The Kurdish people number between 30-35 million and if they are to get their own sovereign state, they require the support of the international community.
As various armed groups feud with each other in the North Eastern governorates of Syria, the conflict has grudgingly entered its eighth year. Although not shown in the media as often as it used to be, it is indisputably clear that the consequences of the Syrian war will continue to present a formidable challenge for its neighborhood and beyond. The wounds from the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the 2011 Libyan Civil war have yet to heal as local players in Syria, with support from regional actors and various foreign-funded organisations, continue to change and expand their areas of influence and shape the conflict’s dynamic course.
In this tussle for power and territory, the Kurds have played a major role. Kurdish majority armed groups like the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have maintained a strategic alliance with the international coalition in the North East alongside the Turkish border. In 2018, Defense Post reported that the US-led international coalition was aiming to provide training to a 30,000-strong force, partially comprising of veteran SDF fighters, as border security along the Syrian border against ISIS.
The act of training and providing military equipment to an anticipated border security force doesn’t come with the blessings of the Syrian government obviously, although equipping and training various militias against the government isn’t new. Undercover planning is documented to have started in 2012. A year later the United States in partnership with the Saudi monarchy had sent trained and armed rebel cells to oust the government of Bashar al Assad, initially through a covertly funded programme known as Operation Timber Sycamore. To complicate the situation even further, arming and funding Kurdish groups (besides several other moderately armed factions) added to the current multiplicity on the ground, as the Turkish government isn’t sympathetic to the Kurdish cause. While the Russian intervention of 2015 in aid of the Syrian government changed the anticipated outcome considerably, it has also caused deteriorating relations between Turkey and the West in general escalating tensions with their NATO ally, the United States.
The tussle between the major powers, clandestinely fought through proxy armies and bound by local dynamics, recalls the roles played by the British, French and Turks in Western Asia, during the disintegration of the Ottoman empire in the early 20th century. In fact, history seems to be eerily repeating itself, with almost every regional and Western actor playing similar roles as during the partitioning of Iraq, Greater Syria and Lebanon under the French and British mandates. After the end of World War I, great power games were played in this region, the local groups framing their struggles with anti-imperialist activities against the European authorities. With the ending of the First World War in 1918, several grey areas of post-war violence were spread across the region, “from Eastern Europe to the Caucasus and the Middle East,” creating ungovernable spaces, and left without any definite state authority (Jordi Tejel Gorgas, 2018).
Within this context, the role of the United States in this region right after the signing of the European Mandates should also be acknowledged. In comparison to the subterfuge carried out by the European powers, with the signing of the Sykes Picot Agreement of 1916, the Americans were instead perceived by many in the Arab world as neutral partners. But were they really? Critics have stated that rather than openly bickering over oil, the US presented itself as a reliable champion of Arab independence and minority rights against French and British imperial ambitions (Michael Reimer, 2006). Although the King-Crane Commission of 1919 was formed to mediate a turbulent situation, a preface to the King Crane Commission Report published in 1922 noted that the report was one of the most important documents of its time but had been suppressed. The preface also addressed that if it had been published as intended, the document would “have changed the whole American attitude toward post-war international responsibilities”.
The long history of US-Kurdish relations goes back a century. In 1919, the King-Crane Commission was authorised to conduct a study of the “problems of the Near East” in the former Turkish Empire. The chief concerns of the Commission were certain communities, which, having reached a stage of development, required “administrative advice and assistance by a Mandate until such time as they are able to stand alone”. The commission was relegated to conducting a scientific investigation of conditions in the Middle East and to advise the conference as to the political aspirations of the various peoples formerly subjugated by the Turkish Empire. In order for their mission to be clearly understood, the Commission released the following statement defining the task set to them by US President Woodrow Wilson.
“The American people—having no political ambitions in Europe or the Near East; preferring, if that were possible, to keep clear of all European, Asian, or African entanglements but nevertheless sincerely desiring that the most permanent peace and the largest results for humanity shall come out of this war—recognize that they cannot altogether avoid responsibility for just settlements among the nations following the war, and under the League of Nations. In that spirit they approach the problems of the Near East…” (“The King-Crane Commission Report of the Near East”, 28 August 1919.)
President Woodrow Wilson was a strong proponent of the Joint Investigative Commission. Although arduously researched, the investigation did not obtain any success. It pronounced the doom of Zionism, while recognising an independence programme in their investigations during which the Commission deliberated upon the considerable opposition to a Zionist state and Jewish immigration. Subsequently, the report was buried. The Kurds and various minorities who had been depending on American support were left to their own devices.
Fast forwarding to the present conflict in Syria, the Kurds had again thought their future was secure with American support—some groups later reluctantly admitted they had been used by the United States to shape the outcome in Syria, and unfortunately, betrayed again. They were again left to the mercy of the local rulers. In Turkey, the current government of Erdogan has violently suppressed them, although they have been relatively better off in Iraq than in Iran, Turkey and Syria.
Stateless, the Kurdish people numbering between 30-35 million are spread across West Asia—from Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Iran to states of the former Soviet Union. Some historians claim the Kurds are also linked to the Balochis in South West Asia. Although the Kurds share a favorable view of India, as far as the Indian Government is concerned, there is no concrete policy which addresses the Kurdish question. In 2018 the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq (KRG) had requested India’s assistance for humanitarian aid for refugees sheltering against ISIS. Whether a request had also been sent for military assistance, has not been made public by the current Modi government.
The Kurdish dilemma is a difficult one, without powerful international support, particularly from the major powers in the Security Council. Who will help them carve out their own state in the already turmoil ridden Middle East? The Trump administration is facing considerable obstacles in its regime-change operations in both Iran and Venezuela, while the British and French have substantial domestic issues to contend with. Russia and China, although desirous for global clout, have not shown interest in picking up this fight.
Priya Singh is the Zolberg Fellow 2019 at The Zolberg Institute of Migration and Mobility, The New School, New York.