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16 October 2019

Leader: The betrayal of the Kurds

The Kurdish people are used to being let down by the West, but Donald Trump's abandonment of north-eastern Syria to Erdogan and Assad may be the most squalid betrayal of all.

By New Statesman

The Kurds are wearily familiar with betrayal. They were promised – and then denied – a state of their own by the Western powers after the end of the First World War and the break-up of the Ottoman empire. In 1975, having been encouraged by the US to rise up against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, the Kurds were abandoned after the Ba’athist regime struck a peace deal with the Shah of Iran. Throughout the 1980s, they were murderously persecuted by Saddam, whom the West cynically embraced as a strategic ally, and subjugated by Turkey. The familiar saying that the Kurds “have no friends but the mountains” resonates because it is largely true.

But perhaps no betrayal has been as squalid as that perpetrated by Donald Trump. In 2014, as Islamic State (IS) declared a new caliphate and sought to dominate much of the Middle East, it was the Kurds who courageously formed the last line of resistance (as Maurice Glasman writes in his letter from Syria in this issue). More than 11,000 of their men and women sacrificed their lives in the ultimately successful struggle against IS barbarism. In March of this year, the jihadist group, which once controlled 88,000 sq km of land and imposed its tyrannical rule on eight million people, was expelled from its last remaining redoubt in Syria.

Yet far from displaying gratitude towards the Kurds, Mr Trump has now disowned and traduced them. On 6 October, without any prior warning, he announced that the US would withdraw its troops from the Kurdish territories of northern Syria, gifting Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey an opportunity to intervene.

In the short period since, more than 160,000 civilians have been displaced from their homes while others, including a female Kurdish political leader, have been summarily executed by Turkish-backed forces. Mr Erdogan’s insistence that the military is merely targeting “terrorists” has been disproved by indiscriminate air strikes.

The US’s decision was worse than merely cruel – it was foolish. As our terrorism expert Shiraz Maher warns, the American retreat could allow IS to recrudesce. Until recently, the Kurds were responsible for the detention of more than 10,000 suspected IS fighters and their families. But amid the Hobbesian nightmare created by Turkey’s offensive, more than 800 people have already escaped from the Ain Issa camp. The West’s comprehensive failure to help resolve the Syrian Civil War, which has now lasted more than eight years, has returned to haunt it. The Austrian satirist Karl Kraus once called fin-de-siècle Habsburg Vienna a “research laboratory for world destruction”. Something similar could be said of contemporary Syria, a theatre of regional and great power rivalry.

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As Mr Trump is learning, isolation, as well as intervention, has consequences. “It would be an utter tragedy if we did not do everything in our power to give succour and relief to those who are now facing massacre and persecution,” Boris Johnson declared of the Kurds in 2014. But in recent days he has remained silent over their fate. In spite of their fraught history, the Kurds have championed pluralism and feminism in the Middle East. In a region awash with despots and sectarians, they should be among the West’s most valued allies. But history will now merely record yet another betrayal. 

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Playing silly Bookers

We congratulate Margaret Atwood and Bernardine Evaristo, the authors of two fine novels, on being named joint winners of the Booker Prize. Opprobrium, however, is more appropriate for Peter Florence and his panel of judges. When in 1992 the prize was shared between Michael Ondaatje for The English Patient and Barry Unsworth for Sacred Hunger, the unsatisfactory nature of the fudge led to the rules being changed to stipulate there could in future be only a single winner, as there should be. Mr Florence, director of the lucrative Hay family of literary festivals, and his fellows signed up to the rules when they took on the (paid) role of judges yet in the final instance, rather than fulfil their sole task, they chose to flout them. The decision is self-regarding and it diminishes the Booker, which has been a great champion of literature. It also makes a nonsense of the rules and, most important, does a disservice to the two writers, neither of whom, the judges seem to suggest, has written a novel quite worthy of winning the prize on its own. 


This article appears in the 16 Oct 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Syria’s forever war