We may think World War I ended on November 11, 1918, and while the shooting stopped for the United States on that day, the repercussions of WWI are still felt today.
At the close of WWI several treaties were negotiated and signed by the winners and the losers. One treaty was the Treaty of Sevres which was signed in 1920. This treaty, in theory, created the Middle Eastern country of Kurdistan in an area which today straddles the borderline of Syria, Turkey, Iraq, and Iran. The Kurds never considered themselves as Turks, Syrians or Iraqi people and they couldn’t be happier to have a homeland.
However, the map lines were never drawn around the predominantly Kurdish territory. In 1923 the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne nullified the promises made to the Kurds in the Treaty of Sevres. With the rules of the new treaty, the British Empire included all of today’s Iraq. The Brits colonized Iraq during the 1930s, and luckily controlled the area during WW2 and relinquished control in the mid-1950s. During their rule, the Brits enjoyed having the loyal Kurd fighters at their side.
The current geo-political, tribal, and religious situations in the Middle East are more complex than doing Japanese math on a left-handed calculator. Because I survived three combat tours in that area fighting with and against the region’s indigenous people, I have an educated opinion about the Kurdish people and the region in general.
In 2005, during my last overseas tour, I was one of 28 US Marines assigned to “go native” and serve as mentors to the Iraqi army by living on a military outpost among hundreds of Iraqi soldiers. To build trust, we lived side-by-side, learned their language, ate their food, and we sometimes carried their weapons; the only thing which distinguished us as Americans were our vehicles.
S Army General George Casey gave us our orders personally, before he waved goodbye to our tiny convoy heading west toward Fallujah. Our mission, he said, was not to make the Iraqi army as good as the American military, we only needed to teach them to fight slightly better than the insurgents; a tall order which killed Marine Sergeant Brian Dunlap, and wounded several others of my team.
In the months I lived with the Iraqi army I remember a conversation with an Iraqi private who I learned was originally a physician in Baghdad. When asked why he was a private in the army, I expected the answer would be something like “sense of duty”, “love of country” or “patriotism”, but the answer I received was “this pays more than being a doctor.” At that moment I realized as long as Iraqi soldiers were motivated by cash, they would never comprehend fighting, and possibly dying, for a cause greater than themselves.
The Kurds I met in the Iraqi army were just the opposite of that doctor/soldier. While the Kurds also valued money, they made arrangements to send most of it home to their families on payday. The Kurds also had a reputation of loyalty and fighting ferociously, which was not a common trait of most Iraqi soldiers. We Marines were glad for the few Kurds in each of our Iraqi army units. Their fighting skills and spirit rose to the occasion more than once.
For those reasons, I was sad to learn President Trump gave the order to remove the small contingent of US troops from the area of the Syrian/Turkish border. That is certainly an area where the Kurds are fighting at our soldier’s side. Surely, our presence was the only thing keeping Turkey from attacking their long hated Kurdish agitators.
When the President was asked about the repercussions of the US withdrawal, specifically how this would affect the Kurds, our President said "They didn't help us in the Second World War; they didn't help us with Normandy…" This is a shocking example of how NOT to talk about soldiers fighting and dying at our side.
Obviously Kurdistan as a country couldn’t participate in WW2 because the country didn’t exist – and it still doesn’t. But Kurd fighters certainly were fighting in WW2 alongside the Brits in Iraq when the Nazis tried to overthrow the Iraqi government in 1941. This was before the US was even in the war. There are also written accounts proving Kurdish fighters were with the Russians during WW2 fighting against Hitler’s armies.
Each time a US President has asked for help in the Middle East, it is the Kurdish people who have stepped up at great peril – every time. In General James Mattis’ recent book “Call Sign Chaos; Learning to Lead” it is clear one of the reasons he resigned as Secretary of State was over “abandoning allies” who we need in the region. Having thousands of Kurds on our side is the reason we only needed a small number of US soldiers with boots on the ground in Syria. There are rumors President Trump issued this recent withdrawal order to Pentagon generals against their best advice.
Whenever the US has made an alliance with people or governments in the Middle East they have always gone awry, except the loyalty of the Kurds. Kurdish fighters have been at our side since the 1991 Gulf War up to fighting ISIS last week. And each time the US has abandoned them; first to Saddam Hussein dropping poisonous gas on them and now to Turkey’s artillery bombardments. The Kurds deserve better from us.
Embarrassment and shame must be the feelings of the US military personnel who left their comrades at the Syrian/Turkish border while heading to more secure places. News videos show huge US armored vehicles, American flags waving, lumbering toward safety as they pass our allies in Mitsubishi pickup trucks, some of whom are certainly Kurds with their families.
What is especially hard to fathom is almost simultaneously as the withdrawal of US personnel from Syria is taking place, the US is sending thousands of service members to Saudi Arabia to protect that country’s assets. I’d argue that token force in Syria is protecting more important things than whatever is being protected in Saudi Arabia, a country rich enough to protect itself.
The withdrawal of US personnel is the first domino to fall, and the rest will tumble in rapid succession. This is not because the US soldiers were super-humans fending off the armies of two different factions; it’s because of the US flag they displayed which the opposing fighters gave a wide berth.
In the short time since the US flag has departed from the Syrian/Turkish border the area has gone from relative calm and stability to a place of turmoil with Turkey shelling the Kurds, ISIS prisoners escaping from prisons, and hundreds – if not thousands – of civilian casualties.
Because our short-sighted President wanted to “bring home the troops” now, he removed a few soldiers from Syria, which will probably cause thousands of US personnel to return there within a few years. In the meantime, Syria will be the new training ground for terrorist attacks aimed at Europe and possibly the United States and the Russian backed Assad regime will become more entrenched.
If I were a betting man, I’d wager the Russians will try to make friends with the Kurds to help them with Putin’s ambitions in the region. Hopefully, in some inevitable future conflict, US personnel will not have to go toe-to-toe with ferocious Kurdish fighters. They will probably be same guys we abandoned in Syria and they’ll have a score to settle with the US.