President Trump decided to abandon America’s de facto alliance with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a mainly Kurdish armed group that is tied to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which has fought and demonstrated for greater Kurdish autonomy in Turkey. The Syrian Democratic Forces were the main muscle for American policy in Syria. Those Kurdish and allied fighters played the main role in destroying ISIS’s control over much of northern Syria and parts of western Iraq. More than 11,000 SDF fighters died in that war, compared to eight American soldiers. The US’s main contribution was to bomb ISIS targets and provide electronic intelligence to the SDF, which in turn gave on the ground information to the Americans. The US-SDF alliance was highly effective, eliminating ISIS as a military force in Syria and Iraq.
The US also provided diplomatic support for the SDF. The presence of a few hundred American troops in the border region between Turkey and Kurdish-controlled Syria prevented Turkish troops from intervening and allowed the SDF to create and maintain Rojava, the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (NES). Rojava is a bright spot in a region mainly governed by corrupt and thuggish regimes. While the ongoing war has made it impossible to hold elections, Rojava’s government does engage in sustained consultation with civic groups and ordinary citizens and has a constitution that guarantees civil liberties, including freedom of religion. Rojava is the most gender equal territory in the Middle East, with the possible exception of Israel.
Trump, in an October 6 phone call, told Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan that the US would immediately withdraw its troops from Syria. That statement was a de facto go ahead for Turkey to invade the Kurdish border region of Syria, which Erdoğan did three days later. The full effects of Trump’s impulsive decision, to please Erdoğan by betraying America’s Kurdish allies, are still unfolding. Judging from the immediate death toll in the first days after the invasion, we can expect that hundreds of Kurdish fighters and thousands of civilians will die. The SDF hold thousands of ISIS fighters and the often-radicalized wives and children of those fighters. Some of those fighters already have escaped from prisons and more will be able to free themselves as SDF is weakened by the Turkish invasion. Those fighters already are attacking targets in Syria and Iraq and the foreign fighters could return home to Europe or the US and launch attacks there. Programs to deradicalize former ISIS or other Islamist extremist fighters so far have proven ineffective.
As SDF weakens, the territory of Rojava is shrinking, reducing and endangering the continued existence of this hopeful model of a democratic government that is not stained by religious extremism and the exploitation of women. Of course, for an authoritarian Islamist like Erdoğan, the example of Rojava is a dangerous one, showing a way to offer Kurds autonomy within Turkey. Rojava also is a rebuke to all the other religious extremists and dictators in the Middle East, and an almost utopian vision for women throughout the region and indeed in much of the world where gender rights are non-existent and governments turn a blind eye to rape and honor killings. No wonder, Erdoğan wanted a green light to invade Rojava and Trump, himself an authoritarian and rapist, willingly allowed Erdoğan to move ahead.
In the long-term Trump’s betrayal of the Kurds will make it hard for the US to recruit allies in future wars. The US, like the imperialist countries of past centuries, depends on locals to do much of the fighting and most of the administering in territories it conquers or seeks to indirectly control. The British, for example, governed India, a land of 300 million people in the second half of the nineteenth century with fewer than 2000 British officials. Tens of thousands of Indians collaborated with the British to carry out the work of administration and of policing and repression.
Why would an Indian oppress his own people and help foreign conquerors? Some did so because it paid. Others wanted power and could gain it more easily by collaborating with the British than in open political or military contest with fellow Indians. A few actually believed, or managed to convince themselves, that India was better off under British rule than that of the princes who ruled parts of a fragmented subcontinent before the Europeans arrived.
Regardless of their motives, and for many Indians it was a combination of greed, ambition, and idealism, at base all the collaborators assumed the British were in India to stay and that there was no alternate path, for themselves or for Indians as a whole, to power, wealth, or influence. The same was true of those who collaborated with the British in other colonies or with the French and other European imperialists in their colonies, or with the US in the twentieth century in most of Latin America, and in South Korea and Vietnam.
The mix of greed and idealism varied over time and among colonies. Idealists were more common when the imperial power actually tried to establish democracy (however limited) and foster economic and social development. Thus, the fighters of the SDF and the politicians and administrators in Rojava are unusually honest and idealistic. However, their betrayal by Trump sends a clear message to locals in countries the US will invade or try to influence in the future. The message is: you can’t assume the US will remain to help you. If you try to build a democratic government and develop your land and people, any promises made by one US administration can be undone by the next. If American voters can elect one Trump, they could, and likely will, elect another corrupt authoritarian president in the future. Thus, any pledge to by the US to protect and help idealistic allies will not endure long enough to create a stable democratic developmental government.
What sorts of locals will ally with an unreliable, and at times openly authoritarian and corrupt, US government? Not idealists. Only those motivated by greed, or fighters who become soldiers because they actually enjoy killing, will ally with the US under such circumstances. Thus, in the future the US will not attract another SDF, willing to fight and die for ideals. Instead, the US will have to depend on those who fight for money, and who are not willing to die. As bad as America’s allies in Afghanistan or Vietnam were—often cowardly and almost always corrupt and incompetent— the people willing to join with the US after Trump’s betrayal will be even worse. They will not risk their lives, since they will not be fighting for ideals. They will take American money, rob and kill their own people when they can do so without risking their lives, and then disappear when they are challenged. Such allies will not be effective in helping the US win wars or administer lands it wants to control. The ultimate casualty of Trump’s concession to Erdoğan and of the Turkish invasion will be America’s capacity to act as an imperial power.