Kurds, Turks, Syria and hypocrisy

I’ll begin by making two things clear. The first is that Trump’s sudden decision to pull US troops out of eastern Syria is self-evidently irresponsible and very foolish. The other is that Turkey’s invasion will cause yet further civilian suffering and I suspect it will ultimately solve nothing. But now I’ve made these two admissions, I want to share some uncomfortable thoughts about the way this new conflict taking place within the borders of Syria is being perceived.

While Turkey’s invasion has hit the headlines, the regime bombing of Idlib and attacks on the ground receive almost no attention by comparison, even though this other conflict has been going on for months and far more blood is being shed. This highlights a sad truth about media coverage of Syria’s implosion over the last eight years. Much of the time Syria tends only to receive coverage when something ghastly happens that strikes a particular chord with a Western audience, or potentially affects us directly: the death of Marie Colvin, the use of chemical weapons, the refugees “swarming” towards Europe and (who knows?) our shores. Above all else, the rise and (temporary or permanent?) eclipse of ISIS.

Several hundred thousand Syrians had died and millions been displaced before the first chemical weapons attacks, and our governments had done next to nothing except mislead Syrians by giving them the false comfort that we were with them. If you look at history, you see that it was ever thus. Syria forms part of that area known as the Middle East where Western powers have always sacrificed the rights and wishes of the local people to their own strategic interests. Remember how Britain and France betrayed the Arab people of Syria and Palestine after the First World War.

Are the Kurds in eastern Syria just the latest in a line of Western “proxies” to be betrayed in this way? Yes, and no. Yes, because we did rely on them to fight ISIS for us. No, because the self-styled and Kurdish dominated Syrian Democratic Forces have their own agenda. When it has suited them, they have attacked other moderate Syrian opposition groups (notably in the fighting around Aleppo in late 2016). Although the Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan’s concept of “democratic confederalism” is their official policy – and this is an idea well worth discussing in the context of a future Syrian constitutional settlement – there have been credible reports of SDF units ethnically cleansing Arabs and oppressing other Kurdish political groups. The SDF seem to have set up an alternative, Kurdish dominated state structure in the areas it controls. Yet these are not ancestrally Kurdish lands.

Kurds have traditionally inhabited the eastern parts of the mountainous Anatolian massif and the Zagros mountains between Iran and Iraq, where they are often still pastoral nomads who move their flocks in a pattern of transhumance. In Syria, the elite who ran Syria during the centuries of Ottoman rule had a mixture of Arab, Turkish and Kurdish blood (Remember Saladin was a Kurd). Cities such as Damascus and Aleppo have Kurdish communities which have been based there for hundreds (if not thousands) of years, to the extent that they are frequently much more fluent in Arabic than Kurdish. There is also no large area of Syria that is exclusively Kurdish. The land called Rojava by the SDF (the name means “West” in Kurdish) which forms the heartland of the areas they control has a mixed population. The inhabitants of these plains were predominantly Beduin (i.e. Arab) before large numbers of Kurdish (and smaller number of Armenians and Syriac speaking Christians) fled there from the new Turkish republic of Kemal Ataturk in the 1920s. It is dangerous to see this as potentially land for a future Kurdish state. It seems to be forgotten by some commentators that this is part of Syria, whose territorial integrity the international community is pledged to uphold. This should not obscure one other historic truth: Arab nationalists (including the current Syrian regime) have treated their Kurdish citizens very badly, and often tried to suppress their Kurdish identity.

This brings me to my main point. By focussing on the conflict between “the Kurds” and Turkey, we are losing sight of the big picture. The question to be asked is: how do we bring peace and a democratic constitutional settlement to Syria? To do this, Syria has to be considered as a whole – not as a geographic expression divided into quasi-nineteenth century spheres of influence. Yet that is exactly what happens when this new conflict is considered without putting it in the wider Syrian context.

It is a great shame that in June 2016 Britain voted to castrate itself as a major player on the international stage. If, even now, we could sit down properly with our European partners behind the leadership of the able Federica Mogherini and Josep Borrell, her probable successor, we could use our combined soft power to good effect. A recent Christian Aid report has shown that civil society is alive and well in Syria, and there is much good work that could be done if we could only re-focus on the good of the Syrian people as a whole.

* John McHugo is a member of the Lib Dem Foreign Affairs Advisory Group. He is a former chair of Lib Dem Friends of Palestine and is the author of A Concise History of Sunnis and Shi'is, Syria: A Recent History, and A Concise History of the Arabs.

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  • Nom de Plume 14th Oct '19 - 3:32pm

    My suspicion is that both Turkey and the Syrian government are trying to disrupt the creation of a Kurdish state. More instability and bloodshed. Which would be bad enough, but there is also the possiblity of ISIS re-emerging. The US withdrawal was foolish.

  • Andrew Daer 14th Oct '19 - 4:46pm

    John McHugo’s erudite appraisal probably puts to shame many of us who have only a superficial understanding of the ethnic, religious and historic currents flowing through the Middle East with such disastrous effect. Like many, I suspect, I’d thought it was a relatively simple case of Kurds being the good guys and the Turks being the aggressors, led by an unlikable right-wing president. However, although I agree that the UK would have better chosen to remain in the EU, in this case it seems Erdogan rather enjoyed telling the EU to mind its own business a few days ago, perhaps playing to the audience of Turks who, like some Brits, look back wistfully on time at the centre of an empire. The chance to continue that old rivalry with Europe must be one of the attractions.
    However, as John points out, the tragedy in the rest of Syria has been shamefully ignored, apart from when it has seemed to affect us. It appears that when international intervention is required it comes from either the US or Russia. Most commentators seem to agree that Assad could have been stopped five years ago after the first evidence of gas attacks, and a combined EU force acting in a humanitarian role against a government waging war against its own civilian population might have restored peace.

  • Please give up on the concept of regime change, every time we try it we make things worse. Iraq a total disaster, Libya a total disaster, but Syria would be different, no it wouldn’t it would be a total disaster. But, but Assad is a bad man, yes but replacing him with a vacuum makes things worse. Which paragon of virtue able to square the circle would we install or would we step back whring our hands and say tis a disaster better stay away. We lack the ability through military might to fix the middle East. We can support those that try to make things better, but we won’t do that by waiting for whiter than white groups to arise, they just don’t exist; so for all their faults the Kurds are the best option available and if we can’t support them well we had better give up because we are out of options.

  • This is not just about the people of the region. Large parts of the American and British public, especially the families of people sent serve in the ME, are fed up with it. There’s been the best part of 20 years of neo-colonial policing. The support and the will to keep doing it has long gone.

  • Nom de Plume 15th Oct '19 - 3:25pm

    Interestingly, if they stopped all policing it is likely that ME politics would return to be a lot like it was before 2001. Although many countries would be a wreck, Russia would be stronger and ISIS would remain a threat. It would, however, show the futility and stupidity of US/UK/NATO policy in the ME.

  • It also increases Iran’s influence. Right next door to Israel sits an ally of theirs. Syria has a battlehardend population and army, with no fear of the USA. This will not end well.

  • Richard Underhill 16th Oct '19 - 8:12pm

    The Turkish ambassador to the UK has been interviewed on BBC tv.
    Turkey has been planning this invasion for more than one year.
    He did not distinguish Turkish Kurds from Iraqi Kurds from Syrian Kurds, etcetera.
    He did say that Turkey can withstand economic sanctions from the USA and can buy military equipment wherever Turkey chooses.
    He also said that Turkey is the second largest contributor of funds to NATO (?)

  • Jonathan Brown 16th Oct '19 - 9:12pm

    Excellent article John.

    I would like to add one other sub-plot to this story of disaster, betrayal and deja-vu.

    In late 2013 / early 2014 the Syrian opposition in the north – secularists, Islamists, moderates and extremists put aside their differences temporarily to drive ISIS out of northern and much of eastern Syria, from Aleppo to Raqqa.

    This was without any western help as years of indecision and prevarication had left the various opposition groups in the north to basically give up on expecting any. Unfortunately, what is happening now, happened then too. Those who had defeated ISIS had to pull away troops to confront the greater threat. In this case Turkey, in the former case, the Assad government and associated Iranian militias. ISIS was able to regroup across the border in Iraq, rearm with looted US equipment, and re-enter Syria stronger than ever.

    One of Assad’s greatest successes in this whole affair has been to portray himself as a source of stability, when his regime’s corruption and systemic violence have been the root of most of the trouble and certainly most of the civilian casualties.

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