The sad plight of the Kurds

The Kurds in northern Syria are outraged by President Trump’s decisions to pull American support out of the area and to acquiesce in Turkey’s plan to establish a 20-mile-wide “safe zone” south of the Turkish border in Syria. The zone has been a Kurdish home territory for some time.

It’s nothing new.

For at least 700 years, the Kurds have been subjugated by various other governments and ethnic groups. And for at least that long, they have fought unsuccessfully for self-government. 

It’s said that the Kurds, who number around 30 million, are the largest ethnic group without a state. 

The Kurdish homeland comprises a large Middle Eastern region in southeastern Turkey, northwestern Iran, northern Iraq and northeastern Syria. The area is called, somewhat hopefully, “Kurdistan,” but it’s certainly not a nation-state.

Probably the most recognizable Kurdish leader in the ethnicity’s long, sad history is Saladin, who defeated the Crusaders and drove them out of Jerusalem and Palestine in the 12th century. It’s been pretty much downhill for the Kurds since then.

A few things to keep in mind about today’s Kurdish plight:

First, Kurds are not Arabs. Neither are they Turks.

Ethnically, they’re sort of related to Iranians (Persians), but they claim a separate ethnicity there as well, although they’re more accepted as equals in Iran than elsewhere in the Middle East.

Second, most Kurds desire autonomy.

Over the years, many of their leaders have fought for their own Kurdish nation-state, to no avail. After World War I, with the dissolution of the Ottoman Turkish Empire, Kurds were promised their own state in the Treaty of Sevres of 1920.

But Turkey would have none of that. The Turkish military prevented the formation of a Kurdish state, and in the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, the boundaries of Turkey were established without recognition of an independent Kurdistan.

The Kurdish situation is comparable to that of the Palestinians, whose dream of an independent Palestinian state has been thwarted by Israel for many decades. 

Third, Kurds are brave, fierce fighters. They’ve had to be so for many centuries. Many of their warriors are women, despite the fact that most Kurds are Sunni Muslims.

For that reason, and because there is ancient enmity between Kurds and Arabs, the Kurds were eager allies of the United States in the fight against ISIS when the Islamic State (ISIS) sought to create a caliphate in 2013 in the northern Syrian and northern Iraqi enclave portion of the Kurdish homeland.

The Kurds supplied most of the ground troops, thousands of them. The U.S. and Western Europe furnished air support and ground advisers. After more than five years, by this past spring, the coalition finally drove the jihadists from their last bastion in northern Syria. 

By then, tens of thousands of refugees had fled into Turkey to escape the fighting created by the Syrian Civil War between supporters of Syrian President Assad and his Syrian opponents. In addition, the Kurds had captured thousands of militants, creating an additional refugee population of tens of thousands of the militants’ wives and children. 

Turkey saw an opportunity. 

The Turks had for generations persecuted Kurds, who represent up to 20 percent of the population of Turkey and who had pushed for autonomy. Kurdish names and dress had been banned in Turkey, and Kurdish language had been forbidden. 

Kurds were labeled “Mountain Turks.”

The Kurds were in the way.

Turkey’s President Erdogan notified President Trump that Turkey planned to establish the 20-mile-wide Safe Zone in northern Syria. Trump acquiesced, announcing he would pull American military personnel out of the area, after exacting a pledge from Erdogan to treat the Kurds gently.

It’s the same kind of pledge that North Vietnam gave to President Nixon when the Americans pulled out of South Vietnam in 1975. 

Right now, it appears that Turkey will honor its pledge about as well as the North Vietnamese honored theirs.

Turkey wants to use the Safe Zone as a dumping ground for up to two million Syrian Arab refugees who had fled to Turkey, despite the fact that the zone is home to the Kurds. 

In desperation, the Kurds have switched their allegiance to President Assad as a last-chance buffer against the Turkish invasion. Russia has brokered a standoff between Syria and Turkey, and now appears to have occupied the former United States position as the power in the region.

Caught between Assad and Erdogan, the Kurds are once again in a no-win situation. Their hope of autonomy is bleak. Some 300,000 Kurds, including 70,000 children, are fleeing into the desert.

The damage to America’s worldwide reputation and honor from stiffing the Kurds will be difficult to repair.

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