Syrian Kurds: Stateless and Depending on Assad

Map of the Kurdish Region
The dotted area on this map is occupied by Kurds. Readers can find this map on the website “The Kurdish Project.”

President Donald Trump last week ordered the withdrawal of U.S. ground troops from Kurdish-occupied northern Syria. Immediately after, invectives rained upon the President’s head for suddenly leaving the Kurds, who helped the U.S. defeat ISIS, to fend for themselves against attack by Turkish troops.

The media is in a frenzy of Trump accusations. Both sides of the Congressional aisle stand united in rebuke of Trump. Vocal opponent of U.S. interventionism, Representative from Hawaii Tulsi Gabbard, called the Turkish incursion into northern Syria genocide against the Kurds, and stated that because of “Trump’s failure to end the regime change war in Syria the Kurds are now paying the price.”

President Trump has a way of making his decisions seem impulsive, and he is in the habit of speaking loosely. No one should be comfortable with Turkish troops bombing Kurds, or with taking such a scenario lightly. However, it might be useful to review the other side of the current media narrative.

The Background

Trump was elected in part based on his campaign pledge to end forever wars. After assuming the presidency, Trump has on numerous occasions condemned U.S. foreign incursions, unless the underlying conflict involved clear and resolvable threats to U.S. specific interests abroad. Therefore, the withdrawal of ground troops from Syria should not have surprised anyone.

In December 2018, President Trump specifically said he would withdraw ground troops from Syria. He indicated that ISIS had been sufficiently defeated, and therefore, there was no further need for U.S. fighting in Syria.

ISIS perpetrated enough destruction that it needs to be viewed as a threat to orderly democratic social structures. In 2014, the newly-formed Coalition to Defeat ISIS consisted of 79 member countries, several of which engaged in actual military action against ISIS in the Middle East.  Thus, although the U.S. acted in a leadership position, the U.S. is not the only country responsible for ensuring against the resurgence of ISIS or assuring the safety of Kurds.  Russia is a member of the Coalition and also an ally of Syria.

A rough estimate of 18 million ethnic Kurds reside in Turkey, some of whom have militantly called for a separate Kurdish state for the last 10 years. Turkey has vehemently opposed Kurdish separatism, clamping down Kurdish language and culture inside Turkey. It should not be surprising that as soon as the opportunity arose, Turkish troops started bombing Syria in an effort to establish a buffer zone inside Syria to put distance between Turkey and Syrian Kurds.

Since 2011, millions of Syrians have fled the country’s civil war. Turkey accepted 3.6 million of the fleeing refugees. With the withdrawal of U.S. troops, Turkey wants to carve a “security zone” along the border on Syrian territory in which Syrian refugees can be resettled.  This zone would be in territory occupied by Kurds.

One of President Trump’s responses to criticism over the Syrian withdrawal is that the Kurds and the Turks have been fighting over Kurdish autonomy for a long time, so a new fight upon U.S. troop withdrawal would be nothing new. Indeed, the conflict can be said to date back to the end of World War I.

At the end of WWI, the victorious Allies partitioned the defeated Ottoman Empire into newly-created countries under the control of Britain, France and Italy. Several treaties ensued, but for the purpose of this discussion the last two treaties are the most significant. The Treaty of Sevres (August 1920) included the regions of Anatolia and Kurdistan, and no specific Turkish country. Soon after the signing, prominent Turkish leader Kemal Ataturk, began a fierce battle for Turkish independence. The new Treaty of Lausanne (July 1923) was ratified, Anatolia became independent Turkey, and the Kurds were left without their autonomous region.

Kurds Today

The region today sometimes unofficially referred to as Kurdistan is an area spanning parts of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey – the general region of Kurdistan under the Treaty of Sevres. Kurds are considered the largest stateless ethnic group in the world. They have some level of autonomy in Iraq, but little or none elsewhere.

Since 2011, the U.S. has been critical of Syria’s President Bashar Hafez al-Assad, accusing him of tyranny and use of chemical weapons. It is understandable that the U.S. military and officials hate to see Kurds in alliance with him, but alliance with Assad is what Kurds had to do, and did, in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal. Upon some thought, one should realize that Assad is protecting his own country by agreeing to fight the Turkish incursion.

Statelessness is painful, as Jews, Palestinians, Kurds, and so many other ethnic or religious groups now or formerly without a country can attest. Kurds are a capable people, and of course deserve a country of their own. The question is where. Meanwhile Kurds forcefully defend the territory they inhabit, anticipating that some day they will be able to establish meaningful autonomy for themselves.