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Today’s post is from u/grizwald87 who answers the question: “What’s the deal with US military personnel posting pictures of Kurdish soldiers and mourning them?”
Answer: This is one of those stories that benefits from lots of context. The Kurds are an ethnic group that have lived in the Middle East for a very long time – at least a couple thousand years. There’s about 40 million of them, and they live in an area that was at one time its own country, Kurdistan. As centuries passed, empires rose and fell in the Middle East and Kurdistan was conquered by one of them and ruled thereafter (for several hundred years) as a collection of provinces.
The last Middle Eastern empire was the Ottoman Empire, which was founded and ruled by the Turks. As you may know, the Ottoman Empire collapsed during WW1, and the only remaining piece of it is the country we now call Turkey. Many of the nearby countries are former provinces of the Ottoman Empire, the same way many of the countries on Russia’s western border are former parts of the Soviet Union.
The problem is that these lines weren’t drawn with intention of creating functional sovereign countries, nor were any of the inhabitants asked their opinion. The result is that the area that was once Kurdistan is now divided between (very very roughly) Turkey in the NW, Syria in the SW, Iraq in the SE, and Iran in the NE, and all four of those countries have had to deal with uprisings since WW1 by Kurds who want independence.
Getting to the modern day issue, the Kurds aren’t particularly religious (by Middle Eastern standards) they have views on ethics that are comfortingly close to Western views (e.g. their women are quite liberated, by Middle Eastern standards), and they’re courageous, disciplined, reliable fighters (by Middle Eastern standards), so they make natural allies when America wants to get something done in the region. There’s a similar dynamic with Turkey, which is also a valuable ally to the United States (it’s a member of NATO, and we use Turkish airbases as major supply hubs for many of our Middle Eastern operations).
Unfortunately and shamefully, America also has a habit of not keeping its promises to the Kurds when it’s politically costly to do so (i.e. most of the time), which leads to episodes like the United States urging the Iraqi Kurds to rebel to weaken Saddam Hussein during the First Gulf War, and then doing nothing when the war ended and Saddam massacred many of them as punishment for rising up.
Turkey has been trying to suppress rebellions by the Kurds in the country’s SE (the NW part of ‘Kurdistan’) for decades. The problem got worse after the United States invaded Iraq in 2003 and toppled Saddam, which dramatically weakened central authority and allowed the Iraqi Kurds to become independent in all but name. When Syria collapsed into civil war in 2011 during the Arab Spring, it eliminated all central authority in that country, too, and the problem grew even worse: the Syrian Kurds more or less created their own independent country, which both motivated the Turkish Kurds to fight harder, and gave them a safe haven to retreat to and resupply for their fight with Turkish authorities.
In the normal course of things, Turkey would have just rolled across the border into Syrian Kurdistan and crushed all resistance, but the collapse of Syria also led to the rise of ISIS and similar fanatical Islamist organizations. To minimize unpopular troop deployments, the United States used Syrian Kurds to help American soldiers suppress ISIS (which, to be fair, the Kurds would have been in a conflict with in any event), and in exchange, Syrian Kurds received the protection of the United States: Turkey couldn’t kill them while they were helping us.
Now ISIS is defeated and Trump wants out of our costly, unpopular Middle Eastern combat commitments, so he announced the withdrawal of all of our troops from Syria without promising any protection to the Syrian Kurds we fought alongside. The moment he did that, the Turks seized their chance. As we speak, the Turkish military is rolling across the border into Syrian Kurdistan to kill any Kurd that resists and destroy anything resembling a Kurdish state.
This is understandably upsetting to the American soldiers who just finished fighting shoulder to shoulder with those same Kurds against a common enemy. I expect it’s especially heartbreaking because as mentioned above, unlike many Arab armed forces, the Kurds are fierce and trustworthy military allies, meaning many American soldiers who fought ISIS likely feel they and/or their fellow soldiers are alive today because of the Kurds they fought beside.