By Josh Gasbarra
In an interview with PBS, the sixth Iraqi president Jalal Talabani said "President Woodrow Wilson, when he drafted the League of Nations, he said that Kurdistan, Arabia and Armenia must not go back to the yoke of the Turks. ... He was the first American president who gave his promise to the Kurdish people." Since then, many U.S. presidents have promised much to the Kurdish people only to pull the rug from under their feet when Washington’s priorities change.
The Kurdish population has suffered systematic discrimination and oppression from the four governments whose countries they reside in, those being Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. Kurds have been discriminated against in government employment and have had little control over even their local affairs. In Iraq, oil wealth was denied to the Kurds despite the fact that the oil wells lay in their land. In Turkey, the Kurdish language is officially banned from both public and private life.
There is no denying that their grievances are justified; to date they are the 4th largest ethnic group without a state. Because they are an oppressed people surrounded by hostile governments, the U.S. has often used them as a tool against their home countries (Iraq, Syria) to achieve their strategic goals. Our military has given them substantial aid in order for them to fight on our side only to abandon them once the goal has been met or a better offer arrives. The first blatant example of this occurring was under the Nixon administration.
In 1972, the Nixon administration along with the pro-American Iranian Shah devised a plan to weaken Iraq under Saddam Hussein—to instigate a rebellion by the oppressed Kurdish minority. Both governments gave millions of dollars in military aid and assured the Kurds they could expect more. The U.S. goal, however, was neither victory nor self-determination for Iraqi Kurds, but rather to put the sabre-rattling Saddam in his place.
Once an agreement between Iran and Iraq over border issues was finalized, the aid to the Kurds ended with no forewarning whatsoever. The Kurdish leader at the time, Mustafa Barzani, had even written a letter to Henry Kissinger, then the U.S. National Security Advisor, pleading desperately for help. Kissinger didn't bother replying. To this day, young Kurds remember and loathe Henry Kissinger. Barzani himself died lamenting having trusted the U.S.
The second betrayal occurred in 1988, during the Iran-Iraq war. As this occurred after the 1979 Iranian revolution, the US was now supporting Saddam against the Iranians. During the campaign, Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against the Kurdish village of Halabja; thousands of people were killed, most of them civilians. While these acts were publicly denounced by the U.S., the military was in fact supporting Saddam’s campaign with critical planning and intelligence with full knowledge chemical weapons would be used against Saddam’s enemies.
According to the New York Times, "the use of gas on the battlefield by the Iraqis was not a matter of deep strategic concern" to Reagan and his aides, because they "were desperate to make sure that Iraq did not lose." While the U.S. was not involved in the planning of chemical attacks against civilian Kurds, they did nothing to prevent them or to punish Saddam at the time. By allowing and assisting a country to use chemical weapons, against former allies no less, the U.S. betrayed the principles of International Law.
The decades that followed showed hope for Kurdish-U.S. relations. The U.S. established a no-fly zone to protect the Kurds during the First Gulf War and the aftermath that followed. When the Kurdish civil war broke out, the U.S. negotiated a peace treaty between the warring factions. The American-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003 allowed the Kurdish region in Iraq to gain de facto autonomy resulting in one of the most well-developed and pluralist regions in the Middle East.
All of this makes the most recent betrayal, having occurred but a month ago as part of the Syrian civil war, all the more shocking. When the civil war broke out in 2011, primarily between the government of Bashar al-Assad and Sunni rebels, the Kurds once again fought for their own autonomy. The United States' initial reaction to the conflict was to support the rebels and the Kurds with non-lethal aid against the Syrian regime.
As the war lingered on, a new threat emerged in the form of the Islamic State (ISIS). This rebel group opposed not only Assad, but all people who refused to accept their extreme interpretation of Islam. This included the Kurds, whose pluralistic values clashed with ISIS's ideology. The Kurds proved to be the United States' most effective ally against ISIS. While the Iraqi army fled, the Kurds fought and won several battles against ISIS, once again with substantial U.S. aid.
The U.S. has made a deal with a longstanding Kurdish enemy, Turkey, that has resulted in the heavy bombardment of Kurdish areas and imprisonment of Kurds within Turkey. What the U.S. receives in this deal is Turkish support against ISIS, but as of now Turkey has been attacking the Kurds far more than the Islamic State. According to journalist Patrick Cockburn, “the majority of those detained by the security forces turn out to be Kurdish or left-wing activists and not suspected ISIS sympathizers.” Turkey has even entered Kurdish areas in northern Iraq, expanding the hostilities of the Syrian civil war even further.
This deal was another betrayal to the Kurds, who have been ISIS’s most resolute opponents. It will spread the violence of the civil wars in Iraq and Syria into Turkey, and it will rekindle a Kurdish-Turkish civil war that had long been dormant. This betrayal is simultaneously immoral and strategically dubious, reminding us of the days when the shots were called by Henry Kissinger.
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