, and a group of Iraqi army collaborators plotted not only to attack Hussein’s home, but to smash his army and foment an insurrection. But with mixed signals from Washington—plotting to kill a foreign leader is, after all, illegal—the operation was compromised, and Hussein turned the opposition back… after a Kurdish force had already wiped out three Iraqi divisions. In the chaotic aftermath, one Kurdish faction aligned itself with Saddam, who launched an offensive, captured the northern city of Erbil, and executed 700 Kurds.
The subsequent U.S. embrace of the Kurds during the Iraq War of 2003 was full of contradictions. George W. Bush and his neoconservative war architects used Hussein’s attacks on the Kurds as a pretext for the invasion. “On this very day 15 years ago, Saddam Hussein launched a chemical weapons attack on the Iraqi village of Halabja,” Bush announced, just four days before the U.S. “shock and awe” bombing began. “With a single order the Iraqi regime killed thousands of men and women and children, without mercy or without shame. Saddam Hussein has proven he is capable of any crime.” Bush, of course, did not note the U.S.’s knowledge or tolerance of previous Iraqi chemical attacks.
Nevertheless, the Kurds became a bloc on which Americans could rely in the fight against Hussein, then the Baa’thist insurgency, then Al Qaeda in Iraq, then ISIS. But as President Barack Obama found—first in withdrawing troops from Iraq in 2011, then in seeking to stop ISIS’s expansion in 2014—to support or arm Kurdish forces is to essentially endorse their longtime aspiration for independent statehood, a prospect that threatens Iraq’s already-tenuous federal government, as well as the ambitions of Turkey. Middle East geopolitics is an altar on which the Kurds are constantly sacrificed.
All that said, it’s not clear there’s any real geopolitical reasoning behind Trump’s decision to let the Turks run roughshod over Kurdish Syria. The president, like his predecessors, is always willing to sacrifice masses of peoples to some greater interest, but in this case it’s unclear what that interest is, other than perhaps to declare an empty victory against the Islamic State and try to claim credit for ending one of the U.S.’s smallest and newest military engagements. That, at least, fits with the nationalist “populism” that brought him to power. “He’s just pulling us out of the Middle East, into an isolationist position,” Baer told me. “There’s no constituency [for this] other than ‘Why are we wasting all this money on these ragheads?’”
Trump, confronted by withering criticism of the move Monday, quickly tweeted that if Turkey—a NATO ally of the U.S., pledged to collective security of all the member nations—did attack the Kurds in Syria, or tried anything else “that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey (I’ve done before!).” But the blowback from his withdrawal announcement will continue to snowball. “The obvious thing is the Kurds will never trust us again,” Baer said. “They’ll align with Damascus, the Russians, the Iranians now. We’ve just told them: You want to survive this? Deal with Iran.”
Beyond that, he believes, Turkey’s irredentist claims will continue apace. Tehran will seek an even greater hand in regional affairs than the U.S. invasion of Iraq already gave it. Iranian involvement will further arouse Arab states’ disquiet; ISIS might reconstitute itself again, as Sunni Muslims in the region search desperately for some kind of security. And, of course, tens of thousands of people are likely to die before even a best-case scenario kicks in.
In previous U.S. administrations, sacrifices of Kurdish autonomy and safety were made, mostly wrongly, in the interests of broader stability concerns. While the Trump administration continues this official policy of periodic betrayal, the move itself is pure Trump: spontaneous, surprising even to advisers, destabilizing, and ultimately pointless, except insofar as it earns him another ruthless despot’s approval on the telephone. “Our pulling out is going to cause more chaos and more violence,” Baer told me. “I don’t advocate ignorance as a foreign policy strategy, but he’s going to give it a try.”