By Guilia Piscitelli (UCLA 2021)
UCLA International Institute, November 14, 2019 — At a talk in late October, UCLA Professor of History James Gelvin discussed the history of the Kurds in the Middle East and helped “illuminate the current crisis in Syria in the wake of the decision by the U.S. president to remove [American] troops and open up new pathways of opportunity for attack and occupation by Turkey.”
The event was cosponsored by the UCLA Center for Near Eastern Studies, Luskin Center for History and Policy (as part of its “Study the Past to Better the Future” series) and department of history.
The Kurds in the Middle East
“There are about 25 to 35 million Kurds in the Middle East,” noted Gelvin, making them the largest stateless nation in the world. The area they inhabit, known as Kurdistan, is located in parts of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. The Kurdish people share one ethnic identity, noted the scholar, but employ different political ideologies and have had differing political experiences in the countries they inhabit.
Iraqi Kurds have a friendly relationship with the Turkish government. They sell oil to Turkey, explained the scholar. “Turkey is the largest investor in Iraqi Kurdistan… [and] supported Kurdish independence from Iraq during the 2017 referendum,” he added.
Kurdish politics in Turkey, on the other hand, are far more contentious. The leading Turkish Kurdish political group, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), has been engaged in an on-again, off-again conflict with the Turkish government since 1984 and is considered by the United States and Turkey to be a terrorist group. The group’s ideology was born out of Abdullah Öcalan’s early Marxist-Leninist views and its original aim was national independence, explained the speaker. In 1995, the group readjusted its platform to demand equal rights and Kurdish autonomy within the Turkish state instead of demanding independence.
Syrian Kurdish politics are also derived from Öcalan. However, said Gelvin, they are inspired by his anarchist-syndicalist views. Their leading political party, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), is currently narrowly focused, he said, on the “establishment and governance of an autonomous zone in northern Syria called Rojava.” Gelvin pointed out that the Syrian Kurds have engaged in direct conflict with the Syrian government infrequently and, for the most part, remained neutral during the Syrian civil war, focusing instead on fighting ISIS and creating the autonomously governed district of Rojava.
On the whole, “the Kurds have had a prickly relationship with the Syrian government for decades,” said Gelvin. He explained that the current conflict dates back to the 1960s, when “[t]he Syrian government sought to deal with its ‘Kurdish problem’ by establishing an Arab belt” in order to separate Syrian Kurds from Turkish Kurds. At the same time, the Syrian government denaturalized about 120,000 of its Kurdish citizens, making them ineligible to obtain passports in Syria, he continued.
Turkish invasion of Syria
American forces have been in Syria since 2014, noted the speaker, to assist the mostly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces in their fight against ISIS. On October 6, 2019, the Trump administration ordered the withdrawal of American troops from Northern Syria following a phone call from Turkish President Erdogan. “On the 9th of October, three days later, Turkey began bombardment of North Syrian Kurdish-held areas and then launched a ground attack,” he added.
Accompanying the Turkish army was the Syrian National Army, also known as the Free Syrian Army. During the Obama administration, observed Gelvin, the then president referred to this group as being comprised of “former farmers, teachers and pharmacists.” Since President Trump cut off aid to the Free Syrian Army in June 2017, however, “they [have] morphed under Turkish direction into something far more violent,” he concluded, saying the group was now largely “made up of criminals, sociopaths and Islamists.”
“According to Turkish President Erdogan,” began Gelvin, “the Turks have two goals in Syria.” The first, he continued, is to create a corridor between southern Turkey and Syria (which cuts a roughly 20-mile area through Syrian territory) to prevent Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units from interacting with and influencing the PKK in Turkey.
“The second reason was to be able to dump from 1 to 3.7 million Syrian refugees into Syria… [to] alleviate Turkey’s refugee problem,” said the scholar. This goal, said Gelvin, violates international law. A third unmentioned motivation behind Turkey’s invasion, said the speaker, “was to destroy the autonomous administrative district of Rojava.”
“After the Turkish invasion, the Kurds threw themselves into the arms of the Syrian government for protection, but the government will not tolerate Kurdish autonomy,” explained the historian. As a result, an ethnic cleansing of Kurds in northeast Syria is now occurring, asserted Gelvin. “Whether or not it’s the Turkish army that is directly doing ethnic cleaning or their allies is really irrelevant,” he added.
Rojava: The joint target of the Turkish and Syrian regimes
Rojava, meaning “the land where the sun sets,” is the de facto autonomous district created by Kurdish forces in northeastern Syria, said the scholar. He described the district as a radical and mostly successful example of democratic self-governance. “[I]ts values include confederalism, gender equality, secularism, private property protection, democratically controlled enterprises, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and freedom of religion,” said Gelvin. Rojava’s commitment to gender equality, he remarked, stemmed in large measure from the fact that the Kurdish women’s brigades played an important role in the fight against ISIS.
Female Kurdish YPG fighter in 2015. (Photo: Kurdishstruggle via Flickr, 2015; cropped. CC BY 2.0.
Turkey and Syria, with the support of Russia, aim to destroy the autonomous governance of this area. The primary reason Syria does not want Kurdish autonomy — aside from the fact that more than two-thirds of Syria’s oil is located there — is because the regime does not want to cede control over a large amount of territory and the people who live on it, said Gelvin. Syria rapidly lost control of Rojava during the Syrian civil war, he explained, and “now the Syrians are attempting to regain control of all the areas they lost control of.”
By invading the Kurdish zone, the Turks have greatly assisted Syria in this goal. In essence, concluded Gelvin, the Turks will “smash a self-governing entity in Syria so that the Syrian government will be able to take it over.” The scholar said he was inclined to believe that Russia acted as a mediator between Syria and Turkey regarding the Turkish military intervention because of the Russian government’s alliance with Assad.
The incoherence of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East
“The United States has not had a coherent policy in the Middle East since the Cold War,” remarked Gelvin. It is therefore not surprising, he continued, that the United States decided to withdraw troops from Syria after years of backing Syrian Kurdish forces in their fight against ISIS.
March 24, 2017. U.S Marines during a fire mission in northern Syria. Photo: Lance Corporal
Zachery Laning, U.S. Marine Corps via Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.
This is the third time that the United States has betrayed the Kurds after working with them as an ally, emphasized Gelvin. It previously betrayed the Kurds in 1975 (when the U.S. and Iran abandoned the Iraqi Kurds after supporting them to drive the Iraqi Army out of Iraqi Kurdistan) and 1991 (when President H.W. Bush failed to support a Kurdish uprising in Iraq that the U.S. had encouraged).
U.S. policy towards the Middle East under President Obama, said the speaker, was to calm down the situation in the region, remove U.S. troops and focus attention on countries in areas of the world where positive change was more probable. Nevertheless, he introduced U.S. troops in Syria to help Kurdish forces defeat ISIS and drive it from the territory seized by the terrorist group.
President Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, remarked Gelvin, appears to have be driven by “trifecta” of factors: “impulse, an affinity with strong men and, particularly, reversing a decision that Obama made.” The probable outcome of his decision is significant, concluded the historian. Rojava is likely to crumble, migration out of Syria will increase and hundreds of thousands of Kurds will be victims of ethnic cleansing, said Gelvin.
The destruction of Rojava is an enormous loss to the Middle East, despite its flaws; the autonomously governed district “[was] a precious gem to be saved and not be carved up by either Turkey or Syria, because it represents a radical experiment in democratic self-government,” said Gelvin. However, the historian believes Rojava will be a model for democratic governance in the Middle East for the future.