In a rare moment of bipartisan consensus, Republicans and Democrats have come together to condemn Donald Trump for his withdrawal from Syria, which set the stage Turkey to crush America’s Kurdish allies. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who introduced a resolution calling for sanctions against Turkey for bombing the majority-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces, reprimanded the president for “shamelessly abandon[ing]” US partners in the fight against the Islamic State group.
The decision has even sown discord among the Trump loyalists at Fox and Friends. Brian Kilmeade broke ranks with his co-hosts on Monday, calling it “disastrous.”
Noting that the Kurds did the heavy lifting in the fight against IS, Kilmeade said:
“The reason why our casualties were so low is because the Kurds did all the fighting. Now we’re saying, ‘OK Turks, go wipe them out or force them out.’ What kind of message is that to the next ally who wants to side with us?”
Almost identical sentiment could be heard from members of the liberal press. Young Turks contributor John Iadarola tweeted: “Imagine if you told Kurdish fighters a decade ago that some day the US would give the green light to Turkey massacring them so that Donald Trump could make a little more cash off his shitty Istanbul real estate.”
As is usually the case when the president pulls something like this, the discourse tends to focus on how far outside of the norm Trump’s actions are. Former Trump national security advisor Brett McGurk, who also worked for Bush and Obama, said the move was “almost unprecedented.”
Ever since he took office, the commentariat has constantly been calling on Trump to act more “presidential.” Well, now he is.
There’s nothing more “presidential” than stabbing the Kurds in the back.
Trump is following a long presidential tradition of either hanging the Kurds out to dry or actively abetting their violent suppression that goes all the way back to the 1980s.
In 1988, during the final days of a war between Iran and Iraq that had raged for nearly a decade, Saddam Hussein unleashed a series of devastating gas attacks against Iran and its allies in Iraqi Kurdistan. CIA documents declassified in 2013 revealed that Saddam carried out these strikes with the tacit approval of the Reagan Administration.
It was the type of sociopathic realpolitik that has been a routine feature of US foreign policy for the last half century. US intelligence officials provided crucial satellite imagery of target locations to the Iraqis with the knowledge that gas would be deployed.
They hoped that it would strike a decisive blow against Iran and end the war. A senior military intelligence official later told the New York Times that the administration was “desperate to make sure that Iraq did not lose,” adding that the use of gas was not a “strategic concern.”
The most devastating attack was against the Kurdish city of Halabja in northeast Iraq. Between 3,000 and 5,000 Kurds were killed—the vast majority civilians—and some 10,000 were injured.
Accounts by survivors paint a nightmarish picture of the scene that day:
It started with a loud strange noise that sounded like bombs exploding, and a man came running into our house, shouting, ‘Gas! Gas!’ We hurried into our car and closed its windows. I think the car was rolling over the bodies of innocent people. I saw people lying on the ground, vomiting a green-colored liquid, while others became hysterical and began laughing loudly before falling motionless onto the ground. Later, I smelled an aroma that reminded me of apples and I lost consciousness. When I awoke, there were hundreds of bodies scattered around me.
Though it publicly condemned the attack, the Reagan Administration continued to provide support for Hussein’s regime well after and even provided cover by shifting blame to the Iranians.
This tradition would continue under Reagan’s vice president George H.W. Bush when he became commander-in-chief. During the final months of the first Gulf War, the United States agitated for Iraqis to rise up and overthrow Saddam.
Bush delivered a speech via the Voice of America, a State Department-funded radio network, in which he called on the Iraqi people “to take matters into their own hands.”
US planes dropped leaflets urging soldiers and the public to “fill the streets and alleys and bring down Saddam Hussein and his aides.” They were hoping for a coup that would bring about a stable military government. Instead, they got a mass uprising by Shias and Kurds.
The Bush Administration decided to stick with the devil they knew rather than risk a Shia-led rebel government that might push the country into Iran’s orbit.
By the time the uprising happened in March, the State Department’s line had shifted. Suddenly, officials decided that it wasn’t proper to be “interfering in Iraq’s internal affairs.”
In early April, a spokesperson for the State Department said: “We never, ever, stated as either a military or a political goal of the coalition or the international community the removal of Saddam Hussein.”
The US military maintained a no-fly zone and warned Saddam against the use of chemical weapons. Everything else was fair game, including tanks, helicopters and artillery, which were used to devastating effect.
The Kurds bore the brunt of the regime’s lethal response. According to a report by Human Rights Watch, Ba’ath Party loyalists carried out mass arrests and executions. Civilians fleeing cities were strafed by helicopter. Allegations that chemical weapons were also used, though dismissed by the US government, were later confirmed by the report of the US Iraq Survey Group.
All told, 20,000 Kurds, mostly civilians, were killed in the carnage, and in the ensuing refugee crisis as many as 180,000 more died, according to the highest estimates.
The United States not only sat on the sidelines during the slaughter; they aided by disarming some of the rebels. US forces destroyed captured weapons or shipped them to Mujahideen fighters in Afghanistan instead of turning them over to the Kurds and Shias. In some cases, they were returned to the Iraqi military.
These two incidents are only the most egregious examples of US complicity or active involvement in violence against the Kurds. Lesser betrayals occurred under later administrations, like the time Bill Clinton failed to stop an Iraqi military expedition against the city of Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan.
The administration warned Saddam that there would be consequences if he moved to forcefully quell a factional dispute in the region. After shelling the Kurdish capital, 40,000 Iraqi troops moved in and captured it, then executed 700 prisoners afterward.
The only US action in response was to launch cruise missile strikes against Iraqi air defenses to help maintain the no-fly zone.
Despite their feigned outrage and crocodile tears, few Republicans or Democrats have a real problem with the moral implications of allowing the Kurds to be violently crushed. Their main concern is that Trump’s move is a blunder that hurts US strategic interests.
Using the Kurds as pawns has always been acceptable as long as it helps the United States win the game.