The plight of the Kurds – in Syria, Turkey, Iran, and Iraq – is long, complicated and heartbreaking: People without a nation, no Balfour Declaration for sovereignty, no endgame, and now shaky allies. There is a way forward, if the Trump Administration will adopt it: Peace.
How does one begin to tell the story of the Kurds? They trace their heritage to Corduene, an ancient region in eastern Turkey. Their origins are found in Syriac sources, once a small state between Armenia and Iran. For most of history, Kurds were in the Roman Empire, only independent between 189 to 90 BC.
In 1514, they aligned with the Ottomans. By 1597, an epic Kurdish history showed pre-Islamic dynasties. That said, assigning exact coordinates or borders to the Kurds has long been difficult.
Providing them a specific chunk of land only got harder after World War I. While the Ottoman Empire was vanquished, accommodation for the Kurds was fumbled. A secret 1916 accord between the French and British imagined such a place, and the Treaty of Sevres in 1920 carved one out – but by 1923, the Turks under Mustafa Ataturk had upended the treaty and established modern-day Turkey. Losers were the Kurds.
Then came World War II, when Kurds fought with the Allies to defeat the Germans, for a second time. They were part of British Royal Marine Commandos, parachuting into Albania, Italy, Greece and Cyprus, separately assisting the Soviets – then US Allies – to defeat the Axis in Sevastopol, Leningrad, Stalingrad, Hungary, and Manchuria. But alas, luck eluded them.
After WWII, although the Soviet Union aimed for an independent Kurdish state in northwestern Iran, they withdrew, and that plan collapsed. The result: A stateless Kurdish diaspora.
Fast forward to now. Half of all Kurds live in Turkey, yet Turkey bans distinct ethnic groups; speaking Kurdish was illegal until 1991. Repression in Turkey is pervasive, although the Iraq War brought a semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government within Iraq.
Unfortunately, as is often the case, actions set off reactions. In 1978, a nationalist Kurd group called the PKK came into existence. While it aimed for an independent Kurdistan, it also resorted to terror and drug trafficking. We rightly condemn the PKK on both grounds.
Now, we come to recent Syria. After the civil war erupted, ISIS grabbed parts of Syria and northern Iraq. These areas were populated by Kurds. When the Obama Administration pulled US forces out of Iraq – ISIS just exploded.
The threat posed by ISIS to Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Western Europe and – through power projection the US – was significant. The US surged to win back lost land, with decisive assistance from the Kurds, who were simultaneously battling the Syrian government for control of northern land.
As a result of Kurdish support, ISIS was defeated. This fulfilled a campaign pledge by President Trump. In all fairness, without Kurdish resolve, assistance and sacrifice – ISIS would not have been destroyed, certainly not without more US blood and treasure.
So, what has just happened? President Trump had pledged to disentangle the US military from Middle Eastern conflicts, to drawdown US forces not needed – including in Syria. Sadly, that decision conflicts with pledges made to the Kurds, when they helped us to defeat ISIS.
When President Trump signaled a pullback of US forces in northern Syria, who had fought beside the Kurds, Turkey’s Islamist, anti-Kurd President Recep Erdogan, attacked the Syrian Kurds.
To some, this was predictable. To others, Erdogan’s appetite for Kurdish destruction was surprising. It should not have been. Diplomacy had broken down. Erdogan, who lauds the Ottoman Empire, fears the Kurds – since they could ignite an internal uprising via the PKK.
When the US argued that Kurdish allies in Syria are not the PKK, Erdogan ignored the distinction. Unfortunately, this leaves the Syrian Kurds, US service members and the Trump Administration in a strange place.
Turkey is hardly behaving like a NATO member, or US ally. The Kurds are looking to the Russians for help, even as Turks buys Russian anti-missile technology. Turks have attacked large chunks of Kurdish Syrian territory, putting US allies and civilians at risk.
While President Trump likely did not expect the melee, he must stop it. First, he should make clear that Turkey is a NATO ally, and that means acting like a civilized nation. Second, he should prepare to bring down the economic hammer on Turkey – fast. Third, he should make clear US support for the idea of a Syrian semi-autonomous zone, while condemning all Kurdish-related terror and the PKK. Fourth, he should send a senior envoy to negotiate an immediate ceasefire.
Finally, there is a rabbit to pull from the hat. President Trump should elevate peace negotiations, talk up the Syrian Kurdish safe zone, and activate the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The move would make peace possible, draw in 57 countries, and be unexpected.
The US mission to OSCE should lean forward, swiftly resolving this crisis between Turks and Syrian Kurds. President Trump could lead the charge for peace, using “the paramount instrument for building a region of stable, open societies in which every country lives at peace,” the OSCE.
If not now, when? If not Trump, who? If we do not stop Turkey from going rogue, undermining US commitments to allies, and killing civilians, what is next? Now that we know – let’s stop the overreach, broker a lasting peace. Now, that would be a legacy.