Missing the Bigger Picture in Kurdish Syria

President Trump’s decision to withdraw our few troops from the Syria-Turkey border area earned him considerable criticism from allies.  Senator Lindsey Graham said the decision is “a catastrophe in the making.” Representative Lin Cheney said it’s “a catastrophic mistake.”  Former UN Secretary Nikki Haley said, “We must always have the backs of our allies.” 

President Trump has answered these critics.  The Kurds were engaged in a contractual relationship fighting the Islamic State (ISIS).  They were well paid and equipped for their fighting, much like any mercenary group.  Further, they were given three years to consolidate eastern Syria to feed their long-held desire to form an independent Kurdistan with other Kurds in Turkey, Iraq, and Iran.  They failed. 

The Kurds’ problem, and by association that of the U.S., is that regional powers like Turkey and to a lesser extent Iran and Syria have long held the Kurds in disdain.  In fact, Turkey considers the Syrian Kurds to be allies of the Kurdistan Workers' Party or (PKK), which are Turkish Kurds and terrorists fighting for independence for the last 35 years.   

Basically, the Kurds hijacked our fight with ISIS to feed their regional civil war to earn independence.

President Trump is aware of that agenda and is also trying to constrain American hawks who want to use our military willy-nilly across the world.  Remember that Trump frequently said during his 2016 campaign that he wants to escape from endless wars and bring our fighters home.   

Also, we need to ask ourselves whether the withdrawal of a few American troops really matters in the conflict either against ISIS, and did it really grant the Turkish government the “green light” to attack “terrorist” Kurds?  Perhaps.  The Syrian civil war which led to the rise of ISIS is over and the bloody dictator in Damascus won, thanks to the Russians and Iranians.  We can blame Obama for that outcome, not Trump.  And yes, the Turks have permission from Damascus to cross into Syria and they will now consolidate a buffer zone along the Syrian border to control terrorist actions fostered by the independence-minded Kurds and allow for millions of refugees to return home.  I bet the U.S. would do the same if we had a similar problem on either of our borders with Mexico or Canada. 

The pregnant question that Trump’s critics don’t answer is: Will ISIS return to fight another day?  Not necessarily.  Keep in mind that al Qaeda and ISIS are in many more places today than when U.S. forces first pursued them in the mountains of Afghanistan and in the northern plains of Iraq.  Also, what remains of ISIS is trapped in a small area in Syria and if they make a ruckus that can be easily handled by Turkish and Russian airstrikes, and they won’t bother with concerns about collateral damage. 

Another point about all the fake news about the Kurdish plight is evidence of a basic misunderstanding about the Middle East, which is locked in a constant cycle of war in part because of the English and French fools that redrew the maps after World War I. 

Trump’s critics can learn about Middle Eastern culture by watching Lawrence of Arabia.  Remember the first time that Lawrence goes into the desert his guide stops at some oasis.  As the guide drinks from the well, a dark figure on a camel rides fast towards them and then shoots dead Lawrence’s guide. Lawrence is stunned and asks why the Arab killed the guide.  The Arab responds, “He is Hazzami. He is nothing.  He knew that he could not drink from our well.”  

Yes, much of the region is locked in tribal wars and they don’t want democracy.  Further, and in part because of those tribal wars, we do not need to stay there another day, much less a century.  Rather, let the regional players handle these problems and leave the larger security challenges like China and Russia to the United States.  

Why must America get involved in every conflict around the world that is, unless you believe as some of the Trump critics do, that we are indeed the world’s policeman and like former American leaders, believe in promoting democracy at the pointy end of the bayonet? 

Finally, I’m a security cooperation expert helping the Pentagon work with land forces across the world.  Our allies and foreign partners like us because we are ready to fight for them and more often than not give them training and equipment to settle their own challenges.  I dare say the American taxpayer ought to ask whether there ought to be a limit on how much of this fighting really supports our national interests. 

I’m reminded of what English statesman and General Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) said to his troops: “Put your trust in God, but mind to keep your powder dry.”   That’s an apropos view in the Syria account.  America has too many fights ongoing now and much bigger ones ahead.  For our national interests, we too must “mind to keep” our powder dry and not squander our resources on others’ wars.  Let’s put Syria in the rearview mirror.

Lt. Col. Bob Maginnis graduated from the U.S. Military Academy and is an instructor at the Army War College. He oversees a team of national security experts in the Pentagon and has more than 800 published articles on national security and geopolitical issues. His most recent books are Progressive Evil (2019), and Alliance of Evil (2018).

President Trump’s decision to withdraw our few troops from the Syria-Turkey border area earned him considerable criticism from allies.  Senator Lindsey Graham said the decision is “a catastrophe in the making.” Representative Lin Cheney said it’s “a catastrophic mistake.”  Former UN Secretary Nikki Haley said, “We must always have the backs of our allies.” 

President Trump has answered these critics.  The Kurds were engaged in a contractual relationship fighting the Islamic State (ISIS).  They were well paid and equipped for their fighting, much like any mercenary group.  Further, they were given three years to consolidate eastern Syria to feed their long-held desire to form an independent Kurdistan with other Kurds in Turkey, Iraq, and Iran.  They failed. 

The Kurds’ problem, and by association that of the U.S., is that regional powers like Turkey and to a lesser extent Iran and Syria have long held the Kurds in disdain.  In fact, Turkey considers the Syrian Kurds to be allies of the Kurdistan Workers' Party or (PKK), which are Turkish Kurds and terrorists fighting for independence for the last 35 years.   

Basically, the Kurds hijacked our fight with ISIS to feed their regional civil war to earn independence.

President Trump is aware of that agenda and is also trying to constrain American hawks who want to use our military willy-nilly across the world.  Remember that Trump frequently said during his 2016 campaign that he wants to escape from endless wars and bring our fighters home.   

Also, we need to ask ourselves whether the withdrawal of a few American troops really matters in the conflict either against ISIS, and did it really grant the Turkish government the “green light” to attack “terrorist” Kurds?  Perhaps.  The Syrian civil war which led to the rise of ISIS is over and the bloody dictator in Damascus won, thanks to the Russians and Iranians.  We can blame Obama for that outcome, not Trump.  And yes, the Turks have permission from Damascus to cross into Syria and they will now consolidate a buffer zone along the Syrian border to control terrorist actions fostered by the independence-minded Kurds and allow for millions of refugees to return home.  I bet the U.S. would do the same if we had a similar problem on either of our borders with Mexico or Canada. 

The pregnant question that Trump’s critics don’t answer is: Will ISIS return to fight another day?  Not necessarily.  Keep in mind that al Qaeda and ISIS are in many more places today than when U.S. forces first pursued them in the mountains of Afghanistan and in the northern plains of Iraq.  Also, what remains of ISIS is trapped in a small area in Syria and if they make a ruckus that can be easily handled by Turkish and Russian airstrikes, and they won’t bother with concerns about collateral damage. 

Another point about all the fake news about the Kurdish plight is evidence of a basic misunderstanding about the Middle East, which is locked in a constant cycle of war in part because of the English and French fools that redrew the maps after World War I. 

Trump’s critics can learn about Middle Eastern culture by watching Lawrence of Arabia.  Remember the first time that Lawrence goes into the desert his guide stops at some oasis.  As the guide drinks from the well, a dark figure on a camel rides fast towards them and then shoots dead Lawrence’s guide. Lawrence is stunned and asks why the Arab killed the guide.  The Arab responds, “He is Hazzami. He is nothing.  He knew that he could not drink from our well.”  

Yes, much of the region is locked in tribal wars and they don’t want democracy.  Further, and in part because of those tribal wars, we do not need to stay there another day, much less a century.  Rather, let the regional players handle these problems and leave the larger security challenges like China and Russia to the United States.  

Why must America get involved in every conflict around the world that is, unless you believe as some of the Trump critics do, that we are indeed the world’s policeman and like former American leaders, believe in promoting democracy at the pointy end of the bayonet? 

Finally, I’m a security cooperation expert helping the Pentagon work with land forces across the world.  Our allies and foreign partners like us because we are ready to fight for them and more often than not give them training and equipment to settle their own challenges.  I dare say the American taxpayer ought to ask whether there ought to be a limit on how much of this fighting really supports our national interests. 

I’m reminded of what English statesman and General Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) said to his troops: “Put your trust in God, but mind to keep your powder dry.”   That’s an apropos view in the Syria account.  America has too many fights ongoing now and much bigger ones ahead.  For our national interests, we too must “mind to keep” our powder dry and not squander our resources on others’ wars.  Let’s put Syria in the rearview mirror.

Lt. Col. Bob Maginnis graduated from the U.S. Military Academy and is an instructor at the Army War College. He oversees a team of national security experts in the Pentagon and has more than 800 published articles on national security and geopolitical issues. His most recent books are Progressive Evil (2019), and Alliance of Evil (2018).