The Syrian civil war has been classified as the second deadliest conflict of the twenty-first century with over 500.000 casualties. The outbreak of the conflict dates back to March 2011 when a series of revolts and protests spreaded around Northern Africa and the Middle East, in the early stage of what came to be known as the Arab Spring. Unlike other countries in the region, where governments had been overthrown by the popular uprising, Syria suffered from a continuous struggle between rebel factions and the forces of Baathist President Bashar Al Assad who has always refused to give concessions to the groups opposing his regime. The precarious environment allowed extremist groups to settle down and thrive. This is the case of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) whose territories in Syria reached the size of the UK in 2014. Furthermore, the Syrian civil war has been portrayed as a multiplayer field since its beginning in 2011. Countries such as Russia, Iran, the United States and Turkey have joined or provided support to different coalitions throughout the past nine years. Given their various objectives in the region, numerous operations have been carried out since the outbreak of the conflict, often inflaming the public discourse and catching global attention. Finally, the support provided by the West has enhanced the dream of the Kurds, an ethnic group native to the mountain of Western Asia, whose desire has always been the establishment of a state they can call their own. However, the events occurred throughout the civil war in Syria which were strictly linked to what happened after World War I, have further wounded the aspiration for a Kurdish State. Although many events that will be discussed below might not appear self-explanatory at first glance, it’s essential for the reader to denote a common denominator among them: when it comes to dealing with the Kurdish People, the counterparts suffer from a general lack of understanding their needs, their requests and their diversity. I will label this tendency with the term ‘cultural ignorance’.
Cultural Ignorance Among Western Powers
The end of the Great War represented the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and its consequent partition among the Allied Powers who won the conflict. One of the first treaties that attempted to divide the region was the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres, which among the many clauses, it established the French Mandate of Syria and the creation of Kurdistan. However, due to the harsh terms and conditions imposed upon Turkey, the Allies were forced to draft a second and last peace treaty to divide the former Ottoman Empire: the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne. The latter, unlike the Treaty of Sèvres, did not include any provision that referred to a Kurdish State. Instead, the region that was previously destined to be Kurdistan, was divided up between Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria. As a consequence, the Kurds found themselves without a land and trapped within borders that did not exist prior to the arrival of the Allied Powers. They remain today the world’s largest stateless nation.
At first glance, what appeared inexplicable about the Treaty of Lausanne was the absence of the article that provided for a Kurdish Nation. The rationale behind this decision can be partly found in the objectives that France was attempting to achieve in the region. In fact, the French had a major threat to face in the Middle East: the Arab natonalist movements. The latter had been hostile to the Ottoman colonial power before and, now, they were eager to give life to their Pan-arabic plans. In other words, the local populations desired to unify all arabic speakers under the same nation. Thus, the only way to prevent pan-arabism from acquiring momentum was to establish borders that comprehended different ethic groups and minorities. Furthermore, these ethic groups, in turn, had to be divided in a way that impeded them to be united politically and militarily. In fact, as Ayse Tekdal Fildis explains in the journal “The Troubles in Syria: Spawned by French Divide and Rule”, some of Syria’s religious and ethnic minorities, such as Kurds, Armenians, Jews and various Christian sects, were widely dispersed and did not have a geographical base to give rise to political unity. Essentially, France had an interest in drawing up borders in a way that could weaken nationalist movements. Furthermore, the French believed that imposing western concepts – such as the notion of citizenship – upon an ethnically and religiously heterogeneous group would have led them to forget their roots and would have created unity. Thus, the Treaty of Lausanne was indirectly compelling the numerous ethic groups and tribes present in the region to undergo a difficult transition from tribe to nation. As a consequence, those Kurds that were located in the region of Rojava, in north-east Syria, were compelled to accept their status of Syrians and abandon their dream of a Kurdish nation. France, affected by cultural ignorance, underestimated the needs of the Kurds and failed to understand the vast diversity present within the borders of Syria. The Kurdish desire of self-governing was momentarily suppressed.
The civil war in Syria awakened the historical aspiration for a Kurdish state. In 2014 then-president Barack Obama was reluctant to intervene militarily in the fight against the Islamic State in Syria. In fact, he eventually leaned toward a more appealing option that would only require the US to provide air support to boots-on-the-ground allies. For this purpose, the Obama administration decided to join forces with a faction that they considered rather reliable: the People’s Protection Units or YPG. The YPG is a mainly-kurdish militia that, together with the Democratic Union Party or PYD, composes the Syrian Democratic Forces, an arab-kurdish faction active in the fight against ISIS in Syria. The international support that the YPG soldiers received allowed them to push back the Salafist faction and assert dominance over the northeastern part of the Country. There, the Kurdish militia founded the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, also known as Rojava. The latter represented a dream-come-true for the Kurds that could finally enjoy independence. The aspiration for a Kurdish State was slowly taking shape.
The objectives of the United States in the region were rather different than the Kurdish ones. Uncle Sam wanted to defeat ISIS while the Kurds desired to achieve the long-awaited goal of having a land they can call their own. Thus, on October 13th, 2019, President Trump claimed that ISIS was no longer a major threat in the region and ordered a withdrawal of the US troops that were patrolling the Syrian border with Turkey and collaborating with the Syrian Democratic Forces. As it will be shown in the next paragraphs this decision hindered the aspiration for Kurdish autonomy in the region. Consequently, once again, a western power had failed to understand the needs and the desires of the Kurds and had preferred to achieve national self-interest rather than advocate and protect the Kurdish right to self-determination.
Cultural Ignorance in Turkey
An interesting example of a military operation in Syria that has caught global attention can be found in the recent decision by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to enter the Country through the north-east corridor that connects Turkey to Syria. In order to understand the rationale behind this operation and the objectives that Ankara desired to achieve, it’s crucial to analyze the Country’s long history of domestic unrest. This can only be done by exploring the origin of the Turkish Republic.
Turkey was proclaimed a republic on October 29, 1923 and Mustafa Kemal Atatürk became its first president. Immediately after the establishment of the Turkish Republic, President Atatürk began his long and extended campaign of reforms aimed at eradicating the Islamic religion from the Turkish political spectrum with the purpose of creating a secular state similar to those in the West. As a matter of fact, the main goal of these reforms was to impose the western concept of nationalism upon the groups living in Anatolia and create a unified nation whose citizens defined themselves as Turks. Of course, this approach, that would soon be labeled Kemalism, implied a suppression of all traditions and cults strictly related to Islam. Furthermore, President Atatürk’s plan did not intend to protect any minority’s right nor promote cultural diversity in the region. Essentially, all those who did not consider themselves as Turks, were seen as a threat to the core of the Country’s unity.
Atatürk’s project was jeopardized by the presence of the Kurds. Thus, President Atatürk was not only fighting Islamist groups opposed to his secularization doctrine, but he was also coercing the Kurds into abandoning their culture, their language, their education, their alphabet and their tradition in order to be accepted as part of the Turkish population. Consequently, this suppression of cultural diversity, which was continued by Atatürk’s successors later on, gave birth to a Kurdish armed struggle against the State. In fact, Abdullah Öcalan, a Turkish Kurd, instituted a radical Kurdish organization known as PKK (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê) or Kurdistan Workers’ Party that has been advocating for greater kurdish autonomy in the region. Shortly after its foundation, the PKK began to carry out several terrorist attacks and guerilla operations directed to a large variety of targets such as Turkish Security Forces, government officials, Turkish civilians and Kurds suspected of colluding with the Turkish establishment and resistant to joining the Party’s militia. In essence, the crackdown on Kurdish roots and Turkey’s imposition of nationalism initiated by President Atatürk triggered the creation of the PKK and paved the way for domestic unrest.
At this point it’s crucial to identify the connection between the aforementioned domestic unrest triggered by the PKK and the recent decision by President Erdoğan to intervene in North-East Syria. In order to do so, the reader must be provided with a brief yet complete depiction of the system of coalitions that has characterized the Syrian civil war. In essence, the conflict has become a multi-coalition war fought by the Syrian Arab Republic of Bashar Al Assad supported by Russia and Iran, the Syrian Opposition supported by Turkey, the Salafist Faction composed by the Islamist groups of Al- Nusra and ISIL and, last but not least, the SDF that has been receiving support by France, the United Kingom and the United States. As previously mentioned, the backbone of the SDF is represented by the mainly-Kurdish militia known as YPG. The YPG, together with the commander-in-chief of the Syrian Democratic Forces, known by his nom de guerre Mazloum Kobani Abdi, have been accused by Turkish authorities of being affiliated with the PKK. Thus, since the beginning of the Syrian Civil War, Ankara has carefully observed the SDF and its system of international alliances. As a matter of fact, General Kobani had represented a reliable ally for Paris, London and Washington in the fight against the Islamic State. Nevertheless, in the eyes of Ankara, General Kobani and the SDF are nothing but a national threat and their successes in North-East Syria, which is adjacent to the border with Turkey, have inflamed the souls of many in the Country. President Erdoğan was expected to react. In other words, Ankara has strongly opposed the creation of a Kurdish autonomous region in north-east Syria and the SDF’s success in the region is nothing but a red flag for Turkey.
Following the withdrawal of US troops from the area between Turkey and Syria, on October 13th, 2019, President Erdoğan decided to carry out his long-awaited ‘Operation Peace Spring’. In essence, Turkey hoped to create a 20-mile buffer zone along the Syrian side of the border by pushing back the SDF. However, as Turkish officials stated, counterterrorism was not the only purpose of this operation. In fact, as the BBC reported on October 14th, 2019, Turkey’s aim was also to resettle, in the zone, up to two million of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees it is hosting. This strategy, which was largely criticized by the European Union and the United Nations, does not seem to be connected to the Kurdish issue. However, if analyzed carefully, it reveals a broader purpose. As Ryan Gingeras and Nick Danforth, experts on Turkey, explain, an influx of displaced people from other parts of Syria would create a living, breathing demographic barrier to Kurdish autonomy. Thus, it appears clear how ‘Operation Peace Spring’ can be summarized in another attempt of Turkish authorities to suppress the possibility for Kurds to obtain regional autonomy or establish a state they can call their own.
One might argue that President Atatürk’s unwillingness to understand the Kurdish need of autonomy and attachment to their tradition in the first place, has instigated the creation of the PKK (and consequent terrorist attacks) and, in the long run, it resulted in a backlash against the Turkish Government. In other words, cultural ignorance is the real perpetrator of numerous Turkish domestic issues related to the Kurds. As a result, the domestic unrest in Turkey led to a domino effect that has caused a spill out of the Turkish-Kurdish conflict into the Syrian Civil War.
Since the outbreak of the civil war in 2011, Syria has constituted a field of international exposure and recognition for the Kurds. Their military prowess combined with their controversial history of suppression has caught the attention of many in the West. All around the world, the Kurds have appeared as the victims of an unjust history and a widespread cultural ignorance. The public opinion has demanded the creation of a nation to put an end to these cruelties. However, one must be careful when proposing such a solution to the Kurdish struggle for independence. In fact, the existing rivalry between the Turkish-Kurdish PKK, the Iraqi-Kurdish PUK and Iranian-Kurdish Komala Party in the region has demonstrated that Kurds are far from being a monolith. Furthermore, the area that was destined to become Kurdistan comprehends other ethic and religious groups that have lived in those regions for centuries. Thus, if a Kurdish state was established, they would become minorities and they could be prone to subjugation and suppression by the Kurds. In other words, overcoming cultural ignorance and imposing new borders in the region would not stabilize the Kurdish situation, it would only reveal more obstacles such as internal division and regional sectarianism. As the reader might have understood by now, the Middle East is not a place for European understanding of nationalism.
BBC News. “Turkey’s Erdogan vows to ‘crush heads’ of Kurdish fighters.” BBC. October 19, 2019. Accessed May 24, 2020. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-50108417.
BBC News. “Turkey’s Syria offensive explained in four maps.” BBC. October 14, 2019. Accessed May 24, 2020. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-49973218.
Criss Nur Bilge. “The nature of PKK terrorism in Turkey.” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism. 1, 18, 17-37 (2008). Accessed May 23, 2020. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10576109508435965?needAccess=true&journalCode=uter20.
Fildis Ayse Tekdal. “The Troubles in Syria: Spawned by French Divide and Rule.” Middle East Policy. 18, 4 (2011). Accessed May 25, 2020 https://mepc.org/troubles-syria-spawned-french-divide-and-rule
Gingeras Ryan and Danforth Nick. “Turkey’s Plan to Move Refugees to Syria Is Dangerous.” The New York Times. October 7, 2019. Accessed May 24, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/07/opinion/Turkey-Syria-Operation.html.
Hubbard Ben. “The Story of a Kurdish General.” The Daily. October 14, 2020. Accessed May 23, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/14/podcasts/the-daily/kurds-syria-turkey-ISIS.html
Ian Johnston. “The rise of Isis: Terror group now controls an area the size of Britain, expert claims.” Independent. September 3, 2014. Accessed May 22, 2020. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/the-rise-of-isis-terror-group-now-controls-an-area-the-size-of-britain-expert-claims-9710198.html.
Kaya Zeynep and Whiting Matthew. “Sowing division: Kurds in the Syrian War.” Middle East Policy. 24,1, pp. 79-91, (2017). Accessed May 25, 2020. http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/69930/
Khoury Philip S. and Kostiner Joseph. Tribes and State Formation in the Middle East. (Oxford: University of California Press, Ldt., 1990)
Landau Jacob M. Atatürk and the Modernization of Turkey. (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1984).
Leduc Sarah. “The Kurds: The world’s largest stateless nation.” France24. July 30, 2015. Accessed May 23, 2020. https://www.france24.com/en/20150730-who-are-kurds-turkey-syria-iraq-pkk-divided.
Ray Michael .“8 Deadliest Wars of the 21st Century.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed May 22, 2020. https://www.britannica.com/list/8-deadliest-wars-of-the-21st-century.
Salih Cale. Turkey, the Kurds and the Fight Against the Islamic State (London: European Council on Foreing Relations, 2015).
Solomon Erika, “Special Report: Amid Syria’s violence, Kurds carve out autonomy.” Reuters. January 22, 2014. Accessed May 25 2020. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-syria-kurdistan-specialreport/special-report-amid-syrias-violence-kurds-carve-out-autonomy-idUSBREA0L17320140122
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. “Syrian Revolution NINE years on: 586,100 persons killed and millions of Syrians displaced and injured.” The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. March 15, 2020. Accessed on May 22, 2020. https://www.syriahr.com/en/?p=157193.