The Kurds Lost Trump — but Are Winning the Battle for U.S. Public Opinion

Two factors helped turn the Kurdish community into the ‘good guys’ from America’s perspective: Their role in fighting ISIS, and Erdogan’s strong-arm Mideast tactics

Hundreds of pro-Kurdish protesters demonstrating front of the federal courthouse in Nashville, Tennessee, following President Donald Trump's order to withdraw U.S. troops from northern Syria, October 11, 2019.
HARRISON MCCLARY/REUTERS

WASHINGTON — U.S. President Donald Trump suffered a very rare defeat within his own party this week. Republicans on Capitol Hill have mostly supported him throughout the endless stream of scandals and corruption allegations. But on Wednesday night, 129 of them voted alongside the Democratic majority for a House resolution denouncing Trump’s recent decision to withdraw U.S. forces from northern Syria.

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The resolution passed easily, being opposed by only 60 members of Trump’s own party. And while it has no immediate practical impact — it is not a law that puts any restraints on the White House — it shows that the president’s Syria policy could cost him support from within his own party.

Republicans in the Senate are also pushing back against Trump on the Syria issue by promoting sanctions on Turkey — in contrast to Trump’s goal of improving relations with the country’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Utah Sen. Mitt Romney said Thursday that “what we have done to the Kurds will stand as a bloodstain in the annals of American history.”

He added: “This is a matter of American honor and promise. … The decision to abandon the Kurds violates one of our most sacred duties.”

The Republican opposition to Trump’s policy shows his decision is unpopular with at least some elements within his own party. But more than that, it is a testament to something else: the growing popularity of the Kurds in Washington — and, more broadly, within the United States.

President Donald Trump speaking at a campaign rally at American Airlines Arena in Dallas, Texas, October 17, 2019.
JONATHAN ERNST/REUTERS

“Anyone who has been paying attention shouldn’t be surprised by this,” says a source who has been advising Kurdish groups in D.C. for years. “The Kurdish people have won many supporters in America in recent years,” the source adds.

‘Battlefield friendship’

The Kurdish population is estimated at between 25 to 35 million, with the Kurdistan region — which is home to most of the Kurds — cutting through the borders of four countries: Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. The largest concentration of Kurds is in Turkey, while the most independent and sovereign Kurdish entity is the one based in northern Iraq. All four countries have long opposed Kurdish aspirations for independence and sovereignty, mostly out of fear that they will lose control over lands rich with natural resources if an independent Kurdish state ever emerges.

The greatest obstacle facing the Kurds since they were denied a state when the map of the Middle East was redrawn in the 1920s was Turkey’s increasing opposition to their aspirations. Iran has been isolated on the world stage for most of the last four decades; Iraq has been in turmoil since the 2003 war; and Syria is in the midst of an almost decade-long civil war. But Turkey is an influential world power, a member of NATO and a country that has strategic relationships with Washington, Moscow, Beijing and also many Muslim and Arab capitals.

Like other countries, Turkey also spends millions of dollars every year on lobbying and public relations efforts in Washington. Over the years, a big chunk of that spending has gone on explaining Turkey’s positions on the Kurdish issue.

“The Kurds have also invested considerable sums on lobbying, but they don’t have Turkey’s resources,” says the source who advises Kurdish groups (and who asked to remain anonymous in order to discuss sensitive work). “Turkey is a big, wealthy and sovereign country. The Kurds, even those in Iraq that have some level of autonomy, can’t really compete with Turkey’s spending over time,” the source adds.

But where the Kurds have a big advantage over Turkey, the same source adds, is in the court of public opinion: “The Kurds in Iraq and Syria have been faithful allies to the United States for years. All over America, there are American soldiers and officers who fought side-by-side with the Kurds, and have witnessed that the Kurds are good fighters and good allies. The ‘battlefield friendship’ that these people have developed with the Kurds is more powerful than a lot of other factors.”

War on terror group

The Washington Kurdish Institute was one of the first organizations in the U.S. capital to promote the Kurdish cause. The educational organization has existed since 1996, a time when Saddam Hussein was still oppressing the Kurdish population in Iraq. The institute’s director, Yousif Ismael, told Haaretz this week that despite the “terrible” events of the past 10 days — since Turkey began its attack on the Kurds in northern Syria — he did find one reason for optimism: “It’s clear that the American people are with us.”

Ismael says it wasn’t always so. “It was very hard for us in the early years to get the attention of members of Congress, journalists and influential think tanks in Washington,” he recounts. “The Turkish government had very effective propaganda, and we had to work very hard to get our message through. To someone from my generation, it’s not obvious to see senators and senior journalists, and former U.S. military generals, all rise up to support us.”

A man kissing a poster of Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a show of support for the Turkish president, October 14, 2019.
Lefteris Pitarakis,AP

Over the years, several factors helped the Kurds improve their standing in Washington. The war in Iraq and the fall of Saddam’s regime paved the way for the creation of an autonomous regime in northern Iraq. This gave the Kurds a diplomatic and economic platform they had previously lacked. Meanwhile, under the leadership of Erdogan, Turkey became a problematic actor in the Middle East and has lost the sympathy of many influential people in Washington — although it still seems to hold sway over Trump.

Yet no political development helped the Kurds’ public image in the United States more than their war against the Islamic State terror organization, starting from 2014. Their sacrifices in that war in Syria and Iraq were mentioned repeatedly over the past 10 days, in statements of support from members of Congress, retired U.S. military commanders and Jewish community organizations. Even prominent evangelical Christian pastors, who almost never criticize actions taken by Trump, spoke out against his “abandonment” of the Kurds.

‘Very bad message’

“These people fought with us, based on the promise that we’ll continue to support them,” says Lt. Gen. (ret.) Jay Garner, who spoke with Haaretz a day after returning from a trip to Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish region in Iraq. “It’s a complete betrayal — I have no other word to describe this decision,” he adds.

Garner, who served in Iraq in the first Gulf War and also later in the 2003 war, tells Haaretz he feels “ashamed” by America’s treatment of the Kurds. “They were our most loyal allies. They did everything we asked them to do. Now, with how we’ve turned our back on them, who will come and fight with us the next time we need help?” he asks.

The retired three-star army general is one of many senior military figures in the United States who have spoken out against Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces and give Turkey a green light for its assault on the Kurds.

“I voted for the guy,” Garner says, referring to Trump. “I supported many of his policies. But this decision is very disappointing. It’s like the ‘red line’ in 2013, when Barack Obama didn’t go through with his threat to respond after Assad used chemical weapons. In both cases, our leaders broke their own word. That’s a huge problem for our country.”

According to Garner, Trump “portrays himself as a tough guy, but this time Erdogan and Putin rolled him. He gave a gift to Erdogan for no good reason. And this will unleash a Turkish appetite to expand even more. Erdogan wants to bring back the Ottoman Empire — and meanwhile Iran is also expanding. This decision sends a very bad message,” he warns.

Garner says he doesn’t oppose the idea of bringing the troops back from Syria, “but only once we’ve secured the right conditions. We need to first of all stabilize the situation, and we need to do it in coordination with our allies. Getting out without informing our allies and basically giving the keys over to Erdogan — that’s inexcusable.”

United Kurdish voice

Many of the most prominent critics of Trump’s Syria decision are, like Garner, people who voted for and backed the president. But he was also hit hard by prominent Democrats. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota said at the Democratic presidential debate earlier this week that Trump’s decision could also cause trouble for another Middle East partner, asking: “Think about our other allies, Israel — how do they feel right now?”

Former Vice President Joe Biden called Trump’s decision “shameful,” and said the United States should have left some special forces in northern Syria for the time being, also supporting the Kurds with airstrikes against ISIS.

“There are people in both parties who understand the Kurdish issue, and see it as important not just for the Kurdish people but for the entire Middle East,” says Ismael. “There are also Kurdish diaspora communities in different states and their voices are also being heard, in places such as Virginia and Tennessee.”

Sen. Marsha Blackburn (Republican of Tennessee) announcing a bipartisan agreement on Turkey sanctions during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, October 17, 2019.
ERIN SCOTT/REUTERS

Indeed, Tennessee Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn — usually a very strong Trump supporter — took part in a press conference this week promoting new sanctions against Turkey. And Virginia’s two Democratic senators, Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, have both strongly criticized Trump’s decisions.

“One of the most important things this crisis has shown us is that we need to be united among ourselves,” says Salah Bayaziddi, the U.S. representative of the Iranian-Kurdish party Komala. “One of our greatest problems has always been divisions between Kurds from different countries,” he tells Haaretz, adding, “When we come together — Kurdish groups from Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey — we can have more influence and get more people to listen to us.”

Bayaziddi notes that in this instance, Kurdish groups worked together to denounce Turkey’s invasion, and that even in Iran there were demonstrations in Kurdish cities against the Turkish government. “We have our differences, but in times like this we have to speak in one voice,” he says.

The U.S. representative of another Kurdish group, who asked to speak not for attribution, also stresses the importance of a united Kurdish voice in light of Turkey’s invasion.

“The American people are with us. They understand we’re the good guys in the region,” the representative says. “If we continue to speak up and present our case, eventually the policies will also begin to change.”