Earlier this week, on the order of Donald Trump US troops were pulled from Syria and the embedded positions they held with Kurdish Forces (if you recall from the show we did in April of 2018, which will be linked below, the Kurds have been strong allies of the US helping to fight terrorism in the region). After US troops had been removed from their positions, US NATO ally Turkey rolled in and rolled over Kurdish forces going as far as 30 miles deep into syria in an operation that is being reported to have been green lit by the US. In this episode of Lessons from the Screen, we will be looking at the history between the Kurds and Turkey, why the US pulled out, what has happened since the pull out, and more. Today we will be talking about The US, Turkey, and the Kurds.
We are back in the Middle East today with another show on Syria. But a lot has changed since the missile strikes last year that prompted the first show. If you haven’t heard that show it is linked below and goes into detail about the Syrian Civil War, the Arab Spring that caused it and how the different factions in the Syrian Civil War have come into play. While today’s show does focus on a topic with a tremendous amount of impact on the Syrian Civil War and the politics of the region, this show is not a recap or an update show on those previous topics. The tie in starts immediately though, with the US pulling out of the area and leaving its Kurdish allies open to attack by Turkey who has pushed roughly thirty miles into Syria in order to destroy the Kurds and to create a buffer zone that can be used to house the 3.6 million refugees that have fled from Syria and into Turkey over the course of the civil war. That’s what we know on the surface level. But you know here on Lessons from the Screen we never stay on the surface level. So we will start with the first question on our minds and go from there, who are the Kurds and why would Turkey want to destroy them so badly that they would invade another country.
The Kurds are an Iranian Ethnic group, one of the largest stateless ethnic groups in the world today, numbering between 30 and 45 million people. They have their own languages, their own culture, a variety of religious beliefs, and for a time about 500 years ago they had their own nation. Well, not quite their own nation, although that would be a nice story to tell. What they had was a geo-cultural region in the middle east that was named after them, that place was known as kurdistan. While as a people they have been able to be grouped together throughout most of their history is wasn’t until the Ottoman Empire and the Iranian Empire began the clash in early 1500s that the many tribes that had come to be known as Kurdish experienced a loss in their ability to be grouped together. The Iranian Empire controlled some of Kurdistan while the Ottoman Empire control most of the rest. The Ottoman Empire ended up winning that engagement and taking control of all of Kurdistan.
Beginning in 1514 when the Ottoman Empire annexed Kurdistan, the region was controlled by the Ottoman empire who split the region into districts and appointed local chiefs as governors. This kept the cultural identity and stability of the region and effectively allowed the Kurdish groups to manage themselves under the banner of the Ottoman Empire. This isn’t to say that this was a peaceful time, the Kurdish People revolted against the Ottoman Empire on several occasions. In 1606 the Janpulat Revolt occured when a regional ruler was murder. The stated reason for the murder was arriving late to a battle but the people believed he was murdered for being Kurdish. His nephew, backed by the Duke of Tuscany (a region in Central Italy) took a force of 30,000 troops against the Ottoman Empire before fleeing and being appointed Governor of a province in Hungary. In 1655, another revolt was started when the Ottoman army passed through an area of Kurdistan and committed atrocities against civilians. The leader of the region built an army and launched an attack on the Ottoman Empire. This revolt was put down with 70 Kurds being cut to pieces by swords. These are just 2 examples of many, not including a brief reconquest by Iranian forces.
Even with the revolts, the Ottoman Empire maintain control over Kurdistan in the system setup from the beginning unchanged until the early 1800s. During that time the Kurds had gained a great deal of influence and power and had spread their influence increasing the size of their autonomous regions. The Ottoman Empire engaged in the Russo-Turkish War from 1828 to 1829 and after the Empire lost the war to Russia, the Kurds made a move to free themselves from the Ottoman Empire in 1834. The rising was put down and the Kurds lost their autonomy. This was done because the Ottoman Empire, following its loss to Russia, realized it needed to modernize itself as a nation. It needed all the different ethnic groups in Ottoman Empire to see themselves as Ottoman first nationally. These changes and the roughly 40 year period they occured in were called the Tanzimat. Some people have also said that the Ottoman given credit for these reforms was also a Kurd.
The removal of autonomy caused more issues between the Ottoman Empire and the Kurdish people. More revolts ensued. In one particular instance, a Kurdish ruler rebelled against the Empire to protect his power in the region. He was defeated, and his brother became ruler. This upset his son, and his son was told by the Ottoman Empire that if he killed his uncle he would be made ruler. He killed his uncle and instead of being made ruler of the region, he was executed. The Kurds have songs about this. In 1864, the Ottoman Empire abolished Kurdistan as an administrative region and as a province. Another revolt in 1880 sought to reunify the region, but was put down.
By the start of the 1900s, the idea of nationalism that the Ottoman Empire was trying to preach was defeated by Ethnic Identities. These identities had not only defeated concepts of national citizenship but also defeated powerful concepts of religious unity. The Ottoman Empire attempted to negate the cries for Ethnic Nationalism by giving the powerful voices in the Kurdish community powerful positions in the government. This worked and held the loyalty of the Kurds through WW1.
WW1 was fought from 1914 - 1918 and featured the allies - Britain, France, Russia, Italy and the United States on one side vs the central powers - Germany, Austria-Hungary, Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria on the other side. Although there were numerous smaller nations that also participated with the total national involvement count reaching 32. The Ottoman Empire which had been on the losing side was forced to sign some documents. That’s when things get a bit hazy.
Kurdish voices had been trying to use the defeat of the Ottoman Empire to carve out a section of land for themselves as an officially recognized Kurdish Nation, and for a moment it looked like they were going to be successful with the encouragement of US President Woodrow Wilson. After the Armistice of Mudros was signed ending hostilities between the Ottoman Empire and the Allies in 1918, ideas and maps began to be presented that had regions of land marked out as Kurdistan. But the Kurds themselves couldn’t agree on what should or should not be included in Kurdistan and so with the signing of the Treaty of Sevres in 1920, Kurdistan was left to a referendum for later.
However, the signing of the Treaty of Sevres caused a surge of national pride as many in the Ottoman Empire felt like they were giving up too much. A war broke out within the nation and by the time the Turkish War of Independence ended, the people that had signed the treaty had been overthrown requiring a new treaty to be crafted and signed. For those of you that don’t see what I did there I’ll explain it further. The primary ethnic group in the Ottoman Empire was the Turks. The Ottoman Empire became present day Turkey. In any case, a new treaty was signed in 1923 and no mention of the Kurds was included in this treaty. The Kurdistan geo-cultural region was divided in the states that the Ottoman Empire was broken into in the region with British Mandate of Iraq, the French Mandate of Syria, Persia (current Iran), and the Ottoman (current Turkey). To this current day, this map still exist with each region of the specific country that was Kurdistan being known as that countries Kurdistan (Iraqi Kurdistan, Syrian Kurdistan, Iranian Kurdistan, and Turkish Kurdistan).
But instead of focusing on what the Kurds have done in all these regions, our focus continues forward right now with what was happening between the Kurds and the Turks.
Right now the Kurds make up 15% - 20% of the population of Turkey with half of all Kurds living in Turkey and primarily residing in the southeast region known as Turkish Kurdistan. With the ending of the Ottoman Empire and the establishment of the Republic of Turkey, the nation of Turkey transitioned away from Caliphates which caused major unrest amongst the Kurds. As Turkey became a secular government and moved away from religious rule, the cultural views of the Kurds came to be directly at odds with the government that was overseeing them. This resulted in several rebellions from the 1920s onward and growing calls for an independent Kurdistan.
The most significant of these rebellions involved the Republic of Ararat. The Republic declared independence in 1927 and proclaimed itself to be a Kurdish Sovereign Nation. However, the Republic was not recognized by any other states and had no foreign support. in the 3 years that followed the Government of Turkey mobilized 66,000 troops and 100 aircraft putting the rebellion down hard.
After the suppression of a series of rebellions by Kurdish Nationalist, the government of Turkey in 1937 decided to take extra steps to solve what they viewed as a Kurdish threat or the Kurdish Problem. The government imposed martial law on the Kurdish Regions of Turkey and encouraged other ethnic groups to settle in the region to water down the Kurdish cultural density and unity in the area. From 1925 to 1938 1.5 million Kurds were reported to have been deported and massacred with villages being set on fire. The area remained under military siege until the 50s and foreigners were not allowed to visit the area until 1965. Kurdish Language and Culture was outlawed and words referencing the Kurds and Kurdistan were removed from the dictionary and history. The Kurds had begun to achieve levels of integration into Turkish Society in the 50s but a coup in 1960 undid all that work and the Kurds returned back to their previous positions.
During WW2 the Kurds in Iraqi Kurdistan formed 10 companies that supported the British in defeating and a pro-nazi coup attempt in Iraqi which was being ruled at the time by a pro-British government. But Kurds also played a role in the Soviet war machine working behind the German lines. This is only mentioned because Donald Trump said that they didn’t help us in World War 2 as a defense of his pulling the troops out.
Turkish oppression of the Kurds through the 1970s became more and more intense. By 1965 Kurdish Culture wasn’t just banned, it was criminalized, and not just the culture, but also political ideas that advocated for a Kurdish State or for the Kurds in general. Singing a song in Kurdish was a punishable offense. In 1984, the Kurdistan Workers Party or PKK (which gets it’s initials from the Kurdish words used in the name) which was organized by students in 1978, made its public declaration as a Kurdish Military and Political Organization with the goal of creating an independent Kurdish State. Based in Turkey and Iraq the organization began launching attacks to free the Kurdish People from oppression in 1984 and continue to this day.
Since the PKK first announced the Kurdish uprising in 1984, there have been more than 40,000 deaths. In that time there has also been an abundance of political and social evolution. The PKK which started out as with social leanings towards Marxism would leave that ideology behind for a more socialistic view of the nation they wanted to establish for the kurds. They also began attacking Kurdish clans that weren’t with them, adopting the if you’re not with me you’re against me view in some regards. The poverty of the Kurdish regions in Turkey combined with state sponsored atrocities and PKK hostilities caused the region to become depopulated. Kurds began to move to other regions of the nation. From 1984 to 1999 there was open war between the PKK and Turkey and the PKK was labeled a terrorist organization by the Turkish Government and its NATO ally the USA.
At the same time that many nations were recognizing the PKK as a terrorist organization, the European Court of Human Rights was condemning Turkey for thousands of human rights abuses including acts on Kurdish Civilians like torture, forced displacement, village destruction, and disappeared Kurdish journalists. Leyla Zana was elected to parliament in Turkey in 1994 and after she finished her swearing in oath in Turkish, she added in Kurdish, “I take this oath for the brotherhood of the Turkish and Kurdish Peoples.” She served 10 years in prison for that add on. Turkey continued and continues to view the Kurds as a threat to the unity of their nation, a sentiment that began during the time of their Ottoman forefathers. Zana was actually sentenced to 15 years but was released early as a condition for Turkey to have a chance at joining the EU.
There was a ceasefire in 2000 between the PKK and Turkey with the PKK announcing they would try peaceful methods to achieve their goals. But hostilities continued both politically and militarily spurring a civil war inside the PKK amongst the reformers who wanted the organization to demilitarize altogether and the traditionalist who wanted to end the ceasefire and return to fighting. The traditionalist won and the fighting resumed officially. The traditionalist believed that without the military activity the political activity was pointless. During the time of the Ceasefire the Turkish government was ignoring PKK calls for diplomacy and discussion.
From 2004 - 2012 the PKK resistance looked differently than it had before. Because they didn’t have the resources they had once enjoyed, and they lacked a sponsor or foreign backing, they transitioned into a more guerilla style of fighting. Smaller units and hit and run tactics were deployed with them no longer attempting to hold territory. The PKK also began launching attacks from Iraq during this time. The Turkish Government during this period blamed the PKK for various bombings with the PKK denying most of them. Both sides also issued different numbers for casualties during conflicts. Turkey launched offensives across the Iraq border to destroy the Kurds there which prompted involvement from the Kurds in Iran who put their fights with the Iranian government to the side in order to unite in the fight against Turkey. Kurds were being oppressed and persecuted in all four of the nations they existed in, but Turkey was providing them all with a reason to unite. Through all of this, the Kurds were still seeing advances politically growing in power and influence in Turkey. The Turkish government responded to these advances by easing up on its bans on Kurdish Culture.
In 2015 what has become known as the third phase of the Kurdish - Turkish Conflict started. Following another failed ceasefire and frustration as the Turkish Government refused to let the PKK send reinforcements to Kurdish Fighters fighting ISIS in Syria with the US. This wave of conflict saw the Kurdish Forces behaving similarly to the second wave with the added component of holding territory. And that brings us up to the December of 2018 when Donald Trump following a phone call with the Turkish President announced that he would pull US forces out of Syria. However, the huge political backlash he received from politicians, the media, other nations, and the US military caused him to go back on it. However in October of 2019, he again announced he would pull US troops out of Syria following a phone call with the President of Turkey, and this time he followed through.
But While I have talked about Turkey and the Kurds, we still have to answer one more question before we can put all this together, what were the Kurds doing in Syria?
In Syria the Kurds also faced extreme oppression the same as everywhere else. However, the Syrian government also supported Kurdish Organizations (including the PKK) in the 1980s and 90s as a means of destabilizing their neighbors in the region. Syria went so far as to allow the leader of the PKK to have safe haven in Syria and allowed them to launch operations from Syria as well as allowing a Kurdish leader to found the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan or PUK in order to combat oppression in Iraq. The Kurds in Syria weren’t as united as those in Turkey making them less of a threat, they were also smaller in number. Situated in the Northeast of Syria they are the largest ethnic minority in the country numbering at about 2 million. Syria holds special places for the Kurds as the great muslim leader Saladin was a kurd that founded the Ayyubid Dynasty which built great castles and buildings in the entire region of the Middle East and northeast Africa. Some of which still stand in Damascus which is situated in modern day Syria.
While the Kurds did face oppression in Syria, it was somewhat different. The Syrian government did ban Kurdish culture like Turkey, they also denied the right to Syrian Nationality making the Kurds there effectively invisible people with no rights in any land. Children with Kurdish Names either weren’t registered or were given arabic names instead by the government. In 1998, when the Syrian Government banned Kurdish political parties and organizations including those they once supported, the Kurds in Syria began strategizing and 5 years later in 2003 they had formed the Democratic Union Party or PYD. Turkey claims that the PYD was formed in secret by the PKK but others say that the PYD is its own naturally occuring Syrian Organization. Due to the PYD’s ability to mobilize large numbers of people, the Syrian Government viewed them as a major threat much in the same light that the Turkish Government did. Syria treated PYD members with a special intensity of violence and oppression that was worse than it treated Kurds that weren’t a member of the PYD. But still, all kurds faced oppression. The PYD organized a large protest in 2007 in order to prevent Turkey from invading Iraqi Kurdistan and to show their disapproval of the Syrian Government's approval which resulted in Syrian Forces opening fire on the protesters with live ammunition killing 1 and injuring others. Things persisted in this manner until the start of the Syrian Civil War in 2011 with a few instances of Kurdish resistance sprinkled in.
It should be mentioned at this point that the French employed a divide and conquer strategy in Syria that saw them encouraging Kurdish and other minority groups to gain power and advocate for themselves against the dominant ethnic group in the nation. They used the Kurds as members of their police forces and conscripted them into local military organizations. The British did similar things in the regions they controlled as apart of their mandate. The mandate system was supposed to be different from colonization because it was not a system of permanent control. The idea was for a country to control and sponsor another long enough for the country to manage its own affairs and then to pull out. However it would be extremely naive to think that the British and the French along with the US and other allies didn’t put things in place to ensure that the Ottoman Empire didn’t reform. Stroking the flames of ethnic tensions is something that European nations have down the world over in order to keep threats against them from forming.
Moving into the Syrian Civil War, the PYD found itself joining up with various Kurdish Umbrella Organizations including the Kurdish Patriotic Movement, the Kurdish National Council (KNC), and the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK) which included the PKK from Turkey. In 2012, when the Syrian Government pulled most of its troops out of Kurdistan in order to fight rebels elsewhere, the Kurds placed more resources in the hands of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in order to provide security for Kurdish Regions in Syria. This caused the YPG and their sister group The Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) to become the dominant Kurdish Fighting Force in Syria. And seeing as how the YPG and the YPJ were created under the PYD, this meant that the PYD was the dominant Kurdish Fighting Organization in the region. However, their control over Syrian Kurdistan did cause some problems with other Kurdish Groups, especially the purist and the nationalist. The PYD wanted to create a multicultural safe haven for all, and they eventually ended some of their agreements with other Kurdish Factions. The area that the PYD control has been renamed Rojava by the Kurds and it’s existence on the Turkish Border is viewed as completely unacceptable to Turkey.
In 2014, the US began supporting the PYD. But only indirectly and definitely conditionally through it’s support of the YPG-YPJ. The US entered the picture because things weren’t going well in the battle against ISIS. As the Syrian Civil War continued and chaos spread, ISIS was using this opportunity to consolidate power and territory. That is until they ran up against the Kurdish Province of Kobani and it’s main city Kobani. Kobani exists in the Kurdish controlled region of Rojava and the Kurds weren’t having it. Things started going well for ISIS as they captured more than 300 towns and villages in the region displacing 300,000 kurds who fled into Turkey. But the Kurds regrouped with other Syrian rebel groups and began fighting back this time also supported by American Airstrikes. In January of 2015 the Kurds had retaken the city, but many villages and towns in the region remained under ISIS control. By April of 2015 the Kurds had retaken most of the region and the battle was seen as the turning point for the battle against ISIS in America.
However this made things difficult for Turkey who had allowed the PYD (Syrian Kurds) use Turkish Land in the early stages of the Syrian Civil War. But when Turkey refused to help Kurdish Fighters fight against ISIS in the battle of Kobani while also not allowing the Turkish Kurds to support the Syrian Kurds, well, we talked about that earlier, it caused the end of the ceasefire between Turkey and the PKK. But also caused an issue because America needed bodies on the ground to fight ISIS and didn’t want to send its own troops. With Turkey unwilling to indirectly defend Kurdish lands and other rebel forces in the region proving unreliable or unstable, that only left the YPG-YPJ and their parent organization the PYD. But Turkey saw the PYD and the PKK as the same organization and began to view the PYD as a terrorist organization the same way it viewed the PKK. As such, Turkey will not allow an autonomous region of Kurds on it’s borders and if that means invading other countries they are more than willing to do it. In 2016, the Turkish Government stated that the destruction of the PYD was a policy arm of the government.
This put the US in a delicate position because they had basically become an ally to an organization that was connected to another organization that they viewed as a terrorist organization and that their NATO ally of Turkey had pledged to destroy. But Turkey wasn’t willing to help the US with the ISIS problem in the region because doing so would have advanced a group they considered to be a terroristic threat. Obama regularly made calls to the Turkish President to try to appease the outraged nation and put a 12 million dollar bounty on PYD leaders. The US also tried to distance the PYD from the PKK and the YPG-YPJ from the PKK by having the YPG-YPJ announce themselves as the Syrian Defense Force (SDF). None of it has worked.
Then we come to Donald Trump who has an affinity for the type of Authoritarian leader that the President of Turkey is. Which is why in 2018, after 4 years of the US working and fighting side by side with kurdish forces, training them and learning from them, and various incidents of US Soldiers being told to remove Kurdish Patches from their uniforms (the soldiers view them as allies, the government wants to view them as proxies) Donald Trump was persuaded to remove US troops from the area in a phone call. But as stated earlier he went back on that after fallout. But earlier this year, 2019, another phone call happened and this time he followed through quickly before any backlash could occur. And as the US pulled the small number of troops it had in the region out of the region, Turkey moved in.
Turkey is also facing some economic issues and hopes that resettling the Syrian Refugees into the created buffer zone will ease some of that economic tension and hopes to push deep enough into syria to secure enough land to settle 2 -3 million refugees that have fled to Turkey.
The Kurds have called the US pullout a stab in the back. Something that they recognize is a pattern when dealing with the US. In addition to some of the other things I’ve mentioned earlier, the US also supported the kurds when it was feared that Saddam Hussein would become a Soviet Asset. When the US was sure that wasn’t going to happen, they stopped supporting the Kurds immediately. But this one is a bit different. The US had been training, arming, and fighting alongside the kurds. And the kurds for their part have been dying (more than 10,000 kurds have died in the past 5 years) and directing their fight towards ISIS while also acting as guards to more than 10,000 ISIS fighters and 70,000 ISIS families.
But since the US pullout, several of those fighters have been set free and ISIS is looking to reconstitute itself. The Kurds have gone to the Syrian Government for protection against the Turks. Russia has stepped in to fill the power vacuum left by the US. Thousands of Kurds have been killed or injured with many more being displaced. And all of this happened in a matter of days. The situation got so bad so fast that the US stepped back in and negotiated a ceasefire between the Kurds and the Turks (that many on both sides say isn’t being honored) in order to stop the international fallout against the US. Many have said that it was less than 100 troops in the region and that isn’t enough to stop a war. But Turkey did not want to launch an offensive and potentially kill or endanger American Soldiers, that would have put them directly at odds with the US. So now the Kurds are allied with Syria, Russia, and Iran, three nations the US is not fond of.
As the talks during the Ceasefire continue, it’s looking more and more like the Kurds once again will not have a real voice in the proceedings. Many are calling this a US negotiated surrender of the Kurds. While the Kurds have said they will continue to administer the regions they control, we don’t know how long they will be able to control anything. And US trustworthiness has taken another huge hit as another deal made by the Obama Administration, has been destroyed by the Trump Administration. While some have argued that he was right to pull us out of an endless situation in the Middle East. That isn’t necessarily true, while he did pull some soldiers out of Syria, he deployed more to Saudi Arabia, and he justifies this by saying that the Saudi’s are paying for us to be there. Basically acknowledging that the US Military is available for hire. And on the whole, US presence in the MIddle East has gone up during the Trump administration not down. But for Trump, this move has larger implications, as he moves to face his impeachment, he may have given many republicans in the Senate the cover they need to vote to impeach him.
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