The Current

Trump's withdrawal from Syria is a 'big political fault,' Bernard-Henri Lévy warns

U.S. President Donald Trump's withdrawal from Syria is a "big political fault," which has created a "vacuum" for a new, benevolent empire of five anti-democratic nations to take control, a prominent French philosopher argues.

U.S. departure is a 'betrayal' of the Kurds and leaves power 'vacuum,' French philosopher says in new book

In mid-December, President Donald Trump started withdrawing troops from Syria as the U.S. eased its campaign to retake territory once held by ISIS in Iraq and Syria. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
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U.S. President Donald Trump's withdrawal from Syria is a "big political fault," which has created a "vacuum" for a new, benevolent empire of five anti-democratic nations to take control, a prominent French philosopher argues.

Bernard-Henri Lévy, also known as BHL, stood as a witness on the front lines of the Kurds' fight against the Islamic State since the incursion in Iraq and Syria in 2014, which resulted in the capture of vast swaths of territory.

He visited Erbil, Iraq, many times — a northeastern city, which is the capital of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region and stronghold of the Peshmerga. Lévy believes the world owes an awful lot to the Kurds for their role in beating back ISIS. 

"Trump betrayed, abandoned, delivered on a silver plate, our best allies to the bad guys," Lévy told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti from New York City. 

French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy recently published 'The Empire and the Five Kings,' which he says was inspired by the conflict he witnessed in Erbil, Iraq. (Valery Hache/AFP/Getty Images)

While there has been no full-scale violence in Iraq since ISIS suffered a series of defeats in 2017, U.S.-led coalition forces train and advise Kurdish Peshmerga fighters still waging a campaign against the militant group.

In mid-December, Trump abruptly ordered to pull thousands of U.S. troops out of neighbouring Syria.

The move has drawn widespread criticism from allies who feared Trump's policy could have dire implications on international stability. 

Meanwhile, Trump has made a case for his decision. He vowed during a visit to Iraq late last year that the withdrawal will be slow and co-ordinated with Turkey. 

"We want peace," he said. "Our presence in Syria was not open ended and it was never intended to be."

'Five kings' fill void left by U.S.

Lévy condemned Trump's move in his most recent book, The Empire and the Five Kings. He asserted the fight is far from over and the withdrawal leaves the Kurds in the lurch — now facing a triple threat from Turkey, the Syrian government and ISIS.  

The president "abandoned" the Kurds in the face of Turkish threats of a military assault, he pointed out, and as a result upended decades of American policy in the Middle East. 

"As soon as America thought that the job was done, … when Trump believed that the war was over, he said, 'OK guys, now go to hell or go wherever you want, we retreat and we take shelter behind our fortress,'" he told Tremonti.

Kurdish fighters from the People's Protection Units (YPG) run across a street in Raqqa, Syria in 2017. (Goran Tomasevic/Reuters)

The book also claims that Trump's decision is a "betrayal" of the U.S.'s traditional role as a world leader, which Lévy believes has opened the door for other non-democratic and non-Liberal nations — China, Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey — which he calls the "five kings," to fill the void and exploit the geopolitical situation.

"The message was: go on, move on, proceed. The stage is yours," he said.  

Here is part of Lévy's conversation with Tremonti:

You write in Erbil, 'I felt the icy breath of the evil spirit of the world.' What did you mean by that?

I saw in Erbil, there [are] moments like these in the life of a man or a woman where suddenly in a little stage, you see like an image of the world, a moment of revelation.

I had the revelation of this book ... of the new geopolitical situation in Erbil. I understood in one day when I saw these brave girls abandoned by America. I saw that we were entering — we, all of us, Canadian, French, European, Americans — [into] a new world.

Displaced people who fled an invasion of ISIS militants in northern Iraq in 2016 receive aid in nearby Erbil. (Alaa Al-Marjani/Reuters)

A new world characterized by two rules. Number one: United States of America forgets its role, its value, its responsibility. Number two: five powers, which I call five kings, take advantage of this vacuum, of this emptiness created by America in its retreat to advance, to push that advantage, and to grow and to try to rebuild at our expense, a sort of new empire.

And this for me, is the world in which we entered.

The West that retreats and the five kings — Iran, Turkey of Erdogan, China, Russia, Saudi Arabia — who push their advantage against their own people, of course, and against us because they are our enemies.

First of all, how has the United States treated the Kurdish fighters as its allies in the fight against ISIS?

During the fight against ISIS, America was on their side helping them. I [was] a testimony for that. … I was on the frontline. I shared the daily life of these Kurdish fighters, and I saw that they were the good allies of America and that America was their good ally.

The West continuously betrays, since always, his allies and friends.- Bernard-Henry Lévy

But as soon as America thought that the job was done, … when Trump believed that the war was over, he said, 'OK guys, now go to hell or go wherever you want. We retreat and we take shelter behind our fortress.'

So this is what happened. … We were on their side ... [until] America thought that she did not need them any longer. She betrayed. And for me this is not only heartbreaking … it is a moral, huge mistake and a big political fault.

And you know, we can't forget that Canada ended its military's support for the Kurds a couple of years ago after pressure from Iraq, which is opposed to them getting an independent state.

It is a shame. … We have partnership of all countries in the world, but partnership does not mean to accept a compromise, or to accept blackmail, or to accept a unique attitude.

You did it. America did it. Europe did it. It's in our worst interest.

We have the shame, as Churchill would have said, that these will not end the war. We will have the shame and the terrorism if we accept the low of these terrorists.

Canadian special forces soldiers, left and right, speak with Kurdish Peshmerga fighters at an observation post in northern Iraq back in February 2017. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

Why is it that the West continuously betrays the Kurds as allies?

The West continuously betrays, since always, his allies and friends.

The West betrayed the Armenians. The West betrayed, not his allies, but his core: the Jews. ... The Europeans of Central Europe and of Eastern Europe, until Ronald Reagan and John Paul II, were abandoned. … The West has a habit, which is to abandon the best of his allies, of his friends, and some times of himself. It is not a new story.

The Kurds are only the last in a long list of betrayals.

Kurdish fighters during clashes with Islamic State militants on the outskirts of Hasakeh, Syria in June 2015. (Uygar Onder Simsek/AFP/Getty Images)

The West is a great thing. I defend the West. I defend the values of Europe and of the West in general. All my book is devoted to that, but there is also a dark side … which is this habit of betrayal.

What message do you think President Trump sent to autocrats and anti-democratic movements around the world?

The message was: go on, move on, proceed. The stage is yours. The floor is yours. ... This is what he said to Erdogan in Syria. This is what he said to Iran in Iraq. This is what he says to Putin in the Baltic States when he says that the rules of engagement of America inside the NATO agreement are not automatic. 

This floor is yours. 

This is the message of Trump. 

Lévy claims the U.S.'s retreat is enabling Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left, to advance their political agendas. (Sergei Chirikov/AFP/Getty Images)

You know, there are many who would argue that the United States has caused a lot of damage in the world by intervening in foreign conflicts ... and stepping into other nations, that the U.S. should not be the world's policeman. What do you say to them?

I can say to them, as a French man and a Jew, that I would not be born. I would not exist if America had not involved in the affairs of Europe in 1944. ... So, of course America [made] some mistakes, but globally ... I believe that America has been more a good cop than a bad cop. That America has fought for democracy more than the rest.    

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.


Written by Amara McLaughlin. With files from Thompson Reuters. Interview produced by Howard Goldenthal. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.