“We have no friends but the mountains” goes an old Kurdish saying, and so it has proved to be again in October. The Trump administration pulled most of the US troops out of Syria, drawing criticism from many who say the move leaves the Kurds vulnerable to attack by Turkish forces. This attack took place almost immediately upon US withdrawal. The decision has been called “a sickening betrayal,” of the Kurdish fighters who have been instrumental in the struggle against ISIS forces for the past five years.
The Kurds are the fourth largest ethnic group in the Middle East and, with a population of around 30 million people, the world’s largest people without a state. A vibrant and ancient culture with its own language and customs, the Kurds are spread across areas of several UN recognized states, mainly Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Armenia, and Iran. Since at least the 19th Century, the Kurdish people have been fighting for their own state, Kurdistan. This effort has so far been unsuccessful, largely as a result of a lack of support by cynical western powers.
Whether “sickening” or not, this “betrayal” is only the latest episode in a long history of the Kurdish people being used by western powers.
Whether “sickening” or not, this “betrayal” is only the latest episode in a long history of the Kurdish people being used by western powers when it suits them and discarded when it does not. Azad Cudi, a British-Iranian Kurd spoke for his people as a whole when he told the BBC that the decision to withdraw US troops from the border area in anticipation of a Turkish offensive felt “like a stab in the back.” Cudi continued: “The Kurds are the only people who have fought [ISIS]. The Iraqi government and the Syrian government couldn’t stand their attacks. We were the only ones who could resist them. With us being threatened, their hope for a new caliphate may grow again.”
Another major concern is the risk that many imprisoned ISIS militants could escape as a result of the Turkish attack, and indeed some have. Many of those prisoners have been held in prisons controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), of which the Kurdish forces are a crucial part.
The US presence in the region had been vital in maintaining relative peace between the Turkish army and Kurdish forces during the war in Syria. In August, the US military brokered a “security mechanism,” whereby both sides agreed to dismantle the fighting positions they had built at the front line. Adherence with the mechanism meant that Kurdish forces would be much weakened in the face of any future Turkish attack.
The Turkish Offensive
Upon the withdrawal of US troops, the Turkish army and allied Syrian rebels immediately launched an assault on Kurdish controlled areas. The offensive, entitled Operation Peace Spring, began on October 6, following a phone conversation between President Trump and President Recep Erdogan of Turkey. People’s Protection Units (aka YPG) positions in the Syrian border town of al-Malikiyah were also shelled on October 7. On October 9, Turkish forces attacked Tal Abyad, Ras al-Ain, Ain Issa, and Qamishlo.
“I am outside the town with my sick mother. My brother is inside. I have been informed that my cousin might have been martyred. There is no safe place for anybody,” Sevinaz, a 27-year-old Kurdish filmmaker, told the BBC, after her hometown of Sere Kaniye (called Ras al-Ain by Arabs) was attacked. “I’m concerned about it being the last time that I see my city,” she continued.
According to Erdogan, the aim of the offensive is to create a 20 mile-deep (32 km) “Safe Zone” along the Syrian side of the Turkey/Syria border, which could be used to house up to two million of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees currently living in Turkey. Previously, Turkey and the US had discussed creating a buffer zone in order to keep Syrian home-grown Kurdish YPG forces (aka People’s Protection Units) away from the Turkish border and, to many, the two zones appear suspiciously similar.
Most observers have dismissed Erdogan’s claim—the proposed “Safe Zone” for Syrian refugees lies entirely in areas currently controlled by Kurdish forces and the new invading Turkish forces, rather than in areas controlled by the Syrian government. Sevinaz called Erdogan “a liar,” telling the BBC that “he wants the Kurds to be finished.” As reported previously by Inside Arabia, Turkey’s attack and the White House’s tacit support for it, has been met with condemnation by both houses of US Congress and many world leaders.
“Betrayal” of Kurdish Aspirations Nothing New
“Betrayal” is arguably the common denominator in the Kurdish people’s battle for statehood, which has gone on since the 19th century.
Neither the perceived attempt to wipe out the Kurdish people, nor the western hypocrisy in the face of such attacks is a new story. In fact, “betrayal” is arguably the common denominator in the Kurdish people’s battle for statehood, which has gone on since the 19th century.
Perhaps the best chance for the establishment of a Kurdish state came after the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War. Plans for a state of Kurdistan were considered following the 1918 armistice and were included in the 1920 Treaty of Sevres. However, these plans were later torn up by Britain and France at the request of Turkey. In 1924, the Kurds created an autonomous Kingdom in modern-day Iraq, yet it was crushed almost immediately, with significant assistance from Britain.
In more recent times, the Kurds have more often found themselves betrayed by the state that took over Britain’s former superpower status, the United States. There, the “stabbing in the back” goes back to at least 1975, when the regime of Saddam Hussein attacked near defenseless Kurdish fighters in northern Iraq. The attack was made possible by the abrupt withdrawal of American arms from the Kurdish peshmerga forces who had been fighting Saddam, after the dictator had made a peace deal with the Shah of Iran.
During the 1980’s, the US, now under the direction of the Reagan administration, supported Saddam Hussein’s brutal war against Iran (by then the “Islamic Republic”). This support was given despite the Ba’ath Party’s campaign of violence against the Kurds, which even Iraqi courts now recognize as a genocide. The onslaught against the Kurdish people during the war included repeated bombing raids and gas attacks against non-combatant Kurds. Perhaps the worst incident came at Halabja, in northern Iraq—in March 1988 around 5,000 people were killed in the city, most of them civilians.
In Turkey the Kurdish struggle for statehood had something of a resurgence throughout the 1980s, following the creation of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Following its formation, the PKK began engaging in violent action which continues to this day. To date, the conflict between the PKK and the Turkish state has claimed some 40,000 lives and the group is classified as a terrorist organization by many governments, including the US and the UK.
After Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the US switched sides again and supported the Kurds and Shia rebels in fighting against the Iraqi government. Coalition forces, in this case led by the British, created a no-fly-zone in northern Iraq, which allowed for the creation of an autonomous Kurdish region that became a republic. If the US had supported this development, perhaps in gratitude for the Kurds once again acting as mercenaries for US interests, then it may have succeeded. As it was, the short-lived republic was crushed by a regrouped Iraqi army, as the US stood by.
Fast-forward to 2014, with the Syrian civil war and the rise of ISIS. In many areas, Kurdish forces, namely the YPG, stood alone as the only credible fighting force against the militant group. Once again, the US supported the Kurds, who, yet again, were acting pro bono as the first line of defense for US regional interests. Washington carried out airstrikes to assist Kurdish attacks and provided Kurdish forces with money and weapons.
The strong alliance between the Kurds and powerful western interests represented a nightmare scenario for President Erdogan, who has done all he can to ensure that the US reverts to type and betrays the Kurds again.
Last month, he got his wish.