A Brief History of American Betrayal of the Kurds

Sometimes history whispers us reminders. And sometimes it shouts. As the US once again discovers the usefulness of the Kurds, and the Kurds partner with America in the fight against the Islamic State, the shouting in Kurdish ears must be unbearable.

Despite being one of the most effective forces fighting the Islamic State in Syria, when the invitations were sent out for the next round of Syrian peace talks, the Kurds didn’t make the guest list. Instead, the U.S. and its allies sided with Turkey, who said they would boycott if the Kurds got a seat at the table.

This aiding the Kurds when we need them to fight for us and then abandoning them when they need us must be sounding very loud alarm bells for the Kurds. The Kurds must have awoken this week to the sound of history shouting in their ears.

The Kurds were first given their own land when a small piece of what had been Turkey was given to them in 1920. They quickly lost it back to Ataturk and the Turks, and the international community abandoned them. The Turks found themselves in the vulnerable position they are now in, scattered across Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq. This first abandonment of the Kurds would not be the last.

In the 1970’s, Iran and Iraq were quarrelling over a number of border disputes. In the hope of keeping the Iraqis preoccupied and busy, the Shah offered money and arms to the Kurds to fight Saddam Hussein. But the Kurds didn’t trust the Shah and made their acceptance conditional upon an American guarantee that Iran would not cut the lifeline to the Kurdish uprising.

Iran expert Trita Parsi says the CIA and the State Department counseled against the covert action because of the inevitability of the Shah’s betrayal of the Kurds. But Henry Kissinger took the opposing position, and, following a 1972 visit to Tehran by Kissinger and President Richard Nixon, the US promised the Shah US support for the Kurds: the Americans promised to support the Kurds. Nixon signed off on the covert operation on August 1, 1972. Kissinger made the arrangements for the covert war, and the CIA took charge of it. The support first took the form of $5 million and weapons, but by the next year, Kissinger had backed, and Nixon approved, greater US aid that would eventually reach over $20 million dollars and more than 1,250 tons of weapons and munitions.

But by 1975, the US backed Kurdish uprising was in trouble. The US eventually came to the conclusion that the Kurds could only be saved by an Iranian military intervention. The Shah was providing much more money than the Americans, but he was not willing to provide that. He refused and, instead, began negotiating a border settlement with Saddam Hussein. The Shah received territory in exchange for ending support for the Kurds. According to investigative journalist and Mideast expert Robert Fisk, it was Kissinger—one of the guarantors of the promise to support the Kurds–who hammered out this agreement between the Shah and Saddam and, so, abandoned the Kurds.

Financial aid and arms stop flowing to the Kurds, and Saddam slaughtered perhaps as many as 182,000 Kurds. Many more fled to Iran as refugees.

In March of 1975, the desperate Kurds begged the CIA: “Our people’s fate in unprecedented danger. Complete destruction hanging over our head. No explanation for all this. We appeal you and U.S. government intervene according to your promises.” Kurdish leader, Mullah Mustapha Brazani would personally appeal to Kissinger, one of the authors of American assurances that, “We feel . . . the United States has a moral and political responsibility toward our people who have committed themselves to your country’s policy.”

Kissinger never answered, though, according to CIA expert John Prados, his station chief in Tehran had argued that he should and gave him options.  Kissinger abandoned the Kurds with the reminder that “Covert action should not be confused with missionary work.”

Several years later, in the first Gulf War, the Kurds would again be asked by the US to rise up against Saddam Hussein. This time the request came from the CIA. And again they were abandoned by the Americans. And again thousands of them died in Saddam’s retaliation, and tens of thousands were forced to flee.

America’s simultaneous betrayal of the Kurds who willingly partner with it has been ongoing. Leaked documents reveal American willingness to purchase Turkish cooperation at the expense of Kurdish interests and lives. A leaked 2004 embassy cable declares that Secretary of State Condeleezza Rice promised the Erdoğan government “that the US would reinvigorate trilateral (US-Turkey-Iraq) discussions on the [Kurdish] issue” [Wikileaks 04ANKARA003352].

The cable lists several “significant efforts the USG [US government] is undertaking to ameliorate the PKK [Kurdistan Workers Party] threat.” The cable boasts that “Sharing of sensitive intelligence on PKK activities within Turkey has led to successful COIN [counter-insurgency] operations.” It also includes as significant efforts “surveillance flights over PKK camps in northern Iraq,” and “An intelligence fusion cell, which meets weekly in Ankara to pass information to the Turkish military on PKK activity.” In other words, the US has given Turkey intelligence to use against the Kurds.

In 2007, President Bush “promised to provide Turkey with ‘actionable intelligence’ to use against the PKK” [Wikileaks CRS-RL34642]. The same cable says that the Turks have used that intelligence: that “Since that time, Turkish forces have launched targeted air and ground strikes against PKK camps and other facilities located in the mountains of northern Iraq.” It concludes with the line, “They have expressed satisfaction with their results”.

According to Prados, as early as 1948, the CIA said that “The mountain tribes known as the Kurds are now and will continue to be a factor of some importance in any strategic estimate of Near East affairs.” More than half a century later, history is shouting very loudly in Kurdish ears to remember the meaning of American assurances regarding actions taken based on those estimates.

Ted Snider writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.

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