The Kurds Are In The Way…Again.

The Kurds – some history.

At some time in the year 401 BC,a young Greek officer named Xenophon found himself in a deeply disturbing position. He and some 10, 000 other Greek warriors had served as mercenaries on what turned out to be the losing side in a Persian civil war. Five Greek generals and their staffs had been invited by the victorious Persian commander for a dinner and, presumably, a parlay to discuss terms for the departure of the Greek forces. The Persian commander, however, had a sudden change of heart and when the Greek contingent arrived, they were beheaded.

In his tent at the battlefield of Cunaxa (in what is now modern Iraq), Xenophon now had to devise plans to remove his soldiers from their position and to head north with the ultimate goal of returning to Greece via the Black Sea.  He then commenced their withdrawal in what was eventually to be known as the Anabasis, the March of the 10,000. Xenophon proved to be a highly competent officer, and he proceeded to lead his force into what is now known as eastern Turkey enroute to the sea. Although they faced some rear-guard battles with pursuing Persian forces, they soon faced a more formidable foe in the hills of eastern Anatolia – the tribesmen known as the Carduchi.

Armed primarily with slings (with a range of over 300 yards) and unusually long bows, the tribesmen persistently mauled the Greeks as they drove northward. The Carduchi archers, in particular, were highly effective and their arrows could readily penetrate the shields and light body armor of the Greeks warriors, much to their chagrin. It took all of Xenophon’s military skills to keep his forces in line as they repeatedly had to flank and retreat from the hillsmen. No doubt the Greek army was glad to be shut off the Carduchi aka the Kurds when they eventually managed to leave the hills behind them.

Ottoman death throes.

Roll ahead 1500 years. In 1900, Kurds occupied significant areas of eastern Turkey northern Iraq and northeast Iran. The Ottomans clearly recognized their existence, and if they did not have a political entity of their own, they were a reality. Around 1890, Sultan Abdul Hamid II (aka ” the Damned”) decided to create an irregular cavalry border force, largely comprised of Kurds which he, modestly, entitled the “Hamidiye” guards. They played a pivotal role in the Armenian pogroms, one in 1894 and one, far worse, in 1915 wherein hundreds of thousands of Armenians were put to the sword. This act of genocide (which some Kurds acknowledge) became infamous and is still denied by most Turkish authorities .

By 1919, the Ottoman Empire was in its death throes, having foolishly  sided with Germany in  1914.  The Allied powers, ever voracious, had  concocted a plan to divvy up the remains of the empire among several of their powers, specifically Britain, France, Russia and Greece. Apparently convinced that all was lost, the Ottoman caliph agreed to disarm his forces and appointed a highly respected Ottoman officer to carry out the disarmament of the Ottoman military: Mustafa Kemal.

The rise of Attaturk.

The caliph, however, had chosen poorly, and Mustafa Kemal (later known as Ataturk), revamped the Ottoman military turning it into a force of nationalists determined to preserve the Turkish (vice Ottoman) homelands.

And succeed he did. He founded the modern Republic of Turkey and ousted all Allied armies. By 1924 the sultanate and caliphate had been laid to rest and a new state emerged, dedicated to the idea of Turkish nationalism. He eschewed the non-Turkish parts of the old empire (primarily in the Middle East) and embraced Turkish unity as the cornerstone of his new country .

There was, however, the problem of the Kurds. They inhabited a wide swath of eastern Anatolia and could not be expelled. The solution, for the new government, was simple: re-label them as mountain Turks and, in general, ignore them. Kurdish nationalists and religious conservatives refused to be dismissed, but their revolts in 1925, 1930 and 1937 were ruthlessly suppressed. The myth of “mountain Turks” thus prevailed for decades. The Turkish Kurds remained in sullen silence for the next 40 years.

Iran’s Kurds take up their own cudgel.

Even though Iran played no formal role in the Second World War, the Soviet Union decided that it could make a dent there, occupying a portion of northern Iran. Why? Because they could. Leftist Kurds saw an opportunity to gain a measure of autonomy and, with considerable Soviet assistance, established the Republic of Mahabad in 1946; it endured for less than a year as Soviet support dwindled in the face of international condemnation. Now the ball of Kurdish independence was lateraled to a nearby set of Kurds, this time in Iraq where Mustafa Barzani established the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in 1946. He now commenced his own war of resistance to and independence from Baghdad – a struggle that went on for the next three decades.

While he received occasional support from both the Soviet Union and Iran, Barzani was never strong enough to end Iraqi Arab control, but Baghdad was never strong enough to decisively defeat him. His KDP received a massive jolt of support, however, when Iraq unilaterally denounced the treaty that had governed control of the Shatt al-Arab (confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers) in 1968. Baghdad now claimed unilateral control of that waterway – an action stridently contested by the Shah of Iran. And it was easy for Iran to find a needle to stick in Baghdad’s eye: mount major support for Barzani. And it worked. Suddenly, a flow of money and, more importantly, weapons flowed to Barzani who began making life decidedly uncomfortable for Baghdad.

KDP comes to a crashing halt.

In 1975, the fortunes of the KDP came to a crashing halt. Baghdad decided that the previous joint control of the Shatt al-Arab was not so bad as it once thought and the Algiers Agreement returned everything to the status quo ante bellum. With the cold-blooded calculus of Realpolitik (aided by Henry Kissinger, of course), the Shah now ended support for Barzani. His movement immediately withered, although control of the KDP then passed to his son, Masud Barzani. Eventually, the elder Barzani traveled to the US for cancer treatment and died there in 1979. But Iraqi Kurdish dreams were not yet over. The Gulf War began in 1980 when Saddam Husayn invaded Iran in hopes of taking advantage of the chaos in Iran following the ouster of the Shah in 1979. Thus began one of the 20th century’s most illustrious examples of military incompetence. And yet another opportunity for the Kurds to rise up, with Iranian and Iraqi Kurds both profiting from different sides. Around the same time, a different group of Kurds was preparing to rise up – this time in Turkey .

Turkish Kurds prepare to rise up.

It was in 1978 that a Turkish Kurd named Abdullah Ocalan (aka “Apo”) met with several like­-minded colleagues in the town of Lice, Turkey. Espousing a socialist agenda, they founded the Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan (PKK) – the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. Its agenda was (Turkish) Kurdish independence (have you heard this song before?) and they made considerable inroads into the Kurdish communities in Turkey.     

With its usual, heavy-handed approach, Ankara sought to crush the PKK with only lackluster success. Indiscriminate attacks on the PKK (or anything Kurdish) simply strengthened the PKK which had also gained some political support, particular in Western Europe, where Ankara was not exactly the flavor of the month – or decade. With its hit and run tactics, the PKK represented a fairly robust military force and it was savvy enough to use effective PR throughout Europe and even, to a limited degree, within the US.   Much of the wind in the PKK’ s sails evaporated, however, in 1999 when Turkish assets captured Apo in Nairobi. Although still a viable force, the PKK’s guerilla activities dwindled, in particular in view of Ocalan’ s repeated renunciation of violence and a separate Kurdish state. Huddled
mostly now in Northern Iraq, time and again they have been subjected to cross border attacks by Turkish military units – albeit with limited success .

And on to Syria.

For at least the last three years, U.S. forces in Syria have worked closely with Syrian Kurds operating under the banner of “Syrian Defense Forces” (aka People’s Defense Units) (YPG). They have proven to be highly competent, loyal and determined as military allies of the U.S.   And we are on the verge of leaving them … again. Their future may be as de facto allies of Damascus, since they did not actually rise up against Bashir al-Asad.  And even al-Asad might possess the savvy to welcome them into his fold … to some extent.

Future of the Kurds?

The future of the Kurds does not look particularly  bright, yet there is hope.  The worst they suffered was under Saddam Husayn  when he deployed warplanes armed with poison gas munitions against the village of Khalabja in early 1988, killing some 5000 men, women and children.   Far worse  was the horrific slaughter of over 100,000 Kurdish men and boys in the “Anfal” campaign in the spring of 1988.

However much cruelty has been visited upon the Kurds, they remain dynamic and a force to be reckoned with. They have acquired considerable political maturity and have not lost the optimism that might lead them to a better future. At the end of the day, I remember a conversation with an Iraqi Kurd, when I commented on their remarkable resilience. How did they do it? His answer was succinct: “We learn from our mistakes.”

Amen.