Bullets fly across the cars and through the walls and young boys shudder as the guns recoil against their bodies. Over here women too stand besides them in camouflage pants and scarves, to avenge the death of their sisters. This isn’t Afghanistan or Iran, this is Rojava – in the northern part of Syria, it is the home of the largest ethnic population of the country- the Kurds. The past month has been terrifying for the people of this “non- state nation” as their biggest supporter, the United States decided to withdraw their aid, thus leaving the militia and party in a vulnerable position that is critical to the lives of thousands.
Over the past five years, the Kurds have been on the forefront of the war against ISIS across Syria but have been facing extremely violent persecution from Turkey with almost 40,000 dead. In 2015, the YPG (The People’s Protection Units) accused Turkey of allowing the ISIS to enter the Kurdish city of Kobani in Syria. This triggered a series of events that caused the collapse of the weak ceasefire that had been drawn up after years of ‘insurgencies’ by the Kurds. Since then, Turkey has used the bombings against the ISIS as an excuse to bomb many of the Kurdish bases in Syria.
The war has been brutal and the casualties have been catastrophic- and once again we see history repeat itself as a large nation states uses the Middle East and its people like pawns to fulfil their own agenda. The players on the chessboard are Turkey, ISIS, the US backed YPG and Union Democratic Party of the Kurds in Syria (the first and only democracy in the middle eastern region). Russia too has power as they hold the cards to Syria and their ruler, General Assad as well as the strings to the regions Damascus and Ankara- the potential allies of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) and YPG. To understand the conflict fully one must first delve into how the situation arose and who the Kurds are and what they stand for.
Who are the Kurds?
The Kurds are of the the largest ethnic groups originating from the Mesopotamian plains. Now settled across five countries, namely Turkey, Syria, Iran, Armenia and Iraq; the Kurds are known for their unique culture where they have no single dialect or religion but are bound together by a single identity of forming the Kurdistan state.
The need for a separate state came into being right after the fall of the Ottoman empire during WWI, where the 1920 Treaty of Sevres promised them a separate area with all rights. But in 1923 all hope was lost as Turkey formally drew up its borders and the neighbouring countries did the same, thus only allowing them to resettle as a minority community with limited rights. The next 80 years were a struggle for the Kurds as each time they attempted to fight for their rights with an aid from a powerful nation, they would suddenly be abandoned.
The issue developed after the agricultural revolution of the 1950’s in Turkey, the revolutionary Left rose and there were several revolutionary uprisings. The 1970’s called for focused Kurdish uprising as splinter groups came into being, the most important one being the PKK that launched violent attacks and fully militarised ones from their bases in Iraq in the late 80’s. The PKK received support from Syria, and got protection from the Iraqi Kurdistan in the 90’s post the Gulf War as it was protected by the US and UK
It was only in the early 90’s that Turkey agreed to make some cultural concessions and grant limited autonomy. This was a complete eye wash as martial law was imposed and 200,000 military personnel were posted in the area to suppress any possible conflicts. Between 1982 and 1995 more than 15,000 civilians were massacred. The Turks took the liberty to make the issue a cross border one and in 1992 they infiltrated the Iraqi borders to attack the PKK bases with over 35,000 troops.
In 1999 another ceasefire was brought to the table but rejected after minor militant attacks and retaliation by the government. It was finally in 2004 that a second uprising/ insurgency took place and after a series of small bombings but large Kurdish casualties, the Erdogan government launched the “Kurdish Initiative” in 2009. This too was a failure as the pro-Kurdish DTP (Democratic Society Party) was banned and its leaders were put on trial for terrorism right after they won the majority vote in the Kurdish occupied areas of Turkey. Finally, the Syrian war of 2011 proved to be the catalyst for the violence to actually escalate and come to the forefront of the political sphere at an international level.
Parallel wars and their effects
Through the Gulf War and the Arab Spring of 2011, the Kurds have been in constant dialogue with the United States and have kept ceasefire or have attempted to draw up agreements. Unfortunately, all attempts have been futile as Turkey’s response has largely been violent towards the Kurds, thus forcing them to fight till death.
The uprising against President Assad forced Syria to take a stand against the Kurds. Rebel forces brought down Assad’s army as he diverted troops from Kurdistan occupied areas- thus creating a void of sorts. The PYD took this opportunity to divide what they called Rojava, into three main regions- Afrin, Kobani and Jazira, and setting up democratic local governance systems that would protect all minorities in the region (Arabs,Assyrians, Turkmen, Kurds, etc.). These governments enforced many fundamental rights and demanded equality, and inclusion of people from all genders, all ethnicity and creeds; both which are rare in the middle east.
In 2014 the ISIS launched a major attack on the region, putting under siege hundreds of civilians for months with little access to even basic medical care. Through 2015, the US government provided air support to the Kurdish militia, driving back ISIS away from Kobani and later supplying them with weapons. As they became more successful against the ISIS, the Kurds began gaining ground within Syria itself, expanding their own territory. Eventually Rojava was renamed “Democratic Federation of Northern Syria” and many called it a utopia of the future. Nevertheless, claims of abuse, forcible displacement and quashing of peaceful protest also were reported by human rights groups.
Betrayal and Violence
With ISIS withdrawing and Turkey sending in more of its own troops, Rojava began to lose its alliances. Signs of this emerged when the United States refused to pressurise Iraq on not holding the proposed plebiscite that was to take place (as they felt it would distract them from the efforts to defeat ISIS). This further encouraged Iraq to take back any of the territories that the Kurds had taken over. The referendum gave the Kurds the opportunity to set up their own autonomous parliament as well as form their own armed forces, the Peshmerga. This also gave them the power to tap into the oil and gas resources in the area and use it as petro dollars to fuel their region.
The gains are why the different world powers are now pitted against each other. The Kurds and their allies are now faced with Syria (supported by Russia) and the rebels (supported by Turkey). The move made by the US has created dissent within their own government as their defence secretary resigned due to the view that they had betrayed the Kurd fighters. There were also problems within the multiple NATO allies as the US continues to supply weapons to the Kurds whereas Britain is sponsoring Turkey in crushing the government at Afrin.
The dilemma now lies between Turkey’s reluctance to meet the Kurds’ demands and the most effective counter to ISIS to date. Kurds make up 15% of Turkey’s population and 10% of Syria’s population and thus their demands are valid, especially after the extreme oppression they have faced at the hands of the Turkish government for over a decade. Since 1960s thousands have been denied citizenship within Syria and land has been distributed to Arabs to “Arabize” the area. Though General Assad promised to take back any land that the Kurds have occupied, the talks for peace and formation of a new state have continued.
Essentially, the Kurds are now a population of 30 million without a home. A diaspora whose hopes have been constantly built up and dashed to the ground despite being extremely progressive in some ways and assisting the world’s most powerful countries in fighting terrorism. Currently the Kurds have two options: they can either slink back into the hills of Iran where they have a stronghold and thus escape the heavy bombing from the Turkish forces or they may reap whatever is left of their post-2012 gains in Syria. Over the summer they already set in motion talks with Damascus but it was a washout as Assad refused to budge an inch. Turkey no longer worries as they don’t share a border with PPK/YPG-led troops whereas Syria no longer has to worry about infiltration. Thus, at this point it is Russia and America’s duty to step in to prevent another war from happening and from countries into making compromises that have long term impacts- especially when any sign of faltering is taken advantage of by the ISIS- and finally end this Second Cold War.
Image by Rosso Robot [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], from Wikimedia Commons
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