THERE were just a thousand American soldiers along the border between Turkey and Syria. But they were an important symbol. They acted as a buffer between the Turks and the Kurds, two groups who have for decades been opponents and sometimes outright foes. Kept apart, the two sides could play their distinctive parts in maintaining stability in a key part of the Middle East. The Kurds have been the West’s greatest allies in on-the-ground fighting against the barbarous Islamic State (IS). Turkey has played an important part in counter-terrorism, and has provided a home to millions of refugees who would otherwise head for Europe.
That fragile stability was shattered in a single late-night phone call from President Trump to the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in which the United States leader announced — apparently off the cuff — that he would be withdrawing the soldiers as part of his election promise to bring US troops home from foreign wars. Even by the reckless standards of President Trump’s knee-jerk politics, this was a blunder of strategic proportions.
The Turkish President took it as a green light to invade Syria. In just a few days, scores of people have been killed, some in gruesome atrocities, and 100,000 new refugees have been created. Hundreds of Islamic terrorists have escaped from Kurdish prisons. The Kurds — betrayed by the Americans after sacrificing 11,000 troops in the fight against IS — have been forced to invite the Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, to send in troops to protect them. Though fierce fighters, the Kurds lack the armour and air power to resist the Turkish army.
The Americans have panicked. President Trump has announced an impotent package of economic sanctions against Turkey, and is to send his Vice-President to upbraid President Erdogan, who has shrugged his shoulders and ordered his soldiers to continue. The Syrian dictator now looks likely to regain huge swaths of oil-rich territory. His allies, Russia and Iran, are consolidating their dominance in a region where the West appears now to have lost all its leverage. The map of the Middle East is being redrawn.
What is to be done? Britain has a historic responsibility here. The 30 million Kurds are the fourth largest ethnic group in the Middle East. They should have been given their own homeland after the First World War, much as the Jews were after the Second. But, although Britain and the victorious allies made provision for a Kurdish state in 1920, it never came about. The oil-rich land has been parcelled out between Syria, Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Armenia ever since. The Kurds have been resettled; their names, language, and ethnic identity suppressed; and their basic rights denied.
President Trump’s myopic foreign policy — if his erratic impulses can be graced with the term policy — have made it impossible to redress all that in the short term. But Britain should immediately end the £1-billion flow of arms that we currently send to Turkey to equip an army that is systematically bombing the innocent civilians. Refusing to grant new arms export licences, as the Foreign Secretary has announced, is not enough. And we could use what little influence remains to us on the international stage to insist that, whatever political settlement eventually ends the conflict in Syria, it must include legal guarantees for Kurdish rights and autonomy.