The Deeper Dig: Peter Galbraith on the 'catastrophe' in Syria

Peter Galbraith
Peter Galbraith, center, was working with the Kurds in Syria before the White House announced that U.S. troops would withdraw from the region. Photo courtesy Peter Galbraith

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Peter Galbraith was shocked when he heard that the Trump administration would be withdrawing U.S. troops from the Kurdish region of northern Syria.

The former U.S. diplomat and two-term Windham County state senator has worked with Kurdish populations across the Middle East for decades. He had just returned to Vermont from northern Syria last week when the White House announced the withdrawal Sunday night.

Trump said he wanted to end the U.S. military's involvement in the "endless wars" being fought in the Middle East. But Galbraith said in an interview this week that he believes the president's motives were not clear.

By caving in to pressure from Turkish President Recep Erdogan, Trump was "in effect giving a green light to a Turkish invasion" of the Kurdish zone, Galbraith said. Strikes since Wednesday have claimed civilian lives and created chaos throughout the region, according to news reports.

The survival of the Kurdish people is at stake, Galbraith said. But the longer term consequences of the invasion Trump has allowed may be a prolonging of the Syrian civil war, a conflict that was winding down until this week's events. Galbraith worries about the unintended consequences of letting that conflict continue.

"It's a catastrophe for the Kurds," Galbraith said. "It's a catastrophe for all of Syria."

What kind of work have you been doing in Syria most recently? 

Since 2014, I've been going regularly to northeast Syria. That is the part that's controlled by the Kurds. And it's been in a variety of capacities, mostly related to mediation and negotiation. 

Initially, I went to try to mediate among Kurdish factions. This was sponsored by a British charity, then at the request of French President Hollande to mediate between the Syrian Kurds and the Iraqi Kurds, and more recently to help the Syrian Kurds think and prepare for possible negotiations with Damascus. 

There's been a secondary issue that's brought me there recently, and that is the fate of about 6,200 children of ISIS fighters. There are about 200 very young children who are the product of the rape of the younger Yazidi women by ISIS. And there are about 5,400 children who are in a religious, very difficult camp called al-Hol, which has 70,000 people and which is effectively run by ISIS. 

I've been following the reporting that's been coming out of that region in the past few days and to be honest, in some cases, struggling to understand the context around it. I wonder if you could help to explain: what was the status of that region before Sunday, before this announcement that U.S. troops were going to withdraw? 

If one thinks of the war in Syria, which is now in its eighth year, in fact, it was two separate wars. In the area west and south of the Euphrates River, about two thirds of Syria, it was a war between the Syrian government and a range of opposition groups which tend to be dominated by Islamists and extremists. And by about 18 months ago, the Syrian government had mostly won that war. There's still some ongoing areas of conflict. But the result is clear. 

In the area that’s east and north of the Euphrates, the Syrian Kurds — and this is the Kurdish part of the country — had been fighting against the Islamic State. And that war essentially concluded in March of 2019, when the last ISIS stronghold embargoes fell. And so since March, in essence, Syria has been divided along the Euphrates, between a Kurdish controlled northeast and a government controlled south and west, which had not been at conflict with each other.

But this whole area has always been under threat, not only from the Syrian government, but from Turkey, which sees the Kurds as a branch of the PKK — this is a Kurdish insurgency in Turkey that's been fighting the Turkish government since 1984. And it is true that some of the cadres from the PKK do hold prominent positions in the northeast Syria administration, but the northeast Syria administration is much more than that.

This announcement that came through on Sunday, that U.S. troops will be withdrawing from that region, how does that change things? What are the consequences of a decision like that?

The Syrian Kurds were the U.S. ally in the fight against the Islamic State. The U.S. got involved in 2014, when the Islamic State took over a large area of Iraq and a large area of Syria, and the Syrian army was unwilling or unable to fight them. The Iraqi army simply collapsed.

After the collapse of the Iraqi army, the only people in Iraq opposing the Islamic State were the Kurds in the north and east of Iraq, and the only people who are really fighting the Islamic State in Syria are the Kurds. 

The U.S. came to the assistance of the Kurds first with airstrikes in in the fall of 2014, and then dropping weapons, then inserting advisors. And so when Trump says that we helped them, yes, there's some truth to it. But then, the US persuaded the Kurds to not just to liberate and defend Kurdish areas, but to continue the battle into Arab areas, which is a huge part of the area they control like Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor. And in the course of essentially being the ground troops in the fight against the Islamic State, the Kurds lost more than 10,000 men and women killed in action. By contrast, the U.S. forces had around 10 casualties. 

I'm curious what you thought when you first heard about this announcement that came down on Sunday night.

I was shocked. Because it's a betrayal of an ally — an ally that we induced to get into the fight, and certainly to carry the fight on into Arab areas. And if you have any sense of decency, you don't do that to the ally. You don't do it to people who sacrifice so much and put everything on the line to be friends of the United States. 

But having seen Donald Trump in action, I think there's no ally that he wouldn't betray, and really no limit to his treachery. 

In making this announcement, he tried to make the argument that these wars that the U.S. has been fighting in the Middle East are these “endless wars.” What's wrong with that argument? What's wrong with using that as a justification for this kind of pull out?

Because the U.S. involvement in the Syria war is not an endless war. It's not Afghanistan, where more than 100,000 troops were deployed at its peak in 2009, and where the U.S. has been there for 18 years. It's not Iraq, which the U.S. invaded in 2003, again, maxing out with 150,000 troops, some of whom are still there. 

This is a war, a battle, that was carried on by the Kurds against the Islamic State, which is a terrorist organization that had killed Americans and staged all sorts of terrorist attacks in Europe. And the fighting was not done by Americans. It was done by the Syrian Kurds. 

What do you think the president's motivation is here?

I find it very difficult to understand Donald Trump's motivations. The call with Erdogan was set up not to discuss this issue, but to placate the Turkish President Recep Erdogan because Trump had not agreed to a bilateral meeting during the UN General Assembly. And in the course of the meeting, Erdogan made the case to Trump that the Kurds were terrorists, and that Turkey was willing to come in. It would fight ISIS and it would take over the ISIS prisoners. 

Trump, who hadn't prepared for the meeting, wasn't following his talking points, then agreed with Erdogan and in the end, the White House put out the statement that it did, saying that the United States was in effect giving a greenlight to a Turkish invasion.

What exactly is at stake here for the Kurds and for this region?

For the Kurds, what's at stake is survival. There are about 3 million Kurds in northeast Syria. Almost the entire population is literally right on the border with Turkey. So if you're in Qamishli as I was last week — it's the largest city. It's really a shared city with Nusaybin on the other side of the border. It's just that there's a wall in the middle of it, like Berlin in the old days. And that's true of Kobani, Amuda, one of the other cities where I spent some time. As I went around, you could just see the wall. 

If you're having an invasion and artillery and bombing and all that is going on right now — they are striking at places where hundreds of thousands or well over a million people live. Those people are fleeing their homes. They may never get back to them. Of course, some are being killed. And then everyone is talking about putting into this area two million Syrian Arab refugees who had fled western Syria and were now taking refuge in Turkey. So they would be, if you will, deported to northeast Syria. 

He said that he wants to build cities for them. But these would be cities where there are no jobs, where there are basically no services. And it's also quite likely that he would put them into the houses of Kurds who had who had run away, who had fled. And so this is really a demographic change in northeast Syria. 

It also — and this is one of the more catastrophic consequences — it's also likely to take the war in Syria, which was winding down, and enlarge it. As I said at the beginning, there were two wars, the Kurds against the Islamic State in the east, and the Syrian government against the opposition. Kurds had won in the east, the Syrian government in the west, but Turkey had backed the opponents of the Syrian government in the west. 

What they're now doing is sending in the Syrian Arab forces that they have sponsored, many of whom are Islamists and extremists. If they take over this whole area, the one third of Syria that the Kurds have controlled, then you're going to have a major military force backed by Turkey that will be at war with the rest of Syria. And so an eight-year war that has taken 300,000 lives, and which finally looked like was going to end, is now likely to be reignited. And who knows how long it's going to take. 

It's a catastrophe for the Kurds. It's a catastrophe for all of Syria. 

And that's all stemming from this decision by the president this past week? 

It is all a consequence of Donald Trump's decision to give a green light to the Turkish president to invade and to abandon allies that had stood by the United States.

Peter Galbraith with Yazidi families, who have survived a genocide perpetrated by ISIS.

I wonder if you could help me put this in a bit of historical context. I know the struggles that the Kurds have faced has gone back generations. How does this conflict relate to the history of that region?

Well, first one needs to understand, who are the Kurds? They are a national group, or an ethnic group, with their own language, Kurdish. They are the original inhabitants of that part of the Middle East.

In modern times, they've never had their own state. In fact, they often say the Kurds are the most numerous people in the world who do not have their own state. After the First World War, they had been promised by the Allies that they would have their own state. But instead, they ended up partitioned among Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran. And since they never wanted to be part of any of these countries, they've been in various times in rebellion against the countries where they were stuck. And the countries have responded with varying degrees of brutality. 

The most brutal case was Iraq, which culminated in the 1980s. Saddam Hussein's genocide against the Kurds, a genocide that involved extensive use of chemical weapons, the systematic destruction of every Kurdish village, and the deportation and killing up about 5% of the population. These were events that early in my career, I was an eyewitness to. 

But in Turkey, there was an insurrection that began in 1984 and continues to this day in southeast Turkey. The Syrian repression of the Kurds was more effective than the Turkish and the Iraqi in the sense that there were not uprisings. But when the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011, the Syrian government eventually pulled its forces out of the Northeast, the Kurdish area, so that they could fight in the West. And this gives the opportunity for the Kurds there to set up their own administration.

What Turkey, of course, fears is that the Kurds in northeast Syria will somehow attack attackers into Turkey or support the insurgents in Turkey. There's no evidence that they have done so. 

Some of this is simply politics by the Turkish president. He was losing popularity. And one way to regain popularity, at least in that part of the world, is to start a war. So that's exactly what he's done. 

How do we move forward from here? What do you believe happens next in this situation?

I'm not optimistic. I think that Turkey is going to proceed with its military operations. I think there'll be mass casualties among the Syrian Kurds’ civilian population. But a lot of Turkish soldiers are going to die as well. And that once Turkey takes over this area, it will bring in the Syrian groups that it has sponsored. And that these groups will then be fighting Assad, the Syrian government, and the war will simply continue for however long. No one knows. It could be a decade. 

One of the things that I've learned in a career that has very much been involved in dealing with conflict situations, with wars, is that they always have unintended consequences. It's not for us to sit and think, ‘well, there's a civil war in Syria,’ that continuing it's not going to affect us one way or another. Something happens that you don't predict. 

Who would have predicted back when Ronald Reagan started arming the Afghan freedom fighters, as they were called, the Mujahideen, against the Soviets — that 20 years later, those very same people would come to New York and Washington and kill 3,000 Americans. So who knows the unintended consequences of this. 

But the prospect now is for a many year war, and it will be horrific for the Syrian people. But it'll probably be bad for us too.

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Mike Dougherty

About Mike

Mike Dougherty is a senior editor at VTDigger leading the politics team. He is a DC-area native and studied journalism and music at New York University. Prior to joining VTDigger, Michael spent two years as a program coordinator for the Vermont Humanities Council. Before moving to Vermont in 2015, he spent seven years managing recording operations for the oral history nonprofit StoryCorps, assisted Magnum photographer Susan Meiselas, and contributed to the Brooklyn-based alt-weekly L Magazine.

Email: [email protected]

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