Donald Trump’s decision to give Turkey the green light to intervene against Kurdish forces in Syria is not merely another of the president’s routine breaches with the norms of US statecraft. For once, Trump is acting entirely in line with US policy in the Middle East. Since the First World War, Western support for the Kurdish cause has time and again dissolved like a mirage — just when they needed it most. Depressingly, nobody, least of all the Kurds, should be surprised by this latest betrayal.
In 1919, a Kurdish delegation arrived in Paris to lobby that famous peacemaker President Woodrow Wilson in the hope that he might support the emergence of an independent Kurdish state. Their sheikh had bound the twelfth of the US President’s Fourteen Points into his Quran because it backed self-determination for the peoples of the Ottoman Empire. Would he act on his grand principles? Not a bit of it. Other great power priorities were judged more important, and Wilson became the first occupant of the White House to dash Kurdish hopes for independence.
The Kurds have long been treated as mere pawns in other people’s struggles, whether the Cold War or more recent Middle Eastern conflicts.
Despite their great efforts, Kurds have been perennially stateless ever since, despite their presence in the region pre-dating both Turks and Arabs by centuries. After 1919 they exchanged rule by two empires, Ottoman and Iranian, for partition among new nation states. Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria had no sympathy for a people who were too numerous to be ghettoised as a minority but too few and too divided by tribal rivalries to form an effective national organisation of their own.
Most people in the West became aware of their plight in 1991, when Saddam Hussain’s forces wreaked terrible revenge on them for the dictator’s debacle at the hands of the US-led alliance. Fleeing into the highlands along the Turkish border, Kurds recalled the old truth that they had “no friends but the mountains”. For once the West, initially at least, acted resolutely to protect them. Bill Clinton and John Major got much credit for establishing a no-fly zone to prevent Saddam’s helicopters engaging in genocide. However, in 1996 they then refused to intervene as Saddam grabbed back control of much Kurdish territory.
In short, the Kurds have long been treated as mere pawns in other people’s struggles, whether the Cold War or more recent Middle Eastern conflicts. But now, with global internet access and the rise of human rights activism, this Machiavellian approach seems not just immoral but strategically unwise.
It is not only that the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces provided the only effective pro-Western boots on the ground in the fight against the Daesh [the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant], for which we ought to be hugely grateful. Letting Turkey — which is meant to be a Western ally — occupy their territory to relocate around two million Syrian refugees, mainly Arabs, looks eerily like Saddam’s effort to Arabise northern Iraq 30 years ago.
Turkey’s President Erdogan talks about “showering” the region with peace but his plan is a recipe for a new civil war. Into that conflict could re-emerge the thousands of Daesh fighters held in prison camps by the SDF. Syrian President Bashar Al Assad’s forces, as well as his Russian and Iranian allies, will also want to have their say, and his Qatari opponents won’t be idle either. A bad situation could soon get a lot worse.
Meanwhile, the Kurdish diaspora across Europe is likely to mobilise in demonstrations which could find a much more sympathetic public response than past appeals. Outside Trump’s heartland in America, the Kurdish case that cynical power politics, of which they have long been victims, paved the way for recurring crises in the region will find an echo. Their long history of oppression means many will see their cause as a righteous one.
Trump has another problem, too. His Middle Eastern allies may dislike Kurdish independence but their real worry now will be the reliability of their own American guarantees. It is not only the Kurds who hope there is a last time for everything — even déjà vu. The president has kept one US diplomatic tradition worth violating.
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2019
Mark Almond is director of the Crisis Research Institute, Oxford