Tragic Kurds: Lost in the maze of Middle Eastern history

Tragic Kurds: Lost in the maze of Middle Eastern history
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Like the neighboring Palestinians, the Kurds are a long-suffering Middle Eastern people who never have had a country but very much would like one. Also like the Palestinians, the Kurds have endured centuries of oppressive rule by the Turkish Ottoman Empire.

Israel, the principal obstacle to Palestinian statehood, is a relatively benign neighbor compared to the murderous crowd surrounding the Kurds — Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey.

The starting point for the bloody cauldron of turmoil that we call the “Modern Middle East” is 1918, when along with the Russian, German and Austrian Empires the Ottoman Empire was smashed to smithereens in the cataclysm of World War I. Into the resultant power vacuum stepped Britain and France, sensing an opportunity to write yet another chapter in their long-running colonial rivalry.  

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Not everyone thought this was a good idea. In 1920, Winston Churchill, then Britain's colonial secretary, prophetically observed that “future generations will pay a terrible price for the blunders we are making today.”

The treaties that settled World War I created wholly new countries in the Middle East, which correlated poorly to the ethnic, religious, linguistic and historical characteristics of the “liberated” peoples of the region. In this great post-war carve-up, the Kurds were promised — but then denied — independence and condemned to a rootless existence in a very dangerous neighborhood.

Those who naively ask, “Aren’t they all Muslims?” betray a gross ignorance of the complex varieties of religious matters in the Middle East. The dominant Muslim sects — Sunni and Shia — have little liking for the Kurds, who are a different ethnic and religious entity altogether. 

The most basic problem for the Kurds is that they are surrounded by four authoritarian regimes that all have substantial Kurdish minorities whom the ruling powers view as disloyal and potential threats to their territorial integrity.

The traumas of World War II and its immediate aftermath essentially eliminated Britain and France as players in the Middle East, to be replaced by the U.S. and Russia (then the Soviet Union). For the Kurds, the rest of the 20th century was a tale of sorrow and slaughter, an oppressed minority in Turkey, Syria and Iran, and victims of a horrific genocide in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.  

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The Kurds found a new champion when the United States invaded Iraq in 2003 in search of those “weapons of mass destruction” (WMD) so recently used to decimate the Kurdish population of that country. The Americans failed to find WMDs in Iraq, but they did overthrow Saddam and, in doing so, helped establish a de facto Kurdish state in northern Iraq.

The Kurds proved to be a brave and resourceful ally for the U.S. in savage and ultimately successful battles against the ISIS caliphate. The bloody conflict, however, proved to be a catalyst for a devastating civil war in Syria, which threatened to topple the tyrannical regime of Bashar al-Assad.

The yearslong strife in Syria, with hundreds of thousands of deaths and millions of refugees flooding into neighboring countries and Europe, occurred amidst a confusing welter of warring sects, changing alliances and foreign interventions by Russia and Iran, on the side of Assad, and the United States on behalf of rebels — among whom were Syrian and Turkish Kurds who established control of territory along the southeastern border of Turkey.

Turkey for decades has been in conflict with the 20 percent of their population who are Kurdish. Thus, the establishment on their southern border of territory controlled by Turkish Kurds is viewed by Turkey as an irredentist threat led by a radical Kurdish political party — the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK — which is broadly viewed as a terrorist organization.

As a result of the recent cross-border assault by the Turkish military, Kurdish forces in Syria ultimately will have to seek safe haven in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq, since the recent cease-fire really means permanent Turkish occupation of the disputed territories.

The murky realities underlying these centuries-old internecine struggles long have baffled U.S. officials. Since the Bush administration militarily embroiled the U.S., both subsequent administrations have sought to escape this quagmire, but both feared the inevitable political backlash and instead resorted to the age-old tactic of “kicking the can down the road.”

Tragically for the Kurds, there is no permanent solution — and for the United States, no visible exit strategy.

William Moloney is Fellow in Conservative Thought at Colorado Christian University’s Centennial Institute who studied at Oxford and the University of London. He is a former Colorado education commissioner. Follow on Twitter @CentennialCCU.