When the Dust Settles, Will Trump’s Syria Pivot End Up Saving Syrian Christians?
Neither of us held back in criticizing President Trump’s shock decision to pull out U.S. advisors from Syria. That paved the way for Turkey and its al Qaeda mercenaries to bomb and invade our Kurdish allies and Syrian Christians. The Turks promptly started to do just that. Their open aim? Ethnically cleansing the region of Christians, Kurds, and anyone else not to al Qaeda’s liking. Indeed, the Turks began an operation just like they unleashed in Afrin, Syria, last spring.
The Kurdish leadership wisely chose to play its only card to stop that. By pulling out U.S. troops, Trump forced the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces to make a deal with Damascus. That is, with the legal, if brutal, government of Syria. Now, as the Washington Examiner reports, Russian soldiers have replaced Americans patrolling the Turkish/Syrian border. That’s a win for “America First,” and a campaign promise kept. It’s far better for Syrians than a Turkish-led genocide, and Russia is more committed to the long haul than the U.S. ever was.
A Beacon of Liberty, Perhaps Extinguished
The downside here is real. The best, most exciting thing to happen in the tragic Middle East region in decades? That was the rise of the Kurdish-led Federation of Northeast Syria. As Johannes de Jong reported here, that region was everything that a U.S.-occupied Iraq was supposed to become, but never did. That is, a beacon of religious freedom, rights for women, democratic governance and decentralized power. The only decent long-term outcome for Syria — or most nations in the region — would be reform along those lines. If Assad’s government in Damascus snuffs all that out, it’s a tragic loss for hundreds of millions across the region who might have worked for similar outcomes in their countries.
Will the Kurds have enough leverage to keep those hard-won liberties? That part’s unclear. If they do, then Christian churches will keep springing up among the Kurds, in the only island of real religious freedom outside Israel for thousands of miles. A flourishing, decentralized Kurdish canton inside Syria could still serve as a beacon to the region.
Who knows? Maybe the paralyzed government of Iraq will finally act on its own promises of decentralization. A big step forward would be granting autonomy to its hunted Christian minorities, the Assyrians/Chaldeans/Syriacs. They deserve their own militia and administration in the Nineveh Plains, which might draw back some of the 75 percent of Iraqi Christians who fled after the U.S. invasion unleashed jihad against them. Iraqi Kurds bear some of the blame for snuffing out Assyrian hopes for autonomy, my Iraqi Christian sources tell me. (It’s a devilishly complicated region!)
The Big Losers? Pro al Qaeda Neocons
Who’s the big loser here? Neoconservatives of the John McCain school. Remember that Senator McCain certified the “Free Syrian Army” as “moderate rebels,” when in fact they were linked to al Qaeda and dedicated to jihad. In 2016, the whole GOP foreign policy establishment, and all but three presidential candidates (Paul, Cruz, and Trump) parroted McCain’s endorsement. They demanded that the U.S. threaten to shoot down Russian planes to help al Qaeda take Damascus.
Now the same senators (Graham and Rubio) are demanding that the U.S. shoot down Turkish planes to stop McCain’s “moderate rebels” from taking places like Manbij. In other words, Trump has maneuvered them into actually standing up to al Qaeda, and for the lives of Syrian Christians. Who said that Trump can’t play people like fiddles?
Congress Warn Turkey: NATO Won’t Fight in Your Jihad
Now the U.S. Congress is fully awake to the dangers posed by Turkey and its al Qaeda allies. Both parties are signing on to stern economic sanctions, which Trump has promised to sign. There’s one more detail that really needs addressing. Now that Russia and Syria are guaranteeing the Kurds’ safety, there’s real chance of a military clash between those nations and Turkey. The center-right EU group Sallux, which represents the European Christian Political Movement, is warning Europe and the U.S. what this could lead to.
Namely, the same Turkish government attempting genocide in Syria now via the al Qaeda militia the Free Syria Army might invoke the NATO treaty to demand that the U.S. and other NATO countries fight on its side against Russia and Syria. Sallux called on European parliaments and the U.S. Congress to make clear that we won’t go to war to help Turkey’s jihad prevail in Syria.
Sacrificing Real, Live Christians for Theoretical Benefits to Israel
We have to be blunt here. The neocon interventionist position on Syria in 2016 was morally disgraceful. The establishment right, like the Obama left, insisted that we must overthrow Assad’s government in Damascus at all costs. That included the total destruction of the ancient Syrian Christian communities protected (if controlled) by Assad’s regime, and those allied with the Kurds.
In other words, they wanted to do to Syria what their faction had done to Iraq: The U.S. should destroy a secular Arab regime opposed to Israel, no matter the price for local Christians. Three-quarters of Iraqi Christians were ethnically cleansed while U.S. forces looked on and did nothing. Neither the Bush nor the Obama administration cared what happened to them. Meanwhile, local Christians got treated as “honorary Westerners” by any angry Muslim looking for a scapegoat.
In 2016, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon put this position bluntly. He said that he would prefer even ISIS take over all Syria, than it remain allied to Iran. As the Washington Post reported:
Ya’alon reasoned that Iran had greater capabilities than the Islamic State and remained the biggest threat for Israel. He argued that if Syria were to fall to one of the two powers, he would prefer it were the Islamic State rather than Iran or Iran-backed groups. “We believe ISIS will be eventually defeated territorially after the blows it has been suffering, and in light of the attacks on its oil reserves,” he told the conference, according to Ynetnews.
There’s nothing wrong with an Israeli government official looking out for Israel First. But American Christians have a duty to balance our affection for that country against the lives of our fellow Christians. How many Christians are we willing to abandon to slaughter and rape, if it increases Israeli security by five or ten percent?
Christians Finally Serving the Weakest Among Us
We’re proud to say that The Stream played a real part in waking U.S. Christians up to this question. It’s to the credit of men like Franklin Graham, Mike Huckabee, Pat Robertson, and our own James Robison that this time, on Syria, U.S. Christians were neither silent nor apathetic.
Trump’s pullout in Syria forced the Kurds to the negotiating table. It forced American neocons to denounce al Qaeda, Turkey, and jihad. If the U.S. remains in eastern Syria, as seems likely, Trump will have leverage to keep Assad from revoking the liberties of Kurds and Syrian Christians. So maybe, just maybe, the president was crazy like a fox.
What Trump Hath Wrought
It’s only fair to the president to admit it. Trump broke a deadlocked situation that could have required U.S. micromanagement for decades. He exposed the jihadist nature of the Free Syrian Army and Turkey’s regime. (Remember that Erdogan openly wants to Islamicize Europe, and threatened to dump 3.6 million more migrants on the EU for criticizing his Syrian jihad.) If the U.S. works closely with Russia, it might even peel Syria off from its total dependence on Iran. The neocons in Congress are now opposing jihad, instead of cheering it on. There are rumors that the U.S. might even withdraw its nuclear missiles from Turkey, where essentially they serve as hostages. Our frenemy Turkey might be on its way out of NATO as well as the EU. Or its generals might see the virtue of removing Erdogan from power, to prevent that.
Not bad, for a foreign policy amateur, Mr. President. Not bad.
Jason Jones and John Zmirak are co-authors of the 2014 book The Race to Save Our Century.