The terminology “Middle East” was given by Europeans after the First World War to the area between the “near East” and the “far East” – indicating India – based on a European view of the world.
Until the First World War, the Middle East comprehended fewer borders than the ones in which it is currently divided. The Islamic Nation, the so-called Ummah, referred to the Muslim community and was different from the Western concept of Nation. While in the West the concept of Nation has to do with a specific area, culture or territory, in the Islam world the concept of Nation was people-centered, with religion as the only common denominator. The nation existed wherever the Ummah was and people did not think of themselves as members of a nation. The area within the few boarders was subdivided and governed according to some cultural factors such as ethnicity and religion, and there were no attempts to create nation states. The terminology regarding the concept of Nation arrived later, from the West, when Europeans decided to use ink to draw lines that never existed before and that would become artificial borders to create nation states in the Middle East.
The “Greater” Middle East extends across 1.000 miles, West to East, and 2.000 miles, North to South, comprehending rivers, such as Tigris and Euphrates, watersheds of the so-called Fertile Crescent, and vast deserts, such as the Arabian Desert (the largest sand desert in the world), high mountains and huge cities. Nevertheless, it has the natural wealth that every country around the world needs: oil and gas.
Since 1299, most of this huge area was covered by the Ottoman Empire. Its territory stretched from the gates of Vienna to the Indian Ocean. There were no states. Only since 1867, the territory was divided into Vilayets, administrative areas headed by a vali chosen according to tribal identity.
However, at the beginning of the 20th Century the great Ottoman Empire was definitely exhaling its last breaths, and this did not go unnoticed in the eyes of the Western Great Powers. In fact, in 1916 the British diplomat Mark Sykes draw a line on a map that divided the Middle East in two areas. According to the secret agreement with the French diplomat François Georges-Picot, North of the line was destined to be, after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the First World War, under French hegemony and South of the line under British control. The agreement expressed the division of the territories of the Ottoman Empire without any implementation of notions about the lands’ local cultures.
The Sykes-Picot agreement is considered a turning point in the relationship between the West and the Middle East. Breaking the promise that the UK made to Arabs to recognize Arab independence after the war in exchange for support against the Ottoman Empire, upheld a general mistrust of the West among the Arabs that is still evident in present-day conflicts. Of course, this betrayed promise is not the only reason for today’s disorders and extremisms. They existed even before the Europeans arrived. However, creating artificial nation states, especially among people not used to live together, is not the best way to achieve justice and stability. Culture matters, but it seems that the West did not know that.
The dominant religion in the Middle East is Islam, with all its different versions. The split between Sunnis and Shiites dates back to 632 AD. Sunni Muslims are the majority in the Arab world, but not in Iraq. Iraq is an interesting case study to show the impact of Western politics in the Middle East. In fact, Iraq is a region that, when under the Ottoman Empire, was divided into three different provinces: the mountainous area in the North was dominated by Kurds, moving towards Baghdad the majority of people were Sunni Muslims, and the region until the Shatt al-Arab waterway was dominated by Shiites. The division among the region has always existed, since it was divided into Assyria, Babylonia and Sumer. Until, at the beginning of the 20th Century, Great Britain decided to create a new Iraq, by merging the three regions into one country, thinking to make those people forget about their past and their identity, and make them loyal to the West and the newborn state. However, as previously said, culture matters, so the outcome was misery and agony, hatred and hostility among peoples, the history of a failed state destined to social, political and cultural instability.
The Kurds were the first to leave. Although the Treaty of Sèvres (1920) provided for the creation of a Kurdish state, when the Treaty of Lausanne entered into force in 1923, the division of Kurdistan became a sad reality and it was dismembered between four different countries – Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria. Despite the numerous and repeated attacks against them, they have always remained attached to their distinguishable identity.
The countries in which the Kurds are divided have often waged strong repression against the Kurdish community, from Iran to Iraq – think about the Anfal genocide, committed by President Saddam Hussein against Iraqi Kurdistan at the end of the Iran-Iraq War, that killed up to 100.000 Kurds (and other minorities) and destroyed thousands of Kurdish villages – from Syria to Turkey. In particular, Ankara has always looked at the Kurds as a threat to Turkish national security, considering the Kurdish YPG militia, the People’s Protection Units, a terrorist organization, such as the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, considered a terrorist organization also by the US, the European Union, Australia and Japan. Turkey, where the Kurds represent about 20% of the whole population, has always hindered any attempt by the Kurds to obtain an autonomous and independent state. In reality, the Kurds have a very long history of discrimination perpetrated by Turkey against them since 1923. Trying to deny their existence, the words “Kurds”, “Kurdistan” were banned, together with the Kurdish language, by the Turkish government.
Notwithstanding, when the war against ISIS began in 2014, the United States ‘used’ the Kurdish militias (the Peshmerga in Iraq and the YPG militia in Syria) to fight that war for them. During 2015 the Kurdish militias, with US support, succeeded in regaining their territories (Syria Kurdistan, also known as Rojava), freeing them from the occupation of the self-proclaimed Islamic State. In the following years, 2016 and 2017, the Kurdish-Syrians strengthened their control over Rojava and significantly contributed to the final defeat of ISIS.
The alliance between Kurds and the US – the New York Times defined the YPG as the America’s most effective ally in the war against ISIS – clearly created problems between the US and Turkey, both members of NATO. Turkey, always archenemy of the Kurds, was accused of siding with ISIS during the Siege of Kobane, allowing the jihadists to enter Kobane via the Turkish borer – an event that forced more than 300,000 Syrian refugees to flow into Turkey to escape ISIL advance in Kobane. The Turkish security forces pushed back the refugees with teargas and water cannons and several protests erupted in various Turkish cities regarding the lack of support for the Kurds from the Turkish government in the war against the Islamic State.
The battle for Kobane, that strengthened ties between the Kurdish YPG and the Free Syrian Army (FSA), was defined by the YPG militia as “not only a fight between the YPG and Daesh” but also as “a battle between humanity and barbarity, a battle between freedom and tyranny […] a battle between all human values and the enemies of humanity”.
The Kurdish cause of the YPG generated great sympathy within the Western public opinion, not only for the contrast to ISIS, but also for the ideology leading the movement. With a sort of post-Marxist perspective, Kurdish women are given same rights as men – there are also Kurdish anti-ISIS militias made up of women, such as the Women’s Protection Unit (YPJ) – and in Rojava a democratic, pluralist and liberal constitution was adopted. Due to the huge consensus and support shown by the West after the defeating of the Islamic State, Kurdish people had dared dreaming that their people could have enjoyed a period of peace. That is no small feat for a landless community that has been involved within its region in wars between huger powers.
But yet, in October 2019 the nightmare started again, and the illusion that the Kurdish people could have been in peace for a while collapsed. Everything started with a press release issued by the White House announcing the new US strategy in Syria: immediate withdrawal of US troops from the north-east area manned by Syria Kurds. This strategy effectively left free field for Turkish invasion of the area. In fact, President of Turkey Erdogan’s will was to occupy those territories in order to oust Kurds and send back all Syrian refugees that entered in Turkey in the past years of civil war. In practice, Erdogan obtained Trump’s approval to attack the United States’ main ally in the fight against ISIS. After many years of alliance in the war against ISIS, the US gift to the Kurds has been to leave them alone in order to avoid fighting Erdogan’s military offensive – member of NATO and fundamental ally of the US in the Middle East.
On October 19th, 2019 the US President Donald Trump negotiated with the Turkish government a ceasefire, although leaving the Kurds out of negotiations. Turkey has pledged a ceasefire of five days, provided that the Kurds – previously considered allies of Washington and today pariahs – abandon the big buffer zone wanted by Ankara. According to the agreement, the Turkish army can remain in the area. This was, since the beginning, the goal of Erdogan, now helped by the chaos provoked by the United States by withdrawing their troops from the region – considered a deterrent for Turkey. Kurds feel Trump is yet another one of many that, in the last decades, betrayed them.
Attacked by Turkey and abandoned by the US, the Syrian Kurds feel betrayed by that western world that had shown so much support in recent years. Ilham Ahmed, President of the Executive Committee of the Syrian Democratic Council, asked the European institutions not to abandon the Syrians and not to close their eyes on Erdogan. Turkey is violating too many international laws and continues to harm Syria. This crime must be stopped and Turkey must be sanctioned for what it has done.
“Kurds believe they are living in disappointment as they walk to their fate. I feel history will never forget what happened to us because it keeps repeating itself. It is filled with defeats and disappointments and it feels like winds that carry heavy dust and make it difficult to breathe.”
Almukhtar Sarah, Wallace Tim. “Why Turkey is Fighting the Kurds Who Are Fighting ISIS”, The New York Times, August 12th, 2015 https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/08/12/world/middleeast/turkey-kurds-isis.html
Madonia, Mattia. “I Curdi Hanno Sconfitto L’ISIS E Ora La Turchia Potrà Massacrarli. È Una Vergogna Mondiale.”, The Vision, October 9th, 2019 https://thevision.com/attualita/curdi-isis-turchia/
Marshall, Tim Prisoners of Geography, London: Elliot and Thompson Limited, 2015
Oliphant, Roland. “Do not abandon us now, Kurdish leader tells the West as Isil battle draws to a close”, The Telegraph, February 18th, 2019 https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2019/02/18/do-not-abandon-us-now-kurdish-leader-tells-west-isil-battle/
People’s Defense Unit (@DefenseUnits), “General Command of the People’s Defense Units (#YPG) regarding the liberation of #Kobane (Jan. 26, 2015)”, Twitter, January 27, 2015, https://twitter.com/DefenseUnits/status/559858898736517120
Souleiman, Delil. “Absurd and Meaningless”, AFP Correspondent, October 19th, 2019 https://correspondent.afp.com/absurd-and-meaningless
Zerocalcare, Kobane Calling, Milano: BAO Publishing, 2019