The following article is a reprint of the article which featured in the comment section of our Second Print Issue in March, which we have decided to re-publish in light of recent developments in the region.
For decades, the Kurdish people have been subjugated to marginalisation, exploitation and repression. Their identity has been threatened by systematic attempts to destroy their language and culture by forcefully integrating them into the newly formed nations of the Middle East. Furthermore, despite being one of the largest ethnic groups in the region, the Kurds have been denied a nation of their own.
Today, Kurdish Peshmerga forces are on the front lines in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Yet despite this, the Kurds have been repeatedly discarded by their allies and are still threatened with imminent destruction.
In order to understand the Kurds position, it is important to recognise Kurdish relations with various states within the region, both historically and presently. This coupled with Kurdish relations internationally will aid ones understanding of a complex misjustice in the Middle East.
Kurds in Iraq
As a result of the partition of the Ottoman Empire under the British and French Sykes-Picot Agreement (1916) the Kurds were divided. They became a minority in multiple states and considered a threat to the national security of these newly formed entities. Thus, the Kurds have been brutally suppressed ever since, and their security threatened.
Since the formation of the state of Iraq in 1921 its Kurdish population has been subject to despotism both under its former monarchy and the current republic. Under the 1925 constitution Kurdish political and cultural rights were denied, their language was not acknowledged, and Iraqi culture was forced upon them.
The Kurdish uprising which stemmed from this prejudice in 1932 was crushed by the then Iraqi government with the aid of its British allies. This clampdown on the Kurds under the Iraqi monarchy persisted until its demise in July 1958. Appallingly, the state of Iraq has, from its origin, viewed the Kurds with suspicion and hostility.
Nevertheless, even under the new regime of Abd Al-Karim Qasim the Kurds were denied the same political rights and representation as their fellow Iraqis, despite being promised such by the countries new regime in exchange for recognising the new government.
Tragically, when one examines the Kurds within Iraq and the wider region, similar promises of liberty and national rights are repeatedly made. However, they are often false assurances under the guise of selfish interests. Qassim used the Kurds to aid the stabilisation of his government. However, when their purpose had been served they were considered a threat to this regime, and consequently ostracised. In his eyes they were expendable.
While the repression of the Kurds has transcended from the very foundations of Iraq, it must be noted that it was under the Ba’athist regime that the Kurds were most discriminated against. In particular, some of the most brutal tactics of Saddam Hussein ‘s iron regime was orchestrated against Iraq’s Kurdish population.
The Kurds in Iraq are predominantly settled around the northern region of the country, particularly in the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. Saddam, in his quest to become a regional power began to methodically de-Kurd and ‘Arabise’ the region, by deporting Kurdish families from their homes, and instead offering them to Arabs at absurdly cheap prices. However, it was not until Saddam’s ‘Anfal’ campaign that the Kurds faced the most brutal tactics of suppression.
Consistent rebellions in Iraq conducted by Kurdish rebel forces led Saddam to launch this brutal operation under Hassan al-Majid between the years of 1986 and 1989. The regime indiscriminately bombed Kurdish populated areas, resulting in the loss of between 50,000 and 182,000 Kurdish lives and the destruction of roughly 4,500 villages. What’s more, the barbaric use of chemical weapons devastated the Kurdish city of Halabja on March 16th,1988 in which casualties numbered between 3,200 and 5,000.
This ruthless campaign has been labelled by numerous members of the international community as a genocide and is one of the worst atrocities committed against the Kurdish people. Evidently, throughout the 20th century, there has been a vendetta launched by Iraqi authorities against its Kurdish minority, in which the purpose has been to dismantle their culture and history and suppress their hope for liberty.
Today, the Kurds in Iraq face a difficult situation. Although Iraqi Kurdistan has limited autonomy as a federal entity of Iraq, the recent 2017 Kurdish independence referendum landed a result of 92% in favour of a partition of Kurdish dominated northern Iraq.
While this vote is unlikely to be enforced, it has alarmed the Iraqi government and its neighbouring countries. While the Iraqi’s have rejected the legitimacy of the referendum altogether, both Iran and Turkey have threatened Iraq’s Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) with devasting consequences, out of fear the effects of the referendums would have on their own Kurdish populations. The prospects of Kurdish independence looks bleak.
Kurds in Turkey and Syria
While the Kurds in Iraq have faced years of turmoil, the Kurdish population located in southern Turkey and within Syria face similar pressures. The prospect of emancipation and a Kurdish state appears equally desolate. Kurdish and Turkish relations have never been encouraging. Since 1978 the Kurdistan Workers Party has been fighting for political and cultural autonomy in response to decades of subjugation under Turkish authorities. The conflict between these two warring parties has cost 40,000 lives and a peaceful solution is becoming less and less likely.
Interestingly, this tension is exacerbated further by Kurdish fighters in Syria, labelled by the US as the most reliable force combatting the Islamic State. The Peoples Protection Units (YPG) and Syrian Democratic Forces (PKK), largely made up of Kurdish combatants, have retaken 99% of previously occupied Islamic State territory in Iraq and Syria. Yet their struggle is threatened by the recent decision of President Trump to withdraw US forces from Syria.
The US decision to desert its allies means Kurdish forces cannot extinguish the last remaining remnants of ISIS, located in the Syrian town of Hajin. Moreover, the Kurds also face the prospect of imminent attack from Turkish forces, in which President Erdogan labelled the YPG a terrorist organisation, fearing the threat of Kurdish state building on its Syrian border. Despite leading from the front lines against the ruthless regime of the Islamic state, it is clear the Kurds still face persecution from all sides.
The repeated duplicity by their supposed US allies comes as no surprise. On the eve of the first Gulf War President George H.W. Bush encouraged Kurdish rebellions in northern Iraq, and yet was silent as Saddam slaughtered tens of thousands of civilians and flattened villages.
Historically, it appears the Kurds are merely expendable tools to aid US interests in the Middle East, in which little thought or care is directed towards its allies’ own objectives. The current situation in Syria appears to be following this pattern. While the US has no obligation to be the world police, it cannot abandon its allies in the face of danger.
Despite the Kurds having protected American interests in Syria, without the resulting US casualties, the YPG and SDF have been abandoned and left vulnerable in the shadow of a threatening Turkish conflict.
Abraham Lincoln once stated that ‘those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves.’ The Kurds have been deprived of the freedom they have deserved for decades. The hardship and pitiless suppression they have endured in numerous nations coupled with their courageous effort in liberating territory from Islamic extremism has earned them the right to the autonomy they so rightly crave.
Unfortunately, the Kurdish plight has fallen on deaf ears in the region and the west. The examples described above are but a few of the misjustices committed against the Kurdish people. It is doubtful the Kurds will gain a state of their own in the near future. However, if the Kurdish cry for regional autonomy gained more traction on the international stage, with the true support of its allies, the Kurds may indeed find some peace.
October Update: President Trump has recently withdrawn US forces from Syria. The consequences that this bares for the Kurds are already being felt, with devastating results. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogon has launched a military offensive against Kurdish forces along the Syrian-Turkish border. Immensely out-gunned and outnumbered, the future looks bleak for Syria’s Kurds.
While the Kurds have aligned themselves with the Assad the present political situation in the Middle East could lead to a dangerous confrontation between Istanbul and Damascus. In regards to the US, President Trump’s decision could damage American credibility in the among its regional allies.
The tragedy is that the Kurds have yet again been dealt a bad hand, having recently fought a bloody battle against ISIS. As the US’ primary ally in combatting the extremists, in their hour of need, the Kurds’ most powerful ally has abandoned them to the wolves. Unfortunately, this is little more than history repeating itself.
Photo by Kurdishstruggle on Flikr.