Meanwhile in Countries Not Called America is a place where I normally go out of my way to find issues that are completely independent of the United States. But given the events in Northern Syria over the last few weeks, I feel compelled to break that rule and attempt to explain just how awful a situation the Kurds find themselves in. And while the geopolitics of the situation may be complicated, the morality is not. As always you need to understand the history of the region to properly put all of this into perspective.
The Kurds are the fourth largest ethnic group in the Middle East. Despite this, they have never had a homeland to call their own. Instead, they are spread across Turkey, Armenia, Syria, Iran, and Iraq. Which has not gone well for them over the last few hundred years or so. Following their help in World War One and the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, the European powers made allowances for “Kurdistan”, a Kurdish state, in the Treaty of Sevres but reneged three years later when they set the boundaries for what is modern Turkey in the Treaty of Lausanne. In the almost hundred years that have followed that betrayal, the Kurds have largely been stuck in a cycle of broken promises from western allies and persecution from ethnic and religious rivals in the region.
During the first Gulf War President George H. W. Bush encouraged the Iraqi Kurds to rise up and overthrow Saddam Hussein. Which, believing they had U.S. backing they did; only to be slaughtered by Saddam when Bush decided he didn’t really want regime change after all and ordered U.S. troops to stand down. Of course, back in the days when pictures of American allies being killed en masse meant something, the sight of slaughter on television forced Bush to act. Eventually, the U.S. set up a no-fly zone over Iraqi Kurdistan which gave Iraqi Kurds the cover they needed to form the Kurdistan Regional Government or KRG. While the KRG was not without turmoil (a civil war took place from 94-98) it is important to note that it was a secular, democratic government that provided equal rights to all. Unlike, you know, every other political actor in the region. (Yeah, I’m including you Israel. Stop the Settlements.)
A decade later in the Iraq War (or Second Gulf War), the Kurds again served as an American ally, helping coalition forces finally topple Saddam’s government. Of course, while Iraqi Kurds were helping the U.S. with their crusade in Iraq, Turkish Kurds were being bombed into oblivion with weapons purchased from, you guessed it, the U.S. And when in 2007 Turkey thought the Iraqi Kurds were being too uppity as well? Well, we looked the other way as Turkey bombed them too.
And yet still when the rise of ISIS represented a clear threat to both American and Kurdish interests, the two once again found themselves as allies. In 2014, ISIS launched an assault on Kurdish held territories in Iraq and Syria seizing several Kurdish towns. (Notably, Turkey, our NATO ally, did absolutely nothing to help fight ISIS and actively prevented Turkish Kurds from joining up with American/Kurdish forces.) Eventually, with the help of U.S. airpower and western coalition support, the Kurds were able to drive ISIS out and hold large tracts of territory along the Turkish-Syrian border. It was Kurdish led forces who finally took the cities of Raqqa (in 2017) and Baghouz (2019), the last two ISIS strongholds, and put an end to the existential threat of ISIS.
Now take that broader historical context and use it as a filter for where we find ourselves today. This past weekend saw the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the founder of ISIS. American troops carried the mission out but acted on intelligence gathered by the Syrian Defense League, or as their better known the secular, democratic force that is trying to protect Kurdish women and children from being raped and murdered in the streets by Turkish Soldiers. That is not hyperbole, and if you really need proof that is what’s happening there are plenty of horrible videos on the internet that can squash your skepticism. Be warned, watching innocent people being stoned to death while soldiers cheer is not something you can forget you’ve seen.
Of course, besides the moral repercussions of leaving a stalwart ally behind to be the victims of genocide, there are strategic issues at play here as well. The Kurds need help, and if we’re not going to help them, someone else will. They’ve already cut deals with Russia and Bashar al-Assad’s government forces, giving this pair of American adversaries exactly what they wanted in the region, a sphere of influence with absolutely no American interference. Oh, I almost forgot, since Trump’s cowardly betrayal nearly 2,000 ISIS prisoners have escaped Kurdish custody because it’s really hard to effectively defend a prison complex when you’re being attacked on all sides and have no backup. So, all that blood and treasure the U.S. has spent over the last six years to destroy ISIS, well looks like we’re going to have to do it all over again at some point.
Over the last one hundred years, the United States has betrayed the Kurdish people seven times. Or is it eight? Maybe nine? It happens so often it’s hard to keep track. But make no mistake, the Kurds are a proud and noble people and their blood is on our hands and the decision to abandon them should and will haunt us for a long time.