North Africa, West Asia

Pariah people in the 21st century: the Kurds’ predicament in the Middle East

The resolution of the Kurdish question will pave the way for the democratisation of authoritarian regimes that prevail in the Middle East.

Veysi Dag
Veysi Dag
9 December 2019
Demonstration in Nantes, France, on 12 October 2019 to denounce the Turkish military offensive against Rojava.
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Picture by Estelle Ruiz/NurPhoto/PA Images. All rights reserved.

After a phone call with the Turkish President, the American President, made an abrupt decision and ordered the withdrawal of US troops from North Syria and cleared the way for the Turkish incursion whilst also exposing the Kurds to extreme hostility as well as to ethnic cleansing.

Indeed, shortly before the Turkish assaults, the US troops encouraged the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to remove their defensive fortifications from the Turkish border as part of ‘the security mechanism’ deal. The SDF subsequently had little options but to demolish their defence line in response to the American request as they relied on American forces to prevent any Turkish incursion. Nevertheless, Donald Trump ordered the US troops to move out of North Syria, thus giving a green light for Turkish forces to launch their assaults on the Kurdish self-administered territories.

The Turkish military along with its jihadi mercenaries announced immediately a “ground and air operation”. The Kurds interpreted Trump’s decision as a “betrayal” and a “stab in the back”. Within the first week of their so-called “peace spring operation”, the Turkish forces had used violence on an unprecedented scale from ground and air, as well as sophisticated weaponry technology including white phosphorus, targeting civilians, journalists and armed forces indiscriminately.

The Turkish invasion has displaced hundreds of thousands and killed many civilians. This has caused human atrocities and is understood as a "war crime”. Nevertheless, the international community has remained less persistent to deter the Turkish government from its invasion. Once more, the Kurds find themselves in a dire predicament. But what explains this Kurdish predicament?

Are the Kurds the Pariahs in the 21st Century?

The Kurds share the belief that they are abandoned by the international community once again. This corresponds to the conditions of the excluded “pariah people” of the civilised world in the 21st century. Max Weber defined the pariah people as a distinctive hereditary social group lacking autonomous political organization with inferior position. The lack of a political organisation refers to the absence of a sovereign state. In this context, Weber used the notion of “pariah people” to describe different aspects of the political, economic and cultural calamity of Jews and other deprived groups who were considered as outsiders in the beginning of the 20th century. These people were strangers in the world dominated by the new emerging nation states.

Nowadays, the concept of the pariah people might be used to comprise different legally and structurally stateless communities. They do not possess a political organisation that is committed to collectively provide its members the political, social, security and civil rights, protect these rights and bear overall and collective responsibility. Thus, the pariah people in the 21st century are applied to the stateless people who failed to establish their political organisation, as a sovereign statehood. They are, in Hannah Arendt's words, “rightless” and are deprived of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness...”.

They are considered outsiders, collectively disfranchised from the responsibility of the international community of nation states as well as from the international laws seeking to enforce justice. Consequently, they share the destiny of a ruined nation as they internally fail to unite for and claim their collective rights. This notion is applicable to the Kurds, as they are degraded, despised, underprivileged, and deprived of any political and cultural entitlements.

This entails the fact that they are permanently betrayed by nation states. This is subsumed under the disunity of the Kurdish actors, the undemocratic nature and extreme aggression of ruling governments and the ignorance of the international community. These three controversial features lead to a permanent state of oppression, resistance and betrayal of the Kurdish populace.

The role of the Kurdish leadership

The oppression of Kurdish people does not only result from hostile approaches of authoritarian regimes in the Middle East but also from the fragmentation of so-called “Kurdish leadership”. This leadership consists of political parties, armed movements and other legal actors. These are not united around the basic needs and demands of their people. They rather pursue antagonistic ideologies, fragmented agendas and rational party interests.

These disparate interests of the Kurdish leadership go back to developments after the First World-War. The Kurdish leaders such as Şeyh Mahmut Berzenci in 1918 in Iraq, Simko Shikaki in 1918 in Iran and Şeyh Said in 1925 in Turkey were all local, disconnected and focused on very narrow perspectives. Their ambitions were a long way from any kind of collective national concept. They aspired to establish their own local kingdoms.

Consequently, they missed opportunities to carve out their own sovereign state. Their fragmented agendas and politics are historically the main cause for their statelessness and the partition of their homeland between borders of current Arab, Persian and Turkish states. The present Kurdish actors repeat the blunder of their ancestors in that they aspire to create their own local administration and avoid sharing power with those Kurdish actors, who pursue disparate political and ideological agendas.

They prioritise their party interests over the common goal and implications for the Kurdish population. They fail to critically judge their history and relationship with authoritarian regimes in the region as well as other external powers. They do not reflect on the mistakes of their ancestors in terms of failures to create political unity and cohesive agendas for protection, freedom and peaceful conditions for the Kurds in these countries. Thus, the Kurdish leadership is not innocent and is responsible for exposing the Kurdish population to the fiercest onslaughts and atrocities of authoritarian regimes in the Middle East. Consequently, the Kurdish people suffer before the eyes of the world but do not gain their attention to their suffering.

The ruthless suppression of the ruling regimes

The second factor for the Kurdish predicament is the authoritarian, dictatorial and undemocratic regimes that rule the Kurdish society in Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. In all four states, the Kurdish people share a common destiny, by becoming an object of history with no mastery of their own fate or future. They rapidly became objects of assimilation and suppression. These states stifle Kurdish national identity and violently compelled the Kurds to submit to severe assimilation, which results in the Kurdish suffering, victimhood and martyrdom.

Since the Treaty of Lausanne, Kurdish history has been little more than a litany of tragedies leading to permanent suffering at the hands of afore-mentioned authoritarian regimes. In Iran, the Kurdish victimhood has become evident with the fall of the Republic of Mahabad and continued with the establishment of the Khomeini-Regime in 1979 through its declaration of a jihad—a “Holy War”—against the Kurds. In Iraq, the Bath Regime mounted the Anfal campaigns “spoils of war”, and systematically used chemical weapons against Kurdish targets. In Syria, the Baathist regime took repressive measures against the Kurds and renewed its anti-Kurdish strategy in the shadow of Turkish cooperation.

Finally, throughout history, Turkish governments have been hostile to the Kurdish population. Regardless of their political and ideological orientation, they have not only rejected self-determination rights for the Kurds but also abolished their existence as a distinct group. They have always pursued a ruthless policy of assimilation and draconian measures to eradicate any sort of political Kurdish status. These historical facts that the Turks denied equal cultural and political rights of self-representation to the Kurds but pretend to represent the Kurds are constitutive of the Turkish approach, one that has never changed and remain in force today.

These four regimes impose the same visions on the Kurds; to launch the crackdown with the same dynamics and cruelties. They have also established a natural strategic alliance to “divide and rule” Kurdish populations based on the denial and extermination of their identity and status within their own and each other’s borders. The international community, the UN, the EU, and NATO, have taken a largely marginal and reluctant position, and thus far failed to deter these governments from full-scale repression against the Kurds.

Deliberate ignorance and recklessness of the international community

The international community is ignorant, opportunistic and reckless vis-a-vis extremely repressive actions towards the Kurdish population. It fails to preserve moral values toward these indigenous people when they face a threat of annihilation. The sovereign states are integral members of the international community and lead to the establishment of the UN. However, many ethno-national groups are not represented amongst these institutions.

Most of these nation states dominate more than one nation, but these nations are not recognised and are forced to accept subordinate status and the superiority of ruling nations. The demands of stateless nations for political and cultural recognition of their identities are denied by these ruling states “with cultural mixed population”. These states colonize stateless nations, shape their fate and the way of their lives. They deprive them of justice, liberty and equality.

This is the case in Syria, where Kurds are excluded from any legitimate claims and international laws that guarantee their existential survival and protection. Their status resembles those very much excluded, persecuted and cursed pariah people in the 20th century. This exclusion can be materialised through the ignorant approaches of the international community. The Kurds are used as a tool and object and deployed when they are needed without recognition as an equal partner or people with entitlements to decision making.

For example, the international coalition against ISIL, with 67 states including the Arab League, the EU and NATO used the Kurdish groups as ground forces against ISIL in both Iraq and Syria. Following their casualties and displacement, ISIL was militarily defeated. However, this defeat coincided with the marginalization of the Kurdish fighters through fierce attacks by the Turkish forces. The international community has ignored the existential dilemma of the Kurds and recognized the justification of the Turkish state for this colonial invasion. The Kurdish forces have been excluded from the world of nation states and subjected to war crimes, displacement and injustice for the sake of political, economic and territorial interests of the Turkish state.

Consequences

The Kurdish predicament results in a “trialectic” between betrayal, oppression and resistance. This brings about little success for liberty but more suffering for the Kurds. It determines the Kurdish status as the pariah people given their being outsiders and exclusion from the responsibility of the international community and international laws. The international mechanisms might be applied to regulate the conduct of behaviour of the states but not to redeem the injustice of the Kurds. The divided Kurds share the same fate throughout history that they are abandoned and left to the mercy of authoritarian regimes.

Accordingly, Kurdish history shows abundant examples that they allied with powerful state actors in the wars of these states. However, as soon as these state actors realise that their interests are satisfied, they forsake the Kurds to their fate. Historically, the British Empire, the Soviet Union and the US reneged on their promises to the Kurds for their autonomy and subsequent independence after these powers obtained substantial concessions from authoritarian regimes oppressing the Kurds.

Finally, the Kurds were encouraged by the international coalition under the leadership of the US to fight ISIL. However, after its defeat, the Iraqi Kurds were forsaken when they decided to determine their destiny through a referendum in 2017, while the Syrian Kurds lost their cities and towns to Turkish forces upon a meeting between Erdogan and Putin in 2018 and a phone call between Erdogan and Trump in 2019. The predicament of the Kurds as a structurally stateless population in the Middle East, and pariah people have led to their permanent collective suffering. These shape their common destiny which consists of a trialectic currently referring the Trump betrayal, Turkish invasion in Northeast Syria and the resistance of the Kurdish fighters and, thus, addresses this common tragedy of the Kurdish people.

Is the end of the Kurdish dilemma possible?

The Kurdish dilemma has always been a deadlock because of the territorial separation between aforementioned states. This has caused their political fragmentation and failure to create their unity aspiring to their collective liberation. This fragmentation forms the basis of an anti-Kurdish alliance between states ruling the Kurdish people. The solution to the Kurdish question in one country depends on political, economic and cultural circumstances of the Kurds in all four countries.

This interdependence aggravates the Kurdish question in each of these countries. ConsequentlyAs a response to the anti-Kurdish alliance, the political unity of the Kurdish actors with a common strategy based on the collective framing of their political agendas and coordination of as the response to the anti-Kurdish alliance their practical arrangements is an essential condition to survive within these states and in the world of nation states. Therefore, neither the US, Russia nor the EU will seek to provide the Kurds shelter from aggression of authoritarian regimes and solve their predicament.

Only the establishment of a Kurdish political union will solve the Kurdish predicament and determine their self-constructed and collective fate. This will also have implications for the transformation of authoritarian regimes into inclusive and diverse governments that respect hybrid and heterogeneous communities. Thus, conflict resolution between the Kurds is a precondition for the reconciliation, pluralistic democracy, respect of human dignity and freedom of expression in Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. It will pave the way for the democratisation of authoritarian regimes that prevail in the Middle East since the end of the First Word War and cause chaos and bloodshed.

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