Written by Jacey Fortin
President Donald Trump drew an odd historical parallel this week as he defended his decision to pull US support from allied Kurdish fighters in northern Syria, leaving them vulnerable to a Turkish offensive that began Wednesday.
“They’re fighting for their land,” Trump said of the Kurds on Wednesday. “And as somebody wrote in a very, very powerful article today, they didn’t help us in the Second World War. They didn’t help us with Normandy, as an example.”
His words came as Turkey began an air and ground offensive against Kurdish fighters in northern Syria. So far, more than a dozen Kurdish fighters have been reported killed.
Where did that comment come from?
After the White House announced Sunday that US troops would not defend Kurdish fighters in northern Syria from a Turkish military operation, Trump faced strident criticism — including from his Republican allies in Congress and US military leaders. The Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-led militia in northeastern Syria, have been a crucial ally to the United States in the fight against the Islamic State.
Trump was discussing the issue in front of reporters Wednesday when he invoked World War II history. The White House did not immediately respond to questions about why Normandy came up, or which article the president was referring to.
But one possibility made the rounds on social media by Wednesday evening: a Tuesday opinion piece by Kurt Schlichter, a conservative writer and commentator.
“The Kurds helped destroy ISIS, true,” Schlichter wrote, using an alternate name for the Islamic State group.
“It’s also true that the Kurds would have fought ISIS anyway, since the psycho caliphate was right next door,” he added. “Let’s be honest — the Kurds didn’t show up for us at Normandy or Inchon or Khe Sanh or Kandahar. The Syrian Kurds allied with us in their homeland because we shared a common interest in wiping out the head-lopping freak show that was ISIS.”
Did Kurds fight in World War II?
It is unclear whether any Kurds were at the Normandy landings, but there is evidence that some of them fought on the side of the Allied forces during World War II.
Some background: The Kurds, despite being the fourth-largest ethnic group in the Middle East, are a stateless and often marginalized people whose homeland stretches across Turkey, Syria, Iran, Iraq and Armenia. After World War I, the Allies’ negotiations with representatives of the defeated Ottoman Empire initially involved provisions for an autonomous Kurdistan. But that was abandoned by the ratification of the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923. Multiple attempts at greater autonomy or nationhood since then have been suppressed or quashed.
Some of the Kurds who had been pushed out of the Ottoman Empire and Turkey landed in the Soviet Union, said Mutlu Civiroglu, a Kurdish affairs analyst in Washington. So when World War II began, many fought with the Soviets on the side of the Allies. But they were difficult to track because they did not fight under a Kurdish flag.
“They didn’t have a country,” Civiroglu said. “They didn’t have a navy. They didn’t have anything on their own. But individually, many people came forward.”
Evidence of this has survived in folk songs and books that pay tribute to Kurds who fought in World War II, Civiroglu said. He also noted that Samand Aliyevich Siabandov — a member of the Yazidis, a Kurdish-speaking religious minority — was a well-known Soviet fighter who was lauded in the English-language Russian newspaper Moscow News in 1946.
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What did people make of Trump’s remark?
Supporters of the president seemed to avoid wading into his statement about Kurds in Normandy, but many have applauded his efforts to draw down the US presence in Syria as a step toward stopping endless wars. Others argued that abandoning allies in the region would only allow for more violence and embolden rivals.
Critics of Trump’s comments Wednesday argued that World War II combatant status was a bizarre subject to invoke, especially since the Kurds were — and are — stateless and not a monolith. And in any case, the United States today is friendly with Germany, Japan and Italy, the main Axis powers during World War II.
Others questioned whether any member of the Trump family had fought for the United States during World War II and noted that during the Vietnam War, the president received five draft deferments.