They were expendable

Joost Hiltermann

  • Sold Out? US Foreign Policy, Iraq, the Kurds and the Cold War by Bryan Gibson
    Palgrave, 256 pp, £65.00, May 2015, ISBN 978 1 349 69552 2

Ever since the fall of the Ottomans, the Kurds have been a non-state nation, an insurgent population split across four sovereign states – Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran. Denied, as they see it, an independent Kurdistan by the cynical manipulations of the French and British colonial powers in the aftermath of the First World War, over the next hundred years they suffered serial and escalating repression: detention, torture and execution; the destruction of villages and bombardment with sundry weapons, including napalm and poison gas; and even – the ruling order’s last resort – genocide, as in the Iraqi regime’s 1988 Anfal counterinsurgency campaign, in which tens of thousands were systematically murdered. Yet every human disaster can be counted as a political step forward in the Kurds’ pursuit of their historical entitlement to statehood. Their recent successes in Syria and Iraq – against Islamic State, and territorially – have been met with considerable sympathy, even romantic idealisation, in the West.

But it has all happened before. The way Kurdish rebel parties make progress towards realising their people’s highest aspiration is to push when central power is temporarily weak, then try to hold the line on their gains when it rebounds, as it invariably does. Whenever possible they expand the territory they control – taking over oil and gas reserves in adjacent areas – and assert greater authority over their own heartlands. So the Kurds used Saddam Hussein’s defeat in the 1991 Kuwait war to establish a quasi-independent enclave under the protection of the US military; in 2003, they extended both their powers and their territory as the Iraqi regime collapsed; today, they are eyeing the situation in Syria as a potential opportunity to unite Kurdish populations previously separated by post-Ottoman borders, and they are seizing additional territory in both Iraq and Syria as they push back IS with Western military support.

At every turn, however, the Kurds are tripped up by the very divisions imposed on them after the Ottoman Empire’s disintegration a century ago. In theory they are fighting to create a unitary state in all of Kurdistan, a territory whose borders are undefined but that in some Kurds’ imaginings stretches all the way from deep inside Iran to the shores of the Mediterranean. Across their four main ‘host’ countries, though, the Kurds are internally divided over strategy: some seek a single Kurdish nation-state; others prefer autonomy within the state they inhabit; others would be content with recognition of their rights as a minority in a truly democratic state – of which there have been none in the region. And many seem to have internalised the post-Ottoman borders, embracing their separate identities as Iraqi, Syrian, Turkish or Iranian Kurds. Partly because of these divisions, the Kurds can’t make significant headway in their pursuit of greater freedom without the aid of an external power. This aid – whether from the US, Iran or the Soviet Union and Russia – has never been given as an act of charity: it has always been part of a strategy in which the Kurds are merely instrumental; their sponsors rarely share their goals and sometimes oppose them. The history of the Kurds’ long struggle is therefore one of a series of fleeting alliances with more powerful states, and cries of betrayal once these alliances fall apart, each followed by atrocities from which it takes them a generation to recover.

Take, for example, the predicament that now confronts the PYD, the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, in northern Syria. Its military arm, the YPG, has aligned itself with the Pentagon in the international effort to defeat IS. But the PYD, for good reason, worries about what will happen to this alliance once it has succeeded in retaking Raqqa and freeing northern Syria from IS control. Will the US continue to support the PYD when it tries to administer newly liberated territory over the strong objections of Turkey and possibly of the local non-Kurdish population as well? The PYD wants to remove IS – but primarily as a step towards the goal of establishing a majority Kurdish region it controls. This, of course, isn’t the same as Washington’s goal; it is also opposed by Assad as well as by Turkey and Iran. Washington has warned the PYD that the Kurds’ future status in Syria should be established by post-conflict peace negotiations between Damascus and the opposition and can’t be unilaterally imposed; in the new Syria that emerges, whatever it looks like, the PYD doubts that Kurdish identity and rights will be respected.

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