Date: June 25, 2020
Author: SETH J. FRANTZMAN
The American president, according to former national security adviser John Bolton, is actually anti-Kurdish and dislikes a minority group in the Middle East that has been consistently pro-American.
When US President Donald Trump was elected in 2016, many Kurds had high hopes for his presidency. The year 2016 was crucial: Kurdish dissidents in Iran were chafing under the regime, and Kurds in Turkey were under curfew as Ankara fought a war with Kurdish militants.
But across the border in Syria, a partnership with US Special Forces was paying off in the battle against ISIS. In Iraq, the autonomous Kurdistan region was under economic pressure but holding the line against ISIS and thriving.
Kurdish hopes, however, have been dashed. The American president, according to former national security adviser John Bolton, is actually anti-Kurdish and dislikes a minority group in the Middle East that has been consistently pro-American and sought to work with the US.
Instead of liking the values of the Kurdish regions, including diversity and tolerance and being a safe haven for Christian and Yazidi minorities, it seems some around Trump prefer the sectarian intolerance and authoritarianism of Turkey’s extreme nationalist regime and other groups that target Kurds.
In early 2017 these glimmering hopes that a new president in Washington would change decades of US ambivalence on Kurdish civil-rights issues were riding high. Kurds had been brutally suppressed and betrayed during the 20th century. Systematically killed by Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the secular nationalist government in Turkey had denied their existence. In Syria, many lacked citizenship and were subjected to forced Arabization and assimilation by the Ba’athist regime. Iran hunted down Kurdish dissidents, murdering them in Europe, and kept tight control of its Kurdish region.
Things had changed for Kurds in the 21st century. The Turkish government under new leadership of the AK Party initially sought to ameliorate government policy and enable Kurdish media and limited cultural rights. In Iraq, the Kurdistan region was autonomous and replete with splendid new airports and office buildings, fueled by Turkish and Gulf investment and oil trade. Even Iran seemed to be relaxing previous suppression.
Then came the war on ISIS. The Kurdish regions stood against ISIS, sacrificing thousands of Kurdish lives. ISIS members were able to be fueled by supporters residing in areas of the Syrian regime. At the same time, increasingly extremist Syrian rebels and foreign volunteers were traveling through Turkey, there was opposition to the sectarianism of Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad, and the Kurdish regions aided the US-led Coalition fighting ISIS. Kurdish fighters saved Yazidis from suffering more genocide.
However, the White House was cold toward a Kurdistan independence referendum in Iraq. Oddly, the US would later target Iranian-backed militias in Iraq, the same militias Kurds complained about in 2017. But back in 2017, the US worked with Baghdad against the Iraqi Kurdish referendum.
In a bizarre series of events, Iranian-backed militias were given an open door to attack Kirkuk, which had been held by Kurdish forces, and 150,000 Kurds fled. Since then, Iran has increased its role in their former Kurdish-administered areas, and the result has been an increase in instability and in more ISIS cells.
While the US had worked in September and October 2017 to isolate the Kurds who sought an independence referendum in Iraq, Trump slammed them. “I don’t like Kurds,” he said. “They ran from the Iraqis.” It was hard for the Kurds in Kirkuk because their airports and their borders were closed, and they were facing US-supplied Abrams tanks being driven by Baghdad. Inevitably they withdrew.
WHAT WAS it about the Kurdish referendum that bothered Washington? Scotland has had an independence referendum. Quebec, South Sudan and many other places have also had them. The US used to believe in the right to self-determination. Instead, the US backed Iranian groups in October 2017 by not helping to negotiate between Erbil and Baghdad, ensuring the weakening of a US partner and the emboldening Iran.
Oddly, within two years, the US would be bombing those same Iranian militias and killing Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and Qasem Soleimani, architects of the fall of Kirkuk.
In Syria, Trump always wanted to leave the successful anti-ISIS conflict. Kurds were the main partners, but Trump hinted in 2017 that he would leave and then in 2018 made it policy.
He empowered a foreign-policy team that was the most pro-Turkey in US history, and this in turn empowered Turkey to begin taking over Kurdish areas of Syria. Kurds were depopulated from Afrin in January, adding 167,000 Kurdish refugees to the 150,000 or so who had fled Kirkuk.
Then came the US demand that Kurds, who were busy fighting ISIS sleeper cells, dismantle what Turkey claimed were “threats” along the border of Syria. The “threats” were some bunkers and trenches near Tel Abyad. What Turkey did not tell the US was that it was planning an invasion and wanted the US to pave the way.
Ankara gave its friends in the State Department a map of the area it would take over. The Kurds would be expelled and Syrian Arab refugees settled in their areas. This is called ethnic cleansing, and some US officials warned about it.
Instead of warning the Kurdish partner forces in eastern Syria about Turkey’s intentions, the US had tried to appease Ankara. US State Department officials argued that the US must give Turkey Patriot missiles to go along with the Russian S-400s it was buying. The US put a bounty on the heads of Kurdish militants from the Kurdistan Workers Party, which Turkey was fighting.
The US has long supported this war on the PKK, viewing the group as terrorists. But no matter how much the US gave Turkey, Ankara’s overall demand was to remove US forces from Syria. Ankara claimed that America’s partners in Syria were “terrorists,” even though there were no attacks from Syria.
The US told the Syrian Kurds two things. First, US Central Command (CENTCOM) under secretary of defense Jim Mattis and generals Joseph Votel and Joseph Dunford indicated the US would stay for years and stabilize eastern Syria. The State Department worked to undermine Kurdish gains, sidelining them in the Geneva process and making sure they had no say in the future of Syria.
Second, US diplomat James Jeffrey said the US was conducting a tactical, temporary and transactional relationship in eastern Syria. When Turkey said it would invade and drive over US troop positions if necessary, Trump pulled out of an area on the border in October 2019. This meant 200,000 people fled, including Kurds, Christians and Yazidis. That made the total tally for the Trump administration some 517,000 people forced into exile from previously Kurdish-administered areas that had been stable and peaceful.
TRUMP’S VIEW, according to Bolton, was that the Kurds “ran from the Turks. The only time they don’t run is when we’re bombing all around them with F-18s.” This was an interesting comment, considering US history has generally been full of examples of the US helping people who flee, not disliking them for being persecuted.
The US, with a sometimes mixed record, used to help Cubans, Haitians, Somalis, Hmong, Kurds, Jews and many others who have fled. In the Balkans, the US helped to stop persecutions of groups in the 1990s. The new policy, according to Bolton’s book, appears to be to side with the aggressor, not those fleeing.
For Kurds, this has been an unmitigated disaster. Today, Turkey and Iran work together to suppress Kurdish dissidents. Hundreds of Kurdish activists, journalists and politicians have been jailed in Turkey. In Iraq, Kurds face threats in areas such as Kirkuk or Sinjar.
Minority Christians and Yazidis have also faced threats. In Syria, a successful campaign to liberate eastern Syria from ISIS has been turned upside-down to the point that the White House seems to see success as a problem to be jettisoned.
Iran, Russia and Turkey, authoritarian regimes, are all seeking to divide the spoils when the US leaves. In Iraq, the Kurdistan region is once again threatened economically, and a joint Turkish-Iran invasion threatens stability.
Across Afrin, the remaining Kurds are being hunted down, and women are kidnapped and taken to secret prisons by Turkish-backed extremists. The gains of recent years have been eroded, and some 500,000 people have become displaced persons under the current US administration.
In general, these are people who supported the US and looked to America with hope. People even did things like name their restaurants after Trump. Bolton’s book reveals a White House that has some support for Kurds, but the most anti-Kurdish voices appear to have risen to the top.