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On Dec. 19, President Trump announced his plans to withdraw American troops from Syria, citing military victory over the Islamic State (ISIS). While the defeat of ISIS is something to cherish, withdrawing our troops now would be a catastrophic mistake.
The United States is not popular in the Middle East. Between our reckless dismantlement and abandonment of the Iraqi people, proxy wars in Yemen and air strikes in Syria, the United States’ list of Middle Eastern allies is short and rapidly dwindling. Our list of friends in the region is running low, and we can’t afford to abandon them by withdrawing from Syria. It is time for the United States to support, not abandon, the Kurdish people of Iraq and Syria.
The Kurdish people, known as Kurds, are an ethnic group based in northeastern Iraq, northern Syria and southern Turkey. The Kurds have been advocating for their independence as a state for nearly a century and have lived semi-autonomously in Iraq since the Second Gulf War. Iraqi Kurdistan in particular has one of the fastest growing economies in the Middle East, built upon a plethora of oil reserves and free trade policies that mirror our own. According to a 2009 census, Iraqi Kurdistan has the lowest poverty rates in Iraq and has seen an exorbitant increase in wealth throughout the last decade. Kurdistan’s economic stability is also reflected in its western-oriented culture. The Kurds have built their identity upon the values of self-determination, religious moderation and free expression — mirroring our own ideological commitments.
From its long history of American military support to its inherently Westernized culture, Kurdistan is an incredibly compatible and stable ally and could extend America’s sphere of influence in the Middle East.
Militarily, the Kurds have put up the strongest fight against ISIS in recent years and have, as of late, overrun their last remaining stronghold. While the Kurds have all but wiped out the threat of ISIS, they are still persecuted by the Turkish government. So far, Turkey has refrained from attacking Kurdish forces in Syria because of their direct cooperation with American troops. By withdrawing our troops from Syria at President Trump’s command, the U.S. government would be abandoning the Kurdish soldiers who helped us defeat ISIS.
Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be the first time we have betrayed the Kurds. On multiple occasions, the United States has allied itself with the Kurds before shifting allegiances, and the Kurds were the ones who suffered. The best example of this was in our encouragement and subsequent abandonment of Kurdish rebels in Iraq under Saddam Hussein’s regime. Once American forces withdrew from the region after our involvement in the First Gulf War, Hussein felt emboldened by the lack of an American threat and committed one of the world’s deadliest chemical weapons attacks on the Kurdish city of Halabja, killing nearly 5,000 civilians.
Despite our mistreatment of the Kurds, they courageously fought alongside us in the First Gulf War and sheltered our troops during the 2003 invasion of Iraq when Turkey, our NATO ally, refused to do so. Furthermore, as Syria split into faction warfare, it was the Kurds who steadily held onto their northern territory and drove ISIS out of their lands.
The most adamant opponent of an independent Kurdish state has been Turkey, who has committed to fighting Kurdish secession for decades. I would argue that, by recognizing a Kurdish state in Iraq and Syria, the Turks would actually weaken the argument for Kurdish secession within Turkey. A recognized Kurdish state would offer a definable Kurdish homeland separate from Turkish territory. Regardless of Turkey’s opinion, this conversation will never happen if we abandon the Kurds now.
Supporting the development of an independent Kurdish state would take years, but it begins by standing with the Kurds now, as they have stood with us time and time again. The Kurdish economy is growing, and world powers are taking notice. These are not disposable allies, and if the United States doesn’t realize that, someone else will.
Max Winter is a senior public relations and sport management double major. He is a guest writer from Washington, D.C.