Kurdistan: Betrayed by the West

A peshmerga gives much-needed food to a Yazidi child (Getty Images)
A peshmerga gives much-needed food to a Yazidi child (Getty Images)

As the geopolitical tectonic plates of the Middle East continue to shift and collide, Kurdistan remains an island in a sea of chaos.  In stark contrast to its neighbours, Kurdistan’s staunch commitment to defending freedom and rejecting extremism is evident as day after day, Kurds continue to pay a bitter price for their resistance against terror, on several different fronts.

A bridge between the worlds of authoritarianism and liberal democracy, the Kurdish people have accomplished what few in the Middle East have dared to attempt: standing up against tyranny, embracing democratic values, and providing safe havens for the displaced.

In a climate fraught with extremism and oppression, Kurdistan remains a breath of fresh air.  Descended from ancient indigenous peoples like the Medes, the Kurds today have their own language and unique national identity with origins that date back millennia.  A people forgotten by colonizers and persecuted by extremists, against all odds the Kurds have managed to survive while retaining their distinctiveness and also evolving to be attuned with modernity.  Compatible with Western values, Kurds typically separate their religious views from their politics—a sharp contrast with their neighbours, like ISIS, Iran, and Erdogan’s Turkey.

A stateless nation that—in spite of its own challenges—has managed to serve as a sanctuary for refugees fleeing ISIS, while simultaneously organizing military forces (comprised of both males and females) to fight against tyrannical forces, is no small feat.  Yet, Kurdistan may soon be facing a greater crisis of its own.  This defender of many unfortunately has few who are willing to return the favour.

Iraqi Kurdistan is one of the few places in the Middle East that serves as a safe haven for minorities and refugees.  Cities like Erbil were opened to tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians expelled by ISIS from Mosul.  Other than the State of Israel, Iraqi Kurdistan is arguably the only place in the Middle East that harbours and protects all religions and minorities.

The Peshmerga (and other Kurdish forces) has continued to take the brunt of the burden of fighting ISIS and driving their fighters away, creating safe zones where refugees fleeing the horrors of ISIS can find security.

The Kurds, who arguably became the primary fighting force against ISIS, served as a barrier to protect the remaining free cities of the Middle East.  They have also served as an effective tool in removing ISIS strongholds and reconquering defeated territories when Western nations were no longer willing to jeopardize the lives of their own troops.

Though Kurdistan may be a natural Western ally, you would hardly know it by looking at the majority of Western stances of late (both through their action and inaction).

Instead of thanking their friend for their efforts (particularly during a time when the list of strategic Western alliances grows thin), the West has largely both ignored and dismissed Kurdistan.  While mainstream Western media has generally remained silent on the issue altogether, there are also powerful voices coming out of the West that are paying lip service to Kurdistan’s various foes—foes that act against the Kurds using both “law-fare” and all out warfare.

The West’s unfortunate actions have inadvertently contributed to empowering and legitimizing terrorist regimes and entities, while Western inaction has simultaneously led to the further victimization of vulnerable minorities in the region, like the Kurds.

Former UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson tweeted, “Turkey is right to want to keep its borders secure.”  US President Trump said he gives Turkish President Erdogan “very high marks” for the way he runs his country, also referring to him as his “friend” (though his views on that seemed to have altered of late due to broken Turkish promises). Leaders like Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau—likely to avoid any personal criticism—simply avoid the issue by refusing to comment on Kurdistan’s plight in any meaningful way. Statements like these could not be more misguided, especially in light of the fact that Turkey has unlawfully imprisoned various foreign nationals, including a Turkish-American NASA scientist on “terrorism charges” (an act condemned by the USA), as well as continuing proxy wars against the Kurds through groups like ISIS, America’s and American allies’ mutual enemy.

While foreign diplomacy must be executed with tact and one could be forgiven for being too magnanimous with one’s language when important international ties are at stake, political language should not be used too loosely at the expense of one’s more vulnerable friends and allies, particularly when lives are in the balance.

Renowned French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy says that, “the Kurds paid the highest price for the defence of the values of civilization against the barbarity of ISIS” and that the West must acknowledge that rather than seeing the Kurds as “currency.” He calls the Kurds the “shield” and the “stopping force” that prevented ISIS from invading Europe, and that an independent Kurdistan will bring stability to the region because of the strong values the Kurds hold.

Prominent human rights activist and executive director of UN Watch, Hillel Neuer, has also criticized the poor treatment of the Kurds on several occasions.

Though many have acknowledged Kurdistan’s commitment in supporting refugees, fighting terror, as well as how Kurdistan itself has been increasingly victimized, the vast majority of Western political voices are indifferent or even opposed to these obvious truths (though Western public opinion seems to be largely in favour of recognizing Kurdistan).  Ironically, the enemies of Kurdistan—that the West has invariably contributed to propping up (whether by commission or omission)—are also self-proclaimed foes of the West.  The West is doing itself a disservice by failing to recognize this and actingaccordingly. The Obama-backed Syrian rebels are an example of this. ISIS was formed when al-Qaeda militant leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi took control of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and merged with a large faction of the Nusra Front in Syria, which was funded and supported by the United States—both directly and indirectly.  Furthermore, Obama’s soft political stances on Iran (particularly the poorly drafted “Iran Deal”) and Turkey have also contributed to the victimization of the Kurds and the greater instability of the region.

While the Kurds have endured years of broken promises and outright attacks, the West most notably abandoned the Kurds for the first time through the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which contradicted the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres, ultimately preventing an independent Kurdish State from being created at the time. In recent memory there have been instances where the Kurds stood up to attacks and worked for self-determination in the midst of hostility only to be treated indifferently by their allies.

Saddam Hussein’s Anfal genocide in the late 80s was a truly devastating event where meaningful outside intervention never took place. Specifically targeted by Saddam Hussein’s regime for genocide (exposure to mustard gas, with over 1 million Kurds missing), the Kurds have survived mass genocide, only to face the onslaught of ISIS, and greater Turkish and Iranian oppression.  Nevertheless, Kurdistan is a proud nation that has striven to rise above its challenges in the pursuit of freedom and self-determination.

In 2014, ISIS attacked the Kurdish city of Kobane, along Turkey’s border, Kurdish forces fought back fiercely to avoid certain death.  Hundreds of towns were taken and hundreds of thousands of refugees had to flee.

On September 25, 2017, Iraqi Kurds unanimously voted “yes” for independence from Iraq.  Their request was not granted however (despite the fact that the Iraqi army failed to protect Iraqi Kurdistan from ISIS—forcing the Kurds to form their own militias).

Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government’s representative to the United States, said that, “Baghdad has not paid our share of the national budget” to support healthcare and education services for residents of Kurdistan as well as the nearly 2 million refugees which have flooded the region.  Iraq has also continued efforts to Arabize the region.

In January 2018 the Turks launched an unprovoked attack in Afrin (northern Syria), where a minimum of 820 Kurdish fighters were killed and nearly 170 000 Kurds were displaced and barred from returning to Afrin. Furthermore, Turkish-backed rebels in the region filmed soldiers mutilating the dead body of a female Kurdish YPG fighter (who had joined SDF—the Syrian Democratic Forces—to remove ISIS from large areas in Syria).  Minorities of Kurds, Yazidis, and Christians who had comfortably abided by liberal, equal rights standards of the YPG became subjected to extremist standards imposed on them by radical militias.  These included wearing burkas for the women, making it illegal to be seen buying groceries on Ramadan, and being subjected to punishments—like being tied to a pole to endue the heat all day—if these rules were broken.  This barbarism went unchecked and unchallenged by those in the West.  Kurds remain deeply concerned that Turkey’s NATO (and potential full-fledged EU) status will prevent any repercussions from taking place against the state.

President Erdogan leads a nation where 79% of its population holds unfavourable views toward the US.  He is also a firm supporter of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood—both formidable terror organizations that actively seek to destroy attempts at stable democracy throughout the Middle East, as both Egypt and Israel can attest to.

Turkey has acted aggressively against Kurds, having banned everything from the Kurdish language to the word “Kurd” or “Kurdistan” from even being uttered as recently as 1991.  Anyone who dared to use the Kurdish language faced arrest, and discrimination still exists.

Its political life saturated with artifice, it cannot be wholly unexpected that Turkey would oppress Kurds in every area from suppressing their language from being spoken, to squashing all meaningful attempts at self-determination (both within and outside of Turkey proper), to accusing Kurdish groups of committing terrorism.  Though Iraqi Kurdish leadership also distances itself to a degree from Kurdish “freedom fighters” based in Turkey, it cannot be ignored that Turkey ironically and consistently aligns itself with organizations most certainly guilty of the same accusation to which Kurdistan is underhandedly inculpated.

In September 2017 Iranian leader Ayatollah Jannati likened the creation of an independent Kurdish state to the “[creation of] another Israel.”  While the existence of another moderate democratic state in the Middle East could only be a positive thing, we can safely assume (considering the context) that this isn’t what the Iranian government meant by that statement.

The Iranian leadership has openly referred to America as the “great Satan” (and Israel as the “little Satan”) for years; and Ahmadinejad also claimed that they would one day conquer every mountain in the world.  Neither Iranian nor Turkish sentiments do much to inspire greater confidence in them of late.  In spite of these blatant facts, and even though they are an ideal Western ally, the West has continued to largely ignore or inadvertently condemn Kurdistan.  America’s criticism of Iranian authorities does resonate with Kurds, however, who also have deep concerns about Iran’s influence in Iraq—particularly over Shi’a Iraqis.

Voices like former Pentagon analyst Paul Davis, commentator Robert Ellis, and others have compared Western inaction to that of the League of Nations in their dealings with Hitler. The West has once again taken the appeasement approach, not unlike Neville Chamberlain in Munich, sacrificing innocent populations in an attempt to pacify a daunting enemy.  The adage of “peace in our time” is a desirable goal, but said and striven for in the wrong way only results in the destruction of innocent people and allies.  In a society that respects strength, the Chamberlain approach serves to feed the proverbial beast, enabling it to grow into an even bigger problem, rather than containing it.

Ankara’s two latest military operations in northern Syria were aimed at dismantling Kurdish YPG units, which Turkey claims are a wing of Kurdish political groups within and nearby Turkey proper.  Turkish efforts to paralyze Kurdish self-determination wherever they find it do not seem to be abating anytime soon.  This is in spite of Turkey’s public support for bona fide terror organizations.

Western leaders and media continue to ignore the plight of the Kurds, even as Turkish-backed forces use NATO weapons to wage war against one of the West’s precious few reliable allies in the region.  Instead of aligning themselves with the Kurds against this moral outrage, tragically, Western voices have essentially done the opposite.

Humanitarian ideals aside, it is in the best interest of the West to support those who are fighting their battles for them.  Failing to do so is not only foolish, but also ethically outrageous as Kurdish forces and communities continue to pay dearly with their lives for their resistance.  It is largely because of the Kurds that the fight with ISIS has not spilled over into neighbouring regions.  Kurdistan would bring stability to the region economically and militarily, raising the quality of life while helping to contain conflicts.

It is time that large authoritarian regimes like Iran and Turkey—whose gross human rights violations are undeniable—stop using their power to promote their expansionist agendas and to oppress indigenous minorities like the Kurds.  It is time that the Iraqi government treat all of its citizens fairly and behave democratically.  Kurdistan, an island in a sea of chaos, would benefit the region and bring about greater stability by promoting democracy and liberal values.

The Middle East is not a homogenous society; rather it contains diverse ethnic groups with their respective languages and cultures.  Peoples like the Kurds are indigenous to the region with histories dating back thousands of years.  They have been held down for too long.  They deserve the protection and empowerment that we take for granted. They deserve to exist.

The vicissitudes of the Kurds have been a source of great pain and injustice for far too long.  It is time that Kurdistan’s allies partner with them as true friends.

A popular Kurdish proverb says, “a thousand friends are too few; one enemy is too many.”  Though her enemies are numerous, with friends such as those belonging to Kurdistan, who needs enemies?

About the Author
Natalie Katerina Hilder has her BA in International Political Studies and has worked in Canadian federal politics in Ottawa and in BC. She is passionate about shedding light on human rights issues and the pursuit of justice all around the world.
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