The Kurds are an ethnic/linguistic stateless people living primarily in Eastern Turkey and northern Iraq (where they make up about 20% of the national population), northeast Syria and northwest Iran (where they make up roughly 10%).
Since 2012, northeast Syrian Kurds have formed an essentially independent government, based on libertarian socialist principles (non-authoritarian socialism). They’ve been able to do so by fighting off the ISIL faction in Syria’s civil war, and as such were loosely allied with American troops in the region.
On 7 October 2019, President Trump announced his plans to reassign these troops elsewhere in Syria. Since the troops will be taking their air support with them, this leaves Syrian Kurds vulnerable to invasion by Turkey. Turkish president/thug Recep Tayyip Erdoğan then indicated he would do so, using ethnic cleansing to clear a 20-mile deep area along the border as a new home for some of Turkey’s 3.6 million Syrian refugees. Attacks began almost immediately. Erdoğan has threatened to release the Syrian refugees into Europe if he is opposed (how he would do so is unclear).
Why Does Erdoğan Hate the Kurds?
There’s been resentment in Turkey towards its Kurdish minority for decades, roughly since a Kurdish separatist movement arose following the end of the Ottoman Empire. Authoritarian politicians, there as here, sporadically stoked this resentment in hopes of bolstering their own popularity. Repressions have included sometimes banning the language, deposing democratically elected Kurdish politicians, jailing and murdering leaders and journalists, and so on. After a failed 2016 coup attempt (probably started by members of the Turkish military), Erdoğan used the coup as an excuse to crack down even further on Kurdish civil society.
And ethnic cleansing is not new to Turkey either; during WWI the government is estimated to have murdered between 700,000 and 1,500,000 Armenians (some Kurds helped, as is often the case with genocides: turn one oppressed minority against another). Some who fled for their lives ended up in Northeast Syria, where Armenian culture has existed for centuries. The mostly Christian Armenian population now coexists peacefully with the mostly Muslim Kurdish population. They are sure to be among hundreds of thousands at risk of losing their homes if Erdoğan fulfills his invasion plans. This has caused some prominent American evangelical leaders to criticize Trump’s strategic decision. (I don’t imagine they’ll stay mad for long.)
A Common Fate for American Proxy Allies
It’s not the first time America has used Kurdish fighters as allies then abandoned them to regional enemies; as Jon Schwarz observes, it’s more like the eighth, usually involving our obsession with ruling Iraq from Washington.
Nor are the Kurds our first recent foray in exploiting the self-determination dreams of a stateless people; we did it in Southeast Asia with the Hmong, who faced reprisals from the Laotian government after supporting the US side.
Thousands died in Laotian re-education camps or trying to reach refugee camps in Thailand. We allowed a handful to escape here. There are sizable Hmong populations in California and Minnesota today as a result.
Why Is Trump Doing This?
Who knows. Trump apparently made the decision following a call with Erdoğan, one of the endless series of tyrants our would-be Mussolini admires.
Probably it’s a win-win-win scenario in his mind since it pleases a tyrant, pretends to be disentangling the US from endless Middle Eastern wars, and screws over suffering people. The US foreign policy establishment, naturally, considers any example of even slightly successful socialism to be a strategic threat, although it’s unlikely Trump pays any attention to such matters.
He did promise that “if Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off-limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey (I’ve done before!).” No doubt Syrian Kurds feel better now. Besides, as William Rivers Pitt points out, Trump owns a hotel in Istanbul; “financially firebombing your own properties” is not a typical Trump move (except via his own stupidity and narcissism).
The Time I Needed Kurdish Tea
Which brings to mind a personal anecdote. I used to live above a Kurdish restaurant in Saint Paul (one of my favorite restaurants, ever). The building owner, a serious Trump-type super-jerk who inherited the building from his dad, was a slumlord and a sleaze; he’d hang out in the lobby at the beginning of every month to hit on college students moving in.
It was impossible to interact with this man without him being insulting and demeaning, making fun of you for having a low-rent apartment. One time he really got under my skin, I don’t remember with what. It was right before I was meeting someone at the restaurant.
And boy, did I vent. I let loose a tirade of f-bombs that would make a mobster blush. The place was pretty empty at the time, and I’m sure my voice was audible all the way in the kitchen.
The owner, a conservatively dressed middle-aged woman, came over to our table. “I think you need some Kurdish tea,” she said, and comped me a cup.
She was right! It absolutely calmed me down.
I’m happy to report that not long after I left that horrible landlord, the restaurant did, too. They’re doing fine in a new location nearby. Same owner, same excellent food, and the same tea.
How to Follow This Story in the US
Right now, there is major media coverage in the US, largely because a few Republican members of Congress have criticized Trump’s withdrawal decision. (This is presumably because of the risk to Armenian Christians and the possible resurgence of ISIL in the region, not concern over the Kurds.) This coverage is already beginning to fade; simple humanitarian crises don’t make our evening news.
One can, of course, trust Al Jazeera English to stay on the story and to see updates from Democracy Now! Economic anthropologist David Graeber (a strong supporter of the Kurdish socialist movement) has, for years, been providing links to coverage of anti-Kurdish repression on his Twitter feed, including many local news sources.
We should follow what happens because, in large part, we did it. And the great anti-war writer, ex-soldier Danny Sjursen sadly notes, betrayal is American foreign policy; “next time, and there will be a next time, don’t even think about trusting Uncle Sam. You’ll thank me later.”
Since I wrote this, the Syrian Kurds have asked corrupt Syrian president Bashar al-Assad for military assistance resisting the Turkish invasion. Assad has virtually no support from anybody in Syria, but he does have lots of guns, probably half of which we sold him, if the history of US interventions is any guide.
Accepting Assad’s help means the end of a socialist Kurdish society in northeast Syria. And that’s correct; preventing murder or forced relocation is more important than protecting an experiment in actual democracy. It’s what Sjursen predicted, and it’s terribly sad. Why not actually flex our international muscle to support the locals, for once? Because we’re America, and that’s not what we do.
Trump claims the relocated soldiers will be returning home. He says, “Those that mistakenly got us into the Middle East Wars are still pushing to fight. They have no idea what a bad decision they have made.”
That’s a good campaign bit, but it’s utterly untrue — we’re not getting out of the Middle East, we’re just repositioning troops. Our war on and about that region never ends. Trump didn’t start it, Trump will not end it, and the suffering will continue, far away, to people about whom we couldn’t give a damn.