Americans’ support for Kurds helps explain Trump’s Syrian reversal

Sen. Lindsey Graham, one of President Trump’s closest allies in the US Congress, spoke with unusual candor about Trump’s shifting positions on northeast Syria.
author_image Laurie Mylroie

WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) – Sen. Lindsey Graham (R, South Carolina), one of President Donald Trump’s closest allies in the US Congress, spoke with unusual candor about Trump’s shifting positions on northeast Syria, including the most recent twist: his decision to leave some US forces to ensure that the oil fields do not fall into hostile hands.

Speaking on Nov. 20 at the annual dinner of the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA), which honored the Senator with an award for his many years of public service, Graham described an important domestic political consideration involved in that decision: the views of conservative Christians.

Conservative Christians strongly opposed what they (and many others) saw as Trump abandoning America’s Kurdish allies, by withdrawing US troops and allowing Turkey to attack across its southern border.

The President was “sort of surprised,” Graham explained, “that people didn’t stand up and cheer, when he said, we’re getting out of Syria.”

Even more, significant groups opposed the decision, and “the pushback from the Christian conservative community about us abandoning the Kurds was overwhelming,” Graham said.

Conservative Christians are an important part of Trump’s political base. Indeed, immediately following the White House announcement on Oct. 6 that it was withdrawing some forces from northeast Syria and would not oppose a Turkish incursion, the well-known televangelist, Pat Robertson, described Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as a “thug,” who would massacre Christians and Kurds, while he warned that Trump was in “great danger of losing the mandate of heaven.”

Read More: Broad opposition to Trump on Syria, including Republicans and evangelical Christians

Sen. Graham, in an extended discussion with JINSA President, Michael Makovsky, also described Trump’s thinking in his ill-fated phone conversation with the Turkish President earlier that day.

“Trump tried to keep Erdogan” from going into Syria, “but he went in anyway,” Graham explained to Makovsky. “I told President Trump that in the Middle East, there’s no such thing as a yellow light. It’s either red, or it’s green.”

“The subtlety didn’t work” is how Graham summarized the consequences of Trump’s Oct. 6 conversation with Erdogan.

Graham also noted that the successful operation against Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi a month ago had a significant impact on Trump. He came to better understand what such an operation requires, including a US military presence abroad and local allies.

“I think the president saw the benefit of forward-deployed forces. We didn’t leave from Virginia. We left from inside the region,” Graham said, alluding to Erbil. “And the capability we’ve acquired on the ground in Syria was key. The intelligence from the Kurdish forces sealed Baghdadi’s fate.”

“So I think the president saw the benefit of forward-deployed forces and the pay-off of a long-term relationship and that was a game-changer for him,” the Senator continued.

“So I’ve never felt better about the President understanding the benefit of alliances in the region, the pay-off of forward-deployed forces, than I do right now,” he concluded.

However, it was the oil fields that were, indeed, marked the turning point. Graham was a strong advocate of keeping US troops in Syria. He advised Trump, “If you pull the plug on Syria, then the SDF [Syrian Democratic Forces] elements that helped us win” will “be exposed by a Turkish incursion” and “ISIS will come back, because the Kurds can’t fight Turkey and look out for ISIS.” And “Iran’s going to come in and take the oil fields.” 

“When I mentioned oil fields, then the light went on,” Graham said, chuckling. “So it’s my hope that this new counter-ISIS strategy, centered around denying the enemy the benefits of the oil reserves and keeping Iran out will be more sustainable than the other approach.”

A recent survey by the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation asked some 1,000 Americans how the US should respond to Turkey’s attack on “Kurdish forces who helped the United States fight ISIS.”

Nearly three-quarters of respondents—74%—supported imposing sanctions on Turkey, and a somewhat surprising 60% even backed military action against Turkey.

When Vice President Mike Pence visited Erbil last week, he cited “the enduring bond” between the Kurdish and American peoples.

Read More: VP Mike Pence visits Erbil, affirms enduring support for Kurdistan Region

Public opinion surveys, like that of the Reagan Foundation, as well as the opposition of conservative Christians to a US withdrawal from northeast Syria, suggest that Pence’s words are more than empty platitudes, but reflect an emerging political reality.

As Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R, Tennessee) recently affirmed in a seminar on Capitol Hill, “support for the Kurds is a bipartisan issue.”