Several years ago, the United States hired Kurdish fighters to be our mercenaries in Syria. This month we decided we don’t need them anymore, and abandoned them to their fate. Turkey, which considers Kurdish militancy a mortal threat, quickly began bombing them. This set off a veritable orgy of indignation in Washington. It is a classic example of “buffet outrage,” in which one picks and chooses which horrors to condemn. Among those shedding crocodile tears, often accompanied by vivid threats against Turkey, are politicians and pundits who have never uttered a peep about American bombs laying waste to Yemen or American sanctions devastating lives in Iran. The United States deserves condemnation for abandoning its promise to the Kurds. Much of it, however, is a hypocritical blend of anti-Trump fanaticism and frustration over the emerging reality that we have lost the Syrian war.
Abandoning the Kurds is not a policy that materialized out of thin air. It is the product of two long chains of American error, one dating to the beginning of the Syrian war and the other even further back. The deeper history of our Middle East tragedy begins in 1980, when President Carter declared that any challenge to American power in the Persian Gulf region would be repelled “by any means necessary, including military force.” A generation later, President George W. Bush recklessly ordered the invasion of Iraq, which set the region afire and led to the creation of ISIS.
The more recent set of causes for our Kurdish misadventure began in 2011, when President Obama ordered President Bashar Assad of Syria to “step aside.” Beyond the arrogance that leads American presidents to think they can and should decide who may rule other countries lay the utter impossibility of achieving that goal. The head-chopping death cults that fought alongside our partners in Syria, including Jabhat al-Nusra, the local al-Qaeda franchise, and Ahrar al-Sham, which seeks to “build an Islamic State” based on “Allah’s Almighty Sharia,” have as part of their agenda the murder of every Shia Muslim. Since the population of nearby Iran is 90 percent Shia, it should have been obvious from the beginning that Iran would use every ounce of its considerable power to assure Assad’s survival. If Obama had looked at Syria realistically rather then succumbing to fantasy, he would have understood that Assad and his Iranian backers would do whatever necessary to defeat the American project. Instead he plunged ignorantly into a conflict that we had no prospect of winning.
Following the example his predecessor set when invading Afghanistan, Obama looked for “partners” who would fight the anti-Assad war for us. Many of the militias we hired and armed were connected to jihadist terror gangs. That made sense, because the Assad government is resolutely secular and those fanatics hate secularism. We also hired Syrian Kurds. They agreed to fight not because they wanted to commit genocide against Shia Muslims and other infidels, but for a completely different reason. They had watched their Kurdish cousins in northern Iraq establish a mini-state, and dreamed of doing the same in northern Syria. If they supported the American war against Assad, they reasoned, the United States might reward them by helping them turn their piece of Syria into an autonomous region or quasi-independent state.
This was never a realistic possibility. The country that Syrian Kurds wanted to carve out for themselves, which they called “Rojava,” did not have nearly the size, population, or military strength to survive in the unforgiving Middle East. Kurdish leaders understood this, but believed they would thrive anyway because their American friends would defend them. That was a pitifully naive miscalculation. The United States has repeatedly made lavish promises to the Kurds and then betrayed them — most notably in the 1970s, when we encouraged Iraqi Kurds to rebel against Saddam Hussein’s government and then abandoned them when Saddam made an accommodation with our ally, the Shah of Iran. Yet Kurds never seem to learn. Their childlike trust in American promises brings to mind the cartoon character Charlie Brown, whose so-called friend Lucy pulls the football away at the last moment every time he tries to kick, but who nonetheless keeps believing this time will be different.
Although the Kurds did not foresee this betrayal, Assad did. “We say to those groups who are betting on the Americans, the Americans will not protect you,” he warned in a speech nine months ago. The Kurds should have listened. In fact, seeking Assad’s protection was always their Plan B. Now, very late in the game and after taking thousands of casualties fighting for their alluring but unfaithful American “friends,” they are doing it. They have effectively surrendered to the Syrian army and asked for its help in defense against Turkey, which thought it had a chance to crush them and establish itself as the de facto ruler of “Rojava.” The Kurds’ alliance with the United States was doomed from the start. Alliance with Assad makes more sense. He may not be the world’s most reliable ally, but he is more trustworthy than the feckless United States.
With the signing of this week’s temporary cease-fire, which only seems to clear the way for Turkish-sponsored ethnic cleansing of the Rojava region, Kurds urgently need a new protector. Facing an array of unpalatable options, they have concluded that Assad is the least bad choice.
Although the Kurds’ decision to ask pardon from Assad and join him in rebuilding a secular state is years overdue, it is welcome and wise. It brings Syrians a step closer to the only solution that can end their suffering: reunification. This war will only end when the government re-establishes its authority over all of Syrian territory and hostile foreign forces withdraw. Syria Kurds have belatedly recognized this truth. We should do the same.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.