In a Middle East tormented by the domination of Western imperialism, the Kurdish people have been among the greatest victims.
When Britain and France carved up the Ottoman Empire nearly a century ago, the Kurds were denied their right to self-determination. Instead they were split between several states—Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran—that have usually oppressed them.
This torment continues into the present. Last weekend Turkish forces attacked Afrin, in the Kurdish-controlled region of Syria known as Rojava. But the problem isn’t just the oppressor states but the choice that Kurdish leaders sometimes have made to ally themselves to imperialist powers, particularly the United States.
This has long been the strategy of the two Kurdish nationalist parties in northern Iraq, the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). They took advantage of the 1991 Gulf War led by the US against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to carve out an enclave, benefitting from the protection of American air power.
The 2003 invasion of Iraq by the US and Britain allowed the Kurdish enclave to consolidate itself. It seemed an island of relative calm amid the chaos the rest of Iraq descended into.
The rise of Isis and its seizure of Mosul in 2014 seemed to offer more opportunities. Kurdish forces took advantage of the confusion in Baghdad to seize disputed areas, above all the oilfields around Kirkuk. And they received massive US support as they fought alongside Iraqi government forces to drive ISIS out of its strongholds.
Last September, as the US-led coalition’s grip tightened around Mosul, Masoud Barzani, president of Iraqi Kurdistan and KDP leader, called a referendum on independence. Even though he won an overwhelming majority, he had badly overplayed its hand.
The US stood by while its Kurdish clients were humiliated in Iraq. Will it do the same in Syria?
The Iraqi government was able to retake Mosul thanks to the support, not just of the US, but also of Iran. Iranian-backed Shiite militias played a crucial role in Isis’s defeat. In October, after Mosul’s fall, Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi redirected some to retake the areas the Kurds had seized in 2014. They fell rapidly, possibly because of a deal cut with Iran by Barzani’s PUK rivals.
Now there may be a rerun in Syria. Rojava was carved out by the Kurdish YPG (People’s Protection Units) when the regime of Bashar al-Assad, fighting for its survival after the 2011 rising, abandoned them. The YPG is closely linked to the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), which has been waging a generation-long war against the Turkish state.
As in the case of Iraq, Washington latched onto the YPG as an ally. The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), backed by 2,000 US troops, played an important role in the campaign that finally drove Isis from its capital in Raqqa. They now control 25 percent of Syria.
The problem for the US is that Isis’s defeat strengthened Iran, which backs both Assad and al-Abadi. So last week Washington announced it would keep troops in Syria. The ostensible aim was to train up the SDF into a 30,000-strong border force in north-eastern Syria.
In reality this move was aimed at Iran, towards which Donald Trump is adopting an increasingly confrontational approach. But in the complex, multi-dimensional chess game that is Middle East politics it inevitably antagonised Turkey. The government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan has escalated the war against the PKK in the last couple of years, and it doesn’t want to see its enemy become stronger in Syria.
Another factor in the equation is Russia, which intervened in September 2016 decisively to tilt the balance in the Syrian civil war in Assad’s favour. Russia has also supported the YPG. But, after negotiations in Moscow last week, the Russian military police based in Afrin were pulled out.
In effect Vladimir Putin gave Erdogan the green light to attack, and he has. The US stood by while its Kurdish clients were humiliated in Iraq. Will it do the same in Syria?
Whatever the answer to this question, it is the Kurdish people who are suffering. Let’s hope its political leaders learn that there is no gain from allying themselves to imperialist monsters such as Trump and Putin.