Almost exactly 100 years ago – 20 August 1920 to be precise – the victors of the First World War promised the Kurds a homeland.
Within three years that pledge – made under the Treaty of Sèvres – was tossed into the brimming bin of broken promises.
Losing part of its territory didn’t suit the new post-Ottoman state of Turkey, and the Allies complied. High-level agreements between nation states are what counts. Kurdish independence could go hang.
Today, as the world is preoccupied with the worst pandemic in living memory, Turkey is attacking the Kurds within its own borders, and in Iraq and Syria.
In spite of a ceasefire called by the UN during the epidemic, Turkey persists with indiscriminate shelling and drone attacks in North and East Syria. It is cutting off water supplies to people who desperately need them, increasing the risk of Covid-19 spreading through the region’s many refugee camps.
Turkish troops and their proxies are setting Kurdish farmers’ fields ablaze while ‘ethnic cleansing’ of Kurds continues apace. Regretfully, world powers only see them as useful proxies when needed – and friends to forget when not
Hassan Hassan is a teacher living in Shahba, just north of Aleppo. He tells me about the situation on the ground, where 150,000 Kurds are living in refugee camps and war-torn villages:
‘Here we come under non-stop barrages of Turkish artillery from the north and the east. Inside the occupied areas in Afrin, Til Abyad and Ras al Eyn, more than 50 pro-Turkey armed groups plus Turkish army and intelligence units have almost succeeded in depopulating the area of its Kurds, Yazidis and Christians. The Kurds, who have now become a small minority compared with the Arab and Turkman settlers, are subjected to violence on a daily basis in a bid to destroy the pluralist character of the area and empower extremists.’
He goes on: ‘The remaining Kurdish residents say they are suffering a litany of abuses at the hands of Turkish-backed rebels – kidnappings for ransom; armed robberies; appropriation of homes, shops, businesses, fields; and torture and killing.’
The area’s revolutionary experiment in autonomy, he says, is attacked by enemies, surrounding it like ‘sharks’: ‘the Turks and their cruel proxies from the north, IS and pro-Turkey sleeper cells from inside as well as Iranian militias from the south’.
Here, in numbers, are the consequences of six months of Turkish occupation in the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES, aka Rojava): 200,000 civilians permanently or temporarily displaced; 288 killed by Turkish shelling and drone strikes; 600 settlements occupied; 127 homes destroyed; 460,000 people denied access to clean drinking water; 1.8 million in need of humanitarian aid; 86,000 children denied access to education.
It’s hard to believe that not so long ago the Kurds were being lauded on the international stage as victors and heroes. The plucky ones who, with international coalition support, saw off Islamic State (IS) in Syria. Whose women and men had bravely led the ground fight against IS and taken back the Syrian city of Raqqa that the extremists had made ‘capital’ of their caliphate. Who, as part of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), partnering with the US, drove IS militants out of their last stronghold of Baghuz in early 2019.
Young female fighters of the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) were the symbol, not only the more acceptable face of the Kurdish armed struggle, but also the most interesting and media-friendly one. Perhaps the military success and kudos the Kurds of Rojava had gained would bring them closer to international recognition of their self-declared autonomous authority?
Then, suddenly, on 6 October 2019, US president Donald Trump announced, after a phone call with Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, that he was pulling US troops out of North and East Syria. It was a green light for Turkey to invade Rojava, which it did three days later under the cruelly inappropriate name of ‘Operation Peace Spring’.
There were international cries of dismay and talk of suspending arms sales to Turkey. Faced with Turkish military might, Syria’s Kurdish officials even struck a deal with Assad, their former enemy, for military reinforcements in the border area.
On 22 October Russia and Turkey reached an agreement. Turkish troops would remain in the areas they had seized and Russian troops and the Syrian army would control the rest of the border. The Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (YPG) element of the multi-ethnic SDF had 150 hours to withdraw. Both powers agreed they would not allow ‘any separatist agenda’ in the territory.
There was a bit of rollback on the part of the US: it would keep a small number of troops in the area after all. But the damage was done. Turkey had got away with its invasion under the pretext of ‘securing its border’ by creating a 5,000-square-kilometre, ideally Kurd-free, buffer zone within Syrian Kurdistan.
The Syrian Kurds, still under attack today, had been stitched up by the great powers and hung out to dry by their former partners.
As Hassan puts it: ‘Regretfully, in whichever state they live, the Kurds endure a perilous existence and world powers only see them as useful proxies when needed – and friends to forget when not.’
The geopolitics are complex, but they are also crude. Turkey has clout; President Erdoğan has several cards to play.
Card one: refugees. Turkey is host to 3.5 million refugees, many of whom would rather go to Europe. For Erdoğan they are a weapon that can be unleashed at any time on the EU and its neighbours. The countries of Europe have domestic, populist, political imperatives for keeping migrants out that trump humanitarian (and economic) reasons for letting them in.
Card two: Turkey is a powerful member of NATO, with the second-largest army of all members and housing 50 US nuclear bombs. It’s the world’s fifth-largest buyer of arms, 60 per cent coming from the US and plenty from the UK, France, Spain and Russia.
Turkey also invests lavishly in lobbying power, spending $6.6 million on influencing the US government in 2018. It is seen as a tricky but strategic ally in the US’s so-called ‘war on terror’ – even though it is supporting jihadist militants with al-Qaeda connections.
Card three: Turkey has nation-state power. Nation states have a mutual understanding. They can have their own armies, without being called terrorists. They can lock up journalists and political opponents, and still be welcome at the table of world democracies. They can displace thousands of citizens and still be courted as a valuable trading partner.
They have tacit permission to be tough on non-state actors if they arm themselves to defend themselves from government violence and abuses. On this matter states generally hang together, however unsavoury their fellow gang members.
If you are not in the club of nation states you are out in the cold when it comes to receiving UN support, even during a pandemic. Although it comprises almost a third of Syrian territory, the Autonomous Authority of North and East Syria (aka Rojava) is not recognized by the international community. The United Nations and the WHO therefore refuse to provide direct support and will only go via nation states.
This means that any assistance to Rojava has to go through the hostile Assad regime in Damascus, ‘even though it is known to be misusing funds and blocking humanitarian support for AANES,’ according to Kurdish movement researcher Anya Briy.
No-one doubts the region’s need. Its healthcare facilities have been battered by years of conflict. There are at least 600,000 internally displaced people and refugees.
Briy writes: ‘Only 2 of 11 hospitals are fully operational. There are only 40 ventilators to serve a population of up to 5 million, and given an acute lack of beds and medical practitioners, the region has the capacity to treat fewer than 500 cases. Given these conditions, one would expect international institutions to help prevent the spread of Covid-19 in the region.’
A challenge to the nation state
When Kurds seek independent statehood they are viewed as troublesome violent separatists, bent on breaking up the nation state, threatening national sovereignty and regional security. As tipping up the applecart of the 20th-century colonial rearrangement of the Middle East into the countries – Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Syria – in which the majority of Kurds live.
The Kurdish quest for freedom has met with brutal repression, the international community by and large averting its gaze, even when things have got truly genocidal.
Over the years, the Kurdish nationalist project has tended to give way to a more achievable agenda for human and cultural rights and varying degrees of self-rule or regional autonomy.
One example is the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI), created in various stages under the aegis of the US, following the defeat of Saddam Hussein and the collapse of the Ba’athist regime of Iraq.
The Kurdistan Regional Government’s reputation as the most democratic, stable and functional part of Iraq was tarnished recently when its government stifled protests against corruption and unpaid public-sector salaries. But still, it is viewed as a comparative success.
More impressive, for leftists and progressives at any rate, has been the Autonomous Authority of North and East Syria (aka Rojava) which has emerged within a collapsing state torn by civil war.
Rojava is viewed as a haven of grassroots democracy, based on principles of feminism, ecology, cultural pluralism, participatory politics and a co-operative sharing economy. Since 2012 it has presented a radical alternative to the nation state, articulated as ‘democratic confederalism’ by Abdullah Öcalan, imprisoned leader of the banned Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey.
British anthropologist David Graeber describes Rojava’s revolutionary autonomy as ‘a synthesis of the ideas of American anarchist and social ecologist Murray Bookchin and other authors, Kurdish tradition, and wide-ranging experience in the pragmatics of revolutionary organization.’
It has inspired people around the world.
Inside Turkey – worse day by day
What’s happening inside Turkey – where 15 million Kurds live – profoundly affects Kurds in the wider region too.
Although Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) won the March 2019 local elections, the People’s Democracy Party (HDP), a pro-peace, pro-Kurdish, bottom-up, Left alliance, did very well in the majority-Kurdish east of the country.
Erdoğan responded by instigating another round of politically motivated trials against party members, officials and politicians, accusing them of links with the outlawed PKK, which the government designates as terrorist.
Elected mayors belonging to the HDP were arrested, stripped of office and replaced by government trustees – a move condemned by Human Rights Watch as the equivalent of cancelling the 2019 election. In one day in May this year, five more mayors were arrested and replaced by government trustees, making a total of 52 removed from 64 municipalities won by the HDP last year. The HDP calls this a ‘coup’.
Speaking to me shortly after the latest culling, Ayse Gokkan, activist with the Free Women’s Movement of Kurdistan and herself a former HDP mayor, said that the repression of Kurds in Turkey was getting ‘worse day by day’.
Local democracy is being destroyed, devolved power being transferred to paramilitary forces. Modelled on the hated ‘village guard’ system of government spies, ‘neighbourhood guards’ are operating in Kurdish-majority cities, armed and with the authority to search and harass locals.
She explained: ‘There is a so-called NGO, People Special Forces (HÖH), that arms people to “protect” the state from its enemies. They are a paramilitary force, equipped and trained to attack opposition groups and movements.’
The policy is to build fear and anxiety, she said. The paramilitary forces encourage attacks on women activists and their organizations, including shelters. ‘They want to make women desperate, render them helpless, dependent on the state and males.’
Key to Erdoğan’s success in ratcheting up authoritarianism is the designation of the PKK as a terrorist organization and the adoption of this by the US, the EU, Australia and Japan. The PKK remains armed and militarily active, mainly focusing its attacks on Turkish military targets. In 2015 it was engaged in urban warfare with government forces in the Kurdish-majority east. The PKK says it is acting in self-defence against a state that is using overwhelming force to deny democratic rights.
There are calls in some countries to take the PKK off the terrorist list. Doing so would increase stability and encourage peace negotiations between the Turkish government and the PKK, some argue. Others say that the listing is simply unfair and gives the Turkish state an extra weapon with which to attack freedom-seeking Kurds everywhere.
There have been peace negotiations in the past. And on their own human rights records, both the PKK and the Syrian YPG have responded to international accusations that they use forced conscription and underage fighters by working with Geneva Call, an NGO pushing armed non-state actors to adhere to international humanitarian norms and pledging to keep minors away from combat.
People before states
Dreams of a pan-Kurdish state of greater Kurdistan seem remote today; various forms of regional or democratic autonomy are a more realistic possibility.
Rojava’s revolutionary system is holding up remarkably, under the circumstances, using its grassroots structures to meet the basic and economic needs of its people during lockdown in a way that puts rich nations to shame. But it faces existential threats from all sides – including, again, IS. The Turkish invasion interrupted the sustained Kurdish-international military pressure against IS, which, taking advantage of the chaos, has been regrouping and launching sleeper cell attacks in Syria and Iraq.
Meanwhile, the Syrian Democratic Forces are weakened but still burdened with holding tens of thousands of IS captives and their families, including at least 2,000 foreign national fighters, many Europeans among them.
Hassan does not mince his words: ‘How should the SDF take responsibility for thousands of imported jihadist thugs and their families while Turkey is attacking to release them? The SDF fought IS on behalf of the free world but this is the time of hypocrisy and betrayal. It is not the SDF’s duty to guard European trash here.’
The humanitarian need in the region was great even before Operation Peace Spring and Covid-19. Today, a few international NGOs are getting emergency aid such as food and medicines into Rojava, working with local NGOs. The Kurdish Red Crescent runs health centres. But the aid is not on the scale required. In January, under Russian pressure, the UN closed its last remaining aid route between Iraqi Kurdistan and Rojava.
Furthermore, because the WHO and UN are not present in the region, NGOs there are not able to access the $2 billion UN fund dedicated to tackling Covid-19.
The Kurds need to be able to decide their own future, but there are things that others can do.
International recognition of Rojava would allow essential humanitarian aid to get though. There are credible fears that Turkey is planning another major onslaught. The UN and its member governments should be putting pressure on Turkey to withdraw from Rojava. Arms sales to Turkey must stop.
Pressure should be put on Turkey to release its 50,000 or so political prisoners, including PKK leader Öcalan, who has already served 20 years. A Brussels court recently found the PKK not to be a terrorist organization; the EU, US, Australia and Japan could stop kowtowing to Turkey, delist the PKK from their registers of Foreign Terrorist Organizations and urge both sides to negotiate peace.
If the nations of the EU stepped up to their humanitarian responsibilities and took their fair quotas of refugees, they would be less vulnerable to Erdoğan’s blackmailing tactics.
The issue of Kurdish freedom is one with vast and complicated geopolitical ramifications. But it is also about simple, human things. One man who, with his family, had to flee from Turkish bombardment recalls: ‘My beautiful village home is now occupied by pro-Turkey Fayalaq al Sham fighters. My olive fields and pomegranate orchards have been seized by former IS fighters from Deir Ezzor.’
A Kurdish grandmother, living in exile, learns that her family home, so full of happy memories, is now being used by the Turkish authorities as a torture centre.
The quest for Kurdish freedom has become about a lot more than the creation of a Kurdish state. It’s also about values. About reversing nationalist thinking and nation-state ideology and putting people before states.
That’s one of the many reasons why we should care.