In this interview, professor of politics and international studies Stephen Zunes of the University of San Francisco argues that the U.S. and Turkey are indeed responsible for the Kurds’ slaughter. He points out the deleterious results of the current administration’s foreign policy and how President Trump has dramatically increased the number of U.S. combat troops in the Middle East. Zunes argues that when Trump gave the green light to Turkey’s invasion by lifting U.S. sanctions, he created a humanitarian catastrophe. Trump, according to Zunes, has both bolstered his relationship with Turkey in line with his business pursuits and shows no signs of bringing U.S. troops home.
Zunes also argues it’s important for the progressive left to consider how to conceptualize a foreign policy that stands with the Kurds, while resisting the idea that armed force is the best way to protect human rights. Lastly, he points out the importance of a sound oppositional foreign policy in the upcoming Democratic primaries that could have lasting impacts on the world.
Daniel Falcone: Can you comment on Trump’s foreign policy in regard to Syria and how it is unfolding at the present time? What do you expect to be the immediate and long-term outcomes?
Stephen Zunes: Giving the green light to Turkey’s invasion and completely lifting the U.S.’s half-hearted sanctions once Turkish occupation forces had consolidated their control and ethnically cleansed … thousands of Kurds from their homeland in northern Syria has indeed been as bad a humanitarian catastrophe as reported, if not worse.
The bombing of civilian targets and the extrajudicial killings by the allied Syrian Arab militia (including elements of the Free Syrian Army now allied with Turkey) against progressive, secular civilian leaders underscore the severity of these U.S.-backed war crimes. Thanks to U.S. support, it appears that the Turks have established a “security zone” or “buffer zone” — a euphemism for military occupation along a 30 kilometer-wide strip on the Syrian side of the Turkish border, comparable to what Israel established in southern Lebanon for 22 years (1978-2000), which resulted in the rise of Hezbollah. Despite 10 United Nations Security Council resolutions calling on Israel to withdraw unconditionally, the U.S. blocked enforcement of these resolutions, with former President Bill Clinton having his ambassador to Israel press the Israelis to continue the occupation in the face of overwhelming opposition from the Israeli public.
This time, regarding Turkey, the United States has prevented the UN Security Council from passing any resolution, and it’s doubtful that Turkey will feel any real pressure to end the occupation, unless global civil society effectively mobilizes against it and forces their governments to place major sanctions against the Recep Tayyip Erdoğan regime.
Trump is vilified by the mainstream media and establishment liberals for failing to show U.S. “resolve” and a strong show of force. Can you talk about how Trump is actually escalating global conflicts?
For reasons I’ve outlined earlier, U.S. forces should indeed withdraw from Syria. However, it should have been done in an orderly and thoughtful manner after consultations with military, intelligence and diplomatic officials, as well as the Kurds themselves. From all accounts, Trump’s decision was an impulsive one following a phone call with the right-wing autocratic Turkish president, with whom Trump has developed a close relationship, in part because of his business ties to that country.
Trump is not “bringing the troops home.” He is redeploying them to secure Syrian oil fields or to other parts of the region. Indeed, he has recently increased by thousands the number of U.S. combat troops in the Middle East. The fact that he has sent thousands of troops to prop up the totalitarian misogynist regime in Saudi Arabia — which doesn’t need them (the kingdom is far more powerful than any potential adversary, with an annual military budget six times that of Iran) — while withdrawing troops that were effectively protecting Rojava (which, while not quite the anarchist utopia as some have portrayed it, has still been the most progressive, secular and democratic self-governing areas in the region) says much about his priorities.
The president was just recently quite matter of fact regarding oil as the chief material prize that drives current affairs and diplomacy. What’s the calculus in your estimation with these types of comments, and how do you gauge the Trump rhetoric in dealing with Turkey when compared to his actual policy implementation?
Unlike previous presidents, who would justify imperialist policies with idealistic rhetoric, Trump is being far more straightforward in certain ways. His initial tough rhetoric toward Turkey in his tweets and his letter to Erdoğan was criticized for its amateurish and undiplomatic language, but I don’t think it was ever meant to be taken seriously, as evidenced by how limited the initial sanctions were and how quickly they were lifted.
In regards to the debate within antiwar circles over U.S. military presence in Syria, some members of the progressive left and revolutionary activists are not buying into the concept that Western democracies and liberal elites care a great deal for the Kurds. No matter what your stance, is it important to “support the Kurds”?
U.S. troops were sent to northern-central and northeastern Syria to support Kurdish-led forces fighting ISIS. Their mission was never to “protect the Kurds” per se. Nor was it about “regime change.” These forces were focused on fighting ISIS, not the Syrian government. Despite the YPG’s [Kurdish People’s Protection Units’] leftist political orientation (initially Marxist-Leninist and more recently quasi-anarchist), the United States was willing to support them because — unlike the Iraqi or Syrian armies and unlike most pro- or anti-Syrian government militias — the YPG had a strong social base and were therefore the most effective fighting force to stop ISIS.
Furthermore, U.S. forces didn’t really “fight alongside the Kurds.” It was more advising and air and artillery support. Only six U.S. soldiers died, as compared with around 11,000 Kurdish soldiers. The best way the United States could have protected the Kurds would have been to have — prior to withdrawal — worked with European allies to put forward a united message to Erdoğan that if Turkish forces moved into Kurdish-controlled regions of Syria, there would be immediate, comprehensive military and economic sanctions, comparable to those imposed on Russia when its forces seized Crimea. What’s important for the left is to speak out in opposition to Turkey and in solidarity with the Kurds, but not pretend that U.S. armed forces are the only or the best ways to protect their legitimate interests.
What do you think about the notion that an anti-Turkish international campaign has distorted coverage of these issues?
Given the history of European imperialism, racism and Islamophobia, as well as Western double-standards and hypocrisy, Turkish defensiveness is understandable, but it is wrong-headed. (Indeed, it bears some similarity to defensiveness by some Israelis and their supporters.)
The reality is that, for decades, the United States and other Western nations have been extremely deferential to crimes by the Turkish government, including tolerating their 1974 invasion and occupation of Northern Cyprus, the repression by their brutal right-wing military governments in the 1980s, their genocidal war against the Turkish Kurds in the 1990s, and their ongoing denial of the Armenian genocide. The events of recent weeks are one of the few times that members of both U.S. political parties have actually been willing to call out a Turkish government for its crimes.
How can the Democratic Party better approach foreign policy in the primary? In the scenario of a Sen. Bernie Sen. Elizabeth Warren nomination, how should foreign policy be packaged by the left wing of the party to maximize voting turnout and to create a binary with Trump?
It is important that the Democratic Party not fall into the fictional narrative that we have to keep our troops in the Middle East for stability or humanitarian purposes. Instead, they need to point out that Trump is actually increasing troop strength in the Middle East to protect oil fields and allied dictatorships. This is essentially what Sanders and Warren have been saying. Former Vice President Joe Biden; South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg; Sen. Amy Klobuchar and some of the others seem to outflank Trump on the militarist/interventionist side, which is a losing proposition.
Indeed, Trump defeated former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in large part because he disingenuously ran to her left on foreign policy. Indeed, the biggest shifts in counties in the northern tier swing states that went from former President Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, to Trump in 2016, were those with the highest casualty rates from Iraq and Afghanistan, apparently fooled by Trump’s insistence that he would “bring the troops home” and put “America first.”
Nominating Biden or one of the other more hawkish Democratic contenders would, as in 2016, most likely not only result in Libertarian-oriented and other swing voters for whom avoiding foreign wars is important, voting again for Trump, but lead progressive voters to stay at home, vote third party, or — even if they do end up voting Democratic — fail to campaign for or donate money to the nominee.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
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