It has become apparent that looking back in history did not appeal to those who have presided over the military catastrophes in Afghanistan, the Middle East and North Africa. Had GW Bush known about colonial Britain’s defeats in Afghanistan he might have reconsidered his invasion that was militarily futile and resulted in a divided, violence-ridden, drug-infested, corrupt country that is now ungovernable. And just before the disastrous invasion of Iraq in 2003 the historian Charles Tripp reflected on the years 1914-21 “when Great Britain conquered the three Ottoman provinces of Basra, Baghdad and Mosul and welded them into the new state of Iraq. The fact that there are echoes of the present and of possible future scenarios in Iraq has less to do with some irreducible essence of Iraqi history than with the logic of imperial power.”
Imperial power has been exercised by the United States for some considerable time, and it is difficult to conclude that anyone has benefited from its wars. For example, the UN notes that there are 70 million displaced persons — more than there have ever been at any time in world history. But on goes the chilling drama, with the latest publicised victims being the Kurds in Northern Syria, a US-created shambles which is being resolved as far as practicable following an agreement between Presidents Erdogan and Putin.
But the problems of the Kurds in the Middle East are wide and deep and involve countries that do not look objectively at the misery and distress of so many of the Kurdish people.
The Kurds don’t have a country of their own, in spite of there being some 30-40 million of them. (Nobody knows exactly how many.) They “inhabit a mountainous region straddling the borders of Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Iran and Armenia and make up the fourth-largest ethnic group in the Middle East, but have never obtained a permanent nation state.”
It was sparingly reported in the Western media that in Geneva on October 23 a Kurdish Syrian man doused himself in gasoline and set himself on fire outside the headquarters of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). According to Reuters the Geneva police spokesman said “Given his state, it was impossible to ask him about his motive, but we imagine that it was the political situation.” Perhaps. But I’m certain it was sheer despair, torment and utter wretchedness, similar to those I described fifteen years ago in a piece about the plight of Kurds.
Twenty-five years ago I lived in Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, and my daily walk took me past the UNHCR office, opposite which some Kurdish refugees had erected a neat and tidy tent hamlet on the side of the road. As I walked briskly past of an evening, one of them, a particularly villainous-seeming fellow, greeted me with a charming smile. His flinty blue eyes softened as he bade me Hello, and after a few days of mutual greeting we began to chat.
The story of his group was of unrelieved persecution and privation. Having fled the savage reprisals of Saddam Hussein, following encouragement by Bush senior for Kurds and Shias to rise against their oppressor (after which Bush did exactly nothing to help them), they made their way from Iraq across Iran to Pakistan’s province of Balochistan, and then north to Islamabad, a trek of about two thousand miles. There, they hoped, the UNHCR would look kindly upon them and relocate them to a country in which they could live like human beings, which to them, as to the countless millions of despairing displaced persons round the world, would be Paradise.
The UNHCR has its problems, internal and imposed by outsiders, but in general is a particularly saintly, harassed and unforgivably underfunded organisation whose dedicated officials are at their wits’ end about how to help the millions of exiles who desperately need their assistance.
Where on earth could they settle down, these Kurdish orphans of Washington’s Operation Desert Storm? Who would take them? Answer came there none, although those who fled to Pakistan did have at least some hope of attention from the UNHCR. But unfortunately for them Pakistan was the fiefdom of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, a corrupt and oily knave whose solution was to gather up the Kurds in dead of night and transport the lot of them back to the deserts of Balochistan, hundreds of miles away.
In fact, not quite all of them ; for in one of the tents was a tiny baby, discovered at dawn by the scavengers who quickly gathered to see what the Kurds, the poorest of the poor, might have left behind after they were again hounded from one hell to another.
Horrified local Pakistanis and some of us foreign do-gooding busybodies inquired about the fate of the infant. But in spite of our efforts we came up against the usual brick wall of bureaucratic indifference. “There is no problem” we were told. No ; of course not. For that baby was only one of millions of anonymous and helpless mites born into a world grown too accustomed to hideous inhumanity. But where did the child end up?
And today I wondered if the man who set himself on fire in Geneva might have been that baby.
Whoever he is, he’s just one of the millions of Kurds without a home. According to the CIA Factbook, the 30-40 million Kurds in the Middle East represent some 10% of Syria’s population, 19% of Turkey’s, 15-20% of the Iraq’s and are the second largest ethnic group in Iran — at 7 million, they are about 10% of the population. The idea of creating a national home for the Kurds is far from new, and was first mooted in 1920 when the Treaty of Sèvres proposed recognition of several independent states, including the country of Kurdistan. It was all too good to last, and the treaty was never ratified. Worse still, the matter of Kurdistan wasn’t even mentioned in the Treaty of Lausanne, which in 1923 delineated the boundaries of modern Turkey.
It went further downhill from there, and none of the countries in which there were Kurdish populations had the slightest intention of permitting them to be independent of central rule, let alone allowing a modest part of their territory to form a Kurdish nation. As can be seen from the map, the areas are contiguous and would be simple to delineate, just as was done by so much colonial map-drawing a hundred years ago.
As time went by, there was increasing international reliance on oil, and it just happened that there was — and is — much oil in Kurdish areas. Which goes a long way to explaining exactly why Washington has been so interested in the region and as recently as October 24 has shown the world that from the years of cretinous Bush to those of poisonous Trump, it is oil and profits that matter most.
Following all the Trump-Pentagon posturing about withdrawal from Syria, there was an abrupt rethink, with defence secretary Esper announcing on October 24 that “we are reinforcing our position” in Syria and deploying an unspecified number of tanks to the north-east. Then Trump tweeted, “When these pundit fools who have called the Middle East wrong for 20 years ask what we are getting out of the deal, I simply say, THE OIL, AND WE ARE BRINGING OUR SOLDIERS BACK HOME, ISIS SECURED!”
Forget freedom, Kurds. You sit on oil, and that’s what’s wanted. There’s no hope you’ll ever have a country of your own.