In August 2014, as the Kurds of Iraq and Syria were menaced by the malevolent fighters of Isis, Boris Johnson appealed to the world’s sympathies. “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,” he wrote in his Daily Telegraph column. Mr Johnson added that the Kurdish journalist Hazhir Teimourian used to tell him sorrowfully that “there is an old proverb – a Kurd has no friends” (he omitted “but the mountains”).
The Kurds, the world’s largest stateless people (numbering 40 million), have been forced to learn this grim lesson again. When Isis sought to colonise the Middle East and proclaimed a new caliphate, it was the Kurds who courageously formed the last line of resistance. Though the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces endured 11,000 casualties, they ultimately defeated the jihadist group in March of this year. Isis, which once controlled 88,000 sq km of land and imposed its tyrannical rule on eight million people, was expelled from its last remaining stronghold in Syria.
Yet far from displaying gratitude towards the Kurds, Donald Trump has betrayed them. On 7 October, following a telephone conversation with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Mr Trump announced that the US would withdraw its troops from the Kurdish territories of northeast Syria. “The Kurds fought with us but were paid massive amounts of money and equipment to do so,” the US President callously tweeted (in fact, the Kurds received significantly less than many other foreign allies). The Kurds, he absurdly remarked, “didn’t help us in the Second World War, they didn’t help us with Normandy”.
Mr Trump’s reckless decision, which defied the advice of US generals and diplomats, has gifted Turkey the opportunity to ruthlessly pursue its expansionist ambitions. The viciously sectarian Mr Erdoğan wasted no time in deploying Turkish troops to expel the Kurds from northern Syria in an act of ethnic cleansing.
As so often before, abandoned by the West, the Kurds stand alone. In the 1920s, imperial Britain crushed the fledgling Kingdom of Kurdistan and allowed Turkey to later eliminate the Kurdish Republic of Ararat. Then, in the late 1980s, as Saddam Hussein massacred tens of thousands of Kurds with chemical weapons, the West refused to intervene, having embraced Iraq as a convenient ally against theocratic Iran. In 1991, following the Gulf War, president George Bush urged Iraq’s Kurds to rise up against the Ba’athist dictatorship only for the US military to stand down and allow Hussein’s forces to again kill thousands.
Yet in spite of this fraught history, the Kurds have remained a beacon of liberalism, secularism, pluralism and feminism in the Middle East. In a region awash with despots and sectarians, they should be among the West’s most treasured allies.
The British government, which was reportedly not consulted on Mr Trump’s decision, has signalled its opposition to Turkey’s military intervention. But Mr Johnson, who spoke so piously of the Kurds in 2014, has remained notably silent. Preoccupied with his destructive advance towards a no-deal Brexit, and eyeing a future trade deal with the US, it is perhaps no longer in his interests to dissent. If so, like others who grandstanded as protectors of the Kurds, Mr Johnson will have proved a fairweather friend indeed.