- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 15, 2019

They are the fourth largest ethnic group in the Middle East, one of the world’s most populous stateless peoples, and a geopolitical headache in every country where they have settled.

President Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces providing a security umbrella in northern Syria has once again put the global spotlight on the tortured history of the Kurds, who once again find themselves scrambling for allies and a place to call their own in the face of a powerful Turkish offensive.

It’s a familiar story.

In Turkey itself, the government in Ankara has been waging a decades-long battle with a Kurdish separatist movement. In Iraq, the government in Baghdad has clashed with the independence leanings of the country’s Kurdish enclave in the north. Even in Iran, the government in Tehran has nervously watched Kurdish independence movements across the region for fear they could spread to Iran’s small Kurdish population as well.

The lands dominated by the Kurds span about 74,000 square miles divided straddling southeastern Turkey, northern Iraq, northeastern Syria and northwestern Iran, and are home to an estimated 25 million to 35 million Kurds. Although they are so populous, the Kurds have never been given their own internationally recognized country.

A promised homeland in the settlement just after World War I was quickly reversed in 1922, and the Kurds were relegated to a problem minority status in their traditional homelands.

“Since the settlement of 1922 a lot has happened to the Kurds, but not always one where they’ve been able to chart their own destiny,” Thomas Warrick, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council specializing in the region, said in an interview.

He added that at times the Kurds have been party to various resistance movements that have in some cases led to “open warfare.”

Like the Syrian Kurds, Kurdish activists have long appealed to outside powers in their quest for greater autonomy and protection from local rivals. And the local rivals have long been on the alert to quash the Kurds’ nationalist ambitions whenever they arise.

Turkey began restricting the use of the Kurdish language in an effort “to build a Turkish identity,” said Mr. Warrick, who for nearly two decades prior worked on Middle East issues at the State Department.

While Kurdish politicians have served in past Turkish governments and served as mayors, the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is just the latest to condemn the militant Kurdish separatist movement PKK as a terrorist organization. This month’s military operation is part of a long-held dynamic to keep Kurds in different countries for linking together.

“Mainstream Turkish political thought has always looked upon the ethnic Kurds as a potential separatists movement,” Mr. Warrick explained.

One tragic aspect of modern Kurdish history is that the Kurds have been useful as a tactical weapon in the region’s endless conflicts, but never have enough clout to demand statehood as the price of their cooperation.

“Despite a wellspring of mutual respect between Kurds and the West, the one constant has been disappointment and betrayal of the former by the latter,” analyst Sebastien Roblin wrote recently in the journal The National Interest.

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