The Brits betrayed the Arabs and now we betray the Kurds.
The Kurds field some all-woman combat units in a region not known for it (Israeli Defense Force excepted) and the women as well as the Kurdish men are fierce. They’ve had to be; they live in a rough neighborhood.
Kurdistan, in the “home of the Kurds” sense, includes parts of Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran. In the sense of an internationally recognized nation-state, Kurdistan does not exist. It almost did exist at the end of World War I.
The Kurds have a distinct language and a distinct culture. They have a national flag, national colors, and a national anthem that they will sing at the appearance of a mic — unlike us, we who passed over many great patriotic songs to adopt an anthem that only professionals (and not all of them) can sing.
Most Kurds were residing in the Ottoman Empire, which threw in with the Central Powers in WWI. The Ottoman Turks gave a good account of themselves, but the main event was in Western Europe, and the Central Powers lost.
If you saw “Lawrence of Arabia,” it was a reasonable approximation (with the usual Hollywood discount) of the British attempt to foment rebellion among Ottoman Arabs. T.E. Lawrence was an anthropologist who had “gone native” well before WWI.
Lawrence spoke Arabic and knew the clan relationships and the customs among the Arabs. His primary assignment was to keep a tactic rolling that occurred to him in his early attacks on the Hejaz Railway, an unfinished engineering wonder that was intended to connect Constantinople to Medina.
Lawrence’s idea was to blow bridges on the rail line, but not blow them so badly as to make repair impossible. The theory was much like the theory behind the modern assault rifle, that a grave wound is better than a clean kill because another soldier has to tend the wounded. The objective was to make Turkey pour resources into keeping the rail line open to supply Turkish garrisons rather than attempting alternative arrangements.
The successful crippling of the Hejaz Railway took place in a larger political context that was, from the Arab point of view that came to be Lawrence’s point of view, the Arabs fighting for freedom, for one huge Arab kingdom on a scale that would not be imagined again until Gamal Abdel Nasser dreamed the United Arab Republic. The UAR began with Egypt and Syria in 1958 but — instead of attracting more Arab governments — the UAR fell apart in 1961.
The kingdom the Arabs were fighting for had been doomed from the start by a written but secret agreement hammered out by Sir Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot in 1916, two years after the Ottoman Empire entered the war but well before there were any spoils to split up. The Ottoman Empire was to be dismembered, but an Arab Kingdom was not part of the deal. Oil was already a consideration in those days.
From the time Lawrence learned of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, he was playing a game that was borderline treasonous. The Arabs, you see, were fighting and dying alongside Lawrence based on what he knew to be a lie. He took on attempting to sabotage that lie. Some historians claim it was Lawrence who tipped off Emir Faisal about the British double-dealing, which set off the Emir attempting some double-dealing of his own — an offer to change sides that came to nothing when the Turks would not put up a lie to match the British lie.
Whether or not it was Lawrence who let Faisal in on the impending betrayal, it was certainly Lawrence who made a mad dash for Damascus at the head of an Arab army for the purpose of rendering Sykes-Picot untenable by changing the facts on the ground. Damascus was to become French, and the plan was to install Faisal as ruler backed by British arms to make good on the British promise.
Scott Anderson summed up the outcome in a 2014 issue of Smithsonian Magazine:
Part of the enduring fascination (with Lawrence) has to do with the sheer improbability of Lawrence’s tale, of an unassuming young Briton who found himself the champion of a downtrodden people, thrust into events that changed the course of history. Added to this is the poignancy of his journey, so masterfully rendered in David Lean’s 1962 film, “Lawrence of Arabia,” of a man trapped by divided loyalties, torn between serving the empire whose uniform he wore and being true to those fighting and dying alongside him. It is this struggle that raises the Lawrence saga to the level of Shakespearean tragedy, as it ultimately ended badly for all concerned: for Lawrence, for the Arabs, for Britain, in the slow uncoiling of history, for the Western world at large. Loosely cloaked about the figure of T.E. Lawrence there lingers the wistful specter of what might have been if only he had been listened to.
The British and the French had not reckoned with Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who rallied the Turks and fought his way out of the imperialist plans, becoming the founder of the modern Republic of Turkey. In 1924, Atatürk abolished the Ottoman Caliphate. A few pretenders tried to declare themselves to be the new Caliph, but the umma (Muslim community) accepted none of them.
When the dust settled, the Caliphate was vacant and defunct. The holy sites and therefore the supervision of the Hajj (annual pilgrimage) were the responsibility of the House of Saud, still the rulers today of Saudi Arabia.
The Kurds had never been able to agree on the borders or the government of Kurdistan, but when the Treaty of Sèvres died, they got folded back into the various nations from which they have repeatedly grasped for independence.
When the United States invaded Iraq, the Kurds supported the U.S. and used the resulting chaos to set themselves up in a semi-autonomous region around Mosul. The Syrian Kurds pulled off a similar gambit under the cover of the Syrian civil war.
When public opinion in the United States turned firmly against opening another front in the forever wars, the Obama administration undertook to train and arm an indigenous force to destroy the “new Caliphate” that had been declared by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the terrorist chieftain of the Islamic State, formerly ISIS, formerly al-Qaeda in Iraq. ISIS broke with al-Qaeda over brutality, with al-Qaeda trying to tamp it down and ISIS claiming Osama bin Laden’s organization had lost its jihadi fervor.
The Syrian Kurds allied with the U.S.-friendly Syrian rebels to take back the real estate administered by the Islamic State. With U.S. air support, they pulled it off, taking over 10,000 killed in action and over twice that many wounded. The small U.S. contingent sprinkled among the Kurds to advise and call in air support came to respect their comrades-in-arms and were appalled when the Trump administration ordered them to withdraw, taking with them the ability to call in the U.S. Air Force.
The Turks, who consider most Kurds to be terrorists, attacked immediately, displacing tens of thousands of Kurdish civilians. Unbeknownst to the public, Kurdish intelligence had been working with the CIA to locate the hidey-hole where Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had been running dispatch central for terror attacks since the Kurdish militia took away his real estate.
The withdrawal of U.S. troops mucked up the timetable for the raid to capture or kill al-Baghdadi, but the Kurdish intelligence troops stayed on post even as their families were fleeing for their lives.
President Trump made a statement in which he thanked Russia first and the Syrian Kurds last. Russia released a statement disclaiming any military action and expressing skepticism that al-Baghdadi was dead.
Trump also thanked Turkey, which did accept credit. But the mission did not depart from the easiest place, Incirlik Air Base in Turkey, because our “ally” was not trusted to maintain secrecy. The U.S. helicopters flew all the way from Northern Iraq, low and fast, to avoid the military aircraft in control of the space — our Russian “partners” and our Turkish “partners.”
Running al-Baghdadi to ground was accomplished in much the same manner as the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. The CIA used intelligence gathered from Syrian Kurds along with information from interrogating ISIS prisoners.
This achievement was by the same U.S. intelligence community that Mr. Trump is trying to discredit over the finding that Russia interfered in the 2016 elections.
However the credit is misdirected, the most wanted terrorist in the world, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is still dead. And the nation that used to be the most trusted in the world to stand up for freedom and self-determination has still betrayed the Kurds, who bled in our cause.
The U.S. soldiers who had to watch the betrayal on the ground might want to pick up T.E. Lawrence’s memoir, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. They will find they have a lot in common with the British hero of WWI.