(December 20, 2018/KDJ) “We have no friends but the mountains.” This is a famous saying–or infamous, depending on one’s view–of the Kurdish people. Betrayed, persecuted, abandoned, and used over the centuries, they had only their mountainous homeland as a constant. Today’s news is yet another affirmation of that saying. US President Donald Trump–who spoke of the Kurds as important friends of American interests just weeks ago–is pulling American troops out of Syria.
Despite the advice of military officials, diplomats, analysts, and politicians, The Donald has falsely declared ISIS to be “defeated.” As such, he seemingly believes there is no reason to risk American lives or spend American money overseas. This poses a great danger to the region, as Russia, Iran, and Turkey will seek to fill the void. Moreover, a resurgence of ISIS, al-Qaeda, and other extremist groups is likely to follow. Meanwhile in Ankara, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has declared his interest in a military operation aimed at Kurdish fighters in Rojava (Kurdish northern Syria).
History of “Use & Abuse”
The Kurds have long been used & abused by the great powers of both the Middle East and the globe. Britain and France promised the Kurds a homeland upon the demise of the Ottoman Empire a century ago, yet reneged. Instead, they created artificial “mandates” and fake states–Iraq and Syria. The modern, renewed countries of Iran and Turkey seized what little remained of the Kurdish state-in-waiting.
The Soviet Union supported the short-lived independent Kurdish entity of the Mahabad Republic, aiming to keep its old imperial adversary–Iran–in check. Of course, the Mahabad Republic was unable to survive for long. Iran encouraged Kurds to rebel (more than once) against the Iraqi government, yet left them to the slaughter. Former President George HW Bush also encouraged Kurds (and Shiite Arabs) to rebel against the Sunni-Arab regime of Saddam Hussein. This led to genocide against Kurds in Halabja, resulting in a refugee crisis.
Most recently, Western countries have “used” the Kurds to fight ISIS and other Sunni extremist organizations in Syria & Iraq. Yet when the Kurds voted for independence in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq, the West condemned them and allowed Iranian-backed militias invade ad occupy their lands. Now, it seems the US wants to leave the Kurds of Rojava to be slaughtered at the hands of the Turkish military.
The Kurds’ greatest weaknesses are corruption and political divisions at the top level. On a people-to-people level, there is great cohesion among Kurds. Yet the differing political parties have clashed in the past. In the 1990s, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) fought a civil war. In Rojava, the local Peshmerga (literally, “those who face death”) have clashed with the YPG (People’s Protection Units) and YPJ (Women’s Protection Units).
Today, these tensions remain. The KDP and the Democratic Union Party (PYD) have opposing visions for Kurds. The KDP embraces Kurdish nationalism and the belief in an independent Kurdish state. It also embraces free-market capitalism, and has relations with Turkey. The PYD, along with Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK, in Iranian Kurdistan), has links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey. Both believe in autonomy and left-wing, libertarian democratic confederalism. As such, these groups reject outright statehood and all forms of nationalism. The KRG’s ties with Ankara have certainly not helped create more unity among the “Apoist” Kurdish factions and Iraqi Kurdistan.
Internally in Iraq Kurdistan, tensions between the PUK (more amenable towards Apoism) and the KDP remain. The PUK was skeptical of the independence bid in 2017, and aligned itself more with Iranian positions on Iraq and the Kurdistan region. Both the KDP and PUK, however, are infested with corruption and nepotism. This hinders any chance of political cohesion among the Kurds while preventing further economic and military success for the KRG (which has prospered more than any other Iraq region since 2003).
Unite or Die?
The status quo when it comes to Kurdish politics has allowed Kurdish regions to become more powerful and wealthier than many rebel groups or surrounding countries. Despite concerning human rights issues in Greater Kurdistan, areas under Kurdish control are far more liberal, wealthy, and friendly towards Western countries (and Israel) than anyone else in the region. An independent Kurdistan has potential to become a great power in the region–if it were united. There are a few, deep-seated flaws in the approaches of various movements in Greater Kurdistan.
The Apoist Kurds–PJAK, PKK, and PYD–have hedged their bets on democratic confederalism. While this is a nice idea, Turkey, Iran, and Syria–not to mention foreign powers like Russia–will never accept such a model. Syria is the last bastion of Baathism. Baathism’s version of pan-Arab ideology is inherently supremacist and draws on Nazi-type ideology and literature. Erdoğan has aligned himself with the neo-fascist Grey Wolves, and will not accept a non-Turkic autonomous region or governing partner. The mullahs in Iran are incredibly racist against non-Persians. Even if their regime fell, there is no guarantee that Iran would become a democratic or federal state, as the country is steeped in Persian ultra-nationalism. Western powers–in favor of free-market capitalism–will also never agree to support or accept democratic confederalism or such a far-left entity.
Meanwhile, the KRG is mistaken in thinking that it can have a true ally in Turkey. Turkey is instead playing the colonial “divide and conquer” game with the Kurds. It supports the KRG in its struggle against the more leftist factions, yet strongly condemned the Kurdish Independence Referendum in 2017. Turkey has served as a wedge between the Kurds in their unity, and the benefits to the KRG have not paid off.
Realistically, the only chance that the Kurds have to survive is based on two realities: one is to embrace all-out independence. First, Kurdish nation-state must be the end result. Secondly, put aside political differences to make this happen. The Kurdish people face an assault of four different types. The first type is the battle against Sunni jihadism. Kurds are supported, to a degree, in this battle internationally. But the other three fights are more dangerous, due to less overt international support: Turkish ultra-nationalism, pan-Arab supremacist ideology, and Iranian expansionism.
The Kurds are a large nation, and a fast-growing one in the Middle East. It is true that Western countries have played a role in the demise of Kurdish independence movements by abandoning them in their time of need. It’s also true that foreigners–Russians, Arabs, Iranians, and Turks–have worked incredibly hard to undercut Kurdish aspirations. Yet the biggest enemy for Kurds have been the divisions in their leadership.
In Mandatory Palestine during the early years (1880s-1930s), there were fierce divisions that prevented the establishment of an independent Israel for decades. If the Jews had united earlier, perhaps millions more European Jews could have been saved from the Nazis and made aliyah. In the end, the differing Jewish factions united in 1948 to crush the Arab invaders and resurrect an independent homeland. Despite continuing international hostility and often times a lack of support that goes beyond lip service, Israelis have remained united and maintained their independence. To survive, the Kurds must learn this lesson.
Turkey has already committed genocides, against Armenians, Greeks, and Assyrians during the First World War. Iran has expressed its desire for a Second Holocaust multiple times, and has contributed immensely to the mass murder of hundreds of thousands of Arabs in Yemen, Syria, and Iraq. Arab countries have mastered the art of conquering foreign indigenous peoples and appropriating their history and culture. The Kurds are not facing reasonable actors in Baghdad, Damascus, Tehran, or Ankara. They are facing ruthless enemies intent on extinguishing the Kurdish cause for equal rights, autonomy, independence, and existence altogether. Political details can be worked out later. No matter which end result the Kurds pursue, their enemies in the region are hellbent on slaughtering and oppressing them–producing another genocide. Only unity and independence can secure a future for the Kurdish people.