What’s Happening to the Kurds in Syria & Why
The Kurdish minority in the Middle East has been subject to genocide repeatedly throughout modern history.
In this blog post, I will analyze the reasons why the Kurds are repeatedly targeted by both militia groups and states in the Middle East. First, I will discuss the historical underpinnings and reasons for the active prejudice against the Kurdish ethnic group in the Middle East. I will then pay particular attention to Turkish military intervention in Syria since it is considered the largest threat to the Kurds presently by Genocide Watch. I will then finally look at some of the foreign actors involved in Syria and analyze their justifications for establishing military forces. Finally, I will provide some predictions over the future of the Kurds within Syria.
A Brief History
In order to understand the cause for human rights violations against the Kurds in the Middle East, we have to go back to at least the early 1900s and to the fall of the Ottoman Empire.
In 1920, when the Ottoman Empire fell after World War I, the Central Powers signed the Treaty of Sèvres with the Allied Powers, forming the present-day nation-states of Iraq, Syria, and Kuwait. Initially, there were also discussions for providing the large Kurdish population in the region with their own Kurdish state, or Kurdistan.
However, the establishment of a nation for the Kurds in the Middle East was denied due to the existing prejudice against the Kurdish ethnic group from Turkey, Iran, Syria, and Iraq. For these nations, Kurdish sovereignty would undermine their own power and influence over the Kurdish minority in the region.
Since then, Kurds have been subject to numerous instances of human rights violations and to what is widely thought of as genocide in the region. Genocide, according to the United Nations Convention, is any act committed with the sole intent of destroying, partially or entirely, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group.
Under this definition, there are many instances that could be classified as genocide against the Kurds in the Middle East. In recent memory, Iraqi Kurds were targeted by Sadam Hussein, the fifth president of Iraq, in what is now known as the Halabja chemical attack in 1988, killing between 3,200 and 5,000 people (BBC 1988). Some reports estimate that another 10,000 citizens survived the attack but live with disfigurements and sicknesses from the chemicals (ThoughtCo).
The Iraqi High Criminal Court has as of 1 March 2010, officially recognized this attack as an act of genocide against the Kurdish people. However, the Halabja chemical attack is not the only case of genocide that the Kurds have been subject to. The Anfal genocide that killed anywhere between 50,000 to 182,000 Kurds from 1986 to 1989 is widely reported as one of the worst acts of genocide against the Kurds in modern history (The Kurdish Project). These acts of genocide may be the direct result of denying Kurds an autonomous nation-state within the Middle East.
Kurds have been subject to numerous instances of human rights violations and to what is widely thought of as genocide in the region.
Recent developments suggest hopeful trends toward the establishment of a legitimate Kurdish political force within Syria which is what countries such as Turkey and Iran fear. The establishment of said sovereign state may prevent further genocide against the Kurds.
Previously, the closest the Kurds were to establishing an autonomous nation within the Middle East was in 1992 when Kurds managed to create the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Shortly after that, Kurds in Iraq conducted their first democratic elections, apart from the previous Kurdish election in Israel, in order to select a political leader for Kurdistan.
As was mentioned above, similar democratic procedures are seen as a threat in neighboring nations with sizeable Kurdish populations, including Turkey and Iran. For these nations, losing the Kurdish minority could mean losing important economic actors.
The liberal international order in 1992 was, as Mohammed Ihsan points out in “Nation Building in Kurdistan,” closely watching the situation in Iraq with the Kurdish democratic election (14). It was not until April 5 1995 that the Security Council directly addressed the Kurds in Iraq with the so-called, “orphaned resolution,” or the United Nations Security Resolution 688.
This was the first time that the Kurds were mentioned by the UN Security Council. It was important for another reason, namely in that it was the first moment when the United Nations undermined the state sovereignty of one of its members by meddling in its internal affairs. As Ihsan points out, this was a pivotal shift in international affairs because it “opened the doors” for intervening in domestic state affairs if political stability in the region was under threat, impacting the international community.
Presently, foreign actors have become accustomed to intervening in sovereign state affairs due to personal interests. Today, civil war in Syria creates a similarly hostile space for Kurdish civilians and military forces alike that seek autonomy.
Kurds in Syria
In Syria, the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) consist of a Kurdish militia known as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) which the Turkish government falsely considers a terrorist organization. Violent forces within Syria, including the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, are continuously fighting against one another and at times against Kurdish forces with respective foreign backers.
There were other attempts at gaining autonomy by the Kurds within Syria, however. The jihadist group, Islamic State (IS), had in 2013 targetted Kurds in northern Syria which led to a series of important events. In 2014, the IS attacked Kurds in northern Iraq resulting in combat. In January 2015, Kurdish troops recaptured Kobane from IS forces. Led by the Kurds, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), along with US air support and strategic counsel, slowly regained control of the surrounding regions. The last resisting force of the IS was located in Bahouz, a village in Syria.
Due to al-Assad’s forces fighting against rebels elsewhere in Syria, the Kurds were able to establish self-governance in northern and eastern Syria, forming the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (NES), also known as Rojava. Therefore, Kurds in Syria were close to gaining autonomy, as they were previously in Iraq.
As of today, the largest threat of human rights violations and genocide against the Kurds come from Turkey, according to Genocide Watch. On January 20, 2018, the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, had sent out a cross-border intervention into northwestern Syria, also known under the code name “Operation Olive Branch.”
The justification for this onslaught by the Turkish forces was once again that the Kurdish military groups in the region, in Afrin and other larger cities in northern Syria, were occupied by Kurdish “terrorist” groups, such as the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). The YPG have also falsely been blamed for mounting an insurgency within Turkey. It is clear to observers that Erdoğan’s intentions are not as well-intended as he claims they are.
In March 2019, the last of the IS forces had been appropriately handled by the Kurdish-led SDF, resulting in the almost complete abolition of the jihadist caliphate in Syria. Tensions seemed to be at bay until October 2019 when the United States President, Donald Trump, abruptly pulled back approximately 1,000 American troops from Syria who were meant to deescalate tensions in the region and prevent further human rights violations.
The progress of the Kurds in establishing some sovereignty in the region was almost entirely undermined by the Turkish forces that launched a subsequent assault in northern Syria. The Kurds reasoned that the highest chance of survival in the region was to let al-Assad’s troops back into the region to prevent further war and loss of life.
For Turkey, if Kurds gain autonomy in Syria, it could mean that similar uprisings and revolutions would occur domestically in Turkey, resulting in separatist movements, riots, and potentially a revolution that could jeopardize their self-perceived political stability.
We now know that the sudden and unexpected withdrawal of American troops by the U.S. President Donald Trump, “opened the way for [the] bloody Turkish cross-border offensive” as Eric Schmitt writes in his article “U.S. Resumes Large-Scale Operations Against ISIS in Northern Syria.”
Other forces, including the IS in Syria, managed to regain strength in the meantime. In November 2019, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency warned in an inspector general’s report that jihadi groups such as ISIS were very likely to “exploit” the reduced counterterrorism measures in Syria, to the extent that they would be able to enact transnational assaults on the Kurds.
With this knowledge, many experts shrug in disbelief over the mismanagement of the counterterrorism measures in Syria. Within the span of 10 months or so, the U.S. President Trump had twice issued a withdrawal of American troops, only then to reverse himself. As was mentioned above, the first withdrawal of troops came in 2018, when President Trump declared that “we have won against ISIS.”
At the time, the command was to pull back 2,000 American troops from Syria. In the end, 1,000 troops remained in Syria. Then in 2019, President Trump claimed that all American troops would leave Syria effective-immediately.
As of now, some 500 troops are still in the country, despite the initial call to do otherwise. The reasons for American troops to stay in the region are numerous and seem justified especially with recent developments and concerns over the treatment of Kurds by Turkey forces.
It is important to note that the overall international reception of the recent Turkish military intervention in Afrin and elsewhere in Syria has largely been hostile. Both the Syrian regime and Iran, Syria’s main ally, perceive this “open-ended” Turkish presence in Syria as a threat. Even for al-Assad, who has not been interested in the well-being of Kurds in Syria, Turkish intervention is not necessary.
However, for Erdoğan and Turkish officials, the potential for Kurdish sovereignty within Syria poses a serious threat to Turkey and the possibility of a domestic Kurdish revolution. It is not likely, without imposing economic sanctions on Turkey or by threatening military intervention, that Turkey will retreat from Syria. Therefore, it is probable that tensions will continue to escalate within Syria and that Kurds will be subject to further forms of genocide.
The Turkish treatment of the Kurds in Syria is of significant concern to the organization, Genocide Watch, which traces and seeks to prevent mass genocide. In fact, because of the history between Kurds and Syria, Turkey, Iran, and Iraq, we have good reason to believe that the situation is likely to escalate.
We know this because of the genocidal themes states impose on Kurds in the region, whether that is in harsh curfews, abusive rhetoric, killing of both domestic and farm animals, defecating on furniture, and making life unlivable for the domestic populace. Almost unilaterally, similar behavior leads to genocide elsewhere which grants us sufficient reason to assume that the same is likely to happen here.
In this case, specifically, the Turkish military since its declaration of victory in Afrin on March 25, 2018, has systematically pursued a policy of “demographic change,” displacing people groups and replacing them with Turks and Arabs from outside of the region. In Afrin, more than 150,000 people have been evacuated.
In the process human rights are repeatedly violated; Young girls are reported to have been repeatedly raped and sexually violated by Turkish and jihadi soldiers, not to mention other violations. Along with these cases of abuse, citizens are also forced to religious conversion.
According to Genocide Watch, the handling of the Kurds in Turkey, Syria, and Iraq are clear cases of three genocide stages, particularly eight (persecution), nine (extermination), and ten (denial). Denial, the last stage of genocide, is among the “surest indicators of further genocidal massacres” according to Genocide Watch.
Turkey & the Linguistic Underpinnings of Genocide
An important component of genocide and genocide prevention is the study of the linguistic underpinnings of oppression that lead to genocide. In a study on “Untying the tongue-tied: Ethnocide and language politics,” Uğur Ümit Üngör, writes that Kurds in Turkey were the object of “large-scale cultural and linguistic policies” or what scholars call the “Turkification” of Turkey’s Kurdish minority.
Desmond Fernandes explains the significance of these findings in “Modernity and the linguistic genocide of Kurds in Turkey.” In his research, Fernandes writes that linguistic genocide is the active prohibition of language in a group on a daily basis in schools or in the printing and circulation of works in the original language of the group in question. In one sense, then, the “ethnocide” originally defined by Raphael Lemkin is similar if not identical to genocide because of its consequentialist ramifications, writes Fernandes.
Genocide Watch understands the cultural implications of harmful rhetoric toward a people group and therefore considers Operation Olive Branch a malignant case of genocide.
The Turkish state has still outlawed all debate over Kurdish state-sovereignty within the country. Because of this, many publishers and human rights activists within the region have been hesitant to voice their concerns over Kurdish oppression within Turkey. Citizens who have voiced these concerns have been systematically dislodged from their university positions, denied entry to the country when detained, received death threats, and even murdered.
Similarly, universities actively censor views on the Kurds from within, whether that is by silencing the voices of students out of fear for the institution’s reputation, and/or by mutilating international texts that touch on key findings for future work on the Kurds. For these and other reasons, Fernandes and other linguistic scholars of genocide have safely concluded that Turkey is actively engaged in an ethnocide, or cultural genocide, which often results in later genocide.
The Future of Kurds Within Syria
The future of Kurds within Syria is uncertain, however. As of 2020, Turkish-US relations have strengthened, hence we have further reasons to think that with Donald Trump as President, the U.S. will not back Kurdish-led militia in Syria or elsewhere. However, because of the unexpected policies of President Trump, we simply cannot know for certain what will happen.
We know that the Syrian Kurds are an essential component of the American fight against ISIS in the region. According to some experts, including the chief Washington correspondent for the New York Times, David E. Sanger, these military commands are hasty and ultimately destroy years of slow and grueling progress that the former U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration helped establish.
More importantly, however, retrieving troops may lead to genocide which is the primary reason why unsteady and inconsistent American leadership may result in further human rights violations. Therefore, future decisions concerning the Kurds and Turkish relations should take this into account. Apart from this, however, future predictions are difficult to ascertain.
This is a continuous story and it likely that its relevance will fall in future months and years. It is important to read the most recent reports! And if you are reading this far, I urge you to do so.
It is a very important story so please do reach out to me if anything is unfactual or needs further updating!
Sources & Further Reading
Fernandes, , Desmond. “Modernity and the linguistic genocide of Kurds in Turkey”. International Journal of the Sociology of Language 2012.217: 75–98. https://doi-org.ezproxy.library.ubc.ca/10.1515/ijsl-2012-0050 Web.
Ihsan, M. (2017). Nation Building in Kurdistan. London: Routledge, https://doi-org.ezproxy.library.ubc.ca/10.4324/9781315597393
“Learn About the Kurdish Genocide.” The Kurdish Project, thekurdishproject.org/history-and-culture/kurdish-history/kurdistan-genocide/.
“Operation Olive Branch: Status Update.” Atlantic Council, 7 Nov. 2019, www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/syriasource/operation-olive-branch-status-update/.
Rosenberg, Jennifer. “The Heinous Crimes of Saddam Hussein.” ThoughtCo, www.thoughtco.com/top-crimes-of-saddam-hussein-1779933.
Üngör, , Uğur Ümit. “Untying the tongue-tied: Ethnocide and language politics”. International Journal of the Sociology of Language 2012.217: 127–150. https://doi-org.ezproxy.library.ubc.ca/10.1515/ijsl-2012-0052 Web.
“Why Turkey Is Attacking Kurd Forces in Syria, Explained.” YouTube, Global News, 2019, www.youtube.com/watch?v=qVtaPETrDxQ.
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