Why Does Everyone Want To Crush The Kurds?
The Syrian Civil War is a confusing mess of alliances and agendas, but the one thing they all have in common is a shared interest in crushing the Kurds. Inkl explores why the deck is stacked against one of the West’s closest allies in the Middle-East.
Who are the Kurds?
The Kurds are arguably the most effective Western-backed fighters in Syria and Iraq. Decades of life under authoritarian rule has forced the Kurds to move their soldiers, weapons and training camps across porous international borders. This preparation, combined with its nationalist zeal and international military support, has spurred the Kurds to numerous victories.
A historically maligned people, the Kurds are a religiously diverse ethnic group distinct from their Arab and Turkmen neighbours. Roughly 30 million Kurds live in their unrecognised homeland, Kurdistan, which straddles the borders of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran.
Kurdish minorities in these countries want their spiritual homeland to become an internationally recognised reality. The creation of modern states by colonial powers at the turn of the 19th century divided the Kurdish peoples and led to a century of oppression and revolts. It is exactly this history of violence that informs both the contemporary Kurdish campaign and the powers who deny it.
What are they doing?
In 2014, ISIS burst onto the world stage, attacking and laying claim to vast swaths of Iraq. The US-trained Iraqi army disintegrated in the face of the advance, abandoning positions across the northwest of the country. But Kurdish militias stepped into the vacuum, defending newly claimed territory as their own. The ISIS attack at one point came within 20 kilometres of the Kurdish capital, Erbil, before being halted by US airstrikes. With US support, the Kurds have since then slowly pushed the frontline with ISIS further West.
When the border city of Kobane was fiercely attacked by ISIS, it was the Peoples Protection Units (YPG) of Syrian Kurdish fighters who held them off. And when their position became untenable, US airstrikes helped turn the tide of the battle. Since then, the Kurds have built significant momentum by recapturing ISIS territory with air support from the Western coalition.
Fielding a conventional army of a comparable size, ISIS represent the Kurds’ most immediate foe. The insurgents accuse the multi-religious Kurds of apostasy: renouncing the true faith of Sunni Islam. The two groups have been locked in a simmering fight stretching across international borders for nearly two years. The Islamist group’s advance across Syria and Iraq was blunted by Kurdish resistance and incessant bombing from coalition aircraft. The conflict is entering a new phase as ISIS fortifies the cities under its control and uses suicide bombings and other asymmetrical tactics to attack their foes.
The Syrian regime has a long history of ignoring or oppressing its Kurdish population. Mistrust of the ethnically different Kurdish population by rulers in Damascus predates the formation of the Syrian Arab Republic. Various Arab governments have refused to issue Kurds with identity cards, withdrawn access to the welfare state and slowly depopulated Kurdish areas. The UN envoy representing Damascus at the Geneva III peace talks has refused to countenance any secessionist Kurdish hopes. The Kurds have so far managed to largely avoid direct conflict with regime troops, in fact Russian airstrikes against ISIS and other competing rebel groups have regularly benefited the YPG. However, the scenario may be radically different in the coming weeks and months if the regime’s encirclement and siege of Aleppo is successful.
The West and its allies
Airstrikes and weapons only go so far. The West cannot provide the support to Iraqi or Syrian Kurds that they need because the coalition camp is a hodgepodge of competing interests. In fact, some voices within the Western camp are also fiercely opposed to supporting the Kurds.
NATO partner Turkey shares a long history of violently oppressing its large Kurdish minority with its neighbours. The formation of the modern state of Turkey in 1923 coincided with colonial France and Britain dividing the region between themselves. The dispossession of the Kurds from their ancestral homeland set in motion a cycle of rebellion and repression that continues to this day.
Ankara has declared a minor form of marshall law in the predominantly Kurdish South-East to quell a current local uprising. Turkish jets have regularly struck YPG and Peshmerga positions to dull the edge of Kurdish swords, confounding the international efforts to support these very same groups (Premium subscribers only). Turkey also played a pivotal role in banning the YPG and its political arm from the Geneva III peace talks.
Why does it matter?
First and foremost, for all the obvious moral and humanitarian reasons. The Kurds are being slaughtered by ISIS while the world does little to help.
Second, because a combination of systematic local oppression and a capricious international community has crushed Kurdish attempts to celebrate their culture, let alone create a homeland for themselves.
And third, it matters because the survival of the Kurds is also of vital strategic importance to the West and its allies. The Kurds’ help is an invaluable part of the fight against ISIS, though a lack of support from the West and its allies has led the group to increasingly turn its attention to self-interested acts (and it’s worth noting that a similar sequence of events contributed to the creation of ISIS). The West’s goal of degrading and destroying ISIS is made immeasurably difficult without Kurdish involvement.
What happens next?
The war in Syria is entering a critical phase. The bolstered forces of Bashar al-Assad are fighting for an endgame around the ruins of Aleppo. In a clear challenge to the regime and it’s Iranian backers, the Gulf Arab states are threatening to invade the north of the country, ostensibly to fight ISIS. Lurking behind these changes is the Turkish threat to create a buffer zone across it’s southern border.
All of these events will rock Kurdistan. At present their allies are insufficiently armed or insufficiently committed to protecting them. 2016 will be a year of reckoning for the Kurds; it is yet to be seen whether anyone will step up to the plate for them.
Thomas Wharton is a freelance journalist and Inkl contributor.
This article is one of a series of Narratives produced by inkl to create greater awareness of some of the less visible themes, trends and directions that are shaping our society and our world.
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