The trials of betrayal

The Kurds feel betrayed by Trump, who may discover morality bites

Displaced Kurds stuck at a border after a Turkish offensive in northeastern Syria, wait to try cross to the Iraqi side, at the Semalka crossing, next Derik city, Syria, October 21, 2019 (photo credit: REUTERS/MUHAMMAD HAMED)
Displaced Kurds stuck at a border after a Turkish offensive in northeastern Syria, wait to try cross to the Iraqi side, at the Semalka crossing, next Derik city, Syria, October 21, 2019
‘Everything we have done in the past five years in our fight against ISIS was destroyed with the change in US strategy,” said Hediye Yusuf, a Kurdish woman, the former co-president of the Executive Council of Rojava.
In her voice, concerns about the future loom large, larger perhaps than the pain of betrayal in the wake of US President Donald Trump’s “phone-jerk” decision to forsake Syrian Kurds to an impending Turkish attack.
Beyond Trump’s idiosyncrasies, this might not have been such a big surprise. After all, if political emotions need testimonials, few are better qualified to speak of the scars of betrayal than the Kurds. “A century of betrayal” they may label their modern history. The establishment of Kurdistan, pledged in the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres, has remained an epitome of a geopolitical mission impossible, but one the Kurds themselves have never completely abandoned.
Rojava has been the most recent, and most inspiring, attempt to realize this political dream, born of the harsh reality of war-torn Syria.
Its name is revealing. Rojava, “the west” in Kurdish, designates the western part of forestalled Kurdistan. But recognizing the multiethnic character of the region, its government changed the region’s name to the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria.
In the process, Rojava presented not merely a practical, but a moral, rebuttal to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Rojava has arguably turned into an exceptional experiment in “direct democracy, ecological sustainability and ethnic inclusivity, where women have veto powers on new legislation and share all institutional positions with men,” as Rahila Gupta writes. No wonder, perhaps, that Trump, Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan saw Rojava as potential prey to their machismo instincts.
“The world has sold us out again,” Kurds have argued in recent days. “Trump is a businessman who deals with the blood of nations.”
Trump’s abandonment of Rojava might be the most flagrant betrayal the Kurds have known, given that they have lost nearly 11,000 soldiers so far, standing in for American “boots on the ground.” The Syrian Democratic Forces, led by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), have been invaluable throughout the war, most recently providing key intel for the killing of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who was killed on Turkey’s doorstep on October 27.
Fear of Turkey, not ISIS, dominates Kurdish discourse these days. Amjed Osman, a representative of the Syrian Democratic Council, the SDF’s political wing, told us. “Turkey wants to eradicate Kurds in the region. It will drive people out of their homes and their land in the millions.” But it is not just about the Kurds: “We are sure that Turkey’s threat will create a crisis in the region, home to five million people – Yazidis, Christians, Kurds, Arabs. The Christians here have experienced what it means to live under Turkish-backed jihadist groups, the Yazidis know what it means. A clear and serious response is needed from the international community to bring an end to this.”
Many would deem Osman’s plea as recklessly naive. Indeed, Trump’s callous move seems to echo a simple truth we presume about politics: it is all about power, and might makes right.
SAGE WORDS are always handy, especially coming from Thucydides, narrating the Athenians’ worldview: “Right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”
In politics, there is no right and wrong, just how things are, indeed, “must” be.
Still, a more attentive translation of Thucydides, as Mary Beard pointed out, might be: “The powerful extort what they can, and the weak comply.” The “must” is gone, and what the strong do may be morally wrong. It may even be self-damaging, as Thucydides himself suggests, appending the Athenians’ amoral conceit with their follow-up expedition to Sicily, a disaster that effectively sealed their defeat by Sparta.
Trump might require a similar lesson in humility. Tellingly, of all his indignities, abandoning the Kurds cost Trump the harshest criticism from his Republican allies, some of them veterans, who justly value comradeship over their commander in chief.
By the end of the day, political betrayal affirms what it refutes: Seemingly, betrayal shows there is no morality in politics, but the reactions to it prove the exact opposite – that morality matters. Betrayal is experienced as an acute breach of trust and resonates morally not only with the outrage of its victims, but also with the guilt of the perpetrators. Betrayal thus puts a mirror before us: Are we truly so calculative that we see others as mere means to (our own) end? People – politicians, too – may go through great lengths to prove otherwise.
But while the future of Rojava is still in the hands of powerful politicians, the Kurds, especially those who made Rojava, will equally face the choice of meeting the challenge of post-betrayal.
“For eight years we have been slaughtered, and the [Syrian] regime never spoke out,” said Beritan, a Kurdish woman from Rojava. “We lost a lot of lives to defend this place. We gave blood, we have lived in exile, we have struggled. In order that all our efforts do not get wasted, we should keep our autonomy alive.”
And the rest of the world should take responsibility.
Uriel Abulof is an Israel Institute visiting professor at Cornell University’s department of government, a senior lecturer at Tel Aviv University, and a research fellow at Princeton University, where he leads the edX HOPE project. Dilan Okcuoglu is a postdoc researcher and visiting fellow at Cornell University, and an expert on Kurdish-Turkish relations.