“We helped the Kurds. They’re no angels, but we helped the Kurds. And we never gave the Kurds a commitment that we’d stay for the next 400 years and protect them. They've been fighting with the Turks for 300 years, that people know of.”
“Turkey, Syria and all forms of the Kurds have been fighting for centuries.”
“We don’t want to be involved in the border. The border between Turkey and Syria — they’ve been fighting for hundreds of years, they’ve been fighting for centuries.”
“They're fighting for 1,000 years, they're fighting for centuries. I want to bring our soldiers back home.”
When President Trump decided to withdraw U.S. troops from northeastern Syria on Oct. 6, he triggered a chaotic shift in regional dynamics and left Kurdish forces in Syria scrambling for a new ally. Until that day, U.S. forces had worked with Syrian Kurds to territorially defeat the Islamic State militant group, also known as ISIS.
In the aftermath of that decision, Trump repeatedly has attempted to frame Kurdish history as an unresolvable conflict going back hundreds of years, “centuries,” or even 1,000 years.
The reality of Kurdish activity, and both Kurdish and Turkish identity, in the region is more complex. The story starts only a hundred years ago, and it’s a complex saga of peace, suppression, resistance, cooperation and violence. Most of that violence is a result of relatively recent political tensions, and, at times, it has been on behalf of the United States.
Time for a history lesson!
(Note: Contrary to Trump’s rhetoric, much of the Kurdish-occupied land is mountainous with a diverse geography. It’s not all “sand.”)
The Ottoman Empire, with Constantinople (now Istanbul) as its capital, controlled much of the Middle East, Turkey and the Balkans from the 1300s through the early 20th century.
Within the Ottoman Empire, there were loosely defined regions where a certain ethnicity was more populous, and Kurdish people occupied one of them. Being “Kurdish” is rooted in culture and language — not in a political ideology. Even under the Ottoman Empire, there were different dialects being spoken by people identifying as ethnically Kurdish.
Nationalist ideas for the countries we see today existed only in intellectual spheres under the empire. That changed in the 1920s.
“When the Ottoman Empire dissolves at the end of World War I, you have a number of different agreements that the colonial powers come to,” said Lisel Hintz, assistant professor at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. “You have the drawing of boundaries that not only kind of divide populations based on ethnic and religious divisions, but also are manipulated in order to kind of serve the colonial powers’ interests.”
For instance, when the country of Iraq was created and placed under British supervision, the map was drawn to include a large Kurdish population in the north. Why? Kurds generally follow the Sunni branch of Islam, and the British wanted more Sunnis in the nascent country to balance out the Shiite population in the south.
To untangle the complicated history at play today, looking at the boundary drawn after World War I between Turkey and Syria is useful.
“The separation of Turkey and Syria was a very much artificial separation,” said Mustafa Gurbuz, adjunct professor at American University and nonresident fellow at Arab Center Washington. “The borders were very artificial for Kurds because their families were separated, their tribes were separated.”
In Turkey, Kurdish populations would be heavily suppressed for decades. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of Turkey, “had gone through the Balkan wars and had gone through World War I and saw ethnic nationalism as dangerous. And so, their idea was to create this homogenizing Turkish identity,” Hintz said. This sentiment meant an attempted erasure of Kurdish identity, through decades of killings and displacement.
During Turkey’s political unrest in the 1970s and 1980s, however, a militant Kurdish organization called the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, would emerge. In 1984, the PKK initiated a war with the Turkish state, and its actions led to the United States labeling it a terrorist organization in 1997.
History unfolded differently for Kurds in Syria during this time.
“After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Syria was under French mandate. Syrian Kurds and other minorities were regarded as strategic assets for the French colonial regime,” Gurbuz said. “Thus, their identity was not suppressed. Instead, we saw some Kurdish intellectuals move to Syria from modern Turkey under Ataturk’s regime and start advancing the Kurdish language.”
That changed in the 1960s, with the rise of a new nationalist movement that wanted to enforce an Arabian identity for Syria. (The country formed after World War II is officially known as the Syrian Arab Republic and has been run by the Assad family since 1970.) Syrian Kurds were stripped of basic citizenship rights, forced to migrate from their towns, and became economically downtrodden.
After a civil war erupted in Syria in 2011, the government controlled by Bashar al-Assad pulled troops out of primarily Kurdish areas in northeastern Syria to fight rebels in its civil war. This allowed the Kurdish People’s Protections Units, or YPG, and its political counterpart, the Democratic Union Party, or PYD, to emerge as the dominant ideological and militant force in the area.
“There is an organic link between the PKK and the YPG,” said Joost Hiltermann, program director for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group. “If you go to northeastern Syria, as I’ve been on several occasions, you see the posters of PKK leader [Abdullah] Ocalan everywhere, which can only be there because the YPG allows it.”
When the United States needed help pushing back the Islamic State in Syria, it allied itself with the YPG as part of the Syrian Democratic Forces. And partly because of that relationship, the United States was able to lead a largely successful campaign against the militant group and detain a large number of Islamic State adherents.
“But it was very difficult to stomach for Turkey because it was a mortal enemy of the PKK,” Hiltermann said. “And so that alliance between the United States and the YPG is something that Turkey never accepted and now is very happy to counter as the U.S. withdraws from northeastern Syria.”
When the United States withdrew troops at Trump’s direction and was no longer mediating between Turkey and the YPG along the border, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan acted on his long-standing desire to diminish the YPG’s reach. Turkey invaded Syria to create a buffer zone along the border that removed Kurdish fighters. Russia, which has relations with both the Assad government and Turkey, has filled the power vacuum left by the United States withdrawing. The future for people in that region remains uncertain.
The White House did not respond to a request for an explanation of the president’s rhetoric.
The Pinocchio Test
Trump has repeatedly attempted to portray the Kurdish people as natural enemies of the Turks, and claimed multiple times that they have been at war for multiple centuries, apparently as explanation for why a U.S. role in the region would be fruitless.
As we have demonstrated, this is not only simplistic but historically ignorant and false.
The Kurds’ struggles in the region began in earnest only after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the 1920s, mainly because their lands were carved up among different nation-states. Since then, their history has periods of peace and suppression between violence.
The president earns Four Pinocchios.
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