The last time the United States abandoned allies in the Middle East, military officials say, it helped lead to the Iraq War.
Now, almost 30 years later, President Donald Trump has pulled U.S. special forces and support troops away from Kurdish allies in northern Syria, easing the way for Turkey’s promised offensive, which began on Wednesday.
It is too soon to say with any certainty where Trump’s abandonment of the Kurdish fighters who did the heavy lifting in the fight against the Islamic State will lead. But already, anguished U.S. military and national security officials are sounding alarms that clearing the way for Turkey to bomb the Kurds could have long-term repercussions, just as the desertion of allies did then.
“In the course of American history, when we have stuck with our allies in troubling circumstances, from the U.K. and Australia under attack in WWII to South Korea in the Korean War, things tend to work out to our benefit,” said James G. Stavridis, a retired admiral and former supreme allied commander for Europe. “When we walk away from loyal allies, as we did in Vietnam and are now threatening to do in Afghanistan and Syria, the wheels come off.”
At the end of the Persian Gulf War, the United States’ refusal to aid a rebellion it encouraged in Iraq allowed Saddam Hussein to brutally crush the insurgents, leaving him in power and U.S. allies on the ground alienated and slaughtered by the thousands.
Now, with the Kurds potentially facing a similar fate, a Pentagon official said anger within the military was deeper than at any other point in Trump’s tenure as commander in chief.
That is in part because U.S. military officials personally know the Kurds they have been fighting alongside. They consider them friends and even, in some cases, brothers in arms. While the Kurds may not have been with the Americans in Normandy, as Trump curiously noted on Wednesday, neither were the U.S. service members who are now in Iraq and Syria. What those service members know, military officials say, is that the Kurds have been with them in Manbij, and Raqqa, and the Middle Euphrates River Valley.
“What happens if we leave?” the normally reticent Gen. Joseph L. Votel, who until March was the commander of U.S. Central Command overseeing the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, wrote in an op-ed article in The Atlantic on Tuesday, two days after the White House announced it was leaving the Kurds. In the piece, Votel spoke fondly of the top Kurdish general, Mazloum Abdi, whom he called “impressive and thoughtful.”
Votel, now retired, wrote that Turkish attacks on the Kurdish fighters, “coupled with a hasty U.S. departure, now threaten to rapidly destabilize an already fragile security situation in Syria’s northeast, where ISIS’ physical caliphate was only recently defeated.”
Paul D. Eaton, a retired major general and veteran of the Iraq War, was more blunt. “It takes time to build trust,” he said. “And any time you erode trust, like this, it’s that much harder to bring it back.”
Pentagon officials fear that Turkey’s incursion could lead to the release of tens of thousands of Islamic State fighters and their families who are being held in detention facilities under Kurdish control, and a return, quickly, of the self-proclaimed caliphate that the United States and its partners have spent the last five years destroying.
But even more, they fear that the next time the United States is looking for help from fighters on the ground in the region, the Americans will not be able to find it.
This has happened before. In February 1991, as the Desert Storm campaign was unfolding in Iraq, President George H.W. Bush, during a rally in Andover, Massachusetts, suggested that the Iraqi people “take matters into their own hands and force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside.”
Two weeks later, Bush made another call to arms, saying that putting Hussein “aside” would “facilitate the resolution of all these problems that exist and certainly would facilitate the acceptance of Iraq back into the family of peace-loving nations.”
Iraq’s feared Republican Guard did not heed Bush. But the Shiites and the Kurds did. On March 1, the day after Bush halted the Desert Storm war effort, Iraqi Shiites in the south and Kurds in the north began a rebellion against Hussein.
At first, things went swiftly and well for the Shiites and the Kurds, as a succession of Iraqi cities and towns — although not Baghdad — came under their control.
But the United States never stepped in to assist, and Hussein’s military soon regrouped and began a counteroffensive. In fact, the cease-fire negotiated by Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf to end Desert Storm helped Hussein quell the uprising. The deal prohibited the Iraqi military from using fixed-wing aircraft over the country but allowed helicopters, which Hussein then deployed to bombard the Shiites, who had few surface-to-air missiles or heavy weapons. They were largely defenseless against the helicopters strafing the ground.
In the north, Iraqi divisions crushed the Kurdish rebellion.
Shiite and Kurdish leaders turned to the Americans, begging for help. It did not come. U.S. warplanes in the south did not engage as the Republican Guard wiped out the rebellious Shiites by the thousands.
Human Rights Watch reported that “in their attempts to retake cities, and after consolidating control, loyalist forces killed thousands of unarmed civilians by firing indiscriminately into residential areas” and “executing young people on the streets, in homes and in hospitals.” The Iraqi military, Human Rights Watch said, was shooting people “en masse.”
Paul D. Wolfowitz, then the undersecretary of defense for policy, was “dismayed,” he would say later, by the president’s unwillingness to support the Shiite uprising, and particularly by the order that American pilots not shoot down Iraqi military helicopters that were strafing the rebels.
More than a decade later, President George W. Bush was surrounded by many of the same national security advisers his father had. One in particular, Wolfowitz, was forcefully making the case that it was time for the United States to do what it did not in 1991: Go after Hussein.
When the United States finally did enter Iraq in 2003, the Shiites, while welcoming the toppling of Hussein, did not greet the Americans as liberators.
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