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The History Briefing on Syria and the Kurds: How Historians Have Covered this Top Story

Last month, the White House announced a full withdrawal of American troops from Northern Syria, blindsiding the public and U.S. officials alike. As journalists report on the resulting chaos—Turkey invaded Syria and Kurdish forces have allied with Russia—historians helped the public understand why this all unfolded and what it means for the future of the region and its people.

President Trump justified his removal of American forces from Syria by claiming that the Kurds were historically bad allies. On an October 9 press conference, Trump stated the Kurds “didn’t help us in the Second World War. They didn’t help us with Normandy.” In a separate press conference, Trump claimed “One historian said [the Kurds and Turkey have] been fighting for hundreds of years.” Trump believes these conflicts are “not the kind of things that you settle the way that we would like to see it settled.”

In a Washington Post op ed, Sarah Wagner, an associate professor of anthropology at George Washington University, criticized Trump’s statement that the Kurds did not aid American troops in World War II. For Wagner, US Presidents often reference military casualties to instill the idea that the United States is “a nation worth dying for” and to bolster nationalism. Referencing military sacrifice can recast history, legitimize a policy decision, or chart a future course for the country. Wagner analyzed President Ronald Reagan’s “Boys of Pointe du Hoc speech” at the 40th anniversary of D-Day. Delivered a week after the burial of the Vietnam War unknown soldiers in Arlington National Cemetery, Reagan called for the restoration of “moral order to the world” and connected the military sacrifice of Vietnam and Normandy. The public and press hailed Reagan’s speech for helping to heal the cultural wounds of the Vietnam War. Wagner argues Trump is abusing the emotional power of Normandy to deny the Kurdish people needed aid. Overall, a President can use history to intentionally distract the public from current issues in order to reinforce future policy for the U.S.

Mustafa Akyol, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, dissected the President's claim that Turkey and Syria have fought for hundreds of years in an op ed for the New York Times. In the early 16th century, the Kurds were caught in the middle of a war between the Ottoman Empire and the Shiite Safavid Empire of Persia. The Kurds eventually chose to side with the Ottomans and for the next four centuries, the Kurds lived amongst Turks, Arabs, Bosnians, Armenians, Greeks and Jews. After the Ottoman Empire was dissolved after World War I, Turkish leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk solidified the nation-state of the Turkish republic in 1923. While the Ottoman empire was a multiethnic empire, Turkey promoted a narrow nationalism that excluded groups such as the Kurds. The Kurds’ protests of such discrimination were violently suppressed by Turkey. Based on this history, Akyol believes a solution to the continued conflict can only be reached if Turkey adopts respect for the Kurds and all citizens.

Other historians contextualized the history of the United States abandoning the Kurds. Derek Chollet, the executive vice president of the German Marshall Fund, along with Itai Barsade, a program assistant at the German Marshall Fund, argue in a recent Washington Post op ed that the U.S. has previously faced international criticism for worsening a Kurdish humanitarian crisis. In April 1991, Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi military encroached into a Kurdish region. The U.S. had just abandoned the region after successfully ousting Hussein from Kuwait through an air-bombing raid. German leader Helmut Kohl called upon U.S. President George H.W. Bush to come to the assistance of the Kurds. After international pressure, Bush issued supply drops from the Air Force to the Kurds and condemned Iraq in the United Nations. Chollet and Barsade argue that the U.S. must now recognize its mistake and protect its security interests and alleviate Kurdish suffering.

Finally, Charles Thépaut, a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, discussed the recent history of U.S. involvement in Syria in  The Hill. Last spring, The U.S. committed less than 2,000 troops to Syria in 2015 tasked specifically for counterterrorism. As part of a global coalition, counterterrorism efforts successfully took back territories previously seized by ISIS. American support boosted security in the region. Now, Thépaut worries Europe cannot bear the burden of stabilizing the region alone. Counterterrorism will be increasingly difficult without the U.S. present. U.S. troops in northern Syria would be a “a limited and extremely effective investment.”