History, Profiles, Reviews, Occasional Meanderings
KOBANE, THE KURDS AND THE POLITICS OF PERPETUAL VICTIMHOOD
A note: too often the large and fairly diverse population of Kurdistan, flung across Iran, Turkey, Iraq and Syria, is referred to as a homogenous group that shares nothing or little in common with its neighbours. For instance, despite the not insignificant minority of fragmented tribal and Islamist political and militant factions, Kurdistan is nearly always identified and referred to by the politics and political language of its secular nationalist dominators and its diaspora. I find this trend deeply problematic but I have yet to discover another brief term, so to clarify when I refer to “Kurds” as a whole in the following article I refer to the dominant elite who have defined their national movement both in terms of politics and Western media focus, rather than the more diverse people.
The twentieth century for the Kurds—the world’s largest stateless ethnic group, an ancient people spread across four countries at the junction between Central Asia and the Middle East—was a horrific one, even more so than for the world at large1. Attacked with poisonous chemical weapons by two of the century’s most domineering leaders, Winston Churchill2 and Saddam Hussein, and attacked on every side by ethnonationalist supremacist Turks, Arabs, and Iranians, the Kurds understandably have adopted a pragmatic, survivalist policy that banks more on ethnic solidarity than abiding alliances with any group—so that during the Cold War, various Kurd guerrillas hedged their bets with both the United States and the Soviet Union, Iraq and Iran, adopting both tribal conservatism and progressive radicalism as ideologies. This earned them a rather unfair reputation for cunning and unreliability by some of their opponents, but the Kurds could just as easily retort by pointing out the number of times their perceived friends had betrayed them, where the United States is usually taken as a case in point.
In the backdrop of near-extermination by ethnonationalists—from Kemalist Turks to Baathist Arabs and, to lesser extents, both royalist and Islamist Iranians—it is understandable for Kurds to take a pragmatic stance, which has been criticized as cynical. Had not Kemalist Turkey, and even its less rigidly nationalist successor of the late twentieth century, adopted a blatantly racist programme towards the Kurds, whom the “great modernizer” of Turkey and his junta viewed as backward shaykhs and aghas unworthy of a modern, forward-looking people?3 (As a yardstick, Tevfik Rusdi, a liberal member of Kemal Ataturk’s ultraracist cabinet, had helpfully pointed out that there was no need for Turkey to exterminate the Kurds as their inherent backwardness would do that by itself). Did not Iraq’s Baath and even their more reconcilable republican predecessors repeatedly made a mockery of their claims of brotherhood with the Kurds, culminating in the infamous slaughter of 1988?4
Even the notion of Muslim camaraderie, long a rare bind between the autonomous Kurds of premodern history and their neighbours5, has become viewed with skepticisim if not outright hostility by more radical modern Kurds though thankfully they remain a fringe6. Considering how both Islamist Iran and Baathist Iraq frequently abused their Islamic universalism and heritage respectively as a tool to crack down on the Kurds during the 1980-88 Gulf Conflict—best summarized by the Islamic “Anfal” title given to Saddam Hussein’s spectacularly unIslamic campaign of extermination in 1988—even religiously observant Kurds, who constitute a majority in Kurdistan itself, have some cause for caution when their neighbours invoke Muslim solidarity.
There was—rightly and understandably in this writer’s opinion—considerable outrage among Muslims and particularly Arabs at the pro-Israel tilt of some Kurds like Dawood Baghistani7, who founded the first pro-Israel paper in Iraq—how could an oppressed people reach out to another oppressor?—and yet in the Muslim world, the twentieth-century plight of the Kurds, perpetrated mostly by Muslims, has yet to be fully realized and condemned in similar vein8. By contrast, since the 1990s most Western observers—both “alternative media” pundits, who appreciated the Kurds’ revolutionary struggle, and establishment figures for whom the Kurds’ plight has presented an easy appropriation to further geopolitical aims such as the attack on Iraq—have recognized the Kurds’ difficulty and continue to sympathetically view the Kurds as regional actors.
VICTIMS NO MORE
Nonetheless, the twenty-first century’s first decade saw the scales tilt dramatically in the favour of the Kurds. The United States’ attack on a mutual enemy, Iraq’s Baathist regime, received the support of the Kurds’ peshmergas9; having already spent the better part of a decade in autonomy, Iraqi Kurdistan now presents the first autonomous region under Kurdish rule since the shortlived Mahabad Republic of the 1940s. Despite a longrunning feud with Iraq’s new regime, the sectarian Shia-dominated Baghdad regime headed formerly by Nouri Maliki and now Haidar Abadi, Kurdistan remained relatively secure and prosperous in Iraq, with its head Massoud Barzani inching it towards autonomy. An intelligent and prudent leader who (like his longtime rival for the Kurds’ leadership, the then-instated Iraqi ruler Jalal Talabani) has sought to mend old rivalries in the region, Massoud oversaw the healing of ties with Turkey’s Islamist regime—to the extent that both cooperated in smuggling Iraq’s Sunni deputy ruler Tariq Hashimi to safety from Maliki’s vindictive clutches in 2012-1310—as well as balancing ties between a number of varying actors, as different as Iran, the Gulf states, America and Israel.
The upshot of this—coupled with the total breakdown of the region’s non-Kurd populations into internecine conflict—is that in relative terms, the Kurds of the 2000s for the most part are no longer the region’s persecuted, feisty underdogs or the betrayed, tragic victims. And yet their spokespeople and supporters, as well as the vast majority of the world’s media, continue to act as if they are. Any story about the Kurds’ suffering, their resilience in the face of danger and their pluck, receives much more attention than does that of their neighbours even when dwarfed in proportion (as if human sympathy is a zero-sum phenomenon), and is often completely swallowed without question by reporters who should know better.
A case in point is July’s siege of the Yazidi minority—a tiny syncretic group that Daash and other hardliners accuse of devil worship—in the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan. There was absolutely no question that the Daash siege was brutal, or that it was an emergency that required urgent humanitarian assistance11. Instead, it resulted in yet another United States bombardment of Iraq, which gave Daash a brief setback without eradicating that far-too-convenient threat, and which was exploited both by the Kurds’ peshmerga and Shia militias to root out longstanding rivals from the area under the pretext of fighting Daash12.
Once the smoke had cleared, however, it became clear that the initial reports, many of them by Kurdish media outlets, had been wildly exaggerated. The number of Yazidis purportedly crowded and starved on a mountain had been inflated by tens, and some of them had actually been residents, not refugees, of the area. Stories of sexual jihad and genocide by voracious Daash thugs ran riot—many quite unnecessary fabrications, since Daash quite proudly advertise their brutality. In one of the most ludicrous cases, one media outlet that has never been a bastion of integrity reported that Yazidi parents were feeding children blood to survive, or pushing them off the mountain to their deaths as an apparently more dignified route to the afterlife13; there was, unsurprisingly, no corroboration for this spectacularly unlikely claim, but the press ran with it, amid a backdrop of diaspora Kurds wailing that nobody was heeding their suffering even as a very dodgy bombardment was predicated on it14.
Another case, which has prompted this article, is the current siege of the mostly Kurd-populated Kobane (or Ain-ul-Arab), which apparently to be hurtling towards a Daash triumph after months of conflict. Before discussing the current siege, however, it is necessary to note the background.
This mostly Kurd-populated town, on northern Syria’s border, has been controlled by Salih Moslem’s leftwing Democratic Union with considerable competence for the duration of the Syrian conflict. Moslem’s faction has been closely associated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party of Turkey, which fought a bitter war with Turkey’s then-nationalist regime in the late 1990s. Formerly a radical communist guerrilla, the Workers’ Party head Apo Ocalan underwent something of a transformation in custody, and now advocates a gradualized autonomy for the Kurds that—rather than totally removing the traditional status quo of Kurdish community, such as tribal and religious aspects—seeks instead to accommodate and supplant them in a leftist framework (though himself an atheist, it is notable that Ocalan has in the past tried to woo observant Muslim factions among the Kurds15). The outbreak of conflict in Syria gave Moslem’s Democratic Union faction an opportunity to put Ocalan’s theories into practice, resulting briefly in one of the very few functional secular movements in the current Muslim world.16
It’s understandable that like many of his predecessors, Moslem chose to distance himself from either party—the Damascus regime or its opponents—during Syria’s conflict; he wanted to guard this newfound autonomy (which, a cynic may argue, may have benefited from the conflict’s perpetuation), so long coveted by the Kurds. Despite the claims of both the secular regime and its largely Islamist opponents, there was no guarantee that either would, or could, guarantee Syria’s Kurds their aims of autonomy and self-governance (though several Kurds, such as Mishal Tamo who was tortured to death a few days back by the regime, and Abdullah and Ahmed Kurdy, who form a brigade in the Islam Front, did take sides). So Moslem, the dominant leader of Syria’s Kurds, initially hedged his bets, politely refusing to cooperate either with the regime or the insurgents, except where their interests coincided—such as in the case of Nusra Front, with whom the Kurds fought a series of fierce skirmishes last year in northeastern Syria17.
The rise of Daash, which formally broke away from the insurgency in a whirl of ferocious confrontation over this past 2013-14 winter18, saw the insurgents appeal again to the Kurds; fighting on two fronts, versus both the extremists and the regime, and virtually isolated despite some empty gestures of support abroad, the insurgents badly needed whatever help they could get19. But the Syrian Kurds again opted to hedge their bets, and wait. Indeed, Salih Moslem himself tilted publicly towards the Syrian regime, arguing that Assad—easily the prime villain in a conflict riddled with villains—needed a spot at the negotiations table and repeatedly rebuffing insurgent appeals for unity20. (Moslem’s stance by no means accounts for the entirety of even the leftist Kurds in Syria: less prominent rivals, Abdul-Basit Saida and Nasruddin Ibrahim, have backed the insurgency with some reservation, but their groups are relatively insignificant in size and influence).
It wasn’t until Daash’s stunning conquest along the Iraq-Syria border this summer, which included attacks on both Iraq’s and Syria’s Kurds, that Salih Moslem reconsidered the stance. While Iraq, with its far greater oil supplies and greater accessibility to the United States after a decade of occupation, received immediate assistance, Syria’s Kurds—besieged in their eastern stronghold of Kobane—complained of insufficient attention, with their commander Sipan Himo repeatedly asking for a seat at the United States’ proxy table21. So far, despite a campaign of largely indiscriminate airstrikes with its Gulf clients that has decimated large swathes of the insurgency22, the United States has yet to publicly comply.
This left the frustrated Syrian Kurds in search of other partners. In late summer, they finally assented to the Free Syria Army’s offers of unification, with the respected FS northern commander Abduljabbar Uqaidi, a straightlaced officer who has tried to bridge as many gaps as possible during this conflict, sending reinforcements to Kobane23. But the Free Syria Army, never an especially cogent unit, is incapable of substantial support after attacks on literally every possible front. Now that Kobane is falling, old enmities and suspicions have reignited and the bulk of the Kurds’ ire has been directed not at its indecisive leadership or at the Western regimes it hopes yet to win over, but at a “perfect enemy”—Turkey.
A PERFECT ENEMY
Nearly every player in this conflict has Turkey’s regime, an Islamist-oriented government headed by the ambitious Recep Erdogun and his reliable lieutenant Ahmet Davutoglu, in its gunsights. Erdogun’s authoritarian streak, though wildly overblown home and away, has not helped24, but his foreign policy, a dramatic change from the past (in this writer’s opinion, a change for the much, much better), has been a key issue. Though the Turkish regime of the 2000s has been far more accomodating and open to the Kurds than its predecessors, who as late as 1999 under the “moderate” Bulent Ecevit were quietly massacring Kurds wholesale in the east, its other policies (usually matched, interestingly, by an otherwise conservative Qatar monarchy) have come under fierce criticism from various sides—ranging from the United States and Israel to the royalist Gulf regimes to Iran’s bloc.
In Afghanistan—despite a deployment of non-combat soldiers (the only popular NATO troops there25)—Turkey has been at the forefront of trying to reconcile the Afghan regime with the Taliban insurgency and its Pakistani neighbour26. In Egypt, Turkey opposed the United States and the Gulf regimes, most notably Saudi Arabia, in backing the ousted Islamist president Muhammad Morsi after Abdel-Fattah Sisi’s bloody 2013 coup27. Since 2011, when relations between Hamas and its former patron Iran (which had itself replaced Saudi Arabia in this role during the “war on terror”’s early years28) cooled because of differences over Syria29, Turkey has taken over as Hamas’ sponsor30. This, coupled with the bubbling hostility between Erdogun and Israel’s brutal ruler Benjamin Netanyahu which invariably goes down well in the Muslim world, has alienated Western support; but the fact that Turkey has backed the revolution in Syria against Russian-Iranian client Bashar Assad means that the anti-Western, self-described “anti-imperialist” bloc of Russia and Iran have also attacked the Turkish regime.
Since the Syrian conflict started, Turkey has played a leading role both in militarizing the opposition into an insurgency, as well as shouldering the brunt of refugees from Syria. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have fled to Turkey, which easily holds the world’s biggest Syrian refugee population. Not coincidentally, the Free Syria Army was founded, and rather awkwardly headed, from Turkey by Riyad Asaad, while Islamist leaders also set up stations there31. A porous border saw massive movements to either side—refugees out, arms and militants in. At the United Nation, Turkey argued for a no-fly zone—a far more reasonable check than the blanket American and Gulf bombardment—only for Russia and China to veto it repeatedly, while other countries such as the United States steadily distanced themselves from an insurgency they had once publicly welcomed32. In April a tape caught Turkey’s then-foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu, increasingly anxious to remove Assad, with army vicecommander Yasar Guler, intelligence head Hakan Fidan and diplomat Feridun Hadi, discussing contriving a pretext to attack Syria directly. It was desperate, but given the ignored crimes of the Syrian regime and the near-global deafness to an increasing din hardly unconscionable33.
These developments, which for the most part should be welcomed, have instead become a convenient stick for critics to attack Turkey. Russia and Iran, rather than explaining their unconscionable backing of a vicious regime, have shouted imperialism; the United States and its Gulf clients, seeking to pressure Turkey out of its support for Islamist factions, have shouted treachery (the Intercept’s Murtaza Hussain has an excellent article on a Gulf lobby, particularly from the United Arab Emirates, that has sought to vilify Islamist-supportive regimes such as Qatar and Turkey34).
An open border policy, which let militants in and out of Turkey without discretion, has been redefined as Turkish state support for Daash, even though Daash is one of many armed groups who have exploited it together with some of their stiffest opponents who have been conveniently lumped with them as manic Islamists despite immense ideological, political and operational differences (there are striking parallels between the Daash relationship with the insurgency and Turkey and the TTP relationship with the Taliban insurgency and Pakistan, which I have outlined in a previous article; they are not the only similarities between Syria-Turkey and Afghanistan-Pakistan35). But nobody has cried blue murder quite like Syria’s Kurds and their diaspora.
Drawing on a completely caricature of the Turkish regime as continuing the murderously anti-Kurd policy of its twentieth-century antecedents, this theory selectively redraws Turkey’s role in Syria as a giant conspiracy to wipe out the Kurds. It claims, with no substantiation, that Turkey has spawned Daash as a proxy to remove the leftist Kurd movements in Syria and Turkey (the fact that Daash loathes Turkey to an only slightly lesser extent is usually brushed aside as the politics of shared hatred for the Kurds). Having once attacked Turkey for using the Syrian conflict as an excuse to invade Syria and wipe out the Kurds36, it now blames Turkey for not doing precisely that and for letting Kobane burn by not invading Turkey37.
Western and anti-Western outlets alike have snatched onto this narrative with glee, wagging stern fingers as they put this imagined scenario down to apparent eternal Turkish hatred for the Kurds (the cordial relation between Turkey and regime of Iraqi Kurdistan in recent years is left ignored). Westerners like the United States can play, as they always do, the concerned humanitarians mediating between ancient hatreds; non-Westerners like Russia and Iran can play the anti-imperialist trying to rescue an embattled minority from a vicious NATO affiliate.
The problem is that this narrative, so consistently spun across the airwaves regardless of ideology, also flies in the face of the facts. Turkey’s open border has let not only Daash but militants of every stripe, including secular Kurds, pass; most of these militants, contrary to the “every Muslamist is a terrorist” angle played by Bashar Assad, have exhausted themselves in the thousands of lives fighting Daash for nearly a year38.
Nor did Turkey, however suspect its motives, seek to stamp out the autonomous Syrian Kurds; the majority of the insurgents who unsuccessfully sued repeatedly for collaboration with Salih Moslem had been from the Free Syria Army or Islam Front, both backed by Turkey. And the airstrikes from the United States and its Gulf clients that, to the undisguised glee of the purportedly “anti-imperialist” guardian of Syrian sovereignty Bashar Assad, have wiped out swathes of the insurgency under the pretext of removing Daash and vague “imminent dangers to the homeland”, had been fully supported by the Kurds, even as, like Assad’s airforce, it decimated civilians. There is tremendous hypocrisy to go around regardless of affiliations with regards to international positions on Daash, but for a long-persecuted minority to ignore the massacre between other groups and then cry foul when it spreads their way ranks up there.
Like their eventual unification with Free Syria Army battalions, Salih Moslem’s Kurds in Syria and their counterparts in Turkey—who have now begun a campaign of violence in mostly Kurdish towns in Turkey to express that disapproval39—only started to care about the fire when it threatened them and it was too late; now that that policy has backfired, they and their supporters in the media have excavated an outdated, anti-Kurd Turkish bogey as a perfect scapegoat to blame. Like the majority of the region’s actors who blame the insurgency and its Turkish backers rather than far more glaring problems, this stance is both factually incorrect and, after their silence on the massacre of Syria, morally empty.