Kurds tend to speak of betrayal as a historical tragedy. “No friends but the mountains,” is a mantra that is heard in the region and in media.
Since 2017, almost half a million Kurds have had to flee their homes in Iraq and Syria at least in part due to cynical, manipulative or short-sighted policies crafted in the US or Europe. This would appear to run contrary to values that are put forward by the countries enacting these polices and to the assertions that various Kurdish groups in northern Iraq and eastern Syria were actually partners in wars against extremism.
Why have Kurdish regions and groups been betrayed in recent years, and what is the nature of the anti-Kurdish lobby or campaign that seeks to undermine their rights?
Kurds tend to speak of betrayal as a historical tragedy. “No friends but the mountains,” is a mantra that is heard in the region and in media. Another fact that is repeated is that Kurds are the largest stateless group. When other nation-states were born, Kurds were pushed aside, often by colonial powers.
Neither explanation goes to the heart of the problem. Western policy-makers don’t betray Kurds just because they like betraying people. The legacy of colonialism only partly explains why Kurds today, 50 years after the end of colonialism and 100 years after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, remain discriminated against internationally. The current challenge Kurds tend to face is a more modern legacy of Arab, Turkish and Persian nationalism – coupled with religious extremism – that has targeted them and which the West has tended to ignore or collaborate with.
Why the imbalance? For some policy-makers, the Kurdish issue is viewed as a bother, a tar baby, or the group is even presented as complaining too much and as receiving more than its fair share of attention. “What about Kashmir, the Rohingya, Yemen, Uighurs. There are lots of suffering groups,” the response goes. Again, this does not explain the whole problem.
The US didn’t arm and train 100,000 Yemenites and then decide to work with a US ally against them. Yet in eastern Syria, that is what almost happened. The US didn’t oddly partner with Myanmar generals to weaken a Rohingya autonomous region only to turn around and then seek to work with the region again.
There are four Kurdish regions in four states in the Middle East. In Turkey, where some 10 million Kurds live, they have suffered almost 100 years of discrimination at the hands of the state. When it comes to Turkey, the West will say Ankara is a NATO ally, and Kurds should work within Turkey to get their rights. If they don’t receive rights, or if their mayors are arbitrarily dismissed, that is their problem. If they support groups such as the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), then they will be seen as terrorists.
One might wonder why Western policy-makers are so good at caring about minorities in other democracies but are less keen on Kurds in Turkey. The explanation is mostly that Turkey has threatened Western countries to not interfere. Turkey sells itself as a gateway between the East and West, potentially capable of “opening the gates” for millions of refugees to go to Europe. After 2015, when one million people fled to Europe, the EU can’t handle more refugees.
For the US, Turkey sold itself as a key to security in northern Syria and a potential partner against Iran. Even though Turkey’s actual policy has been to encourage the US to enter into dialogue with Tehran, and even though Turkey hosts Hamas, the US sees Turkey as a historic key to the Middle East. Turkish soft power, through government-chartered English-language media, and funding of academics and lobbying, has helped Ankara as well.
All this got the US and Turkey to work closely to fight the PKK, sharing intelligence from drones and getting the US to put a bounty on the heads of PKK members. From the US view, this is fighting terrorism, although it begs the question of why the US isn’t concerned that Hamas terrorists are hosted in Turkey. How can one fight one terrorist group and host another? But the key to understanding this is simply that the US and EU think they need Turkey more than Turkey needs them.
In Syria and Iraq, the Kurdish minority suffered brutal discrimination at the hands of Arab nationalist Ba’athist regimes. In Iraq, they were gassed and subjected to genocide. In Syria, some were denied citizenship, their region neglected and basic things like Kurdish language or Kurdish names of businesses suppressed.
In the case of Syria and Iraq, Arab ethnocratic nationalism targeted Kurds, and yet the US view generally was to either use them or ignore them. One exception was the no-fly zone and eventual invasion of Iraq in 2003 that led to the (Iraqi) Kurdistan autonomous region. The US got an example of how successful a partnership with Kurds could be.
The US generally saw the Kurdish region as less a success story than as distracting from a “one-Iraq” policy of strengthening Baghdad. Successive US administrations wanted a strong Baghdad to counter Iran. However, they invested in pro-Iranian strongmen such as Nouri al-Maliki to achieve a “counter” to Iran. They ended up empowering Iran in the process. The Kurdish region would have served as a buffer against Iran’s encroachment, but short-sighted policies led to the US working with Baghdad in October 2017 to coordinate an offensive to dislodge Kurds from Kirkuk.
Iran’s Qasem Soleimani and Kataib Hezbollah’s Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis celebrated the victory over the Kurdish region in Kirkuk in October 2017. Two years later, in January 2020, the US killed both men. In retrospect, it is unclear why the US decided to work with Baghdad to weaken the Kurdish region in October 2017. More than 100,000 Kurds fled the city of Kirkuk and its environs as Iranian-backed militias moved in.
The reason the US sided with Baghdad in October 2017 was because the Kurdish region held an independence referendum. There was an era when the US used to support referendums and self-determination. East Timor, South Sudan, Kosovo, but not Kurdistan.
Why? Because the US, having invaded Iraq in 2003, felt it should remake Iraq in an American image. This was the “if you break it, you buy it” concept. Toward that end, the US took a paternalist interest in Iraq. Policy-makers also felt they knew what was best for the Kurdish region. It shouldn’t be too Kurdish or too independent.
In Syria, the US discovered the Kurdish region largely by accident in 2014 when the US began fighting ISIS. With Kurds under siege in Kobane, the US helped them and began a partnership with the People’s Protection Units (YPG). At the time, the stars aligned in such a way that the US was moving toward the Iran Deal and shifting to fighting ISIS, and the YPG was selected to help lead the fight.
The US helped re-brand it as the Syrian Democratic Forces and get it support from the international coalition. Turkey warned the US that it viewed the YPG as an offshoot of the PKK. When the Turkish-PKK ceasefire ended in 2015, Ankara increasingly accused the US of empowering “terrorists.” The US carefully changed the DNA of the SDF so that it wouldn’t carry out attacks on Turkey, and it would become an anti-ISIS force.
This was a successful model to change a group considered “terrorists” into something else, the way the KLA in Kosovo had become ostensibly responsible partners. Yet US decision-makers didn’t see the victory in eastern Syria as a miracle but as a burden. They told the Kurds the partnership was temporary, tactical and transactional.
In January 2018, Turkey invaded the Kurdish region of Afrin in Syria, and 170,000 people were forced to flee. Rather than show sympathy for these people, relatives of the US partner forces fighting ISIS, the US told the SDF to accept this and not get distracted. One US senior diplomat informed the SDF that the US would prevent “another Afrin” in eastern Syria.
But in December 2018, the US said it would leave eastern Syria, after having promised to help reconstruct and stabilize the area. The US also made demands of the SDF it didn’t make of other partner forces, encouraging it to be more “pluralist” and diverse, while making no such demands of Syrian rebel groups it had armed.
Quietly, policy-makers sought to force the Kurds in eastern Syria to choose between being attacked by Turkey or going over to the Syrian regime and Russia. This was a self-fulfilling prophecy. Anti-Iran deal strategists believed the Kurds in eastern Syria were linked to Iran. They hoped to weaken the SDF until such a point that its “true colors” would emerge. They encouraged it to help take Raqqa from ISIS, sacrifice thousands of casualties, incorporate more Arabs into its ranks and hold tens of thousands of ISIS prisoners. Then they got it to dismantle its own defensive fortifications so Turkey could attack northern Syria and drive 200,000 people from their homes.
The US quietly withdrew as their NATO ally moved in. This was a “success” because the SDF had been neutralized. The US had built it, so now the US had to destroy it. For policy-makers, the SDF was a substate entity, not something that could be hosted in Washington or negotiated with. The US wasn’t doing nation building. No more Kosovos or East Timors.
Quietly, some in the US even noted that if they could do it over again, they wouldn’t have helped the Kurdish region in Iraq achieve autonomy. Arab nationalist regimes are preferable to complicated Kurdish regions.
Why is authoritarianism preferable? Because it is stable, and Western decision-makers now believe instability feeds extremism or creates the areas for it to thrive. Various reasons have been conjured up for not working with Kurdish minorities. It might offend other countries the US is working with. This was the same logic put forward about why not to support Israel in the 1940s and 1950s. Then there is the concept that aiding Kurds can violate sovereignty of countries.
The Kurdish regions of northern Iraq and eastern Syria have been free from extremism and were not infiltrated by Iran the way surrounding areas were. They would seem to meet many of the needs of both the current and previous US administrations. Each administration has tended to have its more favored region. The Obama administration seemed to prefer eastern Syria, whereas some in the current administration now prefer the Kurdish region of Iraq. But they usually lend support either too early or too late.
When it comes to a crisis, the Kurdish regions generally get the short end of the policy-making stick. Insiders will say this is not entirely accurate. The regions have received support in the form of hundreds of millions of dollars in training and equipment for fighting forces. But they just don’t know their place. If they accept a reduced role, then they will be accepted. As for the Kurds of Iran, who also were seeking US and Western support, the verdict is still out.