With President Donald Trump in essence abandoning former Kurdish allies in northern Syria who helped the U.S. beat back ISIS over the last half decade, some Republican lawmakers who served in the military and outside advocacy groups are divided whether the policy could damage the president’s support among current and former service members, which has remained high throughout his administration.
Despite the U.S. military and Kurds working hand-in-hand on military operations in the Middle East for more than two decades, Trump told reporters in the Oval Office on Wednesday that the Kurds are “no angels,” and deemed his move to withdraw U.S. personnel who had served as a buffer between them and Turkish forces “strategically brilliant.”
A handful of House Republicans who served alongside Kurdish fighting cells in Iraq and Syria hammered the administration’s abrupt pivot in its Syrian strategy, claiming that he has abandoned a U.S. ally.
“To see this again — leaving an ally behind, abandoning people that we frankly told that we were going to be with — it’s disheartening and depressing. Frankly it’s weak,” Rep. Adam Kinzinger, who flew surveillance missions in Iraq in the mid 2000s, said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday.
The Illinois Republican questioned whether Trump’s withdrawal from northern Syria would reflect poorly on his 2016 campaign promise to eradicate ISIS and stabilize the region.
“I don’t see how [the administration’s strategy shift in Syria] follows through on the president’s promise, his biggest promise in the campaign, to defeat ISIS. Because I think it’s going to resurge,” Kinzinger said.
Trump has remained popular throughout his administration among active duty service members and veterans. Fifty-seven percent of military veterans said they approved of the job Trump was doing as commander in chief, compared to just 41 percent who disapproved a Pew Research Center poll conducted in May and June found. Nine in 10 Republican veterans in the survey said they supported Trump.
The Trump administration’s alienation of its longtime Kurdish allies could complicate that support, however.
Delton Daigle, a researcher at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government, found in a poll released in January that active U.S. service members and veterans feel intense loyalty toward comrades in arms.
For example, 87 percent of the active service members and veterans who Daigle surveyed said that noncitizen U.S. military personnel and their families should be immune from deportation.
“This kind of speaks to the idea, to me at least, that if someone is willing to take up arms on your side, that you’re also going to want to protect them,” Daigle said.
While he has not conducted research among service members and veterans on support for Kurdish allies specifically, Daigle believes the deportation issue is a “good proxy” to gauge how U.S. military personnel feel about protecting their comrades and allies — including Kurds in the Middle East.
“From that perspective, would [the administration’s new policy in Syria] hurt Trump politically? I absolutely think it has the potential to do that,” he said.
While Trump degraded Kurdish fighters this week, Republican lawmakers who fought alongside Kurds in Iraq and Syria contradicted the president, defending them as some of the most reliable and effective U.S. allies in the region over decades.
“Let me be clear on the Kurds: Aside from Israel, they’re our best ally in the Middle East,” said Rep. Michael Waltz, a former Green Beret who served with Kurds in Syria.
“They have been fighting shoulder to shoulder — not in a support role, an actual fighting role — with us for decades. I think we need to recognize that, and I think the American people need to appreciate that,” the Florida Republican said.
The Kurds were “the one group you could have behind you and not worry about your back,” Rep. Don Bacon, who fought alongside Kurdish allies during the war in Iraq in the early 2000s, told CQ Roll Call on Wednesday.
“They were our best folks on the ground of the indigenous folks out there,” Bacon said, adding that they had been “loyal’ to their U.S. comrades.
When asked whether Trump’s Syria withdrawal would negatively impact his political standing among active service members and veterans, both Waltz and Bacon said they have spoken with numerous people on the ground in Syria who were “hurt” and “angered” and by the administration’s shift, but that the reaction was also “mixed.”
“I’ve heard from some that they’re angry about what happened with the Kurds,” Bacon said. “But others, too, who’ve been there, they don’t want to be in Syria because they think, ‘How can we be in Syria along with all these other places in the world?’”
Troops and veterans have long expressed an eagerness to see the U.S. ease troops out of the Middle East, with 84 percent of those surveyed in Daigle’s poll from January saying the occupations of both Iraq and Afghanistan have been going on too long.
Some veteran groups have defended Trump’s decision to pull U.S. troops back from northern Syria.
“Simply put, it is not in America’s interest to have a military presence on the Syria-Turkey border,” Dan Caldwell, senior adviser for Concerned Veterans for America, a conservative veterans political group, said in a statement this week.
“Prolonging our presence in Syria only risks pulling the U.S. further into long-running conflicts in the region while not making Americans any safer or the country more secure,” Caldwell said.