Plight of the Kurds

By Kurdishstruggle – Kurdish & American Peshmerga, CC BY 2.0,

At the crack of dawn of October 9th, 2019, Turkish troops crossed the Syrian border capturing towns and attacking armies of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Syrian Army. During the offensive, many ethnic Kurds were massacred and imprisoned by the Turkish army, causing an uproar among the American public. Why is this? Who are the Kurds and what does the United States have to do with the offensive?

Who are the Kurds?

The Kurdish people are an ethnic people whose origins can be traced back to the Mesopotamian plains. They have historically inhabited areas which now consist of Turkey, Syria, Armenia, Iraq, and Iran. The Kurds are united through race, common language, and culture, a majority of which are Sunni Muslims.

Areas historically inhabited by Kurds

History of Oppression

The Kurdish people have naturally inhabited crossroads between great empires of history. With this, they have seen a great deal of conflict from stronger powers. Starting with Mesopotamia in 2300 BCE, 2100 BCE with the Persian empire, invasions from Alexander the Great in 332 BCE, clashes with the Romans and Byzitens in the 11th century, attacks from the Mongols in the 13th century, massacres from the medieval Persians in the 14th century, and systematized oppression from the Ottoman Empire from the 16th century to 1918. The most recent source of aggression towards the Kurds comes from Turkey beginning in the 1920s. As a unified people victim to generations of repression from greater powers, the Kurds have longed for their own unified Kurdish state, known as Kurdistan.

Kurds in World War I 

By the start of the 20th century, the Ottoman Empire was on the verge of destruction before collapsing completely in 1918 with the end of World War One. During the interwar period, the British began to support and fund uprisings within the Ottoman empire to destabilize the government in order to speed up the inevitable victory. The British allied themselves with the Arabs who would rebel against the Ottomans. In exchange for fighting, the Arabs were promised their own unified Arab state that would encompass what is now modern-day Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Many other oppressed groups looking for independence also rebelled against the Ottomans, including Armenians, Persians, Turks, and Kurds. Using the promise of their own ethnic states, many of these groups agreed to fight on behalf of the British against the Ottomans.

Kurdish soldiers in World War I

The Betrayal

The potential ethnic homelands for the Arabs, Armenians, and Kurds, became an empty promise.  While the British got many of these groups to fight on their behalf, the British made an agreement with the French to seize the promised lands of the Kurds and Arabs in order to make them colonial mandates to obtain their resources. When the Ottoman empire collapsed in 1918, the pleas of the Arabs and Kurds fell on deaf ears, as the British and French created the colonial mandates of Trans-Jordan, Iraq, Syria, and Iran. When the British and French began to lose their colonies in the 1950s, the mandates became legal nation-states, with their borders unchanged and became what is modern-day Iraq, Syria, and Iran.

The Problem with Colonial Mandates

When Britain and France created their colonial mandates, they established their borders on what would be economically beneficial to their respective empires rather than the people living in said territories. At the end of the day, the mandates were just modern colonies. When borders for these mandates became legitimized borders of actual countries, the borders showed their age, as they split up anyone who wanted to be together and forced those who hated each other into one area. Many attribute this lack of regard of the ethnic and national people of the territories, as one main contributor to violence in the Middle East. The land that the Kurds historically lived on was divided between the new countries of Syria, Iraq, Iran, Armenia, and Turkey. People wanting to be united were split by artificial borders that long-gone empires created, which is not the best recipe for peace.

Kurds and Turkey

Ever since the founding of Turkey, the Kurds have wanted their independence that was promised long ago. When Turkey refused to let the people living in Kurdish lands have a referendum and denied them any autonomy, violence broke out resulting in guerrilla uprisings that were only put down, with the Kurdish people punished more.

Kurdistan and the United States

After the Gulf War of 1991, the US enforced no-fly zones over Iraqi and Kurdish lands, giving them the safety to organize and regroup. In 1992, the Kurdistan Region Government (KRG) was formed in Northern Iraq. After some infighting, the KRG managed to have international backing from the US and even have its own army and elected parliament. In 2003, When the US invaded Iraq, the Peshmerga, (the military wing of the KRG) allied with the US to overthrow Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein. Many were sympathetic towards the Kurds as Saddam Hussein attempted genocide against the Kurds in Iraq using chemical weapons. When Hussein was ousted, the new constitution of Iraq recognized the KRG and Kurdistan Parliament as having autonomous powers in their region. 

As the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) began to conquer territory in Iraq and Syria, the front lines of this war were on Kurdish lands. KRG and Kurdish militias played a large part in the fight against ISIS, with the US supplying them with funds, weaponry, training, and air support.

Syrian and Turkish Kurds

In 2011, as the Syrian civil war broke out, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the armed wing of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) rose up against the authoritarian government of Syria. Eventually, the fight was expanded toward ISIS, when they advanced into Turkey and Syria. The Kurds in Turkey, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), came to the aid of Kurds in Syria and Iraq, as did many in Armenia as well. To these Kurdish groups, ISIS was not attacking Syria, Turkey, or Iraq. ISIS was attacking Kurdistan, their home and their people. 

By Kurdishstruggle – Kurdish & American Peshmerga, CC BY 2.0,

The Fight Against ISIS

To Turkey, ISIS was less of a threat than the YPG as Kurdish independence movements had been an enemy far longer than ISIS ever was. During the Kurdish campaign against ISIS, the Turks often let the Kurds fight ISIS on their own, sustaining many casualties, despite being allied with them. Turkey also often attacked YPG units and attacked Kurdish cities in Syria. In 2016, the YPG spearheaded a coalition with mainly Kurds, Arabs, and Armenians known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The SDF offensive was supported by many Western powers such as the United States and partially Turkey. In 2019, the SDF and YPG celebrated the defeat of ISIS in the region but warned of underground terrorist operations.

SDF and YPG forces taking Raqqa from ISIS in 2017.  AFP

Aftermath and Betrayal

After the defeat of ISIS in the region, the SDF and various Kurdish groups began the process of handling ISIS captured militants and the displaced refugees. In October of 2019, US president, Donald Trump, removed troops from the Syrian Turkish border, allowing Turkey to invade Syria to eliminate Kurds in the area. Critics claimed that removing troops from the border would leave our Kurdish allies open to attack and possibly ethnic cleansing from Turkey. Another criticism is that the invasion would destabilize the region and reverse the progress made in the region. Trump claimed that if Turkey tried anything against US allies, he would “Destroy the Turkish economy”. On October 9th, 2019, Turkey invaded Syria, killing many Kurdish soldiers and civilians. Trump has yet to destroy the Turkish economy. Trump has reportedly said that he thought the Turks were bluffing and did not have a plan for the invasion. Turkey is claiming that they are clearing the zones in order to house refugees, but the deaths of civilians and the attacking of former allies may indicate a different agenda.

The Kurdish city of Cizre after an engagement between the Turkish army and the SDF

The Future of Kurdistan

As the invasion of Syria goes on, Kurdish civilians and soldiers have been killed, along with Kurdish cities being held and occupied. There have also been cases of Kurdish political leaders being executed. ISIS prisoners have been released during the fighting and are suspected to regroup soon for a counteroffensive against the Turks and the Kurds. Turkey justifies these actions by claiming that the SDF and Kurdish organizations are terrorist groups. Many Americans are angry as the Kurds and the SDF were their allies in the fight against ISIS, with many claiming that we have betrayed them and left them to die. With US President Donald Trump claiming that their former allies in the SDF are “Probably worse than ISIS” paints a grim future for the Kurdish people and Kurdistan. 

UPDATE 10/19/19

Turkish President Erdogan agreed to a five-day ceasefire with Kurdish military units in exchange for their withdrawal from the buffer zone that Turkey wishes to create inside Syria. Erdogan stated that if Kurdish fighters do not disband by Tuesday evening that the military will “Start where we left off and crush the heads of the Kurds”. In the past two days, Syrian Democratic Forces and Turkish military forces claimed that the other has violated the ceasefire but nothing has come of it. Humanitarian aid has been denied access to the region of Ras-Al-Ain. Erdogan will soon meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin for talks on the situation.



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