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