A KURDISH woman sits at the roadside, nursing in her arms her dying child. She is just one of hundreds of refugees — mainly Kurds, but also Yazidis, Assyrians, and Arabs — fleeing the Turkish army which has invaded Rojava, their homeland in north-east Syria.
“What would you like to say to the world?” a reporter from Kurdistan24 asks her. “Where is the international community?” the woman yells. “Where can we go? Again, we are punished for crimes we didn’t commit.
“I tried to find a hospital for my child, but there are none. Where are the humans? Where are the world powers? Where are the Americans? We sacrificed so much of our blood to fight ISIS. Why have the Kurds been abandoned now?”
THE media has reported daily President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from Syria, the subsequent Turkish incursion, the five day cease-fire, and the continuing fighting and carnage (News, 18 October).
The actions of the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, are not surprising, given his well-documented dislike of the Kurds. “He is brutalising Kurds in Turkey,” Arsalan, a Peshmerga (Kurdish soldier) tells me. President Erdogan hopes that hurting the Kurds will win him votes and shore up the declining popularity of his AKP (Justice and Development Party”, Arsalan says.
In alliance with the Russian President Vladimir Putin, President Erdogan is determined to remove the YPG (the Kurdish People’s Protection Units) and the YPJ (the mainly female units) from a “buffer zone” that extends along the Syrian-Turkish border.
The YPG and the YPJ are both linked to the PKK (the Kurdistan Workers’ Party), which Turkey, the European Union, and the United States regard as a terrorist organisation. Formed in 1978, the PKK has tried to gain basic human rights for the millions of Kurds living in south-east Turkey, where the Kurdish language and culture are banned. As the old adage goes: “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom-fighter.”
Under international law, the invasion of Rojava is illegal. Hemat, a PKK commander in the Qandil mountains on the Iraq-Iran border, told me: “There is no threat to Turkey from Rojava. The YPG has never carried out operations in Turkey. They merely defend Rojava. How, then, can they be terrorist organisations?”
Besides creating a huge humanitarian crisis, Turkey’s invasion has seriously undermined the stability of the region. Russia and Iran now have a greater influence in determining Syria’s future. President Erdogan plans on moving three million Sunni Arab refugees into the area, thereby changing the ethnic make-up of north-east Syria. Some analysts predict ethnic cleansing.
The Kurds, like many others, are angry at the apparent Western indifference to their suffering. “Before, with the Islamic State, everyone needed us to do their dirty work, but now we’re being abandoned, the West should support us,” Arsalan says.
SURPRISINGLY, after creating the problem in the first place, the US signed an Executive Order to impose limited sanctions on Turkey. The EU considered this also, but decided against sanctions at this stage. Sanctions, though an important first step, usually take considerable time before they produce results. The Kurds require immediate help.
NATO is divided in its response: most members are adopting a wait-and-see policy. Germany, however, has suggested the creation of an internally controlled security zone involving Turkey and Russia. This is a significant proposal which would go far in safeguarding all ethnic groups in Rojava
Most countries, however, rightly emphasise the need to encourage dialogue between Syria, Turkey, and the whole region to try to resolve this crisis.
The UK’s Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, has spoken to the Turkish Foreign Minister, Mevlüt Çavusoglu, and expressed the UK’s grave concerns. Boris Johnson also spoke to President Erdogan to reinforce those concerns and to urge restraint.
Mr Raab told the House of Commons that the Government was keeping sales of arms to Turkey under careful review. But, as Kardo, a Kurd living in Leeds said to me: “A stronger response is needed. This is money over morals. No more weapons should be sold to Turkey while this military debacle takes place. Britain should at least try to establish a no-fly zone across northern Syria.”
Individuals can act to raise awareness and pressurise politicians. MPs can be contacted, reminding them that the Kurds deserve our help. They can remind the Government that the Kurds were the “point of the spear” fighting Islamic State. Almost 11,000 peshmergas were killed in that war.
Ever since the Sykes-Picot Agreement in 1916, when the UK and France carved up the Ottoman Empire in anticipation of victory in the First World War, the British government has promised the Kurds a nation of their own. But, after using them to fight our wars, the UK has regularly broken that pledge. As such, there is a moral duty on the UK to assist the Kurds in achieving their goal of an independent State of their own.
Various charities operating in Syria and Iraq, providing food, clothes, and medical supplies for Kurdish and other refugees, would greatly appreciate financial donations.
All of these are significant ways of showing the Kurds that they are not a forgotten people.
Dr Simon Ross Valentine is a freelance writer and lecturer, who has lived in Iraq and the Middle East.