The Kurds are history’s forsaken brides—left at the altar, yet again, as they have been for the last 100 years. This time it is U.S. President Donald Trump who is leaving the Kurds abandoned at the altar. It’s an apt metaphor. The Kurds have been wooed, embraced, allied with, and then abandoned time and again, even after they have stood shoulder to shoulder with their big-power suiters during the great geo-political-military struggles of the last century.
The Kurds, notwithstanding their own intramural skirmishes, have been steadfast allies during the fight against both ISIS and Assad, not to mention al-Qaeda. But Turkey, with a substantial and sometimes restive Kurdish population, has been eager to attack those Kurds who are concentrated near the border with Syria and who have fought against the murderous Syrian regime. It appears that President Trump has given Erdogan a green light to do just that by announcing plans to abandon the Syrian conflict. President Trump has declared ISIS defeated. Once again, we hear Mission Accomplished from the White House, if not the Pentagon.
We won‘t opine on the tactical or strategic wisdom of President’s Trump’s decision to pull out of Syria, or to have declared ISIS defeated. We’ll leave that to retiring Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and other military experts who are far better qualified than us to render such opinions. But if President Trump abandons the Kurds to the likes of Turkey’s President Erdogan, he will have betrayed a reliable ally in our battles against al-Qaeda, ISIS, Saddam Hussein, and Syria’s Bashir Assad.
Just Who Are the Kurds?
The Kurds are often described as the largest ethnic group in the world without a country. About 25 to 35 million Kurds live in an area comprised of Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Armenia. Another six to seven million Kurds live in Iran. The Kurds are non-Arab Muslims who have languished as displaced leftovers following big-power nation building following the Great War. Of all the peoples in the region, no one deserved an independent country of their own more than the Kurds. Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon are little more than post World-War-One creations of Britain and France with boundaries that were arbitrarily drawn without consideration of the indigenous peoples living in the area. Had the people who lived there mattered, Kurdistan would have been an independent country for the last one hundred years. Oil and seaports pretty much dictated the boundaries of these new countries; the people be damned. Modern day Iraq, Syria and Lebanon are the brainchild of British and French diplomats, Mark Sykes and France’s Francois Georges-Picot, whose secret Sykes-Picot accord in 1916 sowed the seeds of perpetual discontent in the region.
Here is the important point to keep in mind. Following the First-World-War, county after country in the region was created to serve the interests of Britain and France. That is why there is a Syria, an Iraq, a Jordan and a Lebanon today. There should have been a Kurdistan too, but the Kurds had nothing to offer the big powers other than about 35 million landlocked people, so they got nothing.
When Great Britain needed the support of the Kurds in its fight with Turkey during the First World War, they promised the Kurds a state of their own, a new state of Kurdistan. The Kurds fought and died alongside the British, but when the fighting was over, there was no place for Kurdistan on the new map drawn up by Britain and France.
Two treaties illustrate the shabby treatment the Kurds have been accorded throughout the twentieth century. In the Sèvres treaty of 1920, Britain included a clause that would have established an independent Kurdistan. This, it seems, was nothing more than theater to frustrate the Turks. But with the Ottoman Empire dismantled following the war, Britain signed the Lausanne treaty with Turkey’s Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and, in so doing, abandoned the Kurdish state, and tens of millions of Kurds in the process.
In more recent years, the Kurds responded to Bush 41’s call for insurrection against Saddam Hussein. Following the 100-hour gulf war, the U.S., in a remarkable lapse of judgment, allowed Saddam Hussein (who we allowed to stay in power) to use armed helicopter gunships to defend against those continuing to rebel against his regime. Thousands of Kurds were killed.
Ironically, our enemies have been the Kurd’s enemies in the fight against al-Qaeda and later against ISIS, and they have stood and fought with us in those battles. But we have never really returned their support for our causes with our support for their (one-and-only) cause—independence. While the Kurds have, historically, stood by us, we simply have not returned the favor. We have been consistently unreliable friends. Kurdish interests have never really been well-aligned with our interests, and our interests, sometimes, do not seem to be allied with our values. The Kurds have never fit particularly well into our big picture of the Middle East. We and the British have made promises (or at least paid lip service) to support Kurdish independence that neither we nor the British every really intended to keep.
The United States has had a long and, generally, beneficial relationship with Turkey not withstanding its current President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It would seem that President Trump (and, in fairness, other Presidents before him) has had to weigh whether our long-term best interests lie in supporting Turkey in its battle with the Kurds, or in supporting a truly Independent Kurdistan. In that calculus, it seems the Kurds long-standing, legitimate quest for independence will not find a sympathetic ear in this White House.
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