Trump: Tacit pledge to protect Syrian Kurds, amid broad US support

Speaking to reporters in Japan on Saturday, at the end of the G-20 summit, US President Donald Trump made an implicit pledge to protect Syria’s Kurds against Turkish attack.

WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) - Speaking to reporters in Japan on Saturday, at the end of the G-20 summit, US President Donald Trump made an implicit pledge to protect Syria’s Kurds against Turkish attack.

Asked about Turkey’s impending acquisition of Russia’s S-400 air defense missile system, Trump began his answer by explaining how he had prevented Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan from attacking America’s partners in Syria in the fight against the Islamic State: the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF.)

Describing Erdogan as “tough,” Trump noted that the Turkish president “has a big problem with the Kurds, as everyone knows.” Erdogan “had a 65,000-man army at [Turkey’s] border [with Syria], and he was going to wipe out the Kurds, who helped us with ISIS.” But “I called him, and I asked him not to do it.”

“And he hasn’t done it,” Trump affirmed. “They were lined up to go out and wipe put the people that we just defeated the ISIS caliphate with,” he continued, “and I said, ‘You can’t do that. You can’t do it.’ And he didn’t do it.”

It is unclear when this conversation took place or if it occurred quite as Trump related. However, as Paul Davis, a former Pentagon analyst and currently a Senior Fellow at Soran University, advised Kurdistan 24, “That doesn’t matter so much.”

Davis emphasized that what does matter is that Trump expressed—in public, in a very high profile forum—three crucial points.

First, Syria’s Kurds have played a vital role, as America’s partners, in the defeat of the Islamic State.

Second, Erdogan threatened military action against them, and that was completely unacceptable to Trump.

And, thirdly, Trump used his influence to prevent any such attack.

“From a Kurdish perspective,” Davis explained, those are “all key points,” and “the US president articulated them as US policy. That’s what is most important.”

Indeed, it is difficult to pin down precisely which discussion Trump had in mind. In mid-December, when he spoke with Erdogan, Erdogan offered to replace US troops in Syria with Turkish troops. Trump actually accepted, before he was persuaded that Ankara could not be trusted to protect the population there.

READ MORE: New details on Trump-Erdogan call on Syria withdrawal

Perhaps, in a subsequent conversation, Trump did, in fact, warn Erdogan against attacking the Kurds in Syria. “We can’t know,” Davis advised, noting that Turkish forces never did cross the border into SDF-controlled territory, despite Erdogan’s repeated threats.

“What really matters is what Trump understands now, and his willingness to state it,” Davis said. “That was tantamount to a tacit pledge to protect the Kurds” in Syria “against Turkish attack. Trump knows that we owe them.”

A similar view prevails at the Pentagon. Speaking on Thursday to Washington’s Middle East Institute, Michael Mulroy, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East, noted that “partnering with the SDF enabled the defeat of the ISIS ‘so-called’ caliphate, with limited US and Coalition resources.”

Mulroy explained how, with support from the US and the Coalition more broadly, “The SDF grew from a few hundred members in 2015 to what it is today: a thousands-strong, multi-ethnic force of Syrians that includes Arabs, Kurds, Syriac, and other ethnic groups.”

“SDF forces have been fighting to take back their homeland from ISIS,” he continued, “and they remain committed, despite suffering thousands of casualties.” He stressed that it was crucial for the US and the Coalition to continue to “support local partners to stabilize the areas that have been liberated from ISIS’ control.”

That is also the perspective of many in Congress. Rep. Michael McCaul (Texas) is the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and he recently spoke to Kurdistan 24 about the need for Washington to maintain its ties to the Kurds in both Iraq and Syria.

“The Kurds are extremely important to the United States as an ally in Iraq,” he said. “It’s important when we send our military assistance to Iraq that it not be held up in Baghdad, that it goes to the Kurds, in Kurdistan, in northern Iraq.”

Like Trump, McCaul suggested, “Turkey has a misconception of the Kurds” in Syria, “labelling them as some sort of terrorist organization, when they’re the very ones that we fought with to defeat ISIS and the caliphate.”

McCaul also had an interesting perspective on the political situation in Iraq. “I don’t foresee anytime soon” Iraq’s partition, with the Kurdistan Region becoming an independent country, he said. But “it’s sort of taking place” anyhow.

“Anybody who’s been to Iraq knows that the nicest place to visit is Kurdistan.”