Lynda Bryant Work
Hillary Clinton has her Benghazi (2012); Donald Trump has his Syrian Kurds betrayal. In both cases, people – Kurds and Assyrians died or will die unnecessarily due to irresponsible decisions.
Late Oct. 5, the White House abruptly announced it was pulling troops away from the Northern Syrian border and that Turkey planned to launch an offensive — a major shift in U.S. policy that followed a phone call between President Donald Trump and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
It quickly became clear that Trump gave the Erdogan a green light to proceed with his long-planned move against Kurdish fighters who make up part of the Syrian Defense Forces and who lost thousands of men fighting with the US against ISIS.
Senior officials have said they were not consulted or informed about the sudden change. The move sparked outrage in Congress, creating rare bipartisan unity about the risks to the Kurds, U.S. national security interests, regional stability and the fight against ISIS.
Brett McGurk, who was Trump’s special envoy for the fight against ISIS, decried the decision during an interview with NPR. “Presidents do a lot of things, but the most consequential are decisions of war and peace like this, and you can’t make decisions on a haphazard basis after a single call with a foreign leader. This is almost unprecedented.”
Many Republicans were shocked at Trump’s decision as the announcement came down. The news trickling out of Syria fed increased Republican anger, as lawmakers, former officials and analysts reacted throughout the day.
Republican Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah pointed to the sense that once Trump pulled the US back, the Turkish attack was inevitable.
“Reports indicate Turkey is predictably attacking the Kurdish allies we abandoned,” Romney tweeted. “It’s a tragic loss of life among friends shamefully betrayed. We can only hope the President’s decision does not lead to even greater loss of life and a resurgence of ISIS.”
Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio noted that “at request of this administration the Kurds served as the primary ground fighters against ISIS in Syria so U.S. troops wouldn’t have to.” Then, he charged, the administration “cut deal with Erdogan allowing him to wipe them out. Damage to our reputation and national interest will be extraordinary & long lasting.”
Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas said it would be “disgraceful if we sat idly by while Turkey slaughters the Kurds, as public reports suggest that Turkish leader Erdogan explicitly told President Trump he intends to do. Kurds risked their lives — for many years — to fight alongside us.”
Trump shrugged off and the suggestions of the likely escape of 10,000 ISIS fighters from Kurdish prisons, as well as downplaying the deaths of 11,000 Kurds who died fighting to help the U.S. mission against ISIS.
On Oct. 9, Trump said in a White House statement, “The United States did not endorse this attack and has made it clear to Turkey that this operation is a bad idea.”
But that statement doesn’t hold much water given the report the US provided Turkey with intelligence, including surveillance video and information from reconnaissance aircraft, that may have aided in its assault on the US-allied Kurdish forces in Syria according to the The New York Times and Business Insider. The intelligence sharing continued as late as Monday — two days before Turkey invaded Syria to go after the Kurds — according to the report.
Past reports suggest the US in 2017 began sharing more intelligence on the Kurds with Turkey to quell the Turkish government’s anger over Trump arming Kurdish forces in Syria.
Erdogan’s top advisor also told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour that Trump knew in advance about the scope of the Turkish attack.
“President Trump and President Erdogan have reached an understanding over precisely what this operation is,” Gulnur Aybet said from Ankara. “He knows what the scope of this operation is.”
Trump went so far as to tell reporters, “Look, we have no soldiers in Syria. We’ve won…. We have no soldiers.”
He echoed the rhetoric at a campaign rally in Minneapolis last night, telling supporters he decided to bring Americans troops “back home.” “We don’t have any soldiers there because we left, we won, we left, take a victory United States,” he said. “Bring our troops back home.” […]. “It’s time to bring them home, we’ve done our job.”
But the U.S. troops are still in Syria. He hasn’t brought them home as he said. And while Trump made demonstrably false claims, he was busy inserting 3,000 US military troops into Saudi Arabia. US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper reported he had authorized the deployment of additional forces, including fighter jets and a defense system, adding that the US has increased the deployment of forces to the Middle East region by 14,000 since May, at the request of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The US has approximately 60,000 troops in the Middle East, according to Esper.
Trump said that Turkey has promised to protect civilians and religious minorities. But the statement did not mention the Kurds, Assyrians or Yazidis.
And the Turks are not known for heeding warnings or protecting civilians or religious groups.
The path was made clear as soon as the news broke that Trump, without consulting or warning the Kurds, Congress or NATO allies of his decision to abandon the Kurds and other ethnic populations to the brutal and aggressive Turkish forces.
The Turkish offensive jeopardizes Kurdish-led forces who have been a key U.S. ally in the bloody fight against ISIS. The White House’s decision to move aside and allow a Turkish assault in northeast Syria highlighted some of the most horrible U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.
The Kurds are the largest ethnic minority in Syria and a victim of Turkey’s human rights abuses that have spanned centuries.
But few realize there is another distinct ethnic population who are victimized by the Turks who live in Syria – the Assyrian Christians.
Longtime targets of the Ottoman Empire, the Assyrians, a population of Christians, have for many years, struggled to survive and been historically brutalized.
The Assyrians were slaughtered alongside the Greeks and Armenians in the genocide of 1915 and then again in 1933 during the Simele Massacre, at the hands of Arab-Iraqi nationalists. They have faced a century-long persecution leaving them with a transient life of displacement. Their homeland was in parts of northern Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran.
Even today, the Assyrian Christians have no burial site for the victims of the 1933 Simele Massacre in Iraq, because the relatives of the dead are prohibited from creating one. Their bones can be seen protruding through the ground among the formations of mass graves. Despite unjust, violent deaths, the Assyrians are not afforded a memorial and their erasure from history books is very purposeful.
Assyrians in the area have been largely overlooked. If mentioned at all, politicians generalize them as “Arab Christians,” or tokenize them to appeal to the evangelical base, as Trump has done both on the 2016 campaign trail and while in office.
While Trump went so far as to call for an “end to religious persecution“, he has essentially allowed Turkey carte blanche to carry out the same crimes against the Assyrians and other ethnic religious as were in the past. Ethnic and religious minorities in the region are rarely considered in geopolitical decision making – an omission with dire consequences that have lasted generations.
Once again, along with the Kurds, they face genocide as the Turks press forward into Northern Syria in the perpetual wars of the Middle East.
And their worst nightmare came true on Oct. 9.
Turkey began air and artillery strikes on Syrian border towns, including Ras al-Ain, Tell Abyad, and Qamshli, a town inhabited by the Kurds and descendants of Assyrian refugees of the 1915 genocide, according to officials with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF- an alliance of Arab and Kurdish fighters), and its political arm, the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC). Turkey also began bombing locations as far as 25 inside northeast Syria, including Katouf and Ain Issa, where the SDF and SDC headquarters are located.
The operation is widespread fear among the Kurds and other groups, populations left to defend their own existence with no allies after being deserted by the US.
Mustafa Bali, a spokesperson for the Kurdish-led forces, said: “Turkish warplanes have started to carry out airstrikes on civilian areas. There is a huge panic among people of the region.”
As the U.S. was reported to being withdrawn from Northern Syria for the Turkish advance into the region, the Assyrian Policy Institute officials spoke of grave concerns. API director, Reine Hanna, before the bombing of Qamishli began, said API was ‘deeply concerned by the US withdrawal from northern Syria and fear the planned Turkish advance into the region will cause greater instability. Further conflict in these areas will undoubtedly lead to the disappearance of marginalized groups such as Assyrians and Yazidis.’
On Sept. 26, Hanna appeared on a panel at the US Commission on International Religious Freedom’s hearing, titled ‘Religious Minorities’ Fight to Remain in Iraq‘. Hanna’s remarks included, “Prior to 2003, the Assyrian population in Iraq was approximately one-and-a-half million. Today, that number has dropped to less than 200,000. Assyrians have endured profound discrimination and targeted violence, both for their Christian faith as well as they distinct ethnic identity, rooted in the ancient history of Iraq.”
“US policy in northern Syria has consistently failed to account for the specific needs of ethnic and religious minorities, and this latest decision only cements that legacy,’ added Hanna.
“They are directly and immediately affected by the decisions coming out of Washington, as our country’s 21st century track record of interventionism in the region also demonstrates. As Assyrians continue to flee their homes, they depend on the awareness of the international community of their existence and strife to inform prudent decision making. An entire population hangs in limbo.”
The Defense of Christians, a Washington-based non-profit that serves the historic Christian communities of the Middle East through advocacy, released a statement urging the White House reinstate sanctions on Turkey should it target Christians or Yazidis.
“Religious minorities in northeast Syria have reason to be wary of the Turkish government, especially after Turkey invaded Afrin in 2018 using Islamist militias and forced over 300 Christian families to flee,’ the release says. You do not need to speak to many Assyrians, whether of the diaspora or of northeast Syria, to learn that their suffering is often in silence, unable to break through to the listening ears of the international community for recourse.”