Donald Trump’s appalling abandonment of the Kurds of northern Syria to the mercies of the Turkish military is but the latest episode in a long history of the imperialist powers and various regional forces cynically exploiting and betraying the Kurdish people.
During the first Gulf War in the early 1990s, US president George H.W. Bush encouraged the Kurds to revolt against Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi dictatorship. But at the end of the war, the US abandoned them, and Hussein’s forces invaded the northern Kurdish region of the country, driving hundreds of thousands into exile in Iran. More recently, in 2017, the US, despite having had a long term alliance with semi-independent Kurdistan in northern Iraq, did not lift a finger to prevent the Iraqi military driving the Kurds out of the vital oil-rich centre of Kirkuk.
During World War One, the Western powers, in particular the British, promised the Kurds an independent state to encourage them to revolt against their Ottoman rulers. Instead, despite of a lot of hypocritical cant – especially from US president Woodrow Wilson – about the war having been fought to defend the rights of small nations, the victorious powers simply carved up the old Ottoman Empire among themselves. Britain seized Iraq, Palestine, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, while France plundered Syria and what today is Lebanon.
A much truncated Kurdish state was included in the 1920 Treaty of Sevres, which was imposed on Turkey. But it was abandoned three years later in the Treaty of Lausanne, which erased the term “Kurdistan” from the map. The Kurds were left divided as oppressed minorities within Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran. They remain the largest national group in the Middle East to be denied the basic democratic right to self-determination, with about 16-17 million Kurds in Turkey, 7-8 million in Iran, 6-7 million in Iraq and about 2 million in Syria.
The years immediately after World War One in Turkey were characterised by rampant Turkish nationalism and an increasingly authoritarian and centralised government that moved to eliminate the remnants of Kurdish autonomy. This led to a series of Kurdish uprisings that were met with harsh state violence, culminating in the 1937-8 Dersim massacres, during which villages were bombed and thousands forcibly driven to the west of the country. The existence of a distinct Kurdish national identity was officially denied in Turkey, and any expression by the Kurds of their ethnic identity was repressed. Every morning all school children sang: “I am Turkish. I am honest. I am diligent”. Until as late as 1991, the use of the Kurdish language, although widespread, was illegal. The slogan, “How happy is he who says I’m a Turk” is prominently displayed in the centre of Diyarbakir, the largest city in the predominately Kurdish area of south-eastern Turkey. A large section of the Turkish army has long been stationed permanently in this region, which remains the poorest part of the country.
Tragically, secular Turkish nationalism has not simply been the province of the right but has also predominated on the Turkish left. This, combined with the entrenched Stalinist politics that championed cross-class alliances with supposedly progressive nationalist sections of the Turkish bourgeoisie, meant that until recent times there was little support on the Turkish left for Kurdish self-determination. The Turkish Stalinist left was more concerned with denouncing “feudalism” and the supposed threat posed by US imperialism to Turkish independence than in fighting what should have been their main enemy: Turkish capitalism. This disillusioned large numbers of Kurdish youth attracted to the left during the mass radicalisation of the late 1960s and early 1970s. It opened the space for the growth of the Kurdish guerrilla movement headed by the PKK (Kurdish Workers’ Party).
In 1999, PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan was captured in Nairobi, Kenya, after being expelled from Syria, where the organisation had been allowed to maintain military bases by the Assad regime, which was hostile to Turkey. Öcalan tried to engage in a peace process, but when that broke down, the Turkish government responded with more repression. Over the last 30 years, hundreds of thousands have died in the fighting or have been assassinated by wings of the Turkish deep state. The Turkish state feared that the consolidation of a Kurdish-controlled statelet in northern Syria would cause a similar development in Turkey. And having been given the green light by Trump, Turkish forces moved ruthlessly to suppress it.
Socialists should defend the PKK from attacks by the Turkish state and oppose its proscription as a terrorist organisation by Turkey’s NATO allies – the US, Britain and the EU. The proscription is utterly hypocritical given that the US for a long time armed and allied with the PKK’s Syrian affiliate, the People’s Protection Units (YPG).
It is not only the major imperial powers that have used the Kurds as playthings in their regional rivalries. In the 1920s, Iran briefly backed a Kurdish rebellion against Turkey and talked of the formation of a “Kurdish entity” in that country. But fearful of war with Turkey, the Iranian government rolled over; a corridor was opened through Iranian territory for the Turkish military to enter and crush the Kurdish forces. Then, in the 1960s, the Iranian monarchy allied with Iraqi Kurdish leader Mustafa Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party and provided him with weapons. In return, Barzani used his influence to quell the rebellious sentiments of the Iranian Kurdish population. But having gained a border agreement with Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi regime, the Iranians cut off aid to the Barzani rebellion. The Iraqi Kurds were again left to be slaughtered. With the outbreak of the war between Iran and Iraq in 1980, both sides attempted to exploit Kurdish forces to weaken their rivals. Hundreds of thousands of Kurds were killed.
The oppression of the Kurds has been more intense in Syria than in Turkey, Iraq or Iran. The Syrian Baathist regime carried out repeated rounds of ethnic cleansing and numerous massacres. Three hundred thousand Kurds were denied the right to Syrian citizenship. To suppress the ethnic identity of Kurds, bans were placed on the Kurdish language, books and other material written in Kurdish were outlawed, registration was refused to children with Kurdish names, and businesses with non-Arabic names were prohibited.
With the outbreak of the Syrian revolution, Assad’s army retreated from northern Syria in 2012. The YPG took control of the Kurdish areas along the border with Turkey and set up autonomous regional governments, collectively known as Rojava. The administration talked of democracy and equality for all. It claimed to be building socialism. Several positive reforms were introduced, and much emphasis was placed on the key role women played in organising the communities and in the YPG militia.
In 2014, the YPG’s forces, supported by elements of the Free Syrian Army, mounted a heroic and eventually successful defence of the ISIS-besieged city of Kobane. This was an important step forward because previously there had been armed clashes between the two. However, that success relied on cooperation with the US military, which mounted repeated bombing operations against the ISIS forces.
The YPG played a decisive role, again with substantial US military backing, in the crushing of ISIS’s reactionary forces in the rest of Syria. The YPG took control of large areas. But numerous reports emerged of Kurdish forces carrying out ethnic cleansing operations against Arabs. And many Arabs felt that the Kurdish forces adopted an opportunistic approach to the Syrian revolution, preferring to consolidate their own patch rather than joining the broader struggle against Assad’s murderous regime. Indeed, YPG spokesperson Redur Khalil declared in a November 2013 interview: “Our strategy is to defend our land and our people. As long as the Syrian regime and armed groups don’t attack us, we don’t attack them”.
But in a revolutionary civil war, neutrality did not offer any hope for Kurdish liberation. The harsh reality is that the defeat of the Syrian revolutionary process was bound to put an end to the Rojava autonomous region. It could survive only as long as the US found it of some immediate tactical use. But the US was always going to betray the Kurds to maintain a relationship with its Turkish NATO ally. Now, faced with the Turkish invasion, the Kurdish YPG has been forced to subordinate itself to control by Russia and the butcher Assad. While there are no guarantees in politics, it would have been much better had the YPG thrown itself heart and soul into the broader Syrian revolution against Assad.
The Kurdish nationalists’ suspicions of Arab political forces were understandable given the long history of their oppression and the brutal Arabisation policies of the Baathist regime. The various Arab nationalists and Islamists, in a similar fashion to their Turkish counterparts, have not taken a sympathetic approach to the legitimate demands of the Kurds for national self-determination. Now, disgracefully, various Syrian forces have allied with the Turkish invasion of the Kurdish statelet. Nevertheless, pushing forward the revolution from below of the popular masses of Syria, both Arab and Kurd, was the only possible solution to sectarianism, racism and national chauvinism. The Kurdish forces could have played a vanguard role in that struggle.
The Kurds have long been brutally repressed, exploited or used as a plaything by competing imperialist forces, above all by the US, and by the regional powers of Turkey, Iran and Iraq. They have every right to fight for their national freedom. But the Kurds cannot win their freedom on their own. It is only when part of a broader revolutionary alliance that the Kurds have come anywhere near to winning self-determination. For example, during the 1979 revolution that overthrew the shah of Iran, Kurdish forces played an important role and allied themselves with the working class uprising. Whole areas of Iranian Kurdistan were overrun by Kurdish opposition groups during the early months of the revolution, before the counter-revolutionary forces of the Islamic Republic rolled them back.
The Kurdish masses need to ally themselves with the ongoing revolts sweeping the Middle East. Kurdish self-determination can be achieved only as part of a united revolutionary struggle involving the working class and popular masses of the whole region – Kurdish, Turkish, Arab and Iranian. But that united struggle will be possible only if the left in the oppressor national states champions the right of the Kurds to national self-determination.