The Sunday Magazine

Kurds take stock of being abandoned by Western allies, again

The past century has been an often painful and bitter one for Kurds. They’ve been denied a homeland that was promised them. They’ve been massacred by Saddam Hussein. And now they’ve been abandoned by Western allies once and fallen under military attack yet again.
Mourners attend a funeral, for Kurdish political leader Hevrin Khalaf and others including civilians and Kurdish fighters, in the northeastern Syrian Kurdish town of Derik on October 13, 2019. (Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images)

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called it a pause. Donald Trump declared it a victory. The Kurds called it a betrayal. 

On Thursday, Erdoğan agreed to suspend his attack on Syrian Kurds for five days, to allow Kurdish troops to withdraw.

This diplomatic crisis was set in motion earlier this month, when President Trump announced that American forces were withdrawing from the region. Turkey then felt free to attack the Kurds in Syria. 

The Kurds have already lost much of their territory, while human rights observers warn of an unfolding humanitarian disaster. 

Kamran Matin is senior lecturer in International Relations at Sussex University. (Submitted by Kamran Matin )

The swath of land in northeastern Syria that's home to a Kurdish majority is known to the Kurds as Rojava, "the land where the sun sets."

Today, the Kurds remain the largest ethnic group in the world without their own homeland. 

Kamran Matin is senior lecturer in International Relations at Sussex University in the United Kingdom. He teaches international history, international theory, and Middle East politics.

Here are some highlights from his conversation with The Sunday Edition's host Michael Enright.

Syrians who have been recently-turned refugees by the Turkish military operation in northeastern Syria are pictured upon arriving at the Bardarash camp, near the Kurdish city of Dohuk, in Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region, on October 16, 2019. Some 500 Syrian Kurds have entered neighbouring Iraqi Kurdistan over the past four days fleeing a Turkish invasion now entering its second week, officials said. (Safin Hamed/AFP/Getty Images)

Is the current truce a farce?

"It is indeed. I mean if you take the explicit terms of the agreement that has been released, it simply accepts the demands which Turkey has been making for at least two years. So it looks like what Turkey hasn't been able to quite achieve on the battlefield, this agreement seems to deliver through a ceasefire. 

"I must add that local sources suggest that this is not all we see and there are other things agreed on behind the scenes. So we don't know exactly what has been agreed upon. But I'd very much doubt it if SDF and the Kurdish-led forces would accept elements that require them simply to capitulate and surrender the land which Turkey is trying to occupy."

Direct democracy under threat

"Unfortunately the menace of ISIS and the brutality with which they treated the region meant that the fight against ISIS dominated the news about about Syrian Kurdistan and Rojava. But, in reality, the fight against ISIS was obviously imposed on the Syrian Kurds. 

"What they wanted to do and they're still trying to do is to build a very egalitarian society, which is quite sensitive and conscious of environmental issues and seeks a quite radical form of gender-egalitarianism which is unprecedented even I would say in Europe. There are rules and laws which stipulate that up to 40 per cent of all official positions in the local government is occupied by women. Every institution has a co-presidency system in which one man and one woman are ruling. There are women-only fighting units. And the system of political governance is based on direct democracy, like Greek city states.

"So it's a really remarkable experience in direct democracy and feminist politics but unfortunately this is not reported I think sufficiently in the West."

Allying with the U.S. 

"I think Syrian Kurds had no illusion that the United States is not going to support their quite radical progressive feminist project in the long run. But the common enemy being ISIS allowed a certain level of tactical alliance and that was how the two sides basically cooperated. And I think they knew this. 

"But nonetheless I think they were, like everybody else, really shocked by the speed with which this withdrawal happened — within hours after a telephone call and a tweet from Donald Trump, not allowing even their ex-allies to reorganize and prepare for what happened.

"Despite this, the Kurdish people and SDF members and fighters are taking this in a very dignified way. They say that they do not expect Americans to fight for them. All they want is for the skies to be closed to the Turkish air force, which is relentlessly bombing civilians and urban centres."

Syrian Kurds who have fled to Domiz Camp. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

Syrian Kurds and Turkey's Kurds 

"The Kurdish movement in Syria ideologically draws on the ideas of Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). I think what really is in common is the idea of what they call democratic confederalism — the idea that the so-called Kurdish Question, which is actually a misnomer, can be solved not by establishing a Kurdish state (as an independent state) but through the radical democratization of existing states. 

"The Kurds in Turkey and Syria don't see the state as a solution but as the source of the problem, because it is the state which has been repressing the Kurds for so long. I think it's a quite remarkable instance in the history of liberation movements that a movement is so explicitly against independence and trying to actually create a democratic system on the ground."

Turkey's proposed 'safe zone' for Syrian refugees

"[This] entails basically a deliberate and systematic demographic engineering or reengineering of the region. Erdoğan's intention is to simply push the Kurds away from the border region. All the Kurdish cities and major population centres are within the 30 kilometres of the so-called safe zone which Turkey wants to establish. So in effect the Turkish state is depopulating this border region from the Kurds, entirely replacing them with Syrian Arabs who belong to other parts of Syria.

"[He] is trying to do basically multiple things by this operation: eliminating the Kurdish democratic experience, to get rid of the Syrian refugees within the region, and also create a perpetual conflict in the region by doing this population engineering."

Parallels to the Armenian Genocide

"Kurdish people, I think with good justification, describe what's going on as an intended genocide. Even before the Armenian genocide, the Ottoman Empire and subsequently Turkish Republic systematically used the forced movement of large numbers of people who were seen as threats to the state as as a weapon. And this happened within Turkey multiple times against the Kurds. So, many Kurds were forcibly moved from central Turkey in the 1930s. Or during the 1980s and 1990s, 3,000 Kurdish villages were destroyed and depopulated by the Turkish army, and that population had to move to Turkish cities as cheap labour in western parts of the country.

"They're trying to do exactly something similar at the moment by trying to essentially depopulate the entire region from the Kurds and uproot them, effectively, from where they have lived for a very long time."

Can NATO help the Kurds?

"The modern world order is based entirely on states. So if you happen to be a stateless nation, like the Kurds, you are really not represented or even heard. You might have noticed that the Turkish side refused to call the ceasefire a ceasefire... It claims a ceasefire is only agreed upon between state actors, not a state and a non-state actor.

"I think even in terms of the United States' own strategic and national security interests, what they are doing is extremely counterproductive and self-defeating. It's not that the Kurds want to be defended without condition. But the fact is that what Turkey is doing is also posing long-term dangers to Western European countries and the United States by allowing ISIS to reemerge and we already see signs of that happening."

Kamran Matin's comments have been edited for clarity and length. Click 'listen' above to hear the full interview.