The latest chapter in the tragic history of the Kurds is being written. It’s a history that all too often has seen struggles for liberation come to rely on shaky deals with competing imperial powers that always end in treachery.
In the latest betrayal, the fate of millions of people now depends on whatever suits Donald Trump’s US, and Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey.
More than 160,000 people have been displaced after Trump allowed the Turkish army—the second largest in the Nato military alliance—into north east Syria. Many face death, trapped in a war zone, if the Turkish invasion continues.
That invasion could also destroy what for many Kurds is a landmark in a struggle for liberation that’s more than a century old.
The enclave in north east Syria known as Rojava—carved out amid the Syrian civil war—is their latest hope for a state of their own.
In Turkey—though Kurds make up to 20 percent of the population—it was forbidden to speak, read or write Kurdish
There are more than 30 million Kurds in the world, but there is no Kurdish state. Instead the region of Kurdistan spans parts of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran.
Kurds in these areas have been horribly oppressed, particularly in Turkey and Syria where their existence, history, and culture have often been outlawed or denied.
In Turkey—though Kurds make up to 20 percent of the population—it was forbidden to speak, read or write Kurdish until recently.
The Turkish state—founded in 1923 on the basis of a single, shared Turkish nation—tried to rub out Kurdish as a separate identity.
Kurds in eastern Turkey were told they were instead “mountain Turks.”
Kurdish uprisings over the decades have been suppressed with great violence, and Kurdish areas kept impoverished.
Following a military takeover in Turkey in 1980, the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) became the centre of a serious movement of resistance to state terror.
Turkey launched what was effectively a war on the Kurdish people within its own borders.
The Turkish military destroyed some 4,000 Kurdish villages and killed some 40,000 people in the 1990s and 2000s—all with the connivance of Turkey’s allies the US and Britain.
PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan was captured in 1999—likely with the help of the US. He has been held as the sole prisoner on the Turkish island Imrali ever since.
Kurds in Syria have faced similar repression. Though the dictatorships of Hafez and Bashar al-Assad harboured Ocalan and the PKK in order to weaken Turkey, they’ve also tried to wipe out the Kurdish identity.
Hundreds of thousands of Kurdish people lost or were denied Syrian citizenship—and many of the basic rights that go with it.
So when the Syrian Revolution erupted in 2011, many Kurdish people in north east Syrian towns were part of it and demonstrated.
The existence of Rojava ended up depending on the backing of US imperialism
Kurdish groups also fought the regime, and in 2012 Bashar al-Assad retreated from northern Syria, letting the Kurds take over and establish Rojava.
Yet in the chaotic civil war unleashed by Assad’s counter-revolution, the Kurds also had to fight Isis as it tried to take over northern Syria.
They accepted and relied on support from the US to do this.
Left wing organisations the PKK—listed as a banned terrorist organisation in the US—and its Syrian offshoot the YPG ended up fighting in support of the US’s intervention in Syria.
Kurdish fighters also forced Arabs out of many of the towns and cities captured from Isis.
The existence of Rojava ended up depending on the backing of US imperialism, as well as the agreement of the Syrian regime.
Now that the US has decided to ditch the Kurds to please Turkey, they’re looking to the regime of the counter-revolution—Assad—to prop them up.
It’s a tragedy, but it didn’t happen without warning.
In Iraq imperial powers have repeatedly backed Kurdish struggles for independence—only to ditch them whenever it suited. And that’s something that’s been going on since at least 1920.
Then, the Kurds were promised a state by powerful empires victorious after the First World War, only to be cruelly—and brutally—denied it.
Britain, the US and France had promised the Kurds their own state in a treaty signed in 1920.
But in the great carve up of the Middle East that followed the First World War, no imperial power was willing to give up the land.
Britain backed the plan to set up a Kurdish state in Anatolia, eastern Turkey, as it was fighting the Turkish nationalists there.
But when the two sides reached an agreement, the plan for a Kurdish state was dropped.
And in northern Iraq, which Britain had seized and discovered oil in, it crushed Kurdish attempts at independence with bombs and chemical weapons.
Kurdish nationalist sheikh Mahmoud Barzanji—who led the Kurds in northern Iraq—had a conflicting relationship with the British.
The Kurdish movement in Iraq was repeatedly picked up and dropped by imperial forces
Britain twice appointed him as governor in northern Iraq, using him to try and contain his movement and keep control of the region.
But fundamentally they were opposed to each other.
Barzanji wanted an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq, and Britain would never allow one.
Both of his reigns as governor ended in revolts aimed at winning independence. And both times Britain defeated, captured and then exiled him.
After that the Kurdish movement in Iraq was repeatedly picked up and dropped by imperial forces depending on whether they supported or opposed whoever was in charge.
For instance the US supported a coup in Iraq in 1968 that brought to power the Ba’athist party which put down the Kurdish movement.Yet in the 1970s it supported the Kurds against the Ba’athist regime to help Iran, which was then its regional ally.
The US agreed to arm and fund the Kurds until Iran no longer needed them. Then they were ditched.
US secretary of state Henry Kissinger summed up the approach. “Promise Kurds anything, give them what they get, and fuck them if they can’t take a joke.”
As Iraq’s dictator Saddam Hussein became an ally of the West, the US ignored his atrocities against the Kurds.
It happened again in 1991. The US encouraged Kurdish rebellions in support of its invasion of Iraq—only to abandon them to be massacred.
The Kurds were eventually allowed their own autonomous region in northern Iraq in return for supporting the US’s invasion in 2003.
But this semi-state is oppressive and dictatorial—jailing its critics and dissidents. And it’s entirely dependent on its relationship and support for the aims of US imperialism.
In 2014, having helped the US to defeat Isis in Iraq, Kurdish president Masoud Barzani called an independence referendum.
The referendum returned a 93 percent vote for independence.
Proper liberation for Kurdish people can only be won by challenging imperialism in the region, not by cooperating with it
In response the Iraqi government, backed by the US, sent troops to push the Kurdish fighters back into their enclave.
The entire history of the Kurds should be a warning that true liberation can’t come on the basis of support for imperialism.
Whether or not the Kurds are allowed independence—and what that independence would look like—would depend entirely on the needs of US imperialism.
Proper liberation for Kurdish people can only be won by challenging imperialism in the region, not by cooperating with it. It needs a movement and mass uprisings that unites ordinary workers across sectarian divides, and in which every ethnic group has a say in its own destiny.
The prospect of such a movement was raised by revolutions across the Middle East in 2010 and 2011. In many ways, the defeat of those revolutions is responsible for the sectarian and ethnic divisions in Syria today.
But right now it means standing in solidarity with the Kurds as they face another massacre at the hands of a US ally.
Interview with author Phil Marfleet
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