A people without a state
The U.S. withdrawal from Syria left Kurds at the mercy of Turkey, Russia, and Syria. Why are the Kurds still homeless?
Who are the Kurds?
A tough mountain people, the Kurds are the fourth-largest ethnic group in the Middle East—after Arabs, Persians, and Turks—and have their own distinct culture and language. Nearly all are Sunni Muslims, but they have many tribes and are far from a monolithic group. Over the centuries, they have handed down their traditions through music, with bards singing folktales and stories of Kurdish feats in battle. Spread out mostly over four countries and now numbering some 30 million, the Kurds have pressed time and again for a homeland since the 19th century, only to have their hopes dashed when great powers broke their promises. Several times since the 1970s, the U.S. gave them military aid to fight a common foe, and then abandoned them, leaving thousands of Kurds to be killed and forcing hundreds of thousands to flee. As a Kurdish proverb says, the Kurds have “no friends but the mountains.”
Why don’t they have a country?
After the Ottoman Empire was defeated in World War I, victorious Western powers agreed in the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres to create a Kurdish state. But three years later, in the wheeling and dealing over the boundaries of modern Turkey, Britain and France dropped their demand for a Kurdish homeland, and Kurds were left as large minorities in Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran, with small minorities in the Caucasus. All the nations where Kurds now live are opposed to granting them a homeland or true autonomy—particularly Turkey.
How have they fared in Turkey?
For nearly a century, Turkey has oppressed the Kurds, who make up nearly a fifth of its population of 80 million. In response to Kurdish uprisings in the 1920s and ’30s, Turkish authorities banned Kurdish dress and names and severely restricted language use. It even tried to erase the Kurds’ identity by designating them “Mountain Turks.” In the 1980s, a separatist militant group, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, began waging a terrorist insurgency, bombing Turkish military and police outposts. The decades-long fight has killed some 40,000 people from both sides, including many civilians.
How has the U.S. treated them?
The U.S. has frequently used the Kurds as a dispensable pawn in a game of geopolitical chess. In the 1970s, when the U.S. was allied with the pro-Western Shah of Iran, our country funneled military aid to the Iraqi Kurds as a way to undermine the Soviet-allied Iraqi regime. But in 1975, Iran struck a deal with Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and closed the Iran-Iraq border, leaving the U.S. with no corridor to continue assistance. Kurdish leader Mustafa Barzani appealed desperately to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. “Our people are being destroyed,” he said, and the U.S. had a “moral and political responsibility” to help. But the U.S. stood by as Saddam crushed their uprising. Later, after the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran caused the U.S. to switch to supporting Iraq, America again did nothing as Saddam waged a vicious campaign against the Kurds, culminating in a chemical attack at Halabja (see box). After Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990, the U.S. led a war against him and urged the Kurds to rise up and fight. But when President George H.W. Bush decided not to topple Saddam, the Iraqi dictator ordered air attacks that killed thousands of Kurdish civilians. Only then did Bush establish no-fly zones to safeguard them.
What happened after the Iraq War?
Iraqi Kurds were able to set up a semiautonomous enclave in northern Iraq. Once the U.S. decided to invade in 2003, Kurdish peshmerga fighters fought alongside U.S. troops, and Saddam was captured and executed in 2006. Iraqi Kurdistan became formally autonomous as a federal republic, enjoying arguably the most freedom Kurds had ever had. But thanks to the rise of ISIS, they were not to be at peace. By 2014, when ISIS proclaimed a radical Islamic caliphate in Iraq and Syria, courageous Kurdish fighters helped spearhead the U.S. coalition against ISIS, losing 11,000 soldiers in the fierce fighting. Meanwhile in Syria, Syrian Kurds were able to take advantage of the civil war that began in 2011, winning control of key cities.
What was the most recent betrayal?
America’s NATO ally Turkey was never comfortable with U.S. support for Syrian Kurds, saying the Syrian units were just an offshoot of the PKK. To appease Turkey, the U.S. persuaded the Kurds to withdraw their heavy weapons near the Turkish border, promising that the American troops there would deter a Turkish invasion. But after a phone call from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, President Trump abruptly agreed in early October to withdraw about 1,000 U.S. troops in Syria. Turkish tanks rolled into Syrian Kurdish lands, killing scores of fighters and civilians. Desperate to avoid a massacre, Syrian Kurds last week struck a Russian-brokered deal with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to retreat from the border area to a region further south. “If we have to choose between compromises and the genocide of our people,” said Kurdish commander Mazloum Abdi, “we will surely choose life for our people.”
Gassed at Halabja
In the worst chemical attack in modern times, Iraqi jets dropped mustard gas and nerve agents on the Kurdish town of Halabja on March 16, 1988. An estimated 5,000 people, mostly women and children, died gruesomely that day, and thousands more were injured. Birth defects and high cancer rates persist in the population to this day. The attack, the first time a government used chemical weapons against its own people, came during Saddam Hussein’s genocidal Anfal campaign against Iraqi Kurds, which killed some 100,000. The two men responsible, Saddam and his cousin “Chemical Ali” Hassan al-Majid, were hanged in 2006 and 2010, respectively, and the Iraqi High Criminal Court has recognized the Halabja massacre as an act of genocide. Kurds in Halabja say the poisoned air smelled like rotten apples, and today nearly every family in the town keeps decorated apples as a memorial to those they lost. ■