ON SUNDAY NIGHT President Obama called on Turkey, again, “to seal its border with Syria.” He was giving a status report on America’s war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Last week Defense Secretary Ashton Carter demanded, somewhat impatiently: “Turkey must do more to control its often porous border” with Syria. Other American politicians and strategists have been voicing the demand, continually.
Americans’ concern is real. Through the Turkish-Syrian border, ISIS gets a good deal of its recruits, arms and other supplies from other countries. What is the problem with the Turks? you would wonder. Why can’t they just close their damned border to those God-awful “Islamic terrorists”?
Well, sealing off Turkey’s 566-mile border with Syria is no easy task. Not any easier than shutting down the U.S. border with Mexico. The real problem, though, is deepening strains in U.S.-Turkish relations over the Kurdish agenda. I would not call it a crisis point yet, but the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is fuming over what it sees as America’s persistent disregard of Turkey’s stability and security concerns. Ankara has been warning Americans that their indifference to Kurdish separatism in Syria and arms supplies to Syria’s Kurdish guerrillas have posed an existential threat to Turkey.
In Syria, the Kurdish militia, known as the People’s Protection Units (YPG), has been fighting ISIS at America’s prodding, while expanding an autonomous Kurdish region they carved out in northern Syria in the fog of the Syrian civil war. They have named the territory Rojava. The Turks are alarmed to see the YPG joining up with their own Kurdish militants belonging to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Since 1984 the PKK has waged a violent on again, off again campaign to create an independent Kurdish state in southeastern Turkey, where Kurds are a majority of the population. The Erdogan government says it supports the fight against ISIS, whoever carries it on. What scares the Turks is the growing fraternity and collaboration between the PKK and the YPG.
Groups of Kurdish activists in Turkey, Syria and Iraq – and some in Iran – have aspired for a common independent state ever since their historic homeland was split between these four countries in the wake of World War I. The total Kurdish population in the region and elsewhere is between 28 million and 35 million, which makes the Kurds the largest ethnic group without a nation-state. The Kurdish territory in Syria has been a PKK stronghold since the Turkish secessionist group emerged in the late 1970s. PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, now facing a suspended death sentence in Turkey, lived in Syria for years and from there conducted armed raids into military and civilian targets inside Turkey. The ties between the PKK and Kurdish activists in Syria endure. They have been strengthened by droves of PKK fighters – more than 1,400 according to Ankara – joining the YPG’s separatist campaign in Syria. In return, Kurdish guerrillas in Rojava are supplying the PKK with arms and ammunition, some of which are supplied by the United States.
The Obama administration has practically turned a deaf ear to Turkish complaints that the YPG threatens to help heat up the Kurdish separatist movement in Turkey. The reason for the American insouciance is obvious. Syrian and Iraqi Kurds are the United States’ only dependable allies in that troubled region. Some American lawmakers have called the YPG “our ground force” against ISIS. But as the YPG reclaims territories from ISIS control, it adds them to its autonomous domain. Rojava abuts the Kurdish-inhabited southeastern Turkey, and also Iraqi Kurdistan Iraq. Thus the silhouette of a “greater Kurdistan” is forming. Whether Kurdish separatists in Turkey can actually cleave southeastern Turkey off the Turkish state is another question.
For decades the United States resisted the Kurds’ separatist activities in Turkey and Iraq. Washington did not want to alienate Turkey, a valued NATO member, or destabilize Iraq. The un-answered question remains whether America’s deepening ties to the Kurds would eventually make it jilt the Turks.
I feel sorry for the Kurds, a non-Arab, non-Turkic people belonging to the Sunni branch of Islam. They have been persecuted and sometimes slaughtered by Arabs and Turks and used and abused by America, pre-Revolutionary Iran and, to an extent, Israel. Iraqi Kurds’ under-the-radar ties to Israel heightened their tensions with Arabs. Enmity with Arabs is what has fostered mutual empathy between the Kurds and Israeli Jews.
The Kurds’ struggle for an independent Kurdish state reached a high watermark in 1920, when the victors of World War I promised them one. The Western allies signed a treaty in Sevres, abolishing the Turkish-dominated Ottoman Empire, which they had defeated in the war, and allotting its territories to different countries and communities. The Sevres treaty stipulated, among other things, an autonomous Kurdistan, comprising part of Anatolia (the Asian part of Turkey), whose coastal territory would be annexed by Greece. And so on.
The Kurdish homeland project died in 1922 when a ragtag Turkish army, led by its gifted general Mustafa Kemal, defeated and expelled the British, French, Italian and Greek occupation forces from what would emerge as the modern Turkish sate.
“We lost our freedom when the Turks won theirs,” Laila Serhati, a Kurdish activist from the Turkish city of Adiyaman, told me in Berlin in 2000. A PKK sympathizer, she was organizing protests in Germany against the Turks’ capture of Ocalan in Kenya with the help of the CIA and, more painfully for the Kurds, Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency.
Iraqi Kurds’ fervor for independent Kurdish state drove them into the arms of outsiders who had an ax to grind against the Iraqi government. More often than not, they were betrayed by those who used them, beginning with the then Iranian monarch, Shah Muhammad Riza Pahlavi. The shah of Iran wanted to give Iraq’s Saddam Hussein a good shellacking for stonewalling an Iranian bid to get a piece of the Shat e-Arab waterway, which marks the boundary between the two countries. A 1937 treaty had given Iraq jurisdiction over the whole stream.
The shah tried to get the redoubtable Kurdish leader Mulla Mustafa Barzani to step up his armed struggle for an independent or autonomous Kurdish state in Iraq. The shah promised Barzani all kinds of help in the insurrection. Tempting as the Iranian’s offer was, Barzani did not take a bite. He did not trust the Iranian tyrant.
So in 1972 the shah brought up the issue with Nixon and Kissinger, who had stopped over in Tehran on their return from Moscow, after concluding the historic SALT I arms control treaty with the Soviet Union. Could they get the Kurds to resume their secessionist struggle? inquired the Iranian ruler. An earlier Kurdish uprising for independence had been put down by Baghdad in late 1960s. The monarch was America’s top cop in Muslim Middle East. Yet Nixon apparently did not want to get personally involved in his dirty game. The American president asked him to “work it out with Henry.”
No Machiavellian game was too dirty for Kissinger, however. He jumped at the shah’s scheme as a child would at a lollypop. Kissinger met Barzani – the father of Masood, the current president of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan — and persuaded the Kurdish chieftain to restart his insurgency with renewed resolve and courage. The United States and Iran would “support you all the way,” assured the U.S. national security adviser.
In 1974 Mustafa Barzani waged a ferocious war against the Iraqi army, aided by two Iranian divisions and U.S. and Israeli arms, cash and intelligence. The conflict cost more than 10,000 lives on both sides, but it succeeded in delivering Saddam to the shah and Kissinger. The Iraqi leader agreed to revisit the Shat el-Arab issue. In 1975 Saddam signed a treaty in the Algerian capital of Algiers, relinquishing half the waterway to Iran, as demanded by the shah. As part of the bargain, the United States and Iran agreed to cut Barzani loose.
Eight hours after the signing of the Algiers treaty, America and Iran stopped all aid, including food, promised to Iraqi Kurds. The next day the Iraqi army began wreaking vengeance on the Kurds. It was brutal. The crackdown cost thousands of Kurdish lives, and drove nearly 200,000 Iraqi Kurds into neighboring counties. Barzani desperately tried to call Kissinger, now U.S. secretary of state. Kissinger did not take his calls. The State Department would not respond to his urgent requests for aid. The Gerald Ford administration even “refused to extend humanitarian assistance” to the victims of Saddam’s horrific retribution, noted Rep. Otis Pike, Democrat of New York, who led a congressional investigation into the sordid affair. The Israelis – 3,000 of whom had been smuggled by Iraqi Kurds from Iraq and Iran into Israel — also ignored Kurdish calls for help.
The Pike Commission issued a damning report on the American “betrayal” of Turkish Kurds. Kissinger dismissed it contemptuously.
“Covert action,” he said, “should not be confused with missionary work.”
Fast-forward 27 years. Americans were at the door of the Iraqi Kurds again. The George W. Bush administration was planning to invade Iraq. Along with an air war, there would be a ground offensive from the north. But the administration wanted to keep American soldiers out of harm’s way, as much as possible. Would the Kurdish Peshmerga militia lead the charge? The leadership of Iraqi Kurds did not quite trust the Americans, or their “ironclad assurance” that they would not abandon the Kurds this time. Yet Masood Barzani (His father was now dead) and other Kurdish leaders decided they could not afford to alienate the world’s sole superpower.
Barzani’s argument that persuaded his associates to lead America’s ground war was related to me in 2010 by an old Iraqi acquaintance. Salam Asoufi, a correspondent for Agence France-Presse in Baghdad, had fled Iraq in the midst of the U.S. invasion and was working as a low-level employee at the Abu Dhabi mayor’s office. I met him there during a journalistic stint to the United Arab Emirates.
Asoufi had covered U.S.-Kurdish relations for AFP during the run-up to the war. He recalled that Masood Barzani had some difficulty persuading his associates to return to the battlefield against Saddam, again at American behest.
“We will lose some lives again,” he said to them. “We have lost a lot of them. We are where we were. This time I believe we will get closer to our destination…. It will be a lot closer without [Saddam]. I am not counting on Americans’ help, or anybody else’s help. I am counting on ourselves. Our love for Kurdistan.”
Barzani was right. The United States was – and still is – unwilling to support a declaration of independence by Kurds, in Iraq, Syria or Turkey. It does not want to be accused of destabilizing the region. But Saddam was gone along with his military. The Shiite and Sunni Arabs were busy slaughtering one another. Who could stop Iraqi Kurds from carving out an autonomous homeland? Moreover, the United States came to view the Iraqi Kurdistan as an alternative territory for U.S. military bases, for which it could not get permission elsewhere in Iraq.
One of America’s key objectives in its invasion of Iraq was to set up a string of military bases there. In 2004 General Jay Garner, the first U.S. proconsul in Iraq, announced that the United States would be building a number of military bases in northern and southern Iraq, and that those bases would stay there “for the next few decades.” The Pentagon spent several years building those bases, apparently without consulting anybody who would have known how Iraqis felt about American military presence in their country. In the end, the otherwise pro-America government in Baghdad had to tell U.S. officials that the Iraqi public would not be hospitable to their military bases.
Now that anti-American terrorism is stalking many parts of the Middle East and North Africa and the future of several pro-American Arab regimes is uncertain, American military strategists have been pushing for U.S. bases in Iraqi Kurdistan. And Kurdistan authorities are only too eager to accommodate them, partly to seal their autonomy against any encroachment from Baghdad. The Pentagon already has set up an airbase near Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. Ostensibly, it would be used to conduct reconnaissance on ISIS and other terrorist networks. Some 3,500 U.S. military and civilian personnel have been stationed there, and the base is scheduled to expand.
And, as I mentioned, the YPG, the Kurdish militia in Syria, has got undeclared U.S. blessings for Rojava, the autonomous Kurdish statelet in Syria. Given America’s dependence on the YPG to fight ISIS, it has no choice but to support Syrian Kurds’ territorial ambition, or at least look the other way as they pursue it.
On Tuesday (December 9) I was watching on television the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the U.S. war against ISIS. Getting the YPG guerrillas to fight ISIS and meeting “what they need” to step up that fight were the main theme of the hearing. Sen. Joe Manchin, Republican of West Virginia, glowed as he mentioned Syrian Kurds’ success in grabbing lands from the “caliphate.” So did some others. The only senator who made an implied reference to the consequences of the YPG’s land grab was Mike Lee, Republican of Utah. Was the YPG’s “goal shifting” regarding Rojava? he asked Gen. Paul Selva. The Air Force commander replied that he could answer Lee’s question only in a classified setting.
The Turkish government is alarmed by all this because it knows, as do many political observers in and outside the region, about the Kurds’ long-cherished dream of having an independent greater Kurdistan, in which the protagonists of the project want to include a large swath of Turkey. Arabs in Iraq and Syria are apparently reconciled with the Kurdish goal. They have little control over their countries, roiling in civil conflict, terrorism and anarchy. They also can’t resist U.S. geopolitical interests in the region, which require active Kurdish support.
While the Turks are concerned about the greater Kurdistan movement, they are in no mood to let it dismember their country. Turkey has a powerful military, which would resist the disintegration of the country. So would nearly 80 percent of its (non-Kurdish) population. Would the protagonists of greater Kurdistan have to settle for half a loaf rather than none: a state comprising Kurdish communities only in Iraq and Syria?
♦ Mustafa Malik, an international affairs commentator in Washington, hosts the blog ‘Muslim Journey’ (https://muslimjourney.com).