By Giran Ozcan
It wouldn’t at all be controversial to say that until World War II the Middle East was almost exclusively shaped by the British and the French. The excessively referenced Sykes-Picot agreement divided the region into nation-states, carving up the Kurdish homeland, Kurdistan.
Another generally accepted notion attributed to around the same time is that the Kurds were the biggest losers of the post-World War I era in which several of the constituent peoples of the crumbling Ottoman Empire were benefactors of new states. The Kurds, however, had to settle for being constituent minorities of the newly formed entities.
After World War II, the USA took up the baton of political hegemony as the new ‘Superpower’; the Middle East had a new sculptor. Even a superficial chronology can highlight the USA’s continuously interventional approach to the Middle East: the creation of Israel, the Suez Crisis, Afghanistan (twice), Iran, Iraq (multiple), and Syria are enough to show that the US is a decisive power in Middle Eastern – and by extension Kurdish – affairs. Although the USA’s relationship with the Kurds cannot be compared to that of the stated peoples of the region, it is nonetheless worth taking a closer look at; especially in a time where the stateless Kurds have become one of the biggest actors in a region where externally created states are becoming increasingly obsolete.
The USA’s relationship with the Kurds is multifaceted to say the least, in other words, there is no uniform Kurdish approach in US foreign policy. The discrepancies between the facets in this multiform approach are dictated by two fundamental factors: 1) on existing nation-state (Turkey, Iran, Iraq or Syria) the Kurds reside in, and 2) the ideological perspectives of the various Kurdish organisations. It might be worth listing the four primary distinctions:
- The Kurds in Turkey: The Kurds here are pretty much handicapped in regards to both the above listed factors determining US foreign policy against the Kurds. They live within the borders of a NATO ally and their struggle is led by the socialist PKK. Both factors ensure the Kurds here are deemed expendable by the US.
- The Kurds in Iran: Although an ethnic group opposed to the Iranian state should almost be guaranteed beneficial treatment in terms of US foreign policy, the dominance of the PKK affiliated PJAK (Free Life Party of Kurdistan) there ensures that they too are effectively blacklisted.
- The Kurds in Iraq: From the First Gulf War onwards, the Kurds in Iraq have enjoyed immense support by the US. Iraq as a state has proven to be expendable, while the Kurds in Iraq are led by political parties that have no qualms with being outposts for US interests in the region. Diplomatic relations between the two are at de-facto state level.
- The Kurds in Syria: For decades, no one even acknowledged the Kurds’ plight in Syria. However the approach to the Syrian government and the threat of ISIS are big enough for the US to turn a blind eye (at least for now) to the PKK-inspired social and political transformation in Rojava. Tactical relations here are strained when both sides express long term aspirations.
So, in this atmosphere, who should the Kurds be hoping to see as President of the US come November this year? Barring what at this stage would be deemed a ‘shock’, do the two candidates who will contest the autumn election – Hillary Clinton in the red corner and Donald Trump in the blue corner – offer different prospects for the Kurds and Kurdistan?
Firstly, let’s take a look at Hillary Clinton’s promise, because unlike Trump, we actually have evidential data to base our analysis on. Clinton voted in favour of the Second Gulf War while she was a Senator, supported the surge against al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2007, and was one of the decision makers (as Secretary of State) in the pulling-out of Iraq in 2011. Effectively, she has played an active part in turning Iraq into what it is today. Another blatant example of Clinton’s performance in the Middle East can be observed in Libya. After the toppling of Qaddafi – which Clinton vociferously advocated – everyone involved looked at each other to respond to the question of “what next?”.
Libya is now a mess in which rival tribes are fighting over every square foot of territory, not to mention the fact that it has become a safe haven for organisations like ISIS. In a conference at Georgetown University in 2014 Clinton said that “we must support the Kurdish women fighting against ISIS in Syria”. In the past seven months in Turkey, hundreds of Kurdish women have been killed by the Turkish state’s security forces where images of dead Kurdish women stripped naked and photographed by Turkish security personnel have been posted on social media. Hillary Clinton’s selective sensitivity for Kurdish women shows us that she will not break away from the USA’s equally selective policy towards the Kurds.
When it comes to Donald Trump, we have no previous data to base our analysis on. However, since his declaration of intention to run for office, Trump has offered us enough material to venture an educated guess. Although Trump expressed a truth in a reply to a question in a live debate in which he misheard “Quds” for “Kurds” and stated “Oh, I’m sorry, I thought you said Kurds, because I think the Kurds have been poorly treated by us”, it is his more controversial statements and promises that give us a clue about what kind of President he will be.
Trump will “make America great again” by building a wall on the border with Mexico, banning Muslims to enter the country, and inciting violence amongst his own citizens. Just imagine what Trump would do to “make the Middle East great again!” Trump is someone who doesn’t mind taking his own country back at least a hundred years; the Kurds would have to lose control of their faculties to harbour any hope that a Trump presidency would offer good prospects for Kurdistan.
Within this context, a minimal power of deduction should enable us to specify that in the case of the Kurds, US foreign policy does not fall within the margins of Presidential manoeuvrability. US foreign policy, when it comes to the Kurds, is institutional, it is slightly conjunctural, but extremely ideological.
So when it comes to elite politics in the USA, the Kurds should root for no one! It is not the Presidents of the USA that determine strategic approaches to popular struggles across the world; it is the interests of the system in place that readily exploits its own people in the USA, which direct its foreign policy. If the Kurds are going to root for anyone in the USA it should be for those that are in resistance (the Black Movement, Anti-deportation movements, LGBT movements, workers’ movements) against a system that exploits within its own borders as much as it does in the Middle East.
This article was originally published on Kurdish Question, and has been syndicated here with permission.