Recent Events Invite a Look Back at U.S., Middle East Relations

u.s. troops withdraw from syria as turkey bombs kurds in ain issa

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

ISIS supporters escaped a Kurd camp amid a Turkish attack, The Guardian reported Sunday. The Turkish bombing of northern Syria is the latest development since American military support has been reduced in the area.

Kurdish-inhabited area. Map produced by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency [Public domain]

According to The Guardian, a riot broke out in a Syrian displacement camp run by Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), who until recently were supported by U.S. forces. The rioters included nearly 1,000 women and children linked to the terrorist group Islamic State, commonly known as ISIS or ISIL. The rioters overran security guards during a Turkish-led bombing against Kurdish forces near the camp.

The Turkish offensive began last week after American troops were withdrawn from northern Syria, where they had been working with Kurdish allies to stabilize the region. The decision to reduce the support of American troops is likely to further complicate an already complex, historical relationship between the United States and the Kurds.

America’s Reluctance in Supporting Kurdish Forces

Many Americans are less familiar with the Kurds than with a geographically closer foreign force like, say, Great Britain. “The Kurds are a non-Arab Muslim people whose traditional homeland, Kurdistan, is located in parts of modern Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran,” said Dr. Salim Yaqub, Associate Professor of History at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “Since the 1910s, various Kurdish separatist groups have attempted to achieve national independence or increased autonomy in the areas they inhabit.”

Since then, Dr. Yaqub said, the United States has worked in a limited capacity with the Kurds but stopped short of fully supporting their political aspirations.

“In the first place, those aspirations pose at least a potential threat to the territorial integrity and political stability of existing Middle Eastern states, and the United States has traditionally sought to uphold the territorial and political status quo in the region,” he said. “In the second place, during the Cold War, Kurdish separatist groups, especially those operating in Turkey and Iran, had often received encouragement and support from the Soviet Union, so U.S. officials had gotten into the habit of seeing Kurdish activism as ideologically subversive.”

Hussein, Nixon, Bush, and Clinton

However, starting in 1972, then-President Richard Nixon chose for the United States to support the shah of Iran in his struggle against a Saddam Hussein-led Iraq, including pledging $16 million to Iraqi Kurds to help them revolt against Hussein. Eventually, a peace agreement between Iraq and Iran was reached and the United States spent the following 25 years delicately balancing its support of various Kurdish forces.

During the Gulf War in the early 1990s, Iraqi Kurds felt spurred to action by former President George Bush and rose up against Saddam Hussein. Hussein crushed the rebellion.

“Under growing international pressure to do something for the Kurds, Bush eventually agreed to the establishment of a ‘no-fly zone’ in northern Iraq, which prevented the Iraqi government from using its aircraft to attack the Kurds,” Dr. Yaqub said. “In late 1991, Saddam withdrew the central government administration from northern Iraq, and the Iraqi Kurds, under the umbrella of U.S. and British aerial protection, were able to carve out a semi-autonomous region in the north, complete with elections and a parliamentary-style government.”

Furthermore, in the mid-1990s, two rival Iraqi Kurdish parties declared war against each other; though in 1998, the Clinton administration brokered peace between them.

Syrian-Turkish Tensions

At the same time as the Iraqi Kurdish infighting, a Kurdish group known as the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) began its own rebellion against both Turkey and upper-class Kurds who they believed had sold the Kurdish movement out to Turkey. The United States provided Turkey with military hardware to prevent the PKK insurgency.

According to Dr. Yaqub, the PKK’s leader, Abdullah Ocalan, operated in Syria, leading Turkish leaders to threaten Syria with mass violence if Syria continued to harbor Ocalan. Instead, Syrian leaders allowed Ocalan to flee, at which time he flew from nation to nation seeking asylum.

“For a while, it seemed that Russia, then Italy, and then Greece would take him in,” Dr. Yaqub said. “But all of these countries, apparently under diplomatic pressure from the United States, eventually denied Ocalan asylum.” He was arrested in Kenya and handed over to Turkish authorities, who tried him for treason and sentenced him to life in prison.

In the 21st century, the September 11 terrorist attack further complicated U.S. relations with the Kurds, especially in Iraq. Last week’s decision to pull out of Syria and allow Turkey to begin a new onslaught against Kurdish forces will add yet another page to this endlessly complex story.

Dr. Salim Yaqub contributed to this article. Dr. Yaqub is Associate Professor of History at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He earned his B.A. from the Academy of Art College and his M.A. at San Francisco State University, continuing on to Yale University, where he earned an M. Phil and a Ph.D. in American History.