Bolton's book and why Trump betrayed the Kurds

We finally know why Trump betrayed the Kurds, thanks to Bolton
5 min read
23 Jun, 2020
Comment: Bolton's book shines a light on President Trump's crass dismissal of Kurdish sacrifices, writes Paul Iddon.
John Bolton’s memoir, 'The Room Where It Happened' officially came out this week [Getty]
US President Donald Trump's dismissal of the Kurdish people, suggesting they are unreliable or even cowardly allies, is reprehensible in light of the sacrifices Kurds made in the last six years in the fight against the Islamic State (IS). 

According to former US National Security Advisor John Bolton's new book, The Room Where It Happened, Trump had this to say: "I don't want to stay at all. I don't like the Kurds. They ran from the Iraqis, they ran from the Turks, the only time they don't run is when we're bombing all around them with F-18s." 

The two incidents Trump refers to were the October 2017 Iraqi military takeover of the disputed Kirkuk region from the Kurdish Peshmerga, and the Turkish incursions against Syrian Kurds in Afrin in early 2018 and northeast Syria in October 2019.

In both instances, the Trump administration did little to deter or even dissuade either Iraq or Turkey from attacking key US allies in the fight against IS.

Trump's assertion that "the only time they don't run is when we're bombing all around them with F-18s" is particularly offensive. For one, no military force in the world would readily put their troops in harm's way unless it was first capable of giving them air support. The United States, in particular, has always striven to use its advantages in air power to overwhelm its adversaries and lessen any potential US troop casualties. 

Trump's assertion that 'the only time they don't run is when we're bombing all around them with F-18s' is particularly offensive

When its war against IS began, the US hoped it could rely overwhelmingly on air power to, in President Obama's words, "degrade and destroy" IS' self-styled caliphate without having to put any "boots on the ground." Thanks in large part to the Kurds of Iraq and Syria, the US only had to put a few of its troops in harm's way and, as a result, lost only a dozen personnel throughout the entire campaign to destroy the caliphate that spanned swathes of Iraqi and Syrian territory at its peak. 

To roll back and ultimately destroy the caliphate, Syrian Kurdish-led forces lost an estimated 11,000 men and women, while at least 1,700 Iraqi Peshmerga were killed when holding the line against the marauding group - very significant numbers considering their size.

US-led airpower was undoubtedly a massive help in allowing the Kurds to defend their land and eventually go on the offensive. Nevertheless, US-led air power on its own without an ally on the ground would unlikely have made a serious dent in the caliphate. 

When the US began its air campaign against IS in Syria in September 2014, they initially did not ally with the Syrian Kurds. As a result, US jets flew over the Syrian desert and barely found any clear targets to bomb. 

Then, when IS launched its infamous siege on the Kurdish border town of Kobani, US warplanes had a rich target list and were finally able to afflict casualties on the group. At that time, 75 percent of US airstrikes against IS in Syria were carried out over Kobani. 

Read more: Worse than 1975: Trump's cynical betrayal of the Kurds

This led to the establishment of the alliance with these Kurds, who later established the multi-ethnic Syrian Democratic Forces that went on the offensive and routed IS from its de-facto capital Raqqa, in October 2017. 

Kurdish-led forces were so trusted by the US military that they even guided in many of the airstrikes that took out key IS targets and were the main force to secure territory seized from that group. Without the help of the Kurds, the US would have had to commit many more combat troops and would inevitably have suffered far more casualties. 

US troops readily acknowledged the tremendous value of their Kurdish allies. They were disgusted by actions of their commander-in-chief, even expressing rare dissent when Trump pulled back US troops from the Syrian border in October 2019, opening the way for a destructive Turkish assault against the Kurds. 

"They trust us and we broke that trust. It's a stain on the American conscience," one Army officer said of Trump's action. "I'm ashamed," said another. 

Despite the Trump administration's failure to adequately denounce the Iraqi and Turkish attacks against the Kurds, the Kurds remain reliable allies of the US. They will likely continue to be after this administration. 

While Bolton's claims should undoubtedly be taken with a grain of salt, the comment he attributes to Trump certainly sounds like something characteristically ignorant and sinister the president would say, and is in line with his dismissal of Kurds in recent years. 

At a press conference in 2018 with a Kurdish journalist, Rahim Rashidi, Trump endearingly described the Kurds as "great" US allies. "They fought with us," he said. "They died with us." 

Then, after the US' scandalously mismanaged pullback from the Syrian border last October, Trump perversely dismissed the Kurds by declaring, "They didn't help us in the Second World War. They didn't help us with Normandy for example." 

Some Iraqi Kurds were initially quite enamoured by Trump. I remember when it was not uncommon to hear Kurds in Erbil during the presidential election profess their enthusiasm about a potential Trump presidency. Many reasoned that his unconventional attitude might translate into US support for Kurdish statehood.

Their hopes were utterly dashed less than a year into the Trump presidency after their independence referendum and the loss of Kirkuk, and their enthusiasm for Trump concurrently waned.

In light of his odious record, Trump's comment about the Kurds in Bolton's book is most likely true, and marks yet another shameful betrayal of loyal allies

Even during the election, there were some early red flags. For example, Trump seemingly dismissed the Halabja gas attack that killed 5,000 Kurds in one day, by declaring that when "Saddam throws a little gas, everyone goes crazy." 

In light of his odious record, Trump's comment about the Kurds in Bolton's book is most likely true, and marks yet another shameful betrayal of loyal allies and a crass dismissal of their sacrifices.

Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.

Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.