Recep Tayyip Erdogan might be a strong leader of Turkey, but consistency is not his strongest suit. He embraces Hamas but calls Kurdish forces “terrorists.” He supports Palestinian peoplehood, but deploys Turkish forces and goes to war when there’s even a hint of Kurdish peoplehood, no matter where.
The Turkish president is at war now, one whose aim is to thwart any hope for a Kurdish sovereignty in northern Syria. Turkey considers the Kurds in Syria to be terrorists because of their ties with Turkey’s Kurds, and attacks them with great force. The Kurdish militia is puzzled by the attack, but even more so it is frustrated with Washington. Before he was elected, President Donald Trump declared himself to be a “fan of Kurds” and vowed to repair the fraught relations between Turkey and the Kurds. All the Kurds get from Trump today, as they are attacked by the Turks, is a call for restraint. He is their fan the same way he is a Patriots fan. He will cheer them when they win, but this doesn’t mean that he will tackle the Eagles when the game is played.
The Kurds were useful warriors in the fight against ISIS, and as they sent their men to war, their hope was for some kind of reward. Alas, in the international game of power, memories are short and players are cynical. Yesterday’s most important ally is no longer necessary. In fact, it might even become a burden. The Kurds were abandoned by the Trump administration, wrote Israeli Middle East expert Eyal Zisser of Tel Aviv University. They were abandoned by Trump the same way Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak was abandoned by President Barack Obama in 2011.
Do you still remember 2011 and the high rhetoric of the Arab Spring? In the Middle East, people do remember. Countries remember. Governments do. In fact, even in America there are some who still remember these days of elation and delusion: “Obama’s embrace of the Tahrir Square protesters’ demand for Mubarak’s immediate departure was idealistic, popular and understandable at the time. But it was arguably among the biggest mistakes of Obama’s presidency,” wrote Washington Post columnist David Ignatius about a year ago.
All the Kurds get from Trump today, as they are attacked by the Turks, is a call for restraint.
That’s a generous assessment. Obama was not idealistic in making Mubarak leave. He was cynical. He was also not as “understandable” as Ignatius wants you to believe. The Saudis were terrified by Obama’s move and believed that they might be next in line for abandonment. Many Israelis and Israel’s government also were puzzled by this move. They looked at Obama and realized that trusting him was problematic. They looked at him and realized that he does not understand the Middle East and doesn’t much know what to do to keep it stable. They looked at him abandoning Mubarak, and then at Russian President Vladimir Putin sticking with Syrian President Bashar Assad and knew they had a problem.
The seeds of the agreement with Iran were planted in the Arab Spring. They were planted when the Iranians realized that Obama has no tendency to stay loyal to America’s allies. Obama erred twice in abandoning Mubarak: It did not work for his as a realist, to abandon the leader who could keep Egypt relatively stable, and it did not work for him as an idealist, because he ended up getting an Islamist replacing Mubarak. And then another revolution.
Trump does not have the same tendency to play the role of the idealist. He wears his cynicism on his sleeve. His abandonment of the Kurds is thus more consistent with his general attitude: to support the winners and let the losers fend for themselves. He might be fond of the Kurds and might be irritated by Erdogan (everybody is irritated by Erdogan), but this does not change much when he crafts his foreign policy agenda. The Kurds, no doubt, deserve better, but their ability to cause trouble is currently limited. The Turkish government, no doubt, deserves worse. But it has the power to put U.S forces and interests at risk.
This is as sad and as condemnable and as non-idealistic as it is predictable. You can say one thing for Trump: What you see is what you get. He does not pretend to be what he is not. And, of course, this carries an important lesson that Israel never misses. In the Middle East, only those who have power survive. In the Middle East, American promises have value only when the party involved is strong enough for the U.S. to worry about. The “special relations” are important, but they can last only as long as Israel can make trouble.