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Turkish Invasion of Syria Is Latest Chapter in History of US Betraying Kurds

We must challenge the received understanding of the U.S. relationship with the Kurds, Turkey, Syria, ISIS and terrorism.

Syrian refugees arrive at the Bardarash camp in Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region on October 20, 2019.

Janine Jackson: As we record on October 17, Turkey continues its offensive in northern Syria, a move seen as greenlighted by Donald Trump’s early October removal of some US troops from the area. Trump’s action, and his typically bizarre and contradictory response to subsequent events, account for much coverage.

At the same time, many Americans are learning for the first time about Rojava, the de facto autonomous Kurdish area and political project in northern Syria. It could be a chance to challenge received understanding of the US relationship with, not just the Kurds, but with Turkey, Syria, ISIS, indeed terrorism, and more — that is, if we could try and see people rather than maps, and look at events without elite media’s lens of implied imperialism.

Here to help us think differently about things is Khury Petersen-Smith, the Michael Ratner Middle East Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. He joins us now by phone from Washington, DC. Welcome to CounterSpin, Khury Petersen-Smith.

Khury Petersen-Smith: Thank you. I’m glad to be here.

The corporate media movie might be called The Betrayal of the Kurds: Turkey sees Kurdish militants as terrorists, but they fought against ISIS in Syria alongside the US, and now we’ve abandoned them. That’s kind of the “humane” line in the media, within, of course, a context in which we’re all at war against and among one another; our enemies have enemies, but are they our friends? You know, follow that bouncing ball.

But the point is, the Kurds have helped us, and therefore we should not be hurting them. And people are being killed and driven from their homes. But can I ask you to address this popular framing of “loyalty to the Kurds,” which never seems to have been much of a guiding principle?

Right, exactly. And I’ll say first, too, that the frame is, “Trump has betrayed the Kurds, and the US should not do so,” but the conclusion of the sentence — whether it’s said out loud or not — is, “and that’s why the US should maintain its forces precisely where they were, at the border of Syria and Turkey.” And that, actually, the mistake was departing from what the US was doing in Syria, and the US should return to that.

That’s the kind of new-found sympathy for the Kurds, which I think is new-found among certain politicians, who have been in positions where they themselves actually bear responsibility for the betrayal of the Kurds. Whatever they’re saying about the Kurds now, the conclusion is always that the US should actually maintain what it was doing in Syria — which is wrong.

As you say, though, the idea that the US has a loyalty to the Kurds, that Trump has betrayed — I mean, phrases trending on social media are “Trump betrayed the Kurds,” “this is Trump’s betrayal” and so on — when, in fact, while that may be true, this is really the latest chapter of what is a long and bloody and really atrocious history of US betrayal of Kurds throughout the region: Kurds in Syria, Kurds in Turkey, Kurds in Iraq.

If we could take just a minute and talk about Rojava: It’s not a military camp; it’s not Woodstock, you know? What should we know about it?

That’s a good question. And Rojava is the Kurdish name for this region of Syria where they have been besieged, really, by forces like ISIS. And so there has been a military struggle against ISIS, but there’s also, within the territory — which is in control of Kurdish militia and allies — there’s been an effort to really have some experimentation in human freedom. There have been efforts at trying to make a society that has gender equality, and other forms of equality as well. So this was an effort by progressive Kurdish forces to try to carve out a space where they could live with some freedom and try to experiment in a freer society.

And they were also, of course, fighting for their lives against ISIS. That’s really important. The problem with Trump’s decision is that “the Kurds fought so well for us” — as though the Kurds are like mercenaries or something, when, in fact, they were fighting for their lives. And they entered into an alliance with the United States, which was also fighting against ISIS. It’s worth noting that Kurdish forces have entered into all kinds of alliances in their fight for their lives. So this notion that the whole project of the Kurdish militias is loyalty to the United States, which Trump has betrayed, is really wrong, and it just doesn’t make any sense.

In following from what you’ve just said, the Kurds were really maybe the least surprised by the US pullout, such as it is — it’s certainly not from all of Syria, and it’s certainly not from all of the world, and we can come back to that — but the Kurds had already been in conversation with Russia and with the Syrian government. But then, “scary Russia fills void when benevolent US leaves” is, we know, a big elite media hobbyhorse, and it’s implied throughout that the United States must be, and should be, at the table deciding Syria’s future; that kind of undergirds the whole conversation.

Exactly, yeah; there’s a couple of things happening here. The first is, as you said, Kurdish folks and people who support Kurdish freedom — if you know anything about the history of the Kurds and the ways that they’ve been betrayed by various forces, and in particular, the United States, then, yeah — there’s something that is horrendous about this, but not terribly surprising.

There’s this phrase, a Kurdish phrase, that is, “We have no friends, except for the mountains.” And that speaks to the many, many betrayals over the years by various forces. So that’s on one hand, and then, as you said, the kind of establishment critics of Trump’s decision, people like Lindsey Graham and Mitch McConnell, people like Nikki Haley, people like Hillary Clinton, I’ll say, who presided over all kinds of policies that were damaging to Kurds: Their critique, their problem, is really that this gets in the way of the United States having a seat at the table in deciding the fate of Syria, and therefore the fate of the region.

And one of the tragedies of the past several years, since 2011, regarding Syria, is that not only have there been internal struggles among Syrians that have been really disastrous, but various forces, regional and international, have jumped in and tried to decide the direction of Syrian society.

And, unfortunately, it’s ordinary people in Syria, and particularly the most marginalized people, who have paid the price for that.

The limits of the US media conversation are so clear, as you’ve indicated: If you think that Trump did anything wrong in leaving Kurds in northern Syria exposed to Turkish attack, well, then, what you want is for him to undo it, and for troops to be replaced there. And then if you’re opposed to Trump, then your voice in the media is Lindsey “this will be worse than leaving Iraq” Graham. It almost goes without saying that elite media debates include no genuine peace advocates, no genuine anti-interventionists, and that really shows in terms of the limits of what we’re allowed to consider as options.

It’s really incredible. There are many people, it has to be said, who are upset about what’s happened over the past week, this catastrophic situation in which more than 130,000 people have fled this border region, in which many have been killed and many more have been wounded. There are many people who are outraged about that, precisely because of their sympathy with the Kurds, for many for humanitarian reasons.

But the loudest critics, the people who we hear in the media critiquing Trump, people who are current members of Congress or former ambassadors or secretaries of state, these people are concerned with US power. That’s actually their issue; they actually want a greater US presence in Syria, not a reduced or modified one.

And so it’s true: In the mainstream media, there has been no voice that has been saying, “Well, why don’t we actually look at the history of what has transpired?” It’s as though we can only talk about the past week and a half.

And it’s like, what has the US actually done in Syria? That’s part of the problem, too, actually, is that there’s this idea that there was this really fantastic fight against ISIS that was going so well, and now Trump is going to set it back.

And so, it’s true: We have to read between the lines, and, actually, they’re saying it explicitly too, “Well, now Russia has stepped in.” Really, they’re concerned about the bigger picture and which world power gets to control Syria.

But this idea that there was some great, pristine fight against ISIS that Trump is backing down from also needs to be really examined. A big part of the US war on ISIS, which involved Kurdish allies, was the siege of the city of Raqqa, which was primarily an air war carried out by the United States, that was catastrophic. And some good journalists have documented that there were mass civilian casualties in Raqqa. Amnesty International has documented the fact that, as happens when you bombard a city from the air, there was no attention paid to civilians and civilian casualties.

So this stuff isn’t being talked about in the media, what the US has actually been doing, just in the past couple of years in Syria, let alone the longer history that the US has had in the region, and the history of US betrayal of the Kurds.

Let me just ask you, finally, if we use a different lens, if we don’t act as though we’re playing a big game of Risk, and we see people over maps, then different things are salient. I’ve heard you talk, for instance, about refugees and the implications for refugees. What other people and ideas might be lifted up if we look at things in a different way?

That’s a really important question. I think the main thing is you can look at the situation in Syria, and it’s really quite disheartening. Obviously, it’s been just a humanitarian catastrophe for years now, with millions of people displaced, many hundreds of thousands killed, and, unfortunately, we could go on in terms of the description of the horror.

But the other thing is that we’ve also seen really pretty inspiring struggles of progressive movements in the region, in Syria and elsewhere in the region. Of course, the context in which the Syrian civil war emerged, the broader context was what’s called the Arab Spring, right, this massive upsurge all across the Middle East and North Africa, where people were fighting for their freedom in various ways, in various groups of people. And that has experienced all kinds of violent setbacks, largely by forces that are armed and allied with the United States.

But despite that, there continue to be protests in places like Egypt, there continue to be protests in places like Iraq. And when I think of the best of what the Kurds have done in places like Rojava, and various other experiments in human freedom, actually, throughout Syria — Syria has had some of the most inspiring examples of places where, even for a brief time, people will rise up and take control of their regions or their towns, and try to build democracy. And it has been besieged. And yet we see, there’s something really incredible there, there’s a kind of desire and a capacity of people to figure out their own destiny without forces like the United States.

And so, I think that if that’s our orientation, then it helps us do what we need to do, which is, really, call for US demilitarization. The US should not have troops in Syria. Also the US should not be arming Turkey. If we’re upset about the slaughter of the Kurds that’s taking place, well, we should ask why the United States has been arming Turkey. Again, a question that’s not being asked in the mainstream media.

And I think that those kinds of positions are important as a matter of principle, but I think that they can feel more viable when we understand that there are people in the region who are fighting for their freedom, and we should hear those voices and look to those voices.

We’ve been speaking with Khury Petersen-Smith, Michael Ratner Middle East Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. You can find his recent piece, “Trump’s Betrayal of the Kurds Is Terrible, But the Answer Is Not Endless War,” along with other work, on the website Khury Petersen-Smith, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

Thank you. Thank you for having me; so grateful to talk to you about these things.