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Trump joins the game of Kurdish betrayal



The Kurds share with the Jews a certain common ground. They have been, at stages of their history, promised and betrayed. Homelands have been sketched out on maps redrawn by great powers. But while the Jews did eventually find Israel, the Kurds continue to fight for an autonomous bit of earth they can call home.

Turkish armoured vehicles escort members of the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army, a militant group active in parts of northwest Syria, as they enter Syria on 10 October 2019. (Photo by Burak Kara/Getty Images)There have been incipient efforts to create a homeland. Kurdistan arose within the borders of Iraq in the 1920s, but it was an exercise of brutal brevity. While the self-declared Kurdish Republic of Ararat did have some life, it was, in time, crushed. Great Britain and France toyed and teased with borders and boundaries.

By the 1950s, the United States had announced that it, too, could play a part in the game of Kurdish betrayal. Iraqi Kurds, for instance, were given encouragement by Washington during the ill-fated rule of Abd al-Karim Qasim. Kassem's regime fell in a 1963 military coup, one, incidentally, marked by a significant hand from Iraq's future bloodthirsty ruler, Saddam Hussein. With the US objective of Kassem's removal achieved, support for the Kurdish resistance was withdrawn.

Of all the chapters of promise, enticement and supply given by the United States to Kurdish ambitions, that provided by the Nixon administration remains the most sordid. In February 1975, the Village Voice revealed that the White House had been funding a covert action program supplying Iraqi Kurds with weapons and material over three years costing $16 million. A chance for autonomy had presented itself, though the Central Intelligence Agency warned that the program risked raising false hopes.

With a shift in fortunes over the Iran-Iraq agreement over the Shatt-al-Arab in 1975, the Kurds were left in the dark and encouraged to keep fighting. The covert operation was also concealed from the US State Department. For the border dispute, Iraq's Saddam got what he wanted: Iranian-US cessation of support for the Kurdish cause. The move cost 35,000 lives and 200,000 refugees.

Before the House Select Committee on Intelligence (also known as the Pike Committee), US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was cool and adamant: 'covert action should not be confused with missionary work'. The final report of the Pike Committee made specific reference to the chapter. 'Even in the context of covert action, ours was a cynical enterprise.'

The same pattern is repeated through the next three decades. Through episodes of gassing, airstrikes and resistance, the Kurds, straddling Turkey, Syria and Iraq, were left as pawns of power and victims of the geopolitical chessboard.


"This very fact has proven counterproductive for Washington's policy in the Middle East, flawed as it was."


At a press conference last week, President Donald Trump explained that US troops would be pulled out of Syria, signalling yet again that another betrayal was in order. 'We want to bring our soldiers home. These are the endless wars.' This was taken as a measure of some encouragement from Ankara, despite the feeling within the Trump administration that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was 'bluffing' in threatening to combat the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces in northern Syria.

Since 2017, the two leaders have traded robust conversations on the subject of how to resolve the Kurdish question, with US forces supplying and assisting Kurdish fighters against the Islamic State and Turkey keen to establish a buffer zone against any aspirations of a future Kurdish state. (Turkey has had a fluctuating relationship with Islamic State, one that has verged on warmth at points.) While warning of potential violence between their respective militaries, Trump called the Turkish leader's bluff on more than one occasion. On this occasion, it was Erdogan's turn.

With the incursion of Turkish forces, the situation of chaos is already unfolding. Islamic State militants who had been in Kurdish and US military hands, along with their families, are now the subject of considerable disagreement. Some 500 have escaped from a camp in Ain Issa. The advance by the Turkish military was also so rapid as to cut off withdrawal routes for US forces.

With their options few and far between, the Kurdish militia units have opened channels with the Russian-backed government of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus. As the sombre statement from the Kurdish administration went, 'In order to prevent and confront this aggression, an agreement has been reached with the Syrian government ... so that the Syrian army can deploy along the Syrian-Turkish border to assist the Syrian Democratic forces.'

This very fact has proven counterproductive for Washington's policy in the Middle East, flawed as it was. Not only were the militia units assisted to combat the Islamic State forces, but the US presence was also meant as a guarantee against widening Russian and Iranian influence in the region. Now, Syrian government forces are being encouraged by the Kurds to return to the northern regions of the state for the first time in years.

In the unfolding chaos, ISIS militants also see some encouragement. An international military base outside Hasaka and the northern city of Qamishli have been attacked.

While expecting an indefinite US presence in Syria was unrealistic as part of bargaining for a homeland, the Kurdish forces are right in feeling the sting of yet another historical abandonment. They have been more than useful fighters, a point that is also held against them. The question now is how bloody this next chapter will prove for them.



Binoy KampmarkDr Binoy Kampmark is a former Commonwealth Scholar who lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.

Main image: Turkish armoured vehicles escort members of the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army, a militant group active in parts of northwest Syria, as they enter Syria on 10 October 2019. The military action is part of a campaign to extend Turkish control of more of northern Syria, a large swath of which is currently held by Syrian Kurds, whom Turkey regards as a threat. US President Donald Trump granted tacit American approval to this campaign, withdrawing his country's troops from several Syrian outposts near the Turkish border. (Photo by Burak Kara/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Binoy Kampmark, Kurds, Syria, Turkey, Iraq, Saddam Hussein, Donald Trump



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Existing comments

Binoy, Yet another warning to the US Allies that agreements can be torn up if they don't suit the agenda of the occupant of the White House. The funny thing is that the very situation that the U.S. was trying to avoid has happened. Iran , Russia and Syria are the winners, the West are the losers. Of course the Kurds feel rightly betrayed.

Gavin O'Brien | 15 October 2019  

Binoy the blame does not rest on Trump alone. Ergodan has been supplying ISIS with weapons and vehicles into Syria for years. And perhaps the reason for the military incursions is to bolster his tenuous hold on power rather than his claim to create a safe Zone. First there was Operation Euphrates shield and now Operation Peace Spring. Should we blame the USA for the betrayal? We continually rail against their overseas wars eg: Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq. The history of the PKK shows that they are not only seeking autonomy within Northern Syria but have also vowed to overthrow Erdogan's Government. Within Turkey Erdogan has banished the use of the Kurdish language and songs and he has killed and imprisoned their leaders and fighters. For Erdogan, the withdrawal of the US troopsis an opportunity to kill three birds with one stone. The war against the Kurds becomes a unifying symbol within Turkey, a chance to eliminate a long term threat and an opportunity to seize more territory.

francis Armstrong | 15 October 2019  

Turkey is dealing with internationally recognized Kurdish terrorists within its borders, allied with Kurds in Syria, as well as millions of Syrian refugees. I have seen a lot of criticism of Turkey but not one practical solution. A homeland for the Kurds probably will never eventuate, but if it does it is for Turkey, Syria & Iraq to sort out. US troops should be completely withdrawn according to the vote of the American people. The Kurds who fought ISIS did so for their own reasons and not for the good of humanity. I have no special sympathy for them above the rights & interests of Turkey.

Ken John | 20 October 2019  

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