Tamilnadu’s firebrand leader, the late C N Annadurai, greatly minimised the problem of race discrimination when he observed in the early 1940s that “there are two stateless communities in the world – the Jews and the Brahmins.” While Jews were then evicting Palestinians from Palestine in their relentless pursuit of a mythic homeland, Brahmins have never been a homogenous group. Worse, Anna overlooked Kurds who have been betrayed time again and are now battling for survival against the onslaught of Turkish troops in a crisis that could draw Russia and the US into the Turkey-Syria-Kurdish conflict.
It’s a poor return for the crucial help the Kurdish YPG (People's Protection Units in) gave the US allies against the deadly so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Thanks to the sacrifice of more than 10,000 dead YPG fighters, Turkey has been spared the threat of a vicious jihadist organisation poised on its border with Syria. Yet, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seems determined to exterminate the YPG which he accuses of being linked to Kurdish terrorists in Turkey. Permitting this would be another crime against humanity.
The truth is that Turkey is terrified of any Kurdish success anywhere in the world lest it encourage the long-standing, long-promised demand for a national home. Between 25 and 35 million mainly Sunni Muslim Kurds inhabit a mountainous region straddling the borders of Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Iran and Armenia, making up West Asia’s fourth-largest ethnic group. But a sovereign “Kurdistan” remains a dream although promised by the victors of the First World War it in the Treaty of Sevres.
The present crisis has arisen because of Donald Trump’s sudden belief that it is "very smart" not to be involved in West Asian conflicts "for a change". This clarification, if such it can be called, followed the US president's surprise move last week to pull dozens of troops out of pockets in Syria’s north-east, thereby paving the way for Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring. If this were all it might make some kind of sense. But far from abjuring involvement in West Asia, Mr Trump is sending American troops to Saudi Arabia, as Defence Secretary Mark Esper has confirmed, apparently to defend one of the world’s most arbitrary, dictatorial and obscurantist regimes against possible threats from Iran. Mr Trump’s opponents at home say it’s the first time American troops are being used as mercenaries.
Not only is Saudi Arabia the world’s biggest oil producer and the biggest buyer of American weaponry, but its de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is reportedly a special crony of Jared Kushner, Mr Trump’s orthodox Jew son-in-law and principal adviser. That the Crown Prince is widely suspected of involvement in the gruesome murder of the dissident Saudi journalist, Adnan Khashoggi, is neither here nor there. While Mr Trump is not willing any longer to obstruct Turkey’s military advance, his rhetoric sounds more fierce than before. The vow to “obliterate” Turkey–a NATO partner–if it goes “off limits” is interpreted as a threat of economic sanctions. He has also warned Mr Erdogan of his commitments (sic!) to “ensure no humanitarian crisis takes place.”
The Kurds have always been the football of history. Yet, the Kurdish Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub (Saladin in British history), Sultan of Egypt and Syria, successfully defended the Holy Land against England’s Richard the Lion Heart and various other European princes and nobles during the Crusader invasions of the Middle Ages. In more recent times, however, the Kurds have been an uncomfortable alien minority in Arab countries such as Iraq and Syria, as well as in Turkey and Iran. When the Soviet Union occupied Iran with the Western allies after the Second World War, it established a Kurdish mini-state, the Republic of Mahabad, in Iranian territory. But the return of the Pahlavi dynasty, which Britain and the US ensured, soon put an end to that experiment in Soviet expansionism. A fifth of Syrian Kurds were stripped of their Syrian nationality in 1962.
Hope flared up again in 1970 when the Iraqi Kurdish leader, Mustafa Barzani, met Saddam Hussein. But a rapprochement did not suit the West’s strategy. After the Gulf War ended in February 1991, the CIA stoked an insurgency among Iraqi Kurds in an attempt to overthrow the Ba’athist regime. But George H W Bush allowed Saddam Hussein to use his considerable residual arsenal freely against the rebels who were soon bombed into submission, leading to an exodus of refugees into Iran and Turkey. No Fly Zones were eventually put in place to minimise the damage, and an autonomous Kurdish province was established in the north, mainly to reduce Saddam Hussein’s authority and jurisdiction.
In the years since 1972, the US encouraged the Shah of Iran to foment rebellion among Iraq’s Kurds against Saddam Hussein who was seen as too pro-Soviet. Then the Shah and Saddam came to a deal, cutting out the Kurds. Forgetting his earlier duplicity, the senior Bush again encouraged a Kurdish uprising in north-western Iraq but allowed Saddam to crush it before he himself was toppled. It was only after that collapse–which was greatly helped by Kurdish complicity in the invasion of Iraq–that the Kurdish Region of Iraq gained autonomous status.
Drawing on this goodwill, the US handpicked experienced Kurdish fighters of the YPG to fight the so-called Islamic State. It was hardly surprising that the YPG called for support from the radical and militant Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) which had been set up in Turkey as long ago as 1978 with the aim of carving out an independent Kurdistan by force if necessary. Mr Erdogan’s regime has banned the PKK as a terrorist organization. But without the combined support of the YPG and PKK, the Syrian Democratic Forces, consisting of both Kurdish and Arab soldiers, might never have worsted the Islamist fanatics in northern Syria.
West Asia’s future hangs now to some extent on what happens on the Syria-Turkey border. The SDF’s chief, Mazloum Abdi, has already warned of the need for “painful compromises” with the Syrian government which is allied to Russia. Turkey is a NATO member and US ally. There could be all-out war if the Syrian government sends its army to repulse the Turkish invaders. The need to resettle more than three million Syrian refugees–not all Kurds by any means–currently in Turkey raises the further danger of ethnic cleansing of local Kurds. Above all, the festering problem of nearly 35 million Kurds spread across four or five states demands a revival of the faltering peace process between Ankara and the PKK that collapsed in 2011.
The writer is the author of several books and a regular media columnist.