A few weeks ago I was in Frankfurt. Among the thousands of shoppers packing the Zeil, so was a large Kurdish protest, one of several that has taken place across Germany in the past few weeks.
I sympathise with their aims. The Kurdish people have been on the receiving end of persecution across their Middle-Eastern homelands for most of the past century. Overlooked by the carving up of the Middle East by the British, French and Turkish governments at the end of the First World War, the Kurds, numbering thirty million individuals, have been without a state, making them perhaps the largest stateless ethnic group in the world. Kurds represent a majority in significant areas of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran and have faced long, bloody and mostly unsuccessful attempts to gain autonomy in each of these nations. These attempts were often met with total hostility; in Turkey for instance, the Kurdish language was outlawed for several decades. Indeed, the Turkish government tried to deny the very existence of Kurdish people in Turkey, referring to them only as ‘Mountain Turks’. Kurds in Iraq, meanwhile were subjected to a genocidal campaign of indiscriminate gas attacks by Saddam Hussein’s government in the late 1980s.
Progress had been made in recent years. The tentative establishment of a secular democracy in Iraqi Kurdistan has been one of the few outcomes of the 2003 Iraq War commonly regarded as a success. Kurdish forces in Syria had also made territorial gains against those of Bashar-al-Assad, and meanwhile in Turkey negotiations between the government and rebel Kurdish PKK group were undergoing, offering hopes of a peaceful settlement to a decades-old conflict that has seen atrocities committed by both sides. The situation for the Kurds looked to be as optimistic as it had looked for a long time.
Now, however, the Kurds find themselves embroiled in an existential struggle – a struggle they did not ask for, but a struggle which they have shown every indication of being willing to fight. The rise of Islamic State has led to conflict for Kurds – and a refugee crisis – in both Iraq and Syria. In Summer, tens of thousands of Yazidis – an ethnically Kurdish religious minority group – were driven up Mount Sinjar and besieged by IS militants. These individuals, mostly civilian, were rescued by a combination of US air strikes and Kurdish forces on the ground. Over the past few weeks in Syria a battle has raged over the Kurdish-held town of Kobane. In part, the Kurds are aided by their secularism; supposedly, IS will not stand to face Kurdish female fighters (who comprise about half of Kobane’s defenders) fearing that death at the hands of a woman will mean that they are excluded from paradise. But, brave as the Kurds have proven to be, they need the help of we in the West – and they deserve to get it.
Partly, this is because of their unique position as a suppressed minority in so many states in the region. Iran and Turkey, for instance, two key regional powers, have little desire to see a strengthened and empowered Kurdistan in Iraq and Syria. Indeed, this has been amply demonstrated by Turkey’s inaction thus far in the crisis, going as far as firing tear gas at Kurdish refugees fleeing Kobane but not entering the fight against IS to help the defence of the town. Such an exhibition of narrow, self-interested statehood shows the folly of trusting regional powers to deal with the problems posed by IS; the most likely outcome of leaving the region to resolve the problem itself is not regional powers stepping in. Rather, it is the wholesale destruction of the Kurdish people and of Kurdistan. In other words, the Kurds need help and the only place from which that is likely to come is Western powers.
Such support will have to be military – already US airstrikes have helped weaken IS in Kobane – logistical, and humanitarian. But it can also be moral. Perhaps as many as 150,000 people marched through London in August in support of, and solidarity with, Palestinians, and the campaign has enjoyed some success, with MPs voting to recognise a Palestinian state in October. Similar public pressure could lead to Western countries, already diplomatic and now military allies of Iraqi and Syrian Kurds, getting serious about Kurdish rights – and getting tough with their ally, Turkey, about violations of those rights. Meanwhile, the Kurds are proving to be a key ally in the fight against Islamic State – and they deserve all of the help that we can give them.
By Harry Illidge
[Image Credit: jan Sefti]