President Trump has gone to great lengths to defend his decision for U.S. troops to step aside this week as Turkey plowed ahead with an offensive against Kurdish forces in northern Syria, a key U.S. ally in the fight against the Islamic State.
And Wednesday, Trump tried to play down the U.S. partnership with the Kurds even further, saying “they didn’t help us in the Second World War. They didn’t help us in Normandy."
Those comments confused some observers, who saw the Kurdish role in World War II as irrelevant to the U.S. position on their alliance today. Washington certainly doesn’t shape all of its modern alliances on where a country stood in World War II — with Germany and Japan being the obvious examples.
And the Kurds do not even have their own nation-state, living instead largely between Syria, Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Armenia.
“It’s a weird framing that doesn’t really make sense historically or politically,” said Djene Rhys Bajalan, an assistant professor of Middle Eastern history at Missouri State University whose research focuses on Kurds at the end of World War I. “Numerous people who didn’t have nation-states weren’t necessarily at Normandy but participated either directly in the war or in terms of providing materials and labor for the war.”
Some Kurdish fighters were among them. “They didn’t have a state, so they couldn’t act as a state,” said Jordi Tejel, a professor of history at the University of Neuchâtel in Switzerland and author of “Syria’s Kurds: History, Politics and Society.” Still, he said individual Kurdish fighters from across the region did join other armies, fighting alongside the British and the Soviet Union’s Red Army.
There were Kurds who sympathized with the Nazis, seeing them as an anti-colonial alternative to the British or French, Tejel said. But others went to great lengths to counter Nazi influence in the Middle East.
In 1941, pro-Nazi Iraqi army generals helped launch a coup d’etat, installing Arab nationalist Rashid Ali al-Gaylani as the new prime minister. And it was the Kurds who "played a disproportionately large role in [later] overthrowing that military junta,” Bajalan said.
The #Kurds DID fight on the Allied side in WW2.— Akil N Awan (@Akil_N_Awan) October 10, 2019
They helped break the siege following the 1941 pro-Nazi Coup d'état in Iraq & were part of the (pro-Allied) Iraq Levies. By 1942 Kurds made up 25% of the force. By 1943, 10 of the 44 companies comprising the Iraq Levies were Kurdish https://t.co/ggoP22XRbW
In more recent history, Bajalan said, Kurds have pursued friendlier ties with the United States than other groups in the region and “provided the bulk of manpower for the northern front in 2003 during the Iraq War.”
The Kurdish fighters now facing the Turkish offensive belong to the U.S.-allied Syrian Democratic Forces, a group formed in 2015 to fight the Islamic State. The SDF was created out of a coalition of Kurdish fighters from the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Arab groups.
The United States threw its support behind the force, seeing it as crucial in defeating the Islamic State. But Turkey sees the group as a terrorist organization linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which has launched attacks inside Turkey in recent years.
This week, the SDF’s official Twitter account said 11,000 of its members have been killed in the past five years.
“There were assurances from the United States of America that it would not allow any Turkish military operations against the region,” Kino Gabriel, a spokesman for the SDF, told al-Hadath TV this week. He went on to describe the U.S. decision to step aside as “a stab in the back.”