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Seven US Betrayals of Kurds within a Century… Will It Fail Them Again in Syria?

Seven US Betrayals of Kurds within a Century… Will It Fail Them Again in Syria?

Wednesday, 30 November, 2022 - 10:00
A US patrol monitors a position between the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Syrian opposition factions supported by Türkiye in the countryside of Hasakah, east of the Euphrates, in December 2021. (AFP)

If the reaction to Turkish incursions or continued aerial bombardment against Kurdish targets in northern Syria does not meet Kurdish expectations and demands, it wouldn’t be the first time Kurds are betrayed by the US or the West.

In the past century, the global and regional balance of power has changed. The Ottoman Empire collapsed, France and Britain retreated in the world and the Arab region, and US influence grew.

However, four issues remained “fixed,” namely:

First, 40 million Kurds continue to dream of establishing landlocked independent entities or administrations in the four countries in which they live: Türkiye, Syria, Iraq and Iran.

Second, these four countries, despite the many differences between them, have found consensus on coordinating against the Kurds.

Third, major or regional powers have long used Kurds as a tool in their struggles against each other, and to achieve certain goals. For example, the US-led International Coalition has used the Kurds as an essential component in the war against ISIS.

Fourth, US administrations changed, but the betrayals were repeated. Kurdish leaderships changed in different geographical areas, and the wounds of those betrayals remained.

Disappointments and stings

Here is a reminder of seven Kurdish disappointments and Western-American stings over a hundred years:

1 - After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and its defeat in World War I, the Treaty of Sevres in 1920 allocated space for the Kurds in Türkiye to establish autonomy over a region outside Syria, Iraq and Iran.

After Ankara's opposition, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s rise to power and with Washington’s support, the Kurds got a first taste of the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, which opened the door for Paris and London to share the Fertile Crescent in Syria and Iraq, and the promises of the Treaty of Sevres went unheeded.

The region promised to Kurds by the great powers in eastern Anatolia, had finally gone to the fledgling Republic of Türkiye.

As is the case with the US, Britain flirted with Ataturk by saying that it preferred the relationship with Ankara at the expense of supporting the Kurdish “Republic of Ararat.”

This led to a large exodus of Kurds from southern Türkiye to neighboring countries, especially northeastern Syria.

Later, Baathist Damascus often used the issue of immigration in its rhetoric against the Kurds and repeatedly said: “They are not Syrians.”

2 - After decades of Kurdish revolution and immigration in Türkiye, the US supported Iraqi Kurds against the regime of Abd al-Karim Qasim after he came to power in 1958, and then supported the coup that overthrew him in February 1963.

The new Baathist regime in Iraq took a tough stance on the Kurds. When Iraqi Baathists grew closer to the Soviet Union, Washington cooperated with Tehran, which was ruled at that time by the Shah, in arming and supporting the Kurds with the aim of destabilizing the situation in Iraq.

The support to the Kurds was repeated in the 70’s, not with the aim of establishing a Kurdish state, but rather to create unrest inside Iraq to impede any Syrian-Iraqi rapprochement after the signing of the Camp David Accords and Egypt’s exit from the Arab equation.

According to former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, military support for the Kurds was never aimed at championing the Kurds as much as it aimed at weakening Baghdad’s rule.

The Pike Committee’s report to the US Congress included details like Kissinger’s statement and an assertion that “this policy was not transferred to our clients (the Kurds), whom we encouraged to continue fighting.”

Later, the US sponsored an agreement between Saddam Hussein, who represented President Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr, and the Shah of Iran in December 1975. Tehran then abandoned its support for the Iraqi Kurds, with the blessing of the administration of the new US President Gerald Ford.

3 - Iraqi Kurds were subjected to more than one blow by the US in the 1980s and 90s. The administration of President Roland Reagan was silent on Baghdad's use of chemical weapons in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Blows of the 1990s

As for the George H. W. Bush administration, it encouraged the Iraqis to move against Baghdad after the Gulf War in 1991, and then abandoned them.

Bush himself called on the Iraqi army and the Iraqi people to take matters into their own hands, to force the Saddam Hussein to step down, but he did not do much when the Shiites in southern Iraq and the Kurds near the borders of Syria rose up.

However, the US imposed an air embargo that allowed the Kurds to flourish in the second half of the 90s.

This rise of Kurds was met with Syrian-Turkish-Iranian coordination to prevent its transformation into a Kurdish “microstate” on the borders that would inspire fellow Kurdish countrymen in Syria, Türkiye and Iran.

4 - After the events of September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq. There was coordination with the Kurds and their political leaders, and they became among the main winners from the change of the Iraqi regime. Their gains were further reinforced when the US relied on them in the war against ISIS.

In 2017, the former president of the Kurdistan region, Masoud Barzani, wanted to benefit from the support of the US-led International Coalition by taking a step in establishing a Kurdish entity, so he wanted to organize a referendum for self-determination and independence for the region.

The shock or betrayal came when the US clearly declared its reservations about this step.

5 - After the change in Iraq in 2003 and the emergence of the Kurds, the aspirations of the Syrian Kurds revived and they rose up in March 2004, but their movement did not receive any Western backing.

Years earlier, when Türkiye mobilized its army on the borders of Syria in 1998 and demanded the expulsion of the leader of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), Abdullah Ocalan, from Damascus. Washington and its allies supported Ankara’s position, knowing that the PKK is on Western terrorist lists.

Ocalan left Syria, and the PKK were subjected to strikes by security coordination between Damascus and Ankara. This was until the eruption of protests in Syria in 2011, when Damascus decided to facilitate the emergence of the role of the Kurds against other Syrian opposition.

Plan backfires

6 - Damascus’ plan to use the Kurds backfired. The Kurds became strong and Damascus weakened.

The US joined the Kurds in the fight against ISIS, which expanded after 2014, and provided them with military support and air cover. The US relied mainly on the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), which Ankara considers an extension of the PKK.

After ISIS was defeated by the Kurds and the International Coalition, an umbrella was formed that allowed the Kurds to establish a self-administration and a military force that would soon control a quarter of Syria and most of strategic resources found in the country’s northeast.

The emergence of this entity called “Rojava” worried Ankara, Damascus and Tehran.

Türkiye shifted its priorities in Syria, from “toppling the regime” to expanding in Syrian territory.

It concluded settlements with Russia in 2016, 2018 and 2019 that focused on taking apart the Kurdish entity in northern Syria and preventing its access to Mediterranean waters.

This happened with Russian support and under US silence. But the new betrayal happened later.

7 - At the end of 2019, former US President Donald Trump suddenly decided to withdraw his forces from the borders of Syria and Türkiye.

The Kurds considered this decision a betrayal by the US as it allowed a rapid Turkish incursion and shook the pillars of the Rojava, its forces, and its war against ISIS.

After marathon negotiations, US-Turkish and Russian-Turkish agreements were concluded. Ankara obtained commitments from the two major powers to have the YPG withdraw 30 km from borders.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is currently saying that Washington and Moscow did not abide by the 2019 agreements. Consequently, he escalated drone strikes against “Kurdish targets.”

Erdogan is currently betting on the strength of his position due to the Ukraine war and Washington and Moscow’s need for him. This will help him launch a new operation against Syrian Kurds.

Features of a new US “betrayal” are looming on the horizon. The US did not stop Türkiye from launching drone strikes, nor did it stop the heavy aerial bombardment.

The Kurds are betting on ISIS, or on the West’s interest in preventing the terror organization’s resurgence. The Kurds say that a war against them will make them give up fighting ISIS.

There are those who are threatening to open up the Al-Hol camp, which is often referred to as ISIS’ mini-state, to push the US to move in favor of the Kurds.

As for the Russians, they are conveying demands from Ankara to the Kurds in Qamishli.

These demands include the withdrawal of the YPG from the main cities and border areas in northern Syria and welcoming the deployment of Syrian state institutions and border guards.

Damascus, for its part, is relieved by the US betrayals, Russian stabs, and the Turkish strikes.

Although Damascus cannot openly welcome all this and is most likely to issue a statement condemning “Turkish aggression,” the Syrian capital is pleased at heart with what the Kurds are facing.

The least that could happen from these aggressions and betrayals is that Kurds will be forced to the “bitter” negotiating table from a weak position.

The Kurds’ road to Damascus is paved with disappointments and setbacks.

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