“Let Other People Take Care of It”

Photo by Jordi Bernabeu Farrús | CC BY 2.0

Oh, this is great. The French are sending Special Forces to Manbij in northern Syria, a city held by Kurdish peshmerga backed by U.S. forces. Why? To thwart a Turkish advance on the city, backed by Turkish-allied forces in the scattershot “Syrian Free Army” created out of whole cloth by the CIA since 2011.

Ankara denounces Emmanuel Macron’s move as the “completely wrong approach,” and even support for terrorism. (For Ankara, any support for Kurdish autonomy anywhere—even if occasioned by the pragmatic desire to use reliable allies to crush ISIL—constitutes “support for terrorism.”) Deputy PM Bekir Bozdag even intimates that France could “become a target of Turkey” if it defends the Kurds.

Thus has the mega-disaster of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 not only produced chaos in the region, worsened long-standing Sunni-Shiite conflicts, exacerbated Arab-Iranian tensions, encouraged militant Kurdish nationalism, and drawn Turkey into anti-Kurdish conflict in Iraq and Syria. It has now produced a clash between NATO powers. Good job, Dubya!

Did George W. Bush ever anticipate that his gleeful destruction of Iraq would lead to a Turkish-French confrontation in Syria regarding the Kurdish question? When governments in the region (including Ankara) warned that a U.S. invasion of Iraq would destabilize the whole region, did he have any understanding of what they were talking about?

The U.S. has from the 1970s needed Kurdish allies—who are, to begin with, willing to work with it—to obtain its goals in Iraq. Now it needs them both to help quash ISIL in Syria (that embarrassing spin-off of the Iraq War) and to weaken the Assad regime by splitting up the country. Washington has pooh-poohed Turkish objections, as though its security concerns were trite in connection with its own geopolitical goals. But Turkey’s president Tayyip Erdogan is talking tough against his NATO allies even while (following that disastrous shooting down of a Russian fighter jet in Nov. 2015) he has cozied up with Russia and signed a missile deal with Moscow in a pointed statement of independence of the alliance.

Trump on the campaign questioned the lingering relevance of NATO, post-Cold War. But now there’s a new Cold War, much worsened by his ascension and the relentless attack on him for supposed “Russian collusion” and his alleged refusal to criticize Putin. His vow of continued support for NATO and especially Article 5 requiring joint response to any aggression in Poland last July caused relief at the Pentagon, happy to see him go mainstream so seamlessly. Committed to NATO, how will this person handle this inter-NATO crisis?

Nobody in 1949 (when NATO was formed to confront the Soviet Union) or in 1952 (when Turkey joined) imagined that the alliance might be strained by some members’ actions along the 500 mile border between Turkey and Syria. Or that Kurds would pose a problem for the pact.  But now they do.

The U.S. invasion of Iraq, rocking the boat throughout the Middle East, made greater autonomy of Iraq’s Kurds inevitable. Although their bid for independence last year failed, and they lost control of Kirkuk, their aspirations will continue to cause friction with the Baghdad government. Turkish forces will continue to strike into Iraqi Kurdistan, supposedly to suppress PKK enemies of Turkey based in the country under local Kurdish protection. Such actions have met with U.S. criticism and military measures to curb the Turks.

Meanwhile the destabilization of Iraq since 2003, allowing for greater Kurdish autonomy, favored the strengthening of the Kurdish nationalist movement in adjoining Syrian Kurdistan. When the U.S. began actively supporting the armed opposition to the Assad regime in Damascus in 2011, it created more favorable conditions for Syrian Kurds to carve out an incipient state of Rojava. Moreover, failing to find reliable Syrian Arab forces to use towards the end of regime change, the U.S. military and CIA have focused on the Kurds as allies. (The U.S. forces working with the Kurds have officially been in Syria to combat ISIL, not to topple Assad. The situation is complicated by the fact that sometimes Kurds and government forces have cooperated in battles with ISIL.) In forging an alliance with the YPG the U.S. has enraged Turkey’s Rayyip Erdogan, who sees Kurdish nationalism anywhere (especially in Syria and Iraq) as a threat to Turkey with its own restive Kurdish population (about 18% of Turkey’s population, concentrated in the southeast).

Thus the contradiction between U.S. imperialist goals for Iraq and the defiance of the Saddam Hussein regime produced the synthesis of a ruined Iraq breathing out contagion to the world, producing ISIL out of al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia which expands into Syria establishing the ephemeral Islamic State. The U.S. operating covertly (and unsuccessfully) to overthrow Assad intervened overtly to engage ISIL (whose existence, again, is a fruit of the U.S. invasion of Iraq). In doing so it had to befriend and rely on the Kurds. Just as it relied on them to destabilize Iraq in the early 1970s before the Algiers Agreement of 1975 between Saddam and the Shah of Iran caused the U.S. to abruptly withdraw aid to the Kurdish rebels. Kurds are aware of a history of U.S. exploitation and betrayal.

Now the contradiction between Kurdish-friendly Washington (and Paris) and Kurdish-hostile Ankara is heading towards some kind of conclusion. Trump has just announced that the U.S. forces will leave Syria “very soon” and “let other people tame care it of it.” (Meaning Russia, Iran, Hizbollah, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and now France.) On the other hand Mad Dog Mattis has said U.S. forces must remain in Syria indefinitely to prevent the emergence of “ISIS 2.0”. One hand does not know what the other hand is doing.

There are many contradictions in the current situation. Arabs (especially Saudis) versus Iran, which overlaps the contradiction between Sunni and Shiite. (The U.S. and Israel strongly favor the Saudis in this conflict). The contradiction between the nationalistic Turkish state and its Kurdish minority and Kurds throughout the region who regard Ankara as a fascist, racist regime.

The four largest ethnic communities in the Middle East are Arabs, Iranians, Turks and Kurds. (Why not include Jews, you ask? Because the Jewish population is under 7 million. There are around 28 million Kurds in the region.)

The Turks and Arabs have been at it for years; Arabs have bad historical memories of Ottoman rule. Erdogan has suggested that (the Iraqi city of) Mosul should actually be part of Turkey, and postures as the protector of Turkomen in the region. He embraced the U.S.-led effort at regime change in Syria in 2011. He demands to intervene in a sovereign Arab country, although his efforts at regime change have been stymied by Syrian Arab Army victories.

The Arabs and Iranians have also been at odds for years, not because of Iranian aggression (Iran has not invaded another country in three centuries) but due largely to the religious issue. The Saudi military budget is six times Iran’s. Both countries are intervening in others at this time; the Saudis in Yemen, Syria, Bahrain; Iran in Syria and Iraq.  It is doubtful that they would be doing so had the U.S. not wreaked havoc in the region since 2001.

“Let other people take care of it,” says Trump, as he bunkers down in the Oval Office calling his homies about the Stormy thing; tweeting about Rosanne Barr, the Wall, the Korea trade deal; handling family issues. Good, good—if this urge to withdraw spares the Syrian people more pain. But CNN predicts this will only encourage Erdogan to intervene, and he has his contradictions (and some points of unity) with Iran and Hizbollah, to say nothing of the Syrian regime which he once coddled but broke with suddenly in 2011. The Turkish foreign minister has predicted reconciliation with the Assad government. Is an Arab-Turkish conflict centering around Syrian Kurdistan in store?

What is the “it” to be taken care of (by others) here? The chaos imposed by the U.S.?

I am of course not recommending any further U.S. military presence in Syria (or anywhere outside the U.S.). I will be delighted by total withdrawal, soon. I’m happy Trump wants other people to handle “it,” (it presumably meaning all the unpleasantness inflicted by Obama and Clinton on Syria from 2011) which means allowing Russia and Iran to help the secular Baathist regime in Syria to regain control of the country. That would be far better than an ISIL or al-Qaeda regime, or than Iraq-style ongoing mayhem. And let us observe that Syria has been aligned with Russia and Iran for many years. They are nearby powers with interests in Syria. The only U.S. interests are domination, exploitation and the relentless effort to establish hegemony everywhere possible.

The pundits explode in indignation at the irresponsibility of Trump’s statement. Again, he did not consult with his advisors. Does he not know that the U.S. has to still fight ISIL? (Even though the Syrian government never asked for help in that effort, properly denounces the U.S. presence as aggression and a violation of international, ISIL is on the ropes and the real reason for an ongoing U.S. presence is neocon (Bolton)-style regime change?) Does he not know that Russia (which he strangely loves!) will gain from this? Does he not know that Iran will gain from this?

This statement (I will not call it a policy decision, because that’s not how things work at the White House these days) itself outrages those policy wonks and neocons and journalistic fools who have never processed the fact that the Iraq War was a colossal war crime and humanitarian catastrophe. How rash, how derelict, to let anybody else “handle it” in Syria!

How much more rash to push for regime change in Syria, through the merciless bombing John Bolton favors. This administration teeters between Trump’s “isolationist” instincts and the interventionist if not apocalyptic vision of some of his advisors. That media pundits should point him to the latter and treat their views as comparatively mainstream and maturely considered (as opposed to his own eyebrow-raising, unpredictable pronouncements to adoring crowds) is just something we have to live with, in these troubled times, until he’s toppled. And worse will follow, although not, perhaps, following their welcome departure, for the victims of U.S. imperialism in the Middle East.


NBC’s chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel bemoans the fact that the U.S. is no longer the sole superpower.

As though there being a lone superpower were ever good or normal. The ferocity of his voice reminds me of  North Korea’s Ri Chun Hee.  It drips with indignation at Trump’s failure to confront the enemies. He seems to want Trump to take care of it, to do the responsible thing.

No, no. Let Trump be Trump and just let others take care of absolutely everything else while he rests in his PJs watching Sean Hannity praise him.



Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu