The Kurds occupy an interesting space in global affairs. Both ideologically and structurally, they differ greatly from their friends and enemies. Structurally speaking, they’re one of the world’s largest stateless nations, residing in Iran, Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Armenia, but they’re not particularly welcome in any place they occupy. The easiest way to sum up the last 100 years of Kurdish statelessness is to say that the Kurds have always had a bad time. Under Ottoman rule they were oppressed, and after WWI, they were promised a state of their own. The new Turkish state, however, refused to give the Kurds the rights or the land necessary to establish their promised autonomous state. As a result, the Kurds have always had, to put it nicely, a difficult relationship with the Turkish government. Kurds in Turkey and Iraq are members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which serves as the military and political institution of the nation. Since 2015, the PKK and associated insurgent groups like the People’s Protection Units (YPG) have been in direct conflict with Turkey, initially accusing Turkey of allowing Islamic State soldiers to cross its border and attack Kurdish cities. As the United States strives to maintain amicable relationships with its fellow NATO member Turkey, it doesn’t seem to make sense that there would be any sort of relationship between the United States and Kurdish forces. So, why does a stateless, radical ethnic group that the Turkish and Syrian governments deem terrorists have such an important, albeit rocky, relationship with the United States?
The relationship between the United States and the Kurds is complicated. In recent years, the United States and Kurdish forces formed an alliance because they both shared an interest in defeating ISIS. In 2014, the Islamic State began to rapidly consolidate territory in Syria and Iraq, with their growing power threatening the Kurdish city of Kobane . ISIS was much better equipped and the Turkish government refused to help the Kurds stave off the threat. However, the United States stepped in, initiating airstrikes against ISIS, while at the same time Kurdish militias began to effectively fight against ISIS and even reclaim lost territory. While the Kurds were far from an ideal partner for the United States due to their hostile relationship with Turkey, the United States couldn’t afford to lose the Kurds while ISIS’ power surged. In turn, the Kurds believed that their loyalty to the United States would help them eventually reach statehood and self determination.
But then, ISIS stopped being a problem. And, in many ways, so did the Kurds’ fight for their autonomous state. During a press conference in late September, President Trump shared with a Kurdish journalist “don’t forget, that’s their [the Kurds’] territory. We have to help them. They fought with us.. They died for us and with us” . However, just a few days later at the beginning of October, President Trump had a decisive phone call with Turkish President Erdogan. Afterward, Trump announced that the United States would withdraw its troops in Northern Syria, where a large fraction of the Kurds that fought with the United States and against Turkish forces are located. This means that the Turkish military can strike at the Kurds at will, with no U.S. intervention or protection on their behalf. We are, for all intents and purposes, abandoning the Kurds.
In many ways, President Trump’s withdrawal from Northern Syria is not surprising at all. Some pundits have remarked that the only things sure in life are death, taxes, and the U.S. abandoning the Kurds. Given Trump’s neo-isolationist tilt in foreign policy, and his pledge to take America out of our endless entanglement in international affairs, it is only natural that we should end our involvement in the Kurdish-Turkish relationship. Trump is an America first president, and at first glance, our involvement in that part of the Middle East doesn’t seem to do much to improve the lives of people in Middle America.
There are certainly devastating humanitarian implications if the U.S. abandons the Kurds. In the short time that the United States has withdrawn, nearly 200,000 Syrian Kurds have been displaced by Turkish military operations . Humanitarian violations, many Trump-adjacent officials and supporters would argue, are a painful necessity in minimizing U.S. involvement abroad. But it may, in fact, serve American interests to continue to assist the Kurds’ efforts to form an autonomous state. The independence of Kurds in northern Iraq, Syria, and Turkey is consistent with the American values that we have been trying to promote in the Middle East. The Syrian Kurds maintain a democratic society that incorporates the rights of minority and female citizens and aims to promote peace . The United States derives a lot of its soft power and influence from its ardent support of democratic regimes and self-governance. We helped Latin American countries leave the Spanish empire, independence for central and eastern European countries after the first world war, and supported African and Asian countries breaking off from a host of European empires after the Second World war. The Kurds, if allowed to establish a sovereign state, would prove to be an essential ally in a region filled with countries that have labored relations with the United States. Ultimately, the United States has a moral imperative as well as strong self-interested incentives to continue their support for Kurdish self governance.
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