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Kurds, US veterans denounce Trump decision to withdraw troops from northern Syria

Seyhmus Yuksekkaya (left), cofounder of the New England Kurdish Association, spoke with Representative Seth Moulton about the situation in Syria.
Seyhmus Yuksekkaya (left), cofounder of the New England Kurdish Association, spoke with Representative Seth Moulton about the situation in Syria. Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff/Globe staff

Seyhmus Yuksekkaya of Swampscott, a Kurdish native of southeastern Turkey, said he knows firsthand what Turkish oppression looks like. It’s an enduring, embedded hostility that originated long before he came to the United States for safety and freedom 20 years ago, he said.

On Tuesday, as Turkish troops continued to pound Kurdish enclaves in northern Syria, Yuksekkaya struggled to find the words to fully convey the consequences of President Trump’s abrupt decision last week to withdraw US troops from that area.

“I am shocked as a human being. I am shocked as a Kurd,” said Yuksekkaya, cofounder of the New England Kurdish Association. “There is a genocide going on. As we speak, bombs are being dropped in front of houses.”

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Yuksekkaya met Tuesday with Representative Seth Moulton, a four-tour Marine veteran of Iraq, to discuss the military and humanitarian calamity facing Kurds who had allied themselves with the United States to battle Islamic State forces and dismantle their so-called caliphate in northern Syria and parts of Iraq.

“I know families in Massachusetts who have lost family members,” Yuksekkaya said.

They are traumatized, he said. They can’t sleep and don’t watch TV news. That applies to grieving families as well as Kurdish-Americans who have yet to receive word from home, Yuksekkaya said.

Trump cast the move as motivated by his desire, often expressed on the campaign trail, to extricate the United States from a succession of “endless wars.” But the withdrawal has generated fierce criticism, not only from politicians on Capitol Hill but from veterans of the long, bloody wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

On Tuesday, Moulton blasted Trump’s decision as a shameful betrayal of an American ally and a gut-punch to US troops who had fought alongside the Kurds, a people without a country who are spread among parts of Syria, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Armenia.

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“I’m always careful not to speak for other troops, but I think in this case I know exactly how they’re feeling, which is that they feel disgusted,” said Moulton, a Democrat from Salem.

“It must be so disheartening, so disgusting, to be an American soldier or Marine on the ground and have a commander-in-chief that you can’t trust and that doesn’t live up to our values and that literally is ordering you to retreat,” he added.

“What we are seeing on the ground has exceeded our worst fears,” Moulton said. “This is barbarity.”

Moulton’s outrage was echoed by Jack Hammond, a former Army brigadier general and three-tour veteran of Afghanistan and Iraq.

“The last thing the world needs is another armchair general, but this decision is wrong on so many levels,” said Hammond, who is executive director of Home Base, a partnership between Massachusetts General Hospital and the Red Sox Foundation that treats what Home Base calls the invisible wounds of war.

“The obvious issue is that the Kurds are the only reliable regional partner we’ve had in both Iraq or Syria. They have done everything we have asked of them, and we have just betrayed them,” Hammond said. “I’m not sure who is going to want to stick their neck out and partner with us if they perceive they are expendable.”

Hammond said that the decision to let the Kurds fend for themselves against Turkish forces will have a searing, emotional effect on many veterans.

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“My personal concern, based on my work at Home Base, is the huge potential for moral injury that will be felt by every soldier, Marine, airman, and sailor that spilled blood alongside the Kurds in either northern Iraq or Syria,” Hammond said. “The combination of combat trauma and moral injury — betrayal in this case — is a terrible combination.

“They have seen the faces of the Kurdish men, women, and children who will die, and they played with those kids,,” he said

Trump’s decision to pull about 1,000 US troops from strategically important posts in northern Syria allowed Turkey to cross the border unopposed and push back Kurdish fighters, whom the Turkish government describes as separatist terrorists.

As a result, captured ISIS fighters and their families, whom the Kurds had been guarding, are now escaping or in better position to escape and regroup. In addition, Russia and Iran have a fresh opportunity to exert far more influence in the vacuum created by the American withdrawal.

Maura Sullivan, a Portsmouth, N.H., resident who served as a Marine captain in Iraq, said the decision is troubling.

“These are respected allies that we have served alongside and who placed their lives in America’s hands for years in the long fight against ISIS,” said Sullivan, who served as an assistant secretary of veterans affairs under then-President Obama and special assistant to the secretary of the Navy. “This idea that we would turn our back on our friends and allies who have been engaged in this fight is disappointing, and is a very unsettling moment for the country.”

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To Nicholas Burns, a former undersecretary of state for political affairs, the consequences are profound.

“President Trump has betrayed the Syrian Kurds, who have been our strongest partners against the Islamic State. They have protected our own forces and denied the territory they held to the Assad government [in Syria] and the Russians,” said Burns, a professor at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

“The larger cost for the US is that the faith that many of our friends and allies have had in our word and reliability is now diminished,” he added.

Andrew McCarty, an Air Force veteran from Milton who served in Egypt and Qatar after Sept. 11, 2001, agreed that the collateral damage from a US withdrawal could linger.

“How do we convince others to take up arms and fight with us when we feed our friends to the wolves?” McCarty said. “There was no consideration for the long-term implications, and that’s frightening.”

Trump called for tough sanctions against Turkey following a blistering rebuke of his decision by some Republican senators, including Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, one of Trump’s staunchest allies. But Moulton called the sanctions “toothless” and said tougher measures should take direct aim at Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his inner circle.

Even amid the uproar over Trump’s decision, some veterans are conflicted.

“I just don’t want any more of our troops getting killed. And if they’re there, they’re going to get killed,” said John Rocca, 93, the senior vice commander of a Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Cambridge. “Who knows the right thing? I’m just a citizen.”

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Globe correspondent Max Reyes and Dugan Arnett of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at brian.macquarrie@globe.com.