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The Kurds Have Paid Dearly for Trump’s Recklessness

Eli Lake

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- President Donald Trump made one of his most reckless decisions last October, when he tweeted he was ending the U.S. mission in Syria, to the great surprise of his own government and at considerable cost to U.S. credibility. Now, nearly a year later, a United Nations report makes clear the damage to the Kurds and Arabs that America left behind.

On Trump’s orders, the small group of U.S. Special Forces that had served as a buffer between the U.S.-aligned Kurdish militia and the Turkish army left their posts last year, clearing the way for a Turkish invasion. That impetuous decision forced Kurdish troops, which had done most of the fighting to destroy Islamic State’s caliphate, to align with Damascus in Syria’s civil war, and by extension Russia and Iran.

Another consequence is that the majority Kurdish population that lived in Syria’s border region with Turkey has been in the crosshairs of Turkey’s military and allied Islamist militias. A report released this week from the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria paints an ugly picture.

The report singles out that Islamist militia, known (ironically) as the “Syrian National Army,” for actions that likely amount to war crimes. Three of its brigades “repeatedly perpetrated the war crime of pillage in both the Afrin and Ra’s al-Ayn regions,” it says. The militias have also been credibly accused of the torture and rape of detainees.

Making things worse, the report also notes “allegations that Turkish forces were aware of incidents of looting and appropriation of civilian property and that they were present in detention facilities run by the Syrian National Army where the ill-treatment of detainees was rampant, including during interrogation sessions when torture took place.”

The allegation that Ankara tacitly allowed its allies to perpetrate war crimes is credible because the Turkish military is the occupying force in the territory Kurdish fighters fled last October. What’s more, the report also says prisoners detained by the Syrian National Army have been transferred to Turkey to face trial.

The tragedy here is that this betrayal of the Kurds that fought and died to destroy the Islamic State in Syria could have been avoided. The initial line from the White House last year was that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had told Trump that his forces were invading the Kurdish region and the U.S. had no choice. But Trump never threatened economic sanctions or other penalties if he went through with it. He accepted Erdogan’s word and used it as an opportunity to end another endless war, to use the slogan he has co-opted from the hard left.

It’s unlikely that Trump cares much about the consequences of his erratic decision-making from a year ago. He is touting his opposition to endless wars on the campaign trail. But his supporters should see the carnage in Syria as a teaching moment. At a very low cost, the U.S. was able train and assist a fighting force in northern Syria capable of defeating Islamic State, something larger regional powers such as Turkey, Iran and Russia proved unable to do. And for the few years that Turkey was kept away from the autonomous zone in northern Syria, Kurds were able to live in relative peace and prosperity, compared to the rest of the country.

Today the Kurdish civilians who allied with the U.S. against jihadists are at the mercies of jihadists aligned with Turkey. That is not only an injustice for the Kurds, but also a stain on American honor.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.

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