- President Donald Trump’s decision to pull US troops out of northern Syria was met with an uproar from lawmakers, citizens, and veterans alike.
- Three veterans who served alongside the Kurds condemned the president’s decision. They told told Insider that it sets a precedent of distrust for countries who are looking to make future alliances with the United States.
- Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan visited White House to meet with Trump on November 13, to further discuss the conflict at the Syrian border.
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President Donald Trump’s decision to pull roughly 1,000 United States troops out of northern Syria in October was met with an uproar from lawmakers, citizens, and veterans alike.
Three veterans who served alongside the Kurds condemned the president’s decision. They told told Insider that it sets a precedent of distrust for countries who are looking to make future alliances with the United States.
“I think that’s one of the reasons why countries in the future… would be very cautious about what kind of deal they enter into with the United States, because not only did the United States set up this horrible deal, but they also pretty much sabotaged our allies,” said River O’Mahoney Hagg, who volunteered as a combat medic with the YPG in 2016 while recording video for a documentary.
The United States’ balancing act
The United States’ alliance with the Syrian Kurds, which was struck up in 2014, has always been a balancing act. Trump’s decision further complicated the Turkish-Kurdish conflict, since pulling US troops left the Syrian Kurds vulnerable to attack by Turkish forces, who view them as a threat to their border.
Turkey is a NATO ally, and Turkey also has a long, complicated, and violent history with the Kurds. The Kurds are a large, stateless ethnic group spread across Turkey, Syria, and Iraq. The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey is considered a terrorist organisation by both Turkey and the United States and has waged a violent insurgency against Turkey.
The PKK has ties to the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), which has rebranded as the Syrian Democratic Forces to include Arab fighters.
The US needed the Kurds to lead the ground combat against ISIS in Syria, and to continue to detain ISIS fighters; an estimated 11,000 SDF fighters were killed or injured in the course of this campaign. After pushing out ISIS, the Kurds held an area of Syria near the Turkish border. Turkey both wanted to use that space to relocate Syrian refugees and because it sees Kurdish control of land as an existential threat.
The presence of US troops acted as a buffer, but following a call between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Trump, US troops were removed – clearing the way for Turkey to invade.
Since the start of Turkey’s incursion into Syria, roughly 200,000 people have been displaced and more than 90 civilians killed, according to The New York Times.
While the president cited his reasoning behind the decision to “bring the troops home,” Trump re-deployed roughly 900 US service members to protect oil fields from Islamic State militants, Syria, and Russia.
Veterans are concerned about the precedent this sets for allies
Three veterans, who served in different capacities alongside the Kurds in both Syria and Iraq, shared similar concerns about what the US abandoning the Kurds means for foreign relations.
“I love the idea of this country. I think the idea of this country worth fighting for … And I was willing to die for it, as were a lot of people,” Hagg, who is a US Navy veteran, told Insider.
He added: “As a veteran, as an American, I’m outraged at not only Donald Trump pulling our troops out, but at the inaction of Congress and the Senate to hold Turkey accountable.”
The move drew the ire of both Democratic and Republican lawmakers as well, prompting a vote on a resolution to condemn the president’s actions, which was passed in the House. Pulling US troops from northern Syria essentially left the Kurds, who are considered one of the world’s largest stateless nations, vulnerable to Turkish forces, who consider them as a existential terrorist threat to their country.
“The withdrawal of US forces certainly took away the last bit of prophylaxis and protection that the Kurds had in Syria, and you see the reaction. The Turkish military was poised and immediately filled the vacuum,” veteran Doug Wise, who served as the chief of the CIA Station in Iraq, told Insider.
“It’s just a sad day in my view for the United States because, once again, we’ve turned our back on a loyal ally, an ally that not just shared our ideology and our goals, but actually bled for the United States on the battlefield,” he continued.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan visited the White House to meet with Trump on November 13, and appeared at a joint press conference discussing the conflict and current cease fire.
Ahead of his visit, Rep. Michael McCaul, the lead Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, released a statement condemning the continued attacks by Turkish forces on the Kurds. The attacks came in spite of the cease fire that Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo helped establish “to persuade Erdogan to reverse his assault on northeastern Syria,” Politico reported.
“President Erdogan’s visit comes during a deeply troubling time in our bilateral relationship,” McCaul said in the statement. “I remain extremely concerned by reports of violence in northern Syria committed by Turkey and Turkish backed forces, including reports of possible war crimes. Turkey must end its incursion in Syria immediately.”
Trump compares Turkey and the Kurds to ‘two kids in a lot’ during a campaign rally in Dallas, Texas
At a rally in Dallas, Texas, following the House vote on the resolution condemning Trump’s move, the president compared Turkey attacking the Kurds to “two kids in a lot,” saying that “you have to let them fight, and then you pull them apart.”
Veteran Fred Wellman, who was stationed near a Kurdish village in northern Syria during a tour with the US Army, told Insider that the president’s comment showed “a lack of understanding of what war really is and such a flippant attitude towards death.”
“It comes from a person who doesn’t understand the cost of war; many Americans don’t understand what really happens in war. We sanitize it. We make movies out of it, we make video games,” Wellman said. “But what really happens in war is horrifying.”
“It’s not a couple of kids duking out in a back lot where they walk out with bruises and maybe a black eye … It’s about people being murdered, being beheaded,” he said. “You know, when people get killed, it’s not pretty. You’re not laying on the ground in a beautiful pose. Bodies are obliterated.”
Wellman condemned Trump’s comparison, noting that he should have treated the conflict with more seriousness and respect given his position as president.
“These aren’t kids fighting in a lot. Going to war, making decisions that could cost lives should be the most difficult decision a leader makes, a president makes,” he said. “It should be something that they are gut-wrenched over. And in this case, Trump just laughed it off like it was no big deal.”
Hagg said Trump’s decision sets a dangerous precedent for future allies who are considering to side with the US.
Wise, who worked with the CIA station in Iraq, echoed Hagg’s sentiment, saying that not only does it affect foreign alliances in the future, but also rattles current international relations.
“I think other allies who may be struggling as to whether to become an ally of the United States … I think this will give them pause for doing that,” Wise said. “And for those who are loyal allies now, I think they would have to wonder whether, at the existential point in their history, whether the United States would be there for them.”
Wellman said he believes that Trump’s decision “undermines everything,” namely the “norms and traditions and rules” that guided the foreign policy of previous presidents.
“Politicians like different political ways … but they don’t just try to flip the table because they’re grumpy,” he said. “Unfortunately, that’s not Trump. So we sort of demonstrate to the world the worst case scenario with the United States that, every time there’s an election, forget it. All the norms that you used to know could be tossed out the window.”
Wellman said that after Trump’s presidency ends, “whoever replaces him [or] whatever party replaces him at least goes back to understanding our place in the world and the rules that guide that and respect them.”
“This isn’t partisan; this is, in some ways, personal,” Wellman said. “Those rules protect soldiers. The idea of people who had died or accepting torture or saying that people being beheaded is just the cost of doing business of war… well, that has a message to our enemies too: that US forces are game for that.”
- Read more:
- ‘The President eats his own’: Military veterans in Congress unload on Trump for abandoning a US ally in the ISIS fight
- 2 US veterans travelled to Syria to fight alongside the Kurds against ISIS – here’s what it was like
- Veterans who fought ISIS say Trump’s ‘betrayal’ of a crucial ally was ‘a total slap in the face’
- Meet The Wisconsin Army Vet Who’s Fighting With The Kurds Against ISIS
- Pete Buttigieg and Tulsi Gabbard, the only military vets on the Democratic debate stage, duke it out over US action in Syria
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