Middle East

Why the world needs to be watching what is happening to the Kurds in Syria right now


Despite fighting IS together, the US deserted the Kurds in northern Syria last week, leaving them open to Turkish attack. Some say it is only the latest in a long line of 'betrayals' against one of the world's largest stateless groups.

Last week's decision by US President Donald Trump to pull American troops out of northern Syria hit Muhammad Hassan particularly hard.

"I was shocked," Mr Hassan told SBS News.

A Kurd living in the northern Syrian city of Qamishli, he is one of many in the area who now fear for the future of the Kurdish-majority region.

Turkish armoured vehicles enter Syria on 10 October from Akcakale.
Turkish armoured vehicles enter Syria on 10 October from Akcakale.

Turkey made the most of a power vacuum left by the abrupt US departure by launching a military strike against Kurds across the Turkey-Syria border, already killing at least 100 and forcing 130,000 to flee.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan claimed the incursion is to combat rival Kurdish militants and create a buffer zone that he can send Syrian refugees back to.

But Mr Hassan said Turkey's "phobia" of Kurds means there could be far more "catastrophic results".

Mr Hassan works with the Foreign Relations Committee in North Syria, a semi-official body set up by the Kurds as the region gained more autonomy.

Smoke billows from targets inside Syria on 10 October.
Smoke billows from targets inside Syria on 10 October.

He said Kurdish people in Syria were "really disappointed" the US left, especially after Kurds and Americans allied for several years there to fight IS together.

"[The Kurds] fought fiercely against terrorism," he said. 

He said Turkey had "no justification" to attack and that he was surprised international forces had "not taken [steps] to stop the attack on this region".

SBS News also talked with Blesa Shaways, a Kurd across the border in the Iraqi city of Erbil, who had a different reaction.

"I'm not surprised," he said, when asked about the US withdrawal and Turkish attack.

Mr Shaways, who works as a correspondent with Kurdistan 24, said once again the Kurds were "just a tool" and "disposable" to foreign forces like the US. 

Blesa Shaways and Colonel Sean Ryan, spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve.
Blesa Shaways and Colonel Sean Ryan, spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve.

"[This] was about the fight with IS and the fight with IS is finished," he said. 

"In every war, the biggest losers are those fighting on behalf of the superpowers."

And for the Kurds, this is far from the first time they have been let down.

Who are the Kurds?

Numbering some 30-40 million, the Kurdish population is larger than Australia's 24 million.

Many live in a large area that straddles Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Iran and Armenia. They are mainly Sunni Muslims and speak a language from the Indo-European family.

Kurds take part in a demonstration in Erbil Iraq this week.
Kurds take part in a demonstration in Erbil, Iraq, this week.

"Kurds are a distinct ethnic group ... quite unlike their Arab counterparts," Adjunct Professor Bob Bowker from the ANU Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies told SBS News.

The Kurds are the fourth-largest ethnic group in the Middle East and one of the world's largest stateless groups.

"They see themselves as being a nation which has been deprived of its right to sovereignty," Mr Bowker said.

The battle for a Kurdish state

The past century has seen many stalled efforts at Kurdish self-determination.

As World War One ended and the Ottoman Empire was being carved up, the victorious Western powers promised Kurds their own state. But it never eventuated.

Smoke rises from targets inside Syria during a bombardment by Turkish forces at Ras al-Ein this week.
Smoke rises from targets inside Syria during a bombardment by Turkish forces at Ras al-Ein this week.

Instead, the Treaty of Lausanne, ratified in 1924, divided the Kurdish homelands among a number of Middle Eastern nations.

It was the start of years of "getting set up by external parties and being betrayed or let down by them", Mr Bowker said.

'No friends except the mountains'

By the mid-1920s, the Kurds found themselves spread over several Middle Eastern countries, facing persecution in each.

Efforts to create their own state were repeatedly put down and they were often caught in the middle of larger conflicts.

During Iran and Iraq border disputes in the 1970s, Iran strategically allied with the Kurds.

But after a deal was struck with Iraq, Iran "left [the Kurds] high and dry, and they suffered extraordinarily at the hands of the Iraqi regime", Mr Bowker said.

Former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein's rule targeted Iraqi Kurds in the late 1980s when chemical gas was used, villages were razed and thousands were forced into camps.

Syrian Arab and Kurdish civilians flee Turkish bombardment this week.
Civilians flee Turkish bombardment this week.

In Syria before the recent civil war, the government deprived thousands of Kurds of citizenship rights, banned their language and clamped down on Kurdish political activity.

While in Turkey, Kurds form about 20 per cent of the population.

Human Rights Watch has called out Turkey's "repressive measures" against the Kurds within its borders over the years.

The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) took up arms against the state in 1984, waging an insurgency for autonomy in Turkey's largely Kurdish southeast. Since then, more than 40,000 people have been killed in the conflict.

Civilians flee with their belongings amid Turkish bombardment on Syria's northeastern town of Ras al-Ein.
Civilians flee with their belongings amid Turkish bombardment on Syria's northeastern town of Ras al-Ein.

Mr Bowker summed up the overall situation in the region with a Kurdish saying.

"The Kurds have a saying that they have no friends except the mountains and there's a lot of historical evidence to back that up."

The Syrian war and the Kurds

Over the course of the Syrian civil war, Kurdish forces have been one of the few winners.

They managed to carve out a sizeable area of self-rule across the north and east of the country.

The Kurdish YPG militia power grew after joining forces with US troops to seize territory from IS.

While the US deployment provided a security umbrella that helped Kurdish influence expand, Washington opposed any autonomy plans.

The Kurdish-controlled part of Syria.
The Kurdish-controlled part of Syria.
SBS News

Syrian Kurdish leaders claim they do not seek partition but rather regional autonomy as part of Syria.

Meanwhile, there has been deep unease from Turkey, as the YPG has ties to the PKK, which Turkey, the US and EU classify as a terrorist organisation.

But in a policy shift last week, Mr Trump said American troops would depart northern Syria - leaving the Kurds exposed to military intervention from Turkey.

With IS "defeated", Mr Trump said he "was elected on getting out of these ridiculous endless wars" that have left the US "bogged down".

Almost immediately, Turkey started a military offensive across the border, launching airstrikes and artillery fire at Kurds in Syria.

In a matter of days, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 81 Kurdish fighters and 38 civilians had been killed.

Kurdish forces claim pro-Ankara fighters taking part in the Turkish offensive "executed" prominent political leader Hevrin Khalaf on Saturday.

And the UN humanitarian agency OCHA said the exodus sparked by the fighting had grown to 130,000 people and it was preparing for that figure to more than triple.

The Turkish government maintains it wants to create a "safe zone" along with border to resettle millions of refugees currently living on Turkish soil.

Turkey currently hosts 3.6 million refugees from the eight-year conflict in Syria - the highest number in the world.

"What we are [also] trying to do is prevent the establishment of a terrorist state on our southern border. This cannot happen," Mr Erdogan said.

History repeating itself

Ismet Tastan, co-chair of Democratic Kurdish Federation of Australia said Kurds globally were appalled that the US left.

"It was devastating for us as soon as we heard that news because from 2014 to 2019 we had been fighting shoulder to shoulder, battle to battle [with the US]," he told SBS News.

"We lost 11,000 people fighting against IS ... trying to make it a more peaceful world for everyone."

We lost 11,000 people fighting against IS. 

- Ismet Tastan

And according to the Kurdish administration, some 12,000 people linked to IS are still held in seven detention centres across northern Syria.

The administration said a Turkish bombardment near a camp for the displaced on the weekend led to nearly 800 relatives of IS members fleeing.

Mr Tastan, who once lived in Turkey and is now in Sydney, said the reversal of fortunes was another case of history repeating itself.

"Everyone uses Kurds for their own purposes, for their own benefit ... and then leave," he said.

"We feel like [the US] has put us in front of Turkish aggression ... It's going to be a disaster for Kurdish people."

Ismet Tastan talks to SBS News.
Ismet Tastan talks to SBS News.
SBS News

The Australian government also said it is "deeply troubled" by the escalation in fighting.

In a statement, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the federal government has flagged its concerns with the situation, warning of dire outcomes should the conflict be allowed to continue.

"It will cause additional civilian suffering, lead to greater population displacement, and further inhibit humanitarian access," Mr Morrison said.

Democracy the answer?

Some Kurds believe the time has come to both reassess their own strategy and push for bigger changes in the Middle East.

Mr Shaways, the Kurd who lives in Iraq, said the blame for recent developments partly lies with Kurdish political leaders saying, "Kurdish strategy has failed".

Smoke rises from the Syrian town of Tal Abyad.
Smoke rises from the Syrian town of Tal Abyad.

And more broadly, he said the solution for the Kurdish issue is political reform across the Middle East, which would properly give the Kurds a voice within the countries they currently live.

"If we had democracy in the Middle East, we would not fight for a new state ... The biggest and best solution for the Kurdish issue is democracy [in countries like Iran, Iraq and Syria]," he said.

"In a democracy, everyone would be safe."

Additional reporting: AFP, Reuters

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