Kurds Speak Out On President Trump's Decisions For Syria

Oct 29, 2019
Originally published on October 30, 2019 12:17 pm

A roundtable of Kurds in the U.S. tell us what they think of the president’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria and protect the oil fields instead of them.

Guests

Richard Engel, chief foreign correspondent for NBC News. Host of “On Assignment with Richard Engel.” (@RichardEngel)

Jihan Mohammed, raised in Dohuk, Iraq, and taught at the University of Dohuk for three years. Ph.D. candidate in sociology at Michigan State University. Adjunct professor at Motlow State Community College in Tennessee. Lives in Nashville, which has the largest Kurdish population outside of Kurdistan.

Metin Serbest, immigration lawyer who moved to Chicago from Turkey in 2000.

Sherin Zadash, humanitarian activist. Parents immigrated to San Diego from Syria. Interned at a non-governmental organization called Souriyat Across Borders, which helps Syrian refugees living in Amman, Jordan.

Interview Highlights

When we speak of the Kurdish people, who are we talking about?

Sherin Zadash: “We’re talking about the largest minority in the world, without a homeland. … We’re talking about a people that have historically always aligned with the United States. We’re talking about a people that have faced persecution in Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. And what the Kurdish people have craved — ever since the fall of the Ottoman Empire — is independence, statehood. And this has been an elusive dream that the Kurdish people have not been able to obtain. And up until recently, I was really surprised by the withdrawal, for a couple of reasons. One, the complete abandonment of our Western values — of loyalty, of preserving freedom and democracy — was shocking, especially in a region rifled with conflict.

“I mean, Rojava was this experiment in democracy, in a war-torn country in Syria, right? In a country that has experienced so much conflict over the past seven, eight years. And to see the United States, the largest military power in the world — the leader of the free world — tell the world that, ‘We’re not going to protect this ethnic minority, this group of people that lost 11,000 to 12,000 lives, to fight against ISIS — the greatest threat – the greatest terror threat the world has ever seen in the 21st century. And we’re going to let them into the hands of Turkey.’ And second of all, I don’t understand how this preserves our foreign policy strength. I interned for the State Department, and I’ve always been a believer that we need to ensure that our foreign policy remains strong. Because I believe a strong United States can mean a more peaceful Middle East. And to allow Russia, Iran and Assad and Turkey to take our place — to give Russia a foothold in the Middle East –speaks to a potentially dangerous situation down the road.”

On reaction to the president’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria  

Jihan Mohammed: “I personally was not surprised or shocked by the president’s decision to withdraw. Given the history of how the United States and Western powers have handled the Kurdish issue in the Middle East, it was expected. Some people were actually waiting for that to happen. So I was not surprised. The element of surprise was in the behavior of Trump.  And, I mean, the lack of empathy, and the amount of misinformation he tweeted, and [kept] tweeting, and speaking on behalf of the Kurds, and claiming that the Kurds are actually happy about the ‘deal.’ While the truth is, we are not happy about the deal. And, so, that was the element of surprise. And just, you know, describing this conflict using some very offensive and, if you will, racist terms and sentences. It was hard to watch that.”

Sherin Zadash: “What we’re seeing is one of the worst genocides in the 21st century. And if we don’t act, we don’t know how many more lives are going to be lost. And already 200,000 Kurds have been displaced. And it speaks to the larger issue of — as an American, I’m a Kurdish American, my dad immigrated here in 1982, and I love America more than anything. And for me, to have seen my country abandon the Kurds, the only ally we had in the fight against ISIS, hurt on so many levels. One, as a global citizen, I’m scared of what’s going to happen to the security of the world, if we don’t have loyal and reliable partners on the ground to fight against ISIS. And now … we abandoned the Kurds, the only group of people who have proven themselves to be loyal partners. I’m just wondering, as an American, who are we going to turn to next, if we showed the world that once we’re done with a group of people, we turn our backs against them?”

From The Reading List

Washington Post: “Who are the Kurds, and why is Turkey attacking them?” — “Kurdish fighters in northern Syria have served as a crucial U.S. ally in the fight against the Islamic State. But U.S. troops stepped aside last week as Turkey launched an offensive against the U.S.-backed Kurdish forces.

“President Trump has faced pressure even from Republicans as he has defended his decision not to intervene against the Turkish incursion, which many see as abandoning an ally in the face of extreme danger. Kurdish forces have described the U.S. departure as “a stab in the back.”

“‘Some want us to send tens of thousands of soldiers to the area and start a new war all over again,’ Trump tweeted Thursday. ‘Others say STAY OUT and let the Kurds fight their own battles. I say hit Turkey very hard financially with sanctions if they don’t play by the rules.’

“Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had threatened to move into northeastern Syria for months. Here’s why he went ahead with it.”

Nashville Public Radio: “‘Deep Sadness’ Felt Among Nashville Kurds As Attacks Begin In Syria” — “As airstrikes hit Northern Syria and threaten Kurds, the situation is being watched with trepidation in Middle Tennessee. Nashville has long been a settling place for refugees, and is home to the largest Kurdish community in the U.S.

“For 38-year-old Dilgesh Abraham, the news is consuming social media and text message threads. And a call with his mother this week left both in tears.

“‘I’m very depressed inside about this. But I’m not very surprised,’ he said. ‘We were all crying. … Every Kurd that’s from Syria has family there. This is where we were born and raised.’

“Abraham grew up in Qamishli on the Turkey-Syria border, about 70 miles from one of the cities reported to be under attack.

“He fled in 2006 after spending what he describes as more than a year inside a torturous prison. He says he was arrested during a Syrian government crackdown on Kurdish demonstrations that he helped organize.

“‘I didn’t leave by choice,’ he said. ‘If I was there, I would be dead right now.’ ”

New York Times: “Opinion: No, Kurds and Turks Are Not ‘Natural Enemies,’ Mr. Trump” — “In the days just before Turkey’s military incursion into Syria, for which the stated aim includes purging a Kurdish militia that has been allied with the United States in the fight against the Islamic State, President Trump made a comment on the history of the two conflicting sides. He defined Kurds as Turkey’s ‘natural enemy,’ adding, ‘one historian said they’ve been fighting for hundreds of years.’

“I am not sure who that historian was, but as someone who has studied this particular history, I can assure you that the tension between Turks and Kurds is not centuries old. It is actually about one century old, and it’s the result of a very modern force: nationalism.

“The history does begin in the early 16th century, when the Ottoman Empire, founded in western Anatolia by Sunni Turks, began to expand eastward, only to conflict with the Shiite Safavid Empire in Persia. The Kurds, a tribal people, most of whom were Sunni Muslims, were caught in the middle; soon they willingly joined the Ottomans. Through the next four centuries, they lived under the same state with Turks, Arabs, Bosnians, Armenians, Greeks and Jews — because the Ottoman Empire, like the neighboring Hapsburg Empire, was a multiethnic and multireligious mosaic.

“The Ottoman elite was mostly Turkish, but not Turkish nationalist. So Kurds never faced any denial of their identity. Their ancestral homeland was often called ‘Kurdistan,’ which even briefly became the name of an administrative region in the 19th century. In the same era, there were a few revolts by Kurdish chieftains, but only as a reaction to the centralization of the state and the new taxes and obligations it entailed.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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