Kurdistan: Betrayed again

"We're the eternal pawns in a toxic game of international chess."


“I was born and raised here but my parents are Kurdish. Kurdistan. No, not Kazakhstan, Kurd-DIS-tan…” at which point I might, somewhat frustratedly, provide a brief history of the Kurdish people.

Until recently this has been my response of the tiresome question of ‘where are you from’. I eagerly express my claim to Englishness while tacitly separating myself from my nebulous Kurdish identity. Last week, roaming Oxford in a stupor following Trump’s withdrawal of American troops from Syria, I chanced upon the delightful Sanders of Oxford. wherein I found a Middle Eastern map from the mid-18th century marked with ‘C U R D I S T A N’, the words delicately arched in a small but clear font.

We Kurds have a favourite saying: ‘We have no friends but the mountains.’ From birth, it’s burned into our consciousness . We’re reminded of it whenever our struggle makes the news; even more when it doesn’t. This pervasiveness of this saying reveals an inherent irony in the Kurdish character who, despite this adage, cannot escape our naturally xenophilic and receptive nature. Recent Kurdish history charts a tragic series of betrayals by Western powers we once considered friends. Kurds are tempted into alliances by the tantalising prospect of independence. We’re excited into action, then let down in the final moments, before our dream is achieved. We’re the eternal pawns in a game of toxic international chess.

Trump’s rationale (spewed forth, unsurprisingly, via a Twitter tirade) for removing troops from Syria is a false claim that ISIS has now been totally annihilated, rendering further Western intervention an unnecessary muddying of the Middle East’s murky politics. But it’s easy to find a far more pragmatic rationale: it frees up millions in the American coffers to fund his promised tax cuts.

It’s tempting to place this decision in the wider picture of Western foreign policy in the last few decades. We can claim it as another example of the West’s weakening resolve, exemplifying ongoing moral panic and a deepening existential crisis. But to say Trump is an anomaly is an understatement; his terms of operation are purely mechanical and numerical; philosophical and abstract ideas like honour and duty mean nothing to a man whose greatest literary outpouring was The Art of the Deal .

His thought-process is clear. This decision ostensibly puts “America first”. It’s a short-term patching up of the hole in his coffers left by the Chinese trade war. It feeds his base for his re-election campaign. To President Business(man), it’s a no-brainer.

Not long after this announcement, Erdogan started his offensive against the Turkish Kurds to whom he was finally awarded a direct and unencumbered passage. Since the end of the First World War and the signing of the Treaty of Sevres in 1920 which promised a Kurdish independence referendum (later revoked by the Treaty of Lausanne in 1924) Middle Eastern geopolitics has been operating on the simple principle that one’s enemy’s enemy is one’s friend. Kurdish territory has proved a valuable resource to the countries amongst whom the Kurdish region has been divided; Iraqi, Iranian, Turkish and Syrian governments have spent the last century working independently to collectively undermine Kurdish efforts for independence.

Kurdish subjugation has proved to be a point of unity, the single common denominator in the otherwise fraught relations of these neighbouring countries. One might conclude that this oppression has perversely protected greater peace in this large corner of the Middle East.

This inverted symmetry is best encapsulated by Orwell in 1984: war against the Kurds preserves the peace; oppression of the Kurds guarantees the freedom of its neighbours. And the final tenet of this prophetic trio can be judged in two ways to determine Kurdish fate. First, Kurdish aid has been the strength of its neighbours, the force keeping this region stable so that the Kurdish flag can never fly and their borders forever undefined. Alternately, the strength to rise from this situation belongs to the Kurds alone, fuelling the fires of Kurdish nationalism until the region implodes and political and structural realignment occurs.

However, it is hard to imagine Kurdistan being independent without the aid and the internationally recognised moral authority of the very powers who have betrayed it so consistently throughout history. Within my identity lie both the victim and the aggressor; I like to say it is Kurdish blood running through my veins and English oxygen keeping me alive. I am English because the English were instrumental in robbing my grandparents of their Kurdishness, the resulting wars driving my parents into refugee camps and making a perilous journey to safer land like many before them and many after; I am English because I could not be entirely Kurdish.

Erdogan’s ferocious offensive will be sure to have the opposite effect to that which he desires. The systematic oppression suffered by Turkish Kurds is almost unparalleled by the rest of the Kurdish region: they were denied the right to speak their native tongue for over a century, Kurdish names were entirely banned, and they have been trapped in total destitution until very recently.

Yet despite this adversity, perhaps unsurprisingly, these most oppressed Kurds have a sanguine spirit and the strongest notion of what it means to be Kurdish. Erdogan will succeed in unifying the Kurdish regions, strengthening their identity and risking creating a real terrorist organisation out of dissident groups attacking the heart of Turkey. The people to suffer most from sanctions imposed by America upon Turkey will be the Turkish people themselves.

Erdogan will impose aggressive economic discomfort in order to claim more power, acquire greater undemocratic legitimacy, and stoke up anti-Western sentiment. He will likely align Turkey ever closer to Russia, consequently creating the optimum environment for the spread of misinformation not just in Turkey but throughout the international community so that, as Hannah Arendt foretells, we will believe that everything is possible and nothing is true. Everything remains possible.

I find myself back at Sanders rummaging through the delicate sheets, and I let out a deep sigh. Perhaps one day while fumbling through a real atlas or while spinning a modern globe, Kurdistan, surrounded by its serene rivers, protected by its loyal mountains will catch my eyes, tearful with joy.