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As President Trump stood aside this week, clearing the way for Turkey’s long-planned incursion into Syrian Kurdistan, grasp of history is vital to understanding what’s happening now.

Turkey and the Kurds

More than a century ago a succession of Turkish governments over 25 years engaged in massacres and ethnic cleansing so extensive and systematic as to warrant the label as the first genocide of the twentieth century. The victims were not the Kurds, but rather the Armenians.

Peter Balakian’s meticulously researched book, The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America’s Response (2003), makes clear that the Kurds of that time were allies of the Ottoman and Turkish regimes in the assault on the Armenians. Kurds did much of the actual killing, and appropriated much of the property left behind by the doomed Armenians. Present-day Kurdistan, comprising sections of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran, is in large part the territory formerly populated by Armenians.

No Turkish government up to the present day has ever admitted to [the Armenian] genocide, and the Kurdish leadership has never admitted to the Kurds’ role.

No Turkish government up to the present day has ever admitted to this genocide, and the Kurdish leadership has never admitted to the Kurds’ role.

The political map of the Middle East as we know it today was determined by the victorious powers at the end of World War I, in the Versailles Conference. Operating under President Wilson’s ideal of the self-determination of peoples, several new nation-states were set up in Europe: Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia. But the former Ottoman territories in the Middle East were deemed not yet ready for self-determination. Instead, a system of “mandates” was established, whereby Britain and France, in particular, and potentially the United States, would assume a paternalistic control over a territory in order to prepare it for self-determination. Thus the British assumed mandates in Palestine and Iraq while the French took over Syria. The new Republican regime of Mustafa Kemal, later known as Atatürk, took control of Constantinople and Asia Minor, constituting the new Republic of Turkey.

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There was discussion of mandates for Armenia and Kurdistan, but no agreement was reached. Armenia was left with a rump of its former territory, incorporated into the Soviet Union. Kurdistan fared even worse: Kurdish-speaking territory was allocated to the surrounding states (Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran). David Fromkin (A Peace to End All Peace: Creating the Modern Middle East, 1989) rightly saw this postwar settlement as the root of all the turmoil in the Middle East in the following decades.

Within this new map, the very success of the Armenian genocide meant that the Turkish government had essentially no Armenians left to worry about. But the Turks (like the other states holding parts of Kurdistan) were definitely worried about the Kurds, a clearly identifiable stateless minority in each of the four countries.

The succeeding century has seen a variety of Kurdish movements for autonomy or Kurdish sovereignty; each of the states controlling Kurdistan has taken its turn in suppressing those movements. The current president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, may fairly be said to be obsessed with the security threat posed by the Kurds. He views the Turkish Kurds as disloyal to the Turkish state and disposed to violent rebellion. He considers the Kurds in the neighboring countries as allies of the Turkish Kurds. In fact, his attitude toward the Kurds is closely parallel to Turkish attitudes toward the Armenians a century ago.

Thus it is not at all out of the question that Erdoğan’s Turkey, left unrestrained by the United States or any other power, could again perpetrate a genocide, this time agains the Kurds. But the Kurds will not go quietly. This in turn could touch off a regional war.

impeachment unavoidable

Kurds who understand their own history as accomplices of the Turks a century ago, will perhaps see the irony.

John Peeler