During the fourth democratic debate last week, candidates were questioned about President Trump’s withdrawal of American troops in northern Syria, a decision that has opened the doors to a Turkish invasion of the region.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan claims that the invasion is an effort in two parts – 1) expel the alliance known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), composed largely of Kurdish fighters, from the border region between Turkey and Syria; and 2) allow the migration of over three million Syrian refugees currently residing in Turkey back into Syria.
American forces and Kurdish forces in the SDF fought alongside each other against the Islamic State and afterward have worked together to contain and detain surviving ISIS members. However, after Erdoğan had a phone conversation with President Trump, American troops began pulling out of the region. Within days, Turkish forces were launching airstrikes against SDF targets and rolling ground forces into northern Syria. As a result, hundreds of SDF members have been killed and thousands of Kurdish civilians in the area have been displaced. Along with this, ISIS members that were being held by the Kurds in this area have reportedly escaped.
When Representative Tulsi Gabbard was asked about her statement that American troops should pull out of Syria, she discussed that while she does not believe President Trump handled the pull-out well and “…has the blood of the Kurds on his hand[s],” she calls out both the President and members of Congress from both parties for supporting the ‘regime change war’ in Syria since its start in 2011. She went on to promise to end American intervention in these wars, especially by cutting support for groups that work as ground troops in these regime changes, including al Qaeda.
Mayor Pete Buttigieg strongly disagreed with her, stating that the apparent slaughter against the Kurds is a result of the President’s order to pull out American troops rather than their presence in the first place. He claimed that while he didn’t support the deployment of American troops in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan, the situation in Syria is inherently different than those two wars due to them being solely special operations forces.
Rep. Gabbard rebutted by asking Mayor Buttigieg if he’d have American troops stay in Syria indefinitely, to which Buttigieg stated that “you can put an end to endless war without embracing Donald Trump’s policy,” arguing that we are breaking our word and credibility by abandoning the Kurds.
While I praise Rep. Gabbard’s criticism of both Republicans and Democrats regarding their support of regime change conflict throughout the Middle East, I happen to agree much more with Mayor Buttigieg in this instance. American involvement didn’t begin until the last quarter of 2014 as a response to the rise of ISIS, a force that posed a threat to us and our allies in the region and around the world.
Buttigieg also said, there are many reports saying that it was American presence in northern Syria that was preventing the chaos now unfolding with this Turkish invasion. Along with this, both Democrats and Republicans, including military leaders, have criticized this move by the President, furthering the points that this troop pull-out allows for ISIS members to regain a foothold in the region and presents a potential humanitarian crisis as evidence builds up that Turkish-backed forces are committing atrocities against Kurdish people.
I agree with Rep. Gabbard that troops should come home; however, I agree with Buttigieg more in this case because the situation was not stable enough to allow for our troops to come home. When we find ourselves in situations such as Syria, Iraq, or Afghanistan, we cannot simply leave with a nice “job well done” without ensuring that some system is set up to control the situation and ensure some level of stability after we leave.
This is what we didn’t do in Iraq under the Obama administration, and less than five years later, ISIS took control of a huge portion of the country. While I want our troops to come home, I believe Mayor Buttigieg is correct in stating that our presence was vital to the stability of the region, and us pulling out is a betrayal of our values and of our duty to the Kurds.
Patrick Holden can be contacted at Patrick.Holden@ksc.keene.edu