February 24, 2020

We Are Not All Kurds

Photo by Burak Kara/Getty Images

The civil war in Syria started almost a decade ago. Millions were forced to flee. Hundreds of thousands were killed. Condemnations aside, the international community did little to halt the butchery. It did not find a way to force out President Bashar Assad. It did not muster the will to curb Iranian intervention. It did not object to Russian meddling. 

It also never secured a permanent safe haven for the Kurds. 

President Donald Trump deserves all the criticism he is getting — and then some — for ordering the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria and allowing Turkey to send its forces unhindered into Syrian territory without much consideration of the consequences. He deserves criticism for being hasty, unmethodical, impulsive and uninformed about the situation. He doesn’t deserve criticism for eroding America’s standing as a world leader — such erosion started long before he took office. He doesn’t deserve criticism for an incoherent American policy in Syria — this also preceded his presidency. He doesn’t deserve criticism for wanting U.S. forces out of Syria — such promises paved his way to becoming president in the first place. 

Since Turkish forces pushed their way into Syria, reports about Israel’s “concerns” over recent developments rained with growing frequency. 

Few in Israel “dispute that Trump’s unpredictability and transactional attitude toward strategy can be a liability,” Reuters reported. There are “growing fears that Israel’s archenemy Iran could be emboldened by what appears to be an increasingly hands-off American policy in the region,” the Associated Press reported. “America’s two most important allies in the region, Saudi Arabia and Israel, reassess the American commitment to the containment of Iran and, consequently, to their own security,” The New York Times reported. The Washington Post, in more dramatic language, argued that what happened in Syria “badly rattled Israel’s national security experts, who decried President Trump’s action as a betrayal of loyal allies and evidence that Israel’s most vital supporter is a fickle friend at best.”

All of it is true. None of it is true.

True: Israel is worried about the U.S.’ lack of commitment to the Middle East. It started to worry years ago, when Trump was still a quirky TV personality. True: Israel doesn’t welcome abrupt changes in U.S. foreign policy. Such twists and turns hurt stability in a region whose main problem is a lack of long-term stability. 

American presidents must consider American interests and implement policies as they see fit. 

Not true: Israel does not — and ought not ever — make its security contingent on a strong U.S. commitment to the region. Certainly, things are easier and less dangerous when there is a clear U.S. commitment. Certainly, Israel highly values the support of the U.S. But it has always been and must remain realistic about the true meaning of such commitment. 

Remember: The U.S. made a commitment to keep the Straits of Tiran open for shipping, but when Egypt closed the straits, President Lyndon Johnson did not send U.S. forces to the region. In fact, what he was saying at the time might remind you of Trump today. Referring to the Kurds, Trump tweeted: “Anyone who wants to assist Syria in protecting the Kurds is good with me, whether it is Russia, China, or Napoleon Bonaparte.” Concerning the straits, Johnson said: “I want to see (British Prime Minister Harold) Wilson and (French President Charles) De Gaulle out there with their ships all lined up, too.” 

Remember: In October 1983, President Ronald Reagan committed to keeping U.S. Marines in Lebanon. “The reason they must stay there until the situation is under control is quite clear. We have vital interests in Lebanon.” A few months later, U.S. forces were out, withdrawn. Needless to say, this was way before the “situation” was “under control.”

These reminders are offered here not as criticism of U.S. policy. American presidents must consider American interests and implement policies as they see fit. They are offered here to counter the many pundits (and hacks) who seem to believe that Trump is the first president who does not honor a commitment, or the first to say one thing and do the opposite, or the first to leave an ally to its own devices, or the first to cut and run, or the first to remind Israel — and all other countries in the region — that outside backing is not a guarantee of survival. 

The tragedy of the Kurds does not begin with the decision of an erratic American president to pull a thousand soldiers out of Syria. Their tragedy begins with the fact that a thousand American soldiers is all that stands between them and calamity.

Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain.

Shmuel’s book, #IsraeliJudaism, Portrait of a Cultural Revolution, is now available in English. The Jewish Review of Books called it “important, accessible new study”. Haaretz called it “impressively broad survey”. Order it here: amzn.to/2lDntvh