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world wide wednesdays :: friend and foe

a lot of people have heard of the kurds, but many of them couldn't say much about who they are or where they come from, save that they seem to be involved in conflicts all over the middle east, which is largely because they come from all over the middle east. the kurds are one of the largest ethnic groups on earth to not have a nation of their own. there are nearly 40 million kurds worldwide, with the vast majority living in western asia, spread out over four different countries: iran, iraq, syria and turkey. [side note :: there is also a small but significant kurdish population in armenia, although their numbers have dwindled considerably after forced displacements by stalin in the 1930s and during the armenia- azerbaijan war over the territory of ngorno-karabakh.]

the west has difficulty dealing with the kurds and their nationalist movement because of the different relationships western governments have with the countries where they live. there is a shocking hypocrisy in how they are spoken about, depending on the audience and this has resulted in a largely ambivalent reaction to their plight. at the moment, western reaction to the kurds is more conflicted than ever, but is perhaps reaching a boiling point due to the ongoing islamic state conflict. so who are the kurds and why are they so politically contentious? let's have a look, shall we?

the kurds are a people who emerged relatively recently. they were first identified in early medieval times as a distinct people living in modern day iran and iraq, in the zagros mountains and surrounding areas. they are primarily descended from the aryan tribes of iran, with some relation to turkic and arabic groups. mythologically, the kurds are said to be the offspring of angels and the most beautiful of modern women.

two kurdish men flanking a catholic priest
from the beginning of the sixteenth century on, the kurds fell under the dominion of foreign empires. at first, their territories were conquered by the persians, but shortly afterward, they were claimed by the ottomans, who held possession until the end of world war i. although technically under the rule of others, the kurds always maintained a certain level of autonomy and were allowed to keep their own traditions within the empire. early on, the ottomans were clever enough to realise that the way to keep the territory calm was to appoint a kurdish governor and to allow him to administer the lands as he saw fit. and the governors in turn did little to violate the traditional boundaries and customs.

by the nineteenth century, however, the ottomans had had a change of heart and tried to claw back freedoms that had been given to the regions of their empire. that worked out exactly as well as you might expect and in 1880, the first kurdish nationalist revolt had to be put down. its leaders were exiled to istanbul where, presumably, the ottoman government could keep an eye on them. however, the seed was planted.

the turkish genocide against the armenians is increasingly well known, however during that time, the turks also forced about three hundred thousand kurds from their homes and into different regions. almost half the displaced died because of the wretched conditions in which they found themselves, setting the stage for tensions with the turks that continue to this day. their history in the twentieth century has been one of periodic revolt and suppression in all the countries in which they live. and that's where things get complicated.


of the four countries that have a substantial kurdish population, only iran has had much success in stalling nationalist or separatist sentiment in the twentieth century. unsurprisingly, they've done so by giving the kurds freedoms within the state of iran, ensuring their inclusion in parliament [including the appointment of kurds to senior cabinet positions]. the iranian government was even supplying weapons to rebel kurdish factions in iraq for a time. of course, since the kurds are an iranian people, iran has had a much easier time selling the argument that kurds should feel right at home within the existing nation. and kurds represent a smaller percentage of the overall population in iran than they do in other countries. but it's hard not to draw connections between the fact that, while iran suppressed separatist movements in the twenties and maintains a staunchly anti-separatist position, they've had fewer issues with their kurdish population than any other country, and they've been the least repressive.

map of kurdish territories
in iraq and turkey, things are quite different. kurds make up close to 20% of the population of both countries and form majorities in specific regions. both governments have clamped down on the kurds with incredible force in an attempt to club them into submission and the result has been that the kurds have become more militant and more committed to separatism.

just after the first iraq war, the kurds in iraq, sensing that president saddam hussein had been weakened both militarily and politically, rose up to demand a separate state. western media were flooded with images of a bloody civil war, as the kurds found out that hussein's war machine was in far better working order than it had looked against the americans. during that uprising, many westerners found out for the first time that hussein had conducted a genocide against the iraqi kurds in the final days of the iran-iraq war, culminating in the chemical attack on the town of halabja [march 16, 1988], recently captured by iranian and kurdish soldiers working in tandem. this was largely played up in the media in order to illustrate how horrible saddam hussein was and how justified the united states had been in taking him on over his invasion of kuwait.

nevertheless, western politicians shrugged and chewed on their fingernails and wailed that yes, it was tragic, but what could they do? and while a lot of people suggested "how about you repeat what you just did?" that was more or less all we heard. the kurdish rebellion was crushed and saddam hussein lived to fight another day.

so why did the west, who had just clobbered hussein like an elephant stepping on a cockroach, hesitate to help the kurds who were fighting against him? well, for starters, most governments [although not most people] were quite aware of what he had done to the kurds in 1988, how many people had died and what he'd done to kill them. evidence of chemical attacks was later trotted out to justify further attacks against iraq, but in 1988, no one cared very much, because iraq were the good guys fighting evil iran. furthermore, at the time, the americans' greatest ally in the region and their biggest customer in the arms trade was turkey, and they had a kurd problem of their own. [side note :: only three countries, norway, sweden and the united kingdom, have acknowledged that the al-anfal campaign conducted against the kurds in 1988 is a genocide. in 2010, the canadian government passed a resolution that the chemical attack in halabja constituted a crime against humanity. that's small consolation considering that it came long after saddam hussein was executed and because the canadian government had nothing to say at the time about it, but it's still more than most other countries have done. let it never be said that i'm incapable of acknowledging when stephen harper gets something right.]

kurdish demonstrators in turkey
turkey's draconian handling of their kurdish population has been less well-publicized as turkey increasingly became friendly with the west. in the first half of the twentieth century, turkey had aligned itself more with the soviet union and iran, but more recently, it had shifted its affections, not least because the rebellious kurds had adopted a left-wing political stance. the militant wing of the kurdish separatists, the kurdistan workers party [pkk] was officially at war with the turkish government for fifteen years [1984-99] and most western governments have designated it a terrorist organization. that created a conundrum for westerners when the kurds were attacked in iraq, because the kurds on the iraqi side of the border were the exact same as the kurds on the turkish side of the border and, unlike the iranian kurds, both groups were determined to carve out a separate state for themselves. so offering military or even political support for the kurds in iraq would put the lucrative american-turkish relationship in jeopardy. america will take awkwardly looking in another direction for millions of dollars, alex. [side note :: leyla zana, the first kurdish woman ever elected to turkish parliament, was outspoken in her support of her people, even taking the dangerous step of using the illegal kurdish language while giving a speech. she was eventually imprisoned by the government for fomenting revolution or some such and while she was awarded the sakharov prize in europe while she languished in prison, the entire american reaction came from a single member of the 435-seat congress condemning her arrest and imprisonment.]

flash forward to more recent times. specifically, to the uprising in syria against the assad government. although the syrian regime had not been as murderous as either iraq or turkey against the kurdish population, there was still a ban against the kurdish language and hundreds of thousands of kurds living in syria had been denied citizenship, depriving them of even basic rights. no small wonder, then, that syrian kurds fought against the government when civil war broke out and, having been organized for some time, were more successful than other rebel groups. the syrian kurds secured their territory right along the turkish border and have held it ever since.

as things spiraled out of control in syria and the illusion of stability in iraq collapsed, a new enemy of the west emerged from the ruins: the islamic state. having fought hard for their territory, the kurds immediately let i.s. know that they weren't going to just back off in terror and let them take over. in fact, the kurdish armies in syria and iraq have been more successful than anyone in beating back the terrorist group and, while america and the west have stood like heavily armed deer in headlights, ready for a fight, but with no clue what to do. once again, they've refused to outright endorse the actions of the kurds out of fear of alienating turkey, but they're quietly aware of the fact that they owe the kurds big time for holding parts of the middle eastern fort better than anyone else.

kurds are renown for their eyes. now you know why.
very recently, turkey has finally agreed to step up its efforts against islamic state, however its approach is a little... unorthodox. while turkey claims to have bombed i.s. strongholds in the last week, it's also become evident that they're bombing kurdish-held areas. which means that their approach is not merely to get rid of isis, but also to get rid of the people who might benefit from fighting isis on their own. it's a weird and risky tactic, because the turks are counting not only on continuing domestic support [we'll get to that in a minute], but on the continued willingness of the united states and nato to look the other way when it comes to turkish attacks on kurds. that's a gamble on both fronts, since the situation is bad enough in iraq that the west doesn't have many places to look for help, and iraqi kurdistan remains their best option.

so why would turkey take such a risk? for that, we have to look at the turkish government. more specifically, we have to look at the fact that, while turkey has a head of state, it doesn't actually have a government and hasn't for a couple of months, because the party of president recep tayyip erdogan took a pounding in his country's june elections failed to secure a parliamentary majority and have been unable to establish a working coalition. much of the support went to the left-wing kurdish-based people's democratic party [hdp], who picked up a substantial number of votes from turks who are uncomfortable with erdogan's islamist [as opposed to secular, long the norm in turkey] agenda. erdogan needs to defeat the kurds far more than he needs to defeat isis, because it's not the islamic state that's nipping at his political heels. [side note :: it's been alleged that the erdogan government has much closer ties to islamic state than they admit and that in their desire to see the downfall of regional rival and secularist bashir assad in syria, they've ended up becoming collaborators with the world's most reviled terror group.]

turkey's point-blank response to criticism is that they consider both isis and the syrian kurds [who are aligned with the turkish pkk] to be terrorist groups, and that all their western allies do as well. so to their way of thinking, why should they focus on just taking out one terrorist group, when they could take out two? cue an extremely uncomfortable reaction from the west. after all, no one here has ever said that the syrian or iraqi kurds were terrorists, far from it. in syria, they were a trustworthy resistance to the assad government. in iraq, they were victims of saddam hussein, evil dictator. it's only in turkey that their actions have been condemned.

it's been hard to come by
and recently, there's a new wrinkle in the kurdish tapestry: the united states has started to become friendly with iran again. remember what i said before about iran supporting the iraqi kurds? that hasn't subsided. although the iranians won't hear of a separatist movement in their own country, they're not unsympathetic to the idea of a kurdish republic. [after all, the iranians have more in common with the kurds than they do with iraqis, turks or syrians, although they have supported the syrian government.] and the kurds, in deference to the fact that they have shown support in the past, haven't pushed claims to iranian territory as they have in other countries. thus does iran become a wild card in turkey's game of regional poker. erdogan is betting that the u.s. would rather maintain a good relationship with turkey at pretty much any cost, but it's no longer the nineties and the enemy is no longer a single head of state.

sooner or later, of course, the united states and their allies are going to have to shit or get off the kurdish pot. the idea of an american-kurd alliance is unacceptable for turkey, but it will become increasingly untenable for the west to express sympathy and support for the kurds in one country while outright condemning them in another. if the kurds can continue to fight off isis [although, now that they have to fight against turkey as well, there's no guarantee that they can, especially since some have estimated that they've already overextended the strength of their army.] that process might be accelerated if erdogan's party continues to fail at forming a government. that would force new elections, which might well push the balance of power even more towards the left and, by extension, to the kurds. as president, erdogan himself wouldn't lose his power, but he'd be forced to work with a parliament that holds a far different agenda. he might look to his erstwhile american allies to see how well that works out.

for the moment, events have reached a kind of standoff. the kurds who fought against hussein and assad and who have been successful against isis where other regional governments with larger militaries have failed, justifiably feel that they've done everything to deserve u.s. support. turkey, however, remains a powerhouse and pretty much america's only remaining ally in the region now that hosni mubarak has been deposed. no one can [or should] say that they didn't see this coming- although they probably will. the for america, nato and the west now is: are the kurds your friends or your foe? because they can't continue to be both.

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