Trump’s recent statements on the matter have been, to quote the office of Russian President Vladimir Putin, “highly unusual.” Other comments have been downright wrong or misleading.
Trump’s confusing take on the Kurds reflects other related inaccuracies he’s been touting, such as incorrectly claiming that U.S. soldiers in northeastern Syria were safe from Turkey’s invasion; in fact, Turkey attacked near a U.S. base. He also posited that he has “100% defeated” the Islamic State; in fact, the Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate is no more, but the group is looking to capitalize on the current void to rebuild.
Here’s an analysis of how four recent Trump pronouncements involving the Kurds hold up.
Kurdish forces are “more of a terrorist threat than ISIS.”
At a news conference Wednesday, Trump claimed that Kurdish insurgents in Turkey (the PKK), who are linked to Kurdish forces in Syria and are locked in a decades-long separatist battle with Turkey, were “probably worse at terror and more of a terrorist threat than ISIS."
Turkey watchers were quick to point out two things: One, that’s just not true, and two, Trump’s comments were suddenly strikingly similar to Turkish government talking points.
A little background: The PKK, or Kurdistan Workers’ Party, has been engaged in a decades-long insurgency against the Turkish government, which has tried to stifle all things Kurdish. The PKK has deep ties to Kurdish militias across the border in Syria that joined together, along with some Arab militias, to form the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), i.e., the body the United States was until recently supporting in the fight against the Islamic State.
Various groups documenting global terrorism threats, however, have consistently placed the Islamic State very high on the threat scale because of the number and breadth of attacks against a wide range of targets. The PKK threat, experts say, remains low, as its attacks are more limited in targeting Turkey.
Nonetheless, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has cast the SDF and the related Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) all in the same terrorist light, in part to justify his incursion into Syria as a necessary terror-fighting mission.
To critics, though, Trump’s about-face comments appeared as yet another attempt by the president to rewrite history in favor of the United States pulling out troops and abandoning the Kurds in northeastern Syria.
The Kurds “aren’t angels.”
On Wednesday, Trump claimed of the Kurds: “As I said they’re not angels, they’re not angels.”
The president is correct on this point — literally and metaphorically.
According to Human Rights Watch, Kurdish authorities in northern Syria “have committed arbitrary arrests, due process violations, and failed to address unsolved killings and disappearances."
Then again, much of the same, and much worse, has been reported about Erdogan, who has earned repeated praise from Trump nonetheless.
The Kurds are “much safer” now.
In the same statement Wednesday, Trump said that Turkish-Kurdish fighting “has nothing to do with us” and that the "Kurds are much safer right now, but the Kurds know how to fight.”
The current quagmire with Turkey in northeastern Syria actually has much to do with the United States and has most decidedly made the Kurds more unsafe. (It’s true, though, that the Kurds know how to fight.)
Kurdish and American military and intelligence forces had repeatedly warned the president that his sudden withdrawal of U.S. troops would destabilize the region, leaving the Kurds at risk of attack from Turkey and vulnerable civilians yet again in harm’s way.
Since 2015, a small contingent of American soldiers on the ground had been helping Kurdish-aligned forces fight the Islamic State. They had also served as a buffer protecting Syria’s Kurds from Turkey, which felt threatened by the semiautonomous Kurdish administration set up in 2013 amid the unrest in Syria.
The quick U.S. withdrawal of troops consequently left the door open for Turkey to invade, while shutting the door on Kurdish fighters and civilians seeking safety. Humanitarian aid groups had to withdraw from the area Monday after Turkey started to attack and the Kurds, desperate for reinforcements, made a deal bringing in the Syrian government to help.
The area is now a minefield of power struggles mixed with fickle alliances — Turkey and Syrian Arab militias vs. the Kurds vs. the Syrian government vs. the Islamic State. On top of it all, Russia, aligned with the Syrian government, has moved in to fill the United States’ shoes as the new power broker.
After days of bloodshed, tens of thousands of Syrians have been displaced or become refugees, as a tentative cease-fire took hold Friday.
Turkey and the Kurds are just kids in a sandbox.
After Vice President Pence, Erdogan and Kurdish forces agreed to a five-day cease-fire Thursday, Trump boasted of his diplomacy philosophy. “Sometimes you have to let ‘em fight for a while," Trump said. “Like two kids in a lot, you’ve got to let them fight and then you pull them apart.”
This is a misleading depiction of the political situation on several fronts, according to academics and policymakers. The tired Western trope of Middle Eastern people needing to “fight” it out overlooks the role of U.S. policies in politically and economically destabilizing the region. And critics from across the political spectrum have tagged the cease-fire as a complete capitulation to Turkey.