Trump is Eradicating ISIS the Smart Way, While Promoting Religious Freedom in Syria
But there is one more brave decision President Trump still needs to make.
I never thought I would see it: the U.S. is arming the Syrian Kurds. My colleagues and I lobby in Europe for protection of Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East. Our best allies on the ground have been the Syrian Kurds. They have fought most effectively of any group against ISIS, and protected the rights of Christians and freedom of religion for all. President Trump is right to recognize their efforts, and help them.
There IS a Safe Zone in Syria
The Syrian Kurds led in founding the Federation of Northern Syria, the first real “safe zone” in that tortured land. The Federation controls an area twice the size of Lebanon. The Federation offers freedom to women, Christians, Yezidis, and other minorities. It practices a multi-ethnic, bottom-up form of government. Women serve in its government and in its military. It prohibits forced marriage and child-marriage, two scourges women face throughout the region.
Freedom for women and freedom of religion, with a growing number of Syrian Kurds freely converting from Islam to Christianity. Right in the heart of the Middle East. That’s the Federation of Northern Syria. It’s the only natural U.S. ally in this conflict. The best hope for peace and freedom in Syria is a decentralized, Swiss-style solution, with the Federation as its model.
The Federation’s military wing, the Syrian Democratic Forces, is on the verge of liberating the major city of Raqqa from ISIS fighters. Under Obama, the U.S. gave the SDF some limited military aid, but only to its Arab units. Its Kurds and its Christians were pointedly excluded.
Why? For fear of offending Turkey. Turkey wants to see its al Qaeda-linked allies take over Syria. My Syrian Christian friends tell me that those militias have been ethnically cleansing Christians with almost the same ferocity as ISIS. The Turks also want to crush every last spark of autonomy for Kurds, whom they fiercely repress at home. Turkey’s commitment to crushing ISIS is also dubious. That country has made side-deals with ISIS, providing it much-needed cash in exchange for oil.
Why It Matters Who Defeats ISIS
Obama’s policy of appeasing the Turks at Syrians’ expense was cynical and self-defeating. How refreshing that President Trump and his team looked at the region with fresh eyes. Their decision to arm the Kurds alongside the Arabs of the SDF, and to guard Syrian Christians from Turkish attacks, was at once humane and strategically smart.
Imagine a home-grown militia that’s multi-ethnic, multi-religious, and even includes women fighters. That’s the Syrian Democratic Forces.
It also took guts. Most “experts” on foreign policy opposed Trump’s decision. Within days of the U.S. acting to protect the Federation from Turkish invasion, Turkey was hinting it might bomb American soldiers. Trump didn’t back down, and now it seems clear that he won’t. His courage could change the region, saving thousands of lives and giving both peace and freedom a chance.
Everyone says that ISIS must be crushed. But it’s equally important who defeats it. Will it be another Sunni Islamist militia (Turkey’s allies) which will just impose a different form of sharia? Will it be Assad’s brutal, secular thugs? Iranian proxies or even Russians?
Imagine, instead, if the force that crushes ISIS and ends its reign of terror is also a force for democracy, religious freedom, and equality for women. Imagine a home-grown militia that’s multi-ethnic, multi-religious, and even includes women fighters. That’s the Syrian Democratic Forces. Its victory would shake up the tyrants and theocrats all across the Middle East. It will help dry up support for terrorist groups like ISIS and al Qaeda. That’s the kind of hope which President Trump’s decision set free in the Middle East.
Trump Must Arm the Syrian Christians
There is just one more brave decision which President Trump still needs to make. Under Obama, the Syrian Christian self-defense militias were left deliberately disarmed. His appointees in the State Department explained this by saying that the Americans would be seen as “crusaders” if they supported the Christians in the SDF. To say that is not just absurd. It’s to buy into Islamist propaganda, which labels the Americans crusaders in any case. Not arming the Christians gives the Islamists what they want: Christians as weak and easy targets whom they can drive away. We have seen how devastating this was for the Christians in Iraq, when they were not supported in defending the Nineveh Plain. Do we really need to repeat that tragedy? That’s what my Iraqi Christian friends are asking me, even now.
Trump has still not reversed Obama’s policy of cruel discrimination against Christians. He needs to, for several reasons:
- This policy keeps the Syrian Christians weak. They’re dependent on borrowed weapons and ammunition, while fighting for their lives.
- It tells the whole region that the U.S. doesn’t really care what happens to Syrian Christians. That they’re as disposable as the Christians of Iraq, one million of whom were “cleansed” from their home country while U.S. troops looked on.
- This policy mocks the powerful reality we see in the Federation: That Muslims and Christians, Kurds and Arabs, Yazidis and Syriacs, can work together in peace. Remember that the Kurds and Arabs in the SDF want the U.S. to arm all their allies equally, including the Christians.
The American Way — Not a Myth
President Trump and Vice-President Pence have been very clear in their intention to support the Christians in the Middle East. Now they can deliver on that promise, while serving U.S. interests and promoting peace and freedom. There is no reason to give in to Islamist propaganda and old Obama-style thinking. The decision to include the Christians in the SDF will be a major change that really helps them. Christians in Iraq and Syria are asking me why the West leaves them out every time when it comes to self-defense. Why leave them weak and easy targets in the eyes of terrorists?
Including the Syriac Military Council in the support to the SDF will be proof to the Christians that they are not alone.
The U.S. is allied with the SDF. The Christians in it, organized in the Syriac Military Council, are therefore no rogue organization. There is no reason to leave them out. Including the Syriac Military Council in the support to the SDF will be proof to the Christians that they are not alone. Excluding them robs them of hope.
It’s a myth that the Middle East must choose between secular tyranny (i.e., Assad) and Islamist totalitarianism (ISIS, al Qaeda). There is a third way. In fact, since it’s based on freedom and people power, we might call it the “American way.”