Turkey, the US, and the Kurds


The current situation in Syria has once again opened old wounds and highlighted past mistakes. We need to revisit the end of the First World War and the end of the Ottoman Empire to understand the region entirely.

England and France drew up the current borders under an agreement known as Sykes-Picot. While initially leaving room for a Kurdish homeland, the rise of Turkish nationalism and the rewriting of the treaty that ended the war meant Kurds were left spread across four nations in which they had no linguistic or cultural ties.

While the United States was not a party to the treaty with Turkey, not having declared war on them or participated in the war in the region, President Woodrow Wilson did articulate in his 14 points the need to recognize national sovereignty:

XII. The Turkish portion of the present Ottoman Empire should be assured a secure sovereignty, but the other nationalities which are now under Turkish rule should be assured an undoubted security of life and an absolutely unmolested opportunity of autonomous development, and the Dardanelles should be permanently opened as a free passage to the ships and commerce of all nations under international guarantees.

This was seen as a promise to the Kurdish people that they would have the same opportunities to form a country as their Arab neighbors. This was not to be, and the Kurds have been fighting ever since for a homeland.

While Iran, Iraq, and Syria barely tolerated their Kurdish populations, Turkey denied their existence altogether. Turkey banned the Kurdish language, Kurdish writing, and made Kurds change their names from Kurdish ones to Turkish. To this day, the Turkish government continues to suppress the Kurds by jailing their elected officials and killing sections of the population.

Jumping ahead past the various rebellions and the establishment of the short-lived Kurdish republic in Iran, we arrive at the creation of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey. Established in 1978 as a student-led Marxist organization attempting to create a Kurdish homeland in Turkey, it quickly transformed into an armed group.

The PKK was chased around the region and, at one point, were in Syria until Turkey urged the Syrian government to force them out. Before leaving, they established a Syrian branch of the PKK, which became the Democratic Union Party (PYD). Here, we find the genesis of Turkish claims of an existential threat and the presence of a “terrorist” organization in Syria.

The US, as well as Turkey and the European Union, consider the PKK to be a terrorist organization. Aside from Turkey, that designation does not extend to the PYD or its military wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), and its female branch, the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ).

To a certain degree, the PKK and PYD share a similar political philosophy but are generally split on the issue of a Greater Kurdistan versus an autonomous Kurdish region in Syria. This last point is important when considering Turkish claims that the Kurdish organization is a “terrorist” group that poses a threat to Turkey.

From a fact-based review, the PYD and YPG/YPJ have never carried out any operation that was directed toward Turkey or Turkish troops inside of Turkey. Therefore, it cannot be considered a terrorist organization. Turkey’s claims stem from its refusal to disconnect the YPG operations from the PKK. Much of this may stem from Turkey’s deep-seated distrust and racist view of the Kurds. The recent invasion of northern Syria was hidden under the guise of going after terrorists, interpreted by the US as meaning the so-called Islamic State. But, in fact, for Turkey, this meant an attack on the Kurds. Turkey’s real intentions became apparent to the US too little too late.

US President Donald Trump claimed one of the reasons for his actions was to end the war, but all of his advisors and those informed in Washington realize what has been done will only lead to a wider and more dangerous war in the region. When, and if, the US and the region can recover from this massive mistake, something must be done to meet the Kurds’ desire for independence. Only then can proper protection be given to the Kurds.

The way forward toward independence is unlikely to be a unified “Greater Kurdistan” but rather individual Kurdish states that may form a confederation. In the end, the world must be able to guarantee its existence.

The Kurds find themselves in the middle of a violent and unstable region but have never themselves been the cause of the violence. Independence, peace, and stability for the Kurds in the region is the first step but a step forward, nonetheless.

Paul Davis is a Senior Fellow at Soran University and a retired US Army military intelligence officer. He has been a consultant to the American intelligence community specializing in the Middle East with a concentration on Kurdish affairs. Currently, he is the president of the consulting firm JANUS Think in Washington DC.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Kurdistan 24. 

Editing by Karzan Sulaivany