President Trump’s abrupt withdrawal of American troops from Syria is a tragic continuation of decades-long inept American actions in the Middle East. The immediate victims are the region’s Kurds, but there are ominous long-term consequences for the national security of Greece, Cyprus, and the United States.
The root of the present crisis goes back to Bush II’s decision to pursue regime change in Iraq. His invasion of Iraq with its promise of quick victory with shock and awe tactics proved to be a disaster. Many initial American losses stemmed from Turkey’s refusal to allow the United States to use American bases in Turkey as part of the invasion.
‘Democratic’ forces that included many Muslim extremists challenged the regime of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad in 2011. The U.S. supported that force in hopes of seeing a pro-American government established. The rebellion failed when Russia and Iran increased their support for Assad. A major consequence of the vicious fighting was the displacement of millions of people who flooded neighboring nations with many seeking asylum in Europe.
Another American miscalculation was to allow Turkey to become a safe transit point and support center for ISIS which rapidly moved from being a cult to occupying substantial territory in Syria. The Kurds proved to be the only fighting force the United States could depend on to fight ISIS. Their immediate motivation was self-defense, but their longer-term goal is to create a Kurdish state for a population of 28 million now spread over five nations.
During the course of the strife, Kurds liberated and secured areas ISIS had occupied. Given its successful ousting of ISIS, the last thing Kurd fighters could imagine was the American president greenlighting the Turkish desire to occupy a swath of Syria where Kurds are dominant. Turkey routinely refers to Kurdish fighters as ‘terrorists’ and is opposed to a Kurdish state or even autonomous Kurdish regions in multi-national states.
Turkey claims to want to create a safe territory for refugees, but its assault immediately created 160,000 new refugees. European nations were warned that if they interfered with the Turkish invasion, Turkey would flood Europe with more than a million refugees.
The European reaction to these events was astonishment. French President Emmanuel Macron summed up the European view by stating, “Turkey is putting millions of people at humanitarian risk. In doing so, Turkey will be responsible in front of the international community for helping Daesh (ISIS) building a Caliphate.” Despite this sentiment, Europe’s only direct response has been limited to imposing minor economic sanctions on Turkey.
Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, a strong supporter of Trump, also was aghast. He condemned the Turkish invasion of the Kurdish regions of Syria as unacceptable ethnic cleansing. He stated that Israel was prepared to extend humanitarian aid to the “gallant Kurdish people,” but as yet, such aid has not materialized.
Domestic criticism of Trump’s actions has been extensive. Several Republican senators have vigorously expressed their disapproval of Trump’s decisions. More dramatically, a majority of House Republicans joined House Democrats in condemning the president’s unilateral withdrawal of U.S. troops by a vote of 354-60.
The president responded to critics by imposing a trickle of trade sanctions on the Turkish state and some individuals. But he was unable to admit the gravity of his error. With the horse already out of the barn, he wrote a bizarre letter to Turkey’s President Erdogan threatening to wreck the Turkish economy, not if it refused to withdraw its troops, but only if the invasion went too far. In highly undiplomatic language, he advised Erdogan. “Don’t be a tough guy. Don’t be a fool...I will call you later.”
In one of his absurdist moments, Trump denounced the Kurds for not participating in the invasion at Normandy. More relevant might be that ‘neutral’ Turkey provided strategic war materials to the Nazis until the final months of World War II. So, the Turks were indirectly present at Normandy, but on the other side.
American’s betrayal of the Kurds needs to be of concern to Cyprus. Turkey is determined that Cyprus will not be unified and has stated its 35,000 occupying troops will not be removed. Turkey also is demanding a share in mining the fossil fuel deposits in Cyprus’s territorial waters. War ships already protect Turkish drilling operations in the area. If Turkey becomes more aggressive on mainland Cyprus or in Cypriot waters, it is far from a certainty that the United States would defend the sovereignty of the Republic of Cyprus.
Greece, too, is threatened by Turkey’s aggressive policies. Erdogan is determined to seize some of Greece’s Aegean Islands. Turkish fighter jets violate Greek airspace daily. Although Greece has excellent relations with the American government, whether the United States would defend Greece if Turkey created a military incident is questionable. Greece and Turkey are both members of NATO, but the United States and the other NATO members have taken no measures against Turkey’s unacceptable provocations against a fellow member.
Abandoned by the United States and Europe, the Kurds have turned to Russia as its major military ally, have compromised with Assad, and have accepted indirect aid from Iran. This is an enormous strategic setback for the United States. Even more critical is that political forces in the Eastern Mediterranean believe the United States has become an unreliable ally.