Dreams of Kurdistan: the Kurdish Issue in the Context of the Syrian Civil War

The Syrian Civil War will soon be entering its tenth year. As with so many of the world’s seemingly unending crises, people have become inured to the misery and the bloodshed. Yet despite the Assad regime’s recovery in recent years – aided with characteristic mercilessness by the Russians – this particular conflict is far from over.

In the north of the country fighting rages on in Idlib Province, as government forces seek to seal their reconquest. Barring their progress is a mixture of rebel and jihadist groups backed by Turkish troops who launched an invasion at the end of last year in a supposed bid to create a ‘buffer zone’ for displaced refugees along the country’s southern border. An additional  -perhaps primary – motive for the Turkish offensive is the ubiquitous presence of the Kurds in northern Syria, a formidable coterie of warriors long-perceived as a national security threat by Ankara.

Kurdish forces are still in control of swaths of territory in northern Syria

One fact may be disposed of at the outset. The Kurds can present a better claim to “race purity,” meaning ethnic unity, and to a continuity of their cultural pattern for a much longer  period than can any people now living in Europe. The culture pattern is essentially of the nomad-herdsman type, of course; but the claim, in that particular pattern, is quite justified. Since about 2400 B.C., originally under the name of Guti, they are known to have lived in the central part of the area over which they are now scattered.

So wrote William Linn Westermann in 1946, in reference to a Kurdish independence delegation at the San Francisco Conference of April 1945. Westermann was a history professor and had served as Adviser on Turkish Affairs and Chief of the Division of Western Asia, American Commission to Negotiate Peace at the Versailles Conference after the First World War. He suffered from the inherent racism of his day, seeing in the Kurds of southeastern Turkey, northern Syria, northern Iraq and northwestern Iran a backwardness typical of all stateless people. Yet he clearly felt some sympathy towards this ‘ethnically united’ people seeking the backing of international powers for the creation of an independent Kurdistan.

Of course there is a degree of contention about the origin of a distinct Kurdish people, yet the ‘land of the Kurds’ is mentioned in Christian Assyrian documents of late antiquity and a number of Kurdish principalities and fiefdoms existed at various periods during the Middle Ages. However, these all disintegrated or were subsumed during the rise of the Ottoman and Safavid Empires.

A map dating from 1074 showing the ‘land of the Kurds’ between present day Syria and Iraq

Since then it has been a long and unsuccessful struggle for an independent Kurdistan. In the aftermath of the First World War, provisions were put in place for the inception of such a state in the Treaty of Sevres. Yet this was never ratified and the new republican Turkey under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk) was quick to move into contested areas to prevent the emergence of a Kurdish state. As Westermann wrote more than two decades later:

The Turks claimed practically the whole province…They pointed out that there are thousands of Kurds within the borders of Turkey, and that the Turk and the Kurd are really one: give Turkey, therefore, the whole of Kurdistan.

Outline plans for an independent Kurdistan (shaded at centre-right) in a draft of the Treaty of Sevres

These ‘Mountain Turks’ as the Kemalist regime defined the Kurds were unable to maintain the support of the weary Western powers and the Treaty of Lausanne that ultimately replaced the Treaty of Sevres dropped the call for an independent Kurdistan. The San Francisco Conference of 1945 proved equally fruitless and the energy for a diplomatic resolution to the Kurdish dream dissipated, to be replaced in some quarters by revolt and armed struggle.

It is this phase of the independence movement that has set the Turks on edge, particularly the violent actions of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which has waged an almost continuous insurgency against Ankara since the early 1980s. For the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, any armed Kurd is a threat. It matters little to them that the Kurds have been one of the most effective forces in taking the battle to the Assad regime in Syria, not to mention reversing the rapid spread of ISIS.

The PKK is designated a terrorist organization in the USA, Europe and Turkey. Many Kurds disagree with the nature of its insurgency

Ironically, this perceived Kurdish terrorist threat has actually protected Turkey from the worst excesses of the ISIS terrorists, who are now on the comeback trail thanks to the Turkish offensive in northern Syria against the Kurds! As confusing and nonsensical as the Middle East always is.

Whilst it is not a simple matter for the global powers to just create an independent Kurdistan from scratch, carving apart the boundaries of four sovereign states, the Kurds’ service in the fight against repression and terrorism in the Middle East surely at least warrants re-consideration of their position. Greater Kurdish autonomy – as is the case in Iraq – should be a pre-requisite for any post-conflict settlement in Syria and this should extend to Turkey and Iran too. Yes it is extremely unlikely that Ankara and Tehran will accept such demands but is that not preferable to having an angry, well-armed and battle-hardened army on their borders?

For the Kurds have never been a unified people. They have no national tradition, no background of unity and no experience of self-rule. But even though the idea of a unified Kurdish state is completely unfeasible, the Kurdish movement for Khoiboun [independence] is the most dangerous of all the troubles which now beset the Middle East.

Not a ringing endorsement by the unflinching Westermann but certainly a recognition that the ‘Kurdish issue’ was going to remain at the forefront of geopolitical concerns in the Middle East in the post-war era. This has not and will not change, regardless of when the horrific Syrian Civil War finally ends. To fail to engage with this crucial regional actor – whose members would surely deny Westermann’s dismissive tone about their lack of a national tradition – is to light yet another powder keg in an area already engulfed in a blazing inferno.

In light of this America and its allies should reassess their commitments to regional allies whose treatment of the Kurds is not only grossly unfair, but naively counter-productive.

An independence referendum in the Iraqi autonomous region of Kurdistan in 2017 secured overwhelming support but had little impact

Further reading

Westermann, W L. ‘Kurdish Independence and Russian Expansion’, Foreign Affairs (July 1946)

The Great European Refugee Crisis: Turkish Actions Evoke Ottoman Nightmares

The great European refugee crisis of 2015 seems a distant memory to some, as for that matter does its primary cause, the Syrian Civil War. Yet the number of desperate migrants heading west into Europe is on the rise again, and once more it is due to actions in Syria, this time precipitated by the Turks.

Home for many Syrian refugees in Turkey: they fear a freezing winter

Having secured the nod of approval from President Donald Trump – who inexplicably promised to withdraw American troops without seemingly consulting  his military staff – Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erodgan ordered his army to invade northern Syria. The target? Kurdish fighters, those who had played such an important role in crushing the Islamic State (IS), American allies no less.

Part of Erdogan’s rationale for the invasion was to remove a well-trained Kurdish force from Turkey’s border, not trusting their separatist (or in the President’s eyes ‘terrorist’) intentions. Another reason was to attempt to solve Turkey’s own refugee crisis. Since President Bashar-al-Assad turned the sword on his own people some eight years ago, Turkey has hosted about 3.6 million Syrian refugees.

Turkish military convoy at the Syrian border

Such an influx has understandably put a massive strain on infrastructure and resource, with vast makeshift camps constructed in the hope of containing the refugees away from a wary native population. Invading northern Syria offers a potential solution for Erdogan; it opens up a new swath of territory into which the refugees can be banished, ‘sent home’.

Besides the undoubted moral implications of returning refugees into a war zone under the control of a brutal dictator happy to murder his own people, Erdogan’s plan had major flaws. Not only would trying to relocate millions of unwilling and exhausted civilians prove a logistical nightmare but the military campaign in northern Syria has simply led to more refugees (many of them Kurds) fleeing their homes. Where can they go? Well, Turkey of course.

That these developments have potentially massive implications for Europe were brought to light recently on the Greek island of Lesbos. There, a devastating fire broke out in a makeshift camp housing some 12,000 refugees that had fled war zones in the Middle East. One person died, sparking off large protests by the camp inhabitants who believed the local fire brigade was deliberately slow to react. The Greek police in turn cracked down on the protests with little mercy.

A fire engulfs a shipping container – a makeshift home for refugees on the island of Lesbos

Lesbos has been one of the first places in the European Union that refugees have been able to get to when escaping Turkey. Erdogan has threatened to further “open the gates” for refugees into Europe if he does not get support for his plans. 

Some of Erdogan’s actions smack of fear, knowing as he does that his rule is under domestic scrutiny in a manner previously inconceivable. He would do well, though, not to use millions of people as a political tool and remember the dying days of the Ottoman Empire, when a decaying and corrupt regime allowed similar events to spiral out of control, hastening imperial decline.

The Great Eastern Crisis (1875-1878) saw the political awakening of the Balkans and ignited a series of localised uprisings that eventually embroiled the major powers of Europe, led to de jure independence for many Balkan states and signalled the end of the Ottoman era.

Insurrections in Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria and Macedonia overwhelmed the creaking Ottoman administration and military, whose failure to modernise had undermined the foundations of the centuries-old caliphate. This was aided by international interference, whether it be the Russians supporting their Slavic neighbours in Bulgaria, or the British propping up Turkish rule in the hope of limiting Russian influence in the Near East, hungry states ready to prey on the carcass of the helpless Sultan.

A dying Montenegrin during their uprising against the Ottomans

The Congress of Berlin held in 1878 was an attempt by the European powers (Russia, Britain, France, Italy, Austria-Hungary and a newly-unified Germany) to solve the ‘Balkan problem’ so that it would not result in a wider European war. Long-winded negotiations eventually led to a treaty that decided the new territorial boundaries of the Balkan states. The upshot was that Ottoman lands and authority in Europe were almost eviscerated.

Whilst the treaty amounted to progress for some of the Balkan peoples, not all were satisfied and, though it led to a temporary moratorium in the bloodshed, regional grievances would prove a major catalyst for World War One. No congress could save Europe this time.

One of the major issues overlooked by the Congress of Berlin was the refugee crisis caused by the wars of the 1870s. Russo-Bulgarian attacks against Muslims had led to more than 150,000 refugees fleeing Bulgaria alone. They headed for Istanbul, seeking solace in the aloof Porte, putting the city’s infrastructure on the brink of collapse (Glenny, 2012, p. 140).

Turkish refugees flee Tarnovo in Bulgaria, 1877

Typhus and starvation soon ravaged the Ottoman capital as further refugees poured in from elsewhere. In a bid to save their city, the authorities sanctioned the ousting of many of these refugees to Adrianople, which at the time was under the occupation of a virulently anti-Muslim Russian commander. Horrific atrocities followed and one can’t help feel that a similar scenario may occur today in Syria.

Population displacement not only hurried the Ottoman death but it also strained the resources of other European states, whilst creating a heterogeneous demographic tapestry that would inflame ethnic tensions in the years to come. Again, we can see similarities with today’s refugee crisis, where nationalist and far-right parties across Europe have won significant support due to people’s perceived threat to their ethnic identify and culture.

A far-right march in Austria, 2017

Erdogan may be hastening his own demise with his reckless response to the refugee crisis, simultaneously undermining the stability of his Middle Eastern and European neighbours. Yet it’s fair to say that the international community has not done nearly enough to address the humanitarian, economic and infrastructural issues arising from one of the biggest forced population movements of the last century.

Syria has become a stale topic, a hopeless, never-ending situation comparable to the unsolvable Israel-Palestine conflict or the anarchic grasp in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

It is all very well for European states to shut their borders, turn inwards and pretend that the world outside doesn’t exist. However, this will only cause a bloating of the problem as more refugees pour in from the Middle East, exacerbated by the thousands more entering Europe from North Africa.

As ruthless and paranoid as the Ottoman sultans? Erdogan on the warpath

The crisis of 2015 may only have been a taste of what was to come. Europe stands on the brink, vulnerable to the paranoid actions of a threatened despot in Turkey and internal divisions relating to race and culture. The political and geographic map of the world’s most stable continent might be less secure than one might imagine. An uncontrollable bloating invariably leads to explosion.

Further reading

Glenny, M. The Balkans 1804-2012: Nationalism, War and The Great Powers (2012)