FANS of the iconic ‘Peanuts’ cartoon strip will recall how time after time, Lucy persuades the hapless Charlie Brown to kick the football she is steadying with a finger.
When Charlie Brown asks for an assurance, he receives a promise that she won’t pull the ball away this time. He then comes running in, and of course, Lucy pulls the ball away at the last instant, leaving Charlie sprawling on his back. It never changes, and yet he never loses his innocence, just as Lucy never loses her mean streak.
This is what has been happening to the Kurds over hundreds of years. According to an old Kurdish saying, the mountains are the Kurds’ only friends. Although they are the world’s largest ethnic group without a state, they have been used and abused time and again by cynical regional countries, as well as by global powers.
Today, there are anywhere between 20 million and 40m Kurds, depending on whose figures you trust. At 15m, they constitute around 18 per cent of the Turkish population. There are also about 8m in Iran; 2m in Syria, and 5m in Iraq. Sadly, they have been unable to unite and present a joint front.
There is a saying that the mountains are the Kurds’ only friends.
For decades, it was a crime to broadcast in Kurdish in Turkey, or use other expressions of identity like singing or publishing works written in Kurdish. This pushed the Kurds into demanding greater autonomy, and when the Turkish state responded with violence, the conflict escalated into a full-blown civil war. Spearheading this fight was the PKK, or the Kurdish Workers’ Party, a secular, left-wing group that espoused independence.
To his credit, Erdogan, the Turkish president, lifted the ban on many of the draconian bans on the display of Kurdish identity. Schools can now teach in Kurdish, and Kurds can take part in elections. However, this thaw ended when terrorist attacks in Turkey took scores of lives. Although the PKK denied responsibility, Erdogan unleashed a fierce anti-Kurd campaign in south-eastern Turkey that has levelled entire city blocks and killed thousands.
The YPG, or Peoples’ Protection Units, is a Syrian group close to the PKK’s ideology. Women have fought shoulder to shoulder with men in the war against the militant Islamic State (IS) group, and have won the admiration of many around the world for their courage and skill.
For the Americans, the YPG were a godsend, as no other regional force was willing to take on the bloodthirsty jihadists of the IS. Writing a cheque in Riyadh is one thing; risking life and limb in the desert quite another. In any case, the fighting capabilities of the Saudi army have been thoroughly exposed in the war against the Houthis in Yemen.
Nor did the Americans wish to send more troops to Syria and risk vote-losing casualties. But with American air and artillery support, the YPG defeated the IS in a series of bloody battles. Trump could thus declare victory, and pull out the small number of troops who served as a trip-wire to prevent Turkish attacks on the Kurds. But after they had served American interests, Trump has abruptly stabbed his Kurdish allies in the back, continuing a long and dishonourable tradition.
Over the last century, America has betrayed the Kurds exactly eight times, so Trump’s latest (and ninth) act of treachery should not surprise us, or the Kurds. When the Ottoman Empire collapsed after its defeat in the First World War, Kurds who had lived for centuries under Istanbul’s yoke thought their time had come. But despite earlier promises, they were betrayed by the Americans, and denied statehood under the Treaty of Lausanne of 1923 that redrew regional maps to reflect the carve-up of the Ottoman Empire.
After the Second World War, the Americans armed the Kurds to bleed the government of Abdul Karim Kassem. However, when the (initially) pro-West Saddam Hussein staged a coup, arms to the Kurds were abruptly halted. The next chapter in betrayal came when the Iraqi Kurds were armed by Nixon against Saddam at the behest of the Shah of Iran, but were abandoned to the tender mercies of the murderous Iraqi dictator following the revolution in Iran.
When he was asked to explain this act of treachery, Kissinger cynically replied: “One should not confuse covert acts with missionary work.” When Saddam used poison gas to massacre thousands of Kurds, an American reporter handed in a story about the incident, his editor asked: “Who will care?”
When the elder Bush halted the American advance during the first Gulf War, he encouraged Iraqis to fight Saddam. But when the Shias in the south and the Kurds in the north did rise up, they were butchered by the dictator without the Americans lifting a finger to help.
The litany of betrayal goes on, but the desperate Kurds continue to believe that one day, the Americans will deliver on their promises. Dream on.
Published in Dawn, October 19th, 2019