Flying from Baghdad to Erbil is like flying from the Moon to Miami. The differences are stunning indeed. Compared to Baghdad, Erbil (the provincial capital of Iraqi Kurdistan) is an oasis. Deplaning, we were greeted warmly. We were told we would no longer need to wear flack jackets. Erbil was modern and safe. If the rest of Iraq and Afghanistan look like the Kurdish region in 20 years, the American blood and treasure might have been worth it. The jury is still out on that.
The Kurds are an amazing people. Perhaps only the Armenians have faced more persecution than the Kurds. Saddam Hussein gassed them. The Turks are a constant threat. Throughout the ages, Kurds have been brutalized by neighbors from all sides. Somehow they have not only endured, they have prospered.
Kurds are industrious and entrepreneurial. They are fearless fighters. They have a surprisingly democratic regional government. We witnessed a functioning government (representing an overwhelmingly Muslim populace) with a Parliament that included Christians, Jews and women.
Unlike many in the region, they are strong supporters of the United States. The Kurds have adopted many of the principles that mirror the West. Admittedly, they have aligned interests, but they have stood with us through thick and thin. That’s worth something. Who can blame them for yearning for the day that they can have a homeland to call their own? With our help, some day they will.
Candidate Trump promised to extract our armed forces from regional skirmishes in that region. It is one more promise he rightly intends to keep. The various tribes have been fighting with each other for 1,000 years. Additional American sacrifice may not change much. ISIS has been virtually destroyed. President Trump asks, are we to keep troops in Syria forever?
The Turks are more than willing to fill the void. They can hold Assad in check and insure that the Islamic State doesn’t make a military comeback. They can also take the lead with displaced Syrian refugees. They will deal with the ISIS POW’s. More importantly, they represent an important counterbalance to Iranian ambitions.
Legitimate concerns have been expressed that we are leaving our friends, the Kurds to the tender mercies of President Erdogan’s Turkish army. Erdogan is far from a trustworthy partner and certainly no friend of the Kurds. The Kurds are not completely sinless in the lingering dispute. Fear of a wholesale slaughter of Kurdish fighters is not unjustified. Abandoning trusted allies would send a chilling message to other allies in potential hotspots around the world. Critics claim that keeping a campaign promise would come at a heavy price.
Undoubtably, President Trump has weighed all of these concerns before making his decision. He has threatened Erdogan, saying that moves against the Kurds will have disastrous consequences. Turkey desperately needs the United States and Western Europe for trade and capital. The Turks are still extremely sensitive whenever the issue of the Armenian genocide comes up. They want acceptance from the West. The Turks would be ostracized by the West for generations for anything resembling a repeat genocide of the Kurds.
Some have said that we do not want a confrontation that could lead to a war with Turkey. That is true. It is also safe to say that the Turks cannot afford a confrontation, not just with us, but the rest of NATO as well. We must assume that President Trump received assurances that there would be no Kurdish genocide. Although evidence today suggests otherwise, Erdogan must know that Trump doesn’t bluff. It would be foolhardy for him to double cross this President.
Europeans are clucking loudly about the President’s decision. Perhaps it is time for them (and NATO) to step up and take our place in Syria. If the primary mission has morphed into serving as a tripwire, stopping potential Turkish aggression, wouldn’t NATO troops be just as effective?
This President has spent a lifetime calculating risks and rewards. We want to give him the benefit of the doubt. All admirers of the Kurds, including this author, pray that he is right.
Gil Gutknecht served twelve years in the U.S. House of Representatives from Minnesota. He has traveled to Iraq, Turkey, Kuwait and Iraqi Kurdistan.