A political tale that shames us all

American apologists for this humanitarian crisis have been busy making two arguments in defense of President Donald Trump’s decision to abandon the Syrian Kurdish population.

PROTESTERS HOLD PICTURES and Kurdish flags during a rally against the Turkish military operation in Syria, in Berlin, this week. The sign reads: ‘The Turks murder us with American weapons.’  (photo credit: MICHELE TANTUSSI / REUTERS)
PROTESTERS HOLD PICTURES and Kurdish flags during a rally against the Turkish military operation in Syria, in Berlin, this week. The sign reads: ‘The Turks murder us with American weapons.’
On the morning of October 10, 2019, while Kurdish villagers fled on foot and motorcycle rickshaws, Turkey’s defense ministry boasted that Kurdish “terrorists” were “neutralized” in Syrian towns along its border. The killings were a coordinated part of Turkey’s invasion into northeastern Syria that began the previous night, and involved an unrelenting bombardment just days after the Trump administration announced it was evacuating US troops from the area.
With the gates flung open by Washington, Turkish forces wasted no time in attacking towns and villages from both the air and ground, unleashing warplanes and heavy artillery, all in an effort to destroy the Syrian-based Kurdish leadership and, as soon became apparent, the national aspirations of the Kurds themselves. Tens of thousands of civilians fled the onslaught, and hundreds of thousands of civilians remained in harm’s way, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Turkey, which had quickly killed hundreds, denied it was waging a campaign of ethnic cleansing.
American apologists for this humanitarian crisis have been busy making two arguments in defense of President Donald Trump’s decision to abandon the Syrian Kurdish population: one semantic, the other realist.
The semantic argument holds that the people now being gunned down and driven from their homes shouldn’t really be called “the Kurds,” but should be more specifically identified with the Marxist terrorist organization known as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK. According to this school of thought, it is a naïve mistake to associate an aggressive left-wing guerrilla group with the Kurdish people as a whole. “We aligned under Obama not with ‘the Kurds,’ but with the PKK, the sworn enemy of the Turkish Republic, our ally,” tweeted Michael Doran of the US-based think tank Hudson Institute, whose tweet was later retweeted by President Trump himself.
“Referring to the SDF (PKK) as ‘the Kurds’ is like referring to ISIS as ‘the Arabs’ or Boko Haram as ‘the Nigerians,’” Penn State’s Omer F. Yalcin agreed. Filling out the semantic argument has been the work of Kyle Orton, a UK-based political analyst, who, at his highly informative blog, reminded us how oppressive the PKK has acted toward its own Kurdish people, imprisoning, murdering and torturing many of them; radicalizing school curricula and recruiting child soldiers; and intimidating other Kurdish political parties.
On top of all that, the PKK has an ugly history of aligning itself with a number of anti-American actors: from the Soviet Union and the PLO to the Assad regime and the Iranian mullahs. “Call me old fashion (sic), but I’m not comfortable arming and training a Marxist group with links to terrorism,” tweeted Luke Coffey of the US-based think tank Heritage Foundation. “So please spare me the tears.” He said that Americans should “welcome Turkey taking steps to secure its border.”
THE SEMANTIC argument sounds persuasive, and yet almost all of it is a verbal swindle of the kind that Orwell famously warned about in Politics and the English Language, a defense of the indefensible. If you can convince yourself that Turkey is not currently invading a foreign territory but instead “taking steps to secure its border,” that the people fleeing their homes and businesses are not the Kurds but a “Marxist group with links to terrorism,” and that Ankara’s government is not an Islamist autocracy but the “Turkish Republic” of Ataturk, then thanks to these euphemisms, you might be able to avoid recognizing that you are, in reality, countenancing neo-Ottoman aggression.
“Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: This is called pacification,” Orwell wrote bitterly in 1945; it’s virtually the same misuse of language today when the Turkish government calls its violent siege of Kurdish Syria “Operation Peace Spring” and its machine-gunned victims “neutralized,” and when President Trump’s defenders try to focus our attention on the wickedness of the PKK and not the Kurdish civilians who are dead or homeless as a result of American desertion and Turkish brutality.
The semantic argument fails precisely because the PKK is not the whole of the Kurdish people in northern Syria: It conceals the bloody reality that Turkey’s guns are not aimed solely at Marxist terrorists. Some of us have not forgotten that when Turkish soldiers previously marched into northern Syria, it ended in anti-Kurdish ethnic cleansing. Freed from American oversight, they are not now acting any more humanely.
That leaves us, then, with the more honest realist argument which holds that while it is regrettable that the Kurds are again getting beaten up and dispossessed, Turkey is more important to American and European interests. Turkey, so we are told, is of tremendous strategic value to the West because of its location and population, its military power and intelligence services, and its economy and relative secularism. Better than the Kurds, the Turks can help us oppose Iranian and Russian imperial ambitions in the region. If abandoning the stateless Kurds is the price that must be paid to keep Ankara on the side of Washington, so be it.
This realist position, to whose depth I have not done sufficient justice, is a defensible argument, albeit a morally dubious one. But its believability rests on the debatable assumption that today’s Turkey under the domination of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Islamist AK Parti is the same Turkish state that once allied with the West during the Cold War. Much has changed there for the worse. Where the Turkish government used to lionize Ataturk’s secular revolution, it now sees him as a sellout to the West; where it sought closer integration with Europe, it speaks of a clash of civilizations; where it limited executive power, it grants Erdogan “rule by decree.”
WITH HIS unprecedented powers, he has shown, according to Freedom House, “growing contempt for political rights and civil liberties,” imprisoning opposition leaders, academics and journalists. Nor has he proven a reliable ally to Western interests. He is not averse to aligning with autocratic Russia and theocratic Iran when he sees fit. And he just threatened that he would “open the gates and send 3.6 million Syrian refugees into Europe” if the European Union dares to call his military march into Syria what it in fact is, an invasion.
One cannot simply assume, therefore, that Turkey has remained a Western-style nation that is merely pursuing its national security interests as it firebombs Kurdish villages and threatens European neighbors. Expanding its territory while chasing its leader’s neo-Ottoman dreams must be duly noted. And in any case, Turkish opposition to a Kurdish homeland has always rested on a fallacy of composition: namely, that the PKK are Kurdish and belligerent; therefore, Kurdistan will be belligerent. But what is true of a member of a nation is not necessarily true of the whole nation.
A small Kurdistan, suffering all the stresses and responsibilities that come with state power, would likely find that the PKK’s belligerency is not only unethical but against its own well-being. Furthermore, Turkey’s military responses to any future PKK aggression would have greater moral legitimacy if a Kurdish nation-state already existed. Instead of railing at Kurdish aspirations for self-determination, Turks should instead see the establishment of a Kurdish homeland as the best possible answer to their struggles with this freedom-hungry people; even the PKK has shown signs that it can moderate its behavior, given proper incentives. 
Looming behind the current crisis, then, is the absence of a national home for the Kurdish community, a refuge for this scattered nation, a real territory where their culture can develop by its own light. Lacking a guiding light of our own, however, the West continues to follow Turkey’s appalling lead on the Kurdish question. The result has been a loss of our moral credibility and a sense of betrayal among a long-suffering people who have fought loyally for years beside American and European soldiers.
When the Kurds of Kirkuk were attacked in 2017 by “Iraqi” forces controlled by Iran, we had the chance to do the right thing, both strategically and morally, by backing them as they fought Iranian proxies. Had the United States then established a Kurdish homeland in Iraq, the way sensible empires do, we may not have had this current crisis—or, at least, not to its brutal extent. Syrian Kurdish villagers, injured and homeless, would have had a place to emigrate while Turkey resettled Syrian refugees in the vacated areas. But here we are – two years ago this month since America’s decision not to support the Kurdistan Regional Government’s referendum to achieve independence from Iraq. And the story of the Kurds thus remains a political tale that shames us all.
The author is a Boston-based foreign affairs writer.