‘No Friend But the Mountains’: A History of US Betrayal of the Kurds

To be clear, what follows is not an endorsement of a continued US military presence in Syria. There is, however, a difference between President Donald Trump attempting to fulfill a campaign promise to end American involvement in wars that have cost so much in blood and treasure and giving the green light to what many fear will be the great death and destruction, even ethnic cleansing, that will accompany a Turkish invasion of Syrian Kurdistan. Trump’s announcement on Sunday that the United States would step aside and allow the Turks to launch their long-desired offensive against Syria’s Kurds is nothing less than the latest of many epic US betrayals of a steadfast ally, one which has stood and fought with America in conflicts for over half a century. The president’s crass dismissal of his country’s latest abandonment of the Kurds — “they didn’t help us at Normandy,” he said — pours salt in the wound of a proud, loyal people who have time and again laid down their lives in service of their own freedom — and US interests.

Fool Me Once… 

Betraying the Kurds is a business that goes back to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I. The victorious Allied powers occupied Anatolia and soon set about dismembering the vanquished empire into colonies and spheres of interest they could control. Under the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres, the stateless Kurds — who nevertheless call a large swathe of territory stretching from southeastern Turkey through northeastern Syria, Iraq and western Iran their home — were to hold a referendum to decide their future status. However, the Treaty of Sèvres was scrapped after Turkish nationalists under Kemal Ataturk seized control of Anatolia. It was replaced in 1923 by the US-backed Treaty of Lausanne, which gave Britain and France control of  present-day Iraq and Syria while leaving the Kurds with nothing. When Iraqi Kurds established a short-lived Kingdom of Kurdistan in 1922, British troops swiftly moved to destroy it.

In the years after World War II, the United States usurped Britain as the leading power in the Middle East. In Iran, the two countries worked together to overthrow Mohammad Mossadegh, a wildly popular reformist who threatened capitalist interests by nationalizing key oil infrastructure, in a 1953 coup. Mossadegh was replaced with Mohammad Reza Shah, a brutal monarch who would rule Iran for a quarter century until the Islamist revolution of 1979. While the US enabled the Shah’s continuous repression of Iranian Kurds, Washington armed Iraqi Kurds in their fight against erstwhile ally Abdel Karim Qasim, the Iraqi leader who made the fatal mistake of getting too close to the Soviet Union. After a failed assassination plot involving a young law school dropout named Saddam Hussein, Qasim was murdered by Baathists in 1963. Not only did the Kennedy administration cut off aid to Iraq’s Kurds, it provided the new government with 5,000 bombs, including 1,000 napalm bombs, to use against them. Entire villages were incinerated; men, women and children who just a few years earlier were America’s friends died by the thousands.

‘A Cynical Enterprise’ 

It wasn’t long before the Iraqi government was once again cozying up to the Soviets, and once again America was arming Iraqi Kurds to fight Baghdad. In May 1972, President Richard Nixon and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger stopped in Iran on their way home from a Moscow summit with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. While in Tehran, the Shah beseeched his benefactors to organize a Kurdish insurrection against a hostile Iraqi government in which the aspiring vice president, Saddam Hussein, had overseen the nationalization of foreign oil and banking assets. Within weeks, the White House and CIA launched a covert action program and the Kurds were supplied with $16 million worth of Soviet weapons, provided by Israel. The Kurdish nationalist Mustafa Barzani, leader of both the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and his people’s rebellion against Baghdad, did not trust the Shah, who could easily have funded the project himself. Instead, Barzani insisted on US backing, stating that if the insurrection succeeded, he was ready for Kurdistan to “become the 51st state.” Barzani put his full faith in Kissinger, who he lavished with presents and praise.

The Kurds, who have a well-earned reputation as fierce warriors, battled Iraqi forces for three years, suffering thousands of casualties during the course of their campaign. Meanwhile, the US discouraged Kurdish efforts to negotiate for autonomy within Iraq while preventing Kurdish fighters from launching an all-out offensive against Baghdad. According to the Pike committee report, a suppressed 1976 congressional probe of CIA misdeeds, the US objective was “that the insurgents simply continue a level of hostilities sufficient to sap the resources of our ally’s neighboring country.” In October 1973 Kissinger wrote to CIA Director William Colby that, contrary to the wishes of Israel, which was at war with Iraq and half a dozen other Arab countries at the time, Kurdish fighters should not wage all-out war against Iraqi forces. Such a campaign may very well have secured Kurdish independence but that was of little concern to Kissinger, who treated the Kurds as pawns in his game of realpolitik.

At the same time the US was supporting a limited Kurdish rebellion, it was also encouraging Iran and Iraq to settle their differences. The CIA was aware of such diplomatic efforts as far back as 1972, but the US failed to notify its Kurdish allies, who were kept fighting against Iraq so that the Shah would have leverage while negotiating with Hussein. “Even in the context of covert action, ours was a cynical enterprise,” noted the Pike report. In March 1975, with Gerald Ford now US president, Iran and Iraq signed the Algiers Accord, in which they agreed to settle their border disputes. US arms and other supplies were abruptly cut off, with the Kurds caught completely by surprise and now facing a massive search-and-destroy operation by Iraqi forces. “Our movement and people are being destroyed in an unbelievable way, with silence from everyone,” Barzani wrote in a desperate plea to Kissinger. “We feel, Your Excellency, that the United States has a moral and political responsibility towards our people, who have committed themselves to your country’s policy.”

Still, even as Kurdish commanders warned the CIA that “complete destruction is hanging over our head,” the local CIA station chief was more concerned that America’s erstwhile allies would be “likely to go public” about their betrayal. The US stood by as Iraqi forces destroyed villages and slaughtered the Kurds, 200,000 of whom fled into Iran. Of those, 40,000 were forced back into Iraq. Kissinger dismissed his government’s unconscionable treachery by telling the Pike committee that “covert action should not be confused with missionary work.” President Ford — who along with Kissinger would give the green light for Indonesia’s genocidal invasion of East Timor later that year — stood shamefully silent through it all. Barzani made one last plea for his people as he lie dying of cancer in 1979: “We do not want to be anybody’s pawns,” he said. “We are an ancient people. We want our autonomy. We want sarbasti — freedom.”

From Friends to Foes 

That year, 1979, saw Iran go from US staunch ally to public enemy number one during the Islamist revolution and occupation of the American Embassy in Tehran. Shortly after a successful effort by Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter’s National Security Adviser, to “draw the Russians into the Afghan trap” and “give the USSR its own Vietnam War” (his own words), Brzezinski encouraged Saddam Hussein — who had just ruthlessly installed himself as Iraqi dictator — to invade Iran. Although the United States was officially neutral in the Iran-Iraq war, the Reagan administration removed Iraq from the US list of state sponsors of terrorism, opening the door for billions of dollars in Western aid and arms sales. Iraq obtained lethal chemical and biological materials which Hussein’s scientists weaponized and his forces unleashed upon both Iranian troops and Iraq’s own restive Kurdish population. Tens of thousands of Kurds were killed in Hussein’s genocidal Anfal campaign; as many as 5,000 people, most of them women and children, perished during a mustard and nerve gas attack on the town of Halabja on March 16, 1988. Reagan officials knew for years that Iraq was launching chemical attacks but kept up their support while denying knowledge of the war crimes.

America’s friends of today are often its foes tomorrow. In the 1980s, Philippines strongman Ferdinand Marcos and Panama’s narco-trafficking dictator, Manuel Noriega, went from favored clients to enemies, and in the case of Noriega, a marked man. In the summer of 1990 Saddam Hussein ordered his forces to invade Iraq under the false belief that the George H.W. Bush administration would tolerate such a move. A massive US-led invasion was launched to expel him from the tiny, oil-rich nation. In the closing days of the short but intense war, Bush called on the Iraqi people to rise up against Hussein. The Shiites in the south and east of the country and the Kurds in the north heeded Bush’s call, and their revolt came close to succeeding. But Bush officials realized that a popular uprising would run contrary to US interests; what they wanted was a military coup that would replace Hussein with a pro-American strongman who would counter Iran’s regional power. The US turned its back on the Iraqi uprising it had instigated, just as it had done to the Kurds in the 1970s and just as it had done to Hungary in 1956 when the Eisenhower administration coldly decided it wasn’t prepared to risk nuclear war with the Soviet Union for freedom in Budapest.

‘We Rose Up Like You Asked Us’ 

Not only did the US abandon the Iraqi rebels, it actively aided Saddam Hussein’s forces as they crushed the rebellion with fierce cruelty. Not only were US troops ordered not to help the rebels in any way, they also blocked their retreat and threatened to slaughter them if they didn’t turn back towards Hussein’s forces and certain death. Rocky Gonzalez, a US special forces officer at the time, recalled:

“The rebels wanted aid, they wanted medical treatment, and some of the individuals wanted us to give them weapons and ammunition so they could go and fight. One of the refugees was waving a leaflet that had been dropped by US planes over Iraq. Those leaflets told them to rise up against the regime and free themselves. They weren’t asking us to fight. They felt they could do that themselves. Basically they were just saying ‘we rose up like you asked us, now give us some weapons and arms to fight… It was gut-wrenching to me. Here we are sitting on the Euphrates River and we were ordered to stop. As a human being, I wanted to help, but as a soldier, I had my orders.”

General “Stormin’” Normal Schwarzkopf gave the Iraqi military permission to ignore the no-fly zone imposed over large swathes of the country. He surprised and delighted Iraqi generals, who incredulously asked, “you mean even the helicopters that are armed can fly in the Iraqi skies?” The answer was yes, and they immediately set to strafing Kurdish and Shiite rebels from above. US troops gave fuel to Iraqi Republican Guard units and allowed an Iraqi tank division to pass through American checkpoints unhindered. Bush didn’t even protest when Saddam Hussein authorized the use of chemical weapons against the rebels. There is no doubt that US officials knew about this. “People stared showing up at our perimeter with chemical burns,” confirmed Gonzalez. “They had blisters and burns on their faces and on their hands.”

In 2004 the US task force investigating Iraq’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction determined Hussein’s forces had used sarin nerve gas against some of the rebels. President Bush had threatened Hussein with severe reprisals should he dare use chemical weapons, but the Iraqi dictator did use them and Bush never uttered a word of protest. Nor did he lift a finger as Iraqi forces raped, murdered and plundered their way back into control of the country, with Hussein ordering the horrific repression to be televised — just like his infamous 1979 purge — so that all Iraqis could see and fear.

‘High Moral Principle’ 

“America is never wholly herself unless she is engaged in high moral principle,” Bush had declared in his 1991 inaugural address. “We as a people have such a purpose today. It is to make kinder the face of the nation and gentler the face of the world.” The people of Iraq, spurred to action by the United States and then left to be torn to shreds by Saddam Hussein, their bodies ordered to rot unburied in the streets so that dogs could feast upon their bloated flesh, had just learned a hard lesson about America’s “high moral principles.” Hussein was once again firmly in control of Iraq and Iraqi oil was soon flowing to Western markets again.

A few years later in 1995, CIA case officer Robert Baer set up an agency outpost in Iraqi Kurdistan, negotiated a truce between warring Kurdish factions and helped them contrive a plan to kill or capture Hussein using renegade Iraqi troops and Kurdish fighters. However, the operation was compromised. Hussein’s forces launched a swift offensive, capturing the key northern city of Erbil and executing some 700 Kurds. During the 1990s, the Clinton administration protected Iraqi Kurds with a no-fly zone and threats of renewed war. This allowed them to flourish under self-rule, while just to the north Turkey’s 12 million Kurds aspired to the same sort of freedom. However, under Clinton US weaponry was used by the Turkish military — the Kurds’ arch-nemesis — to slaughter thousands of Kurds and destroy thousands of villages in a brutal ethnic cleansing campaign aimed at wiping out the main rebel group, the leftist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and other insurgents.

The US turned to the Kurds for help again in 2003, and President George W. Bush cited the chemical attack on Halabja as one of America’s pretexts for invading Iraq. “The Iraqi regime killed thousands of men and women and children, without mercy or without shame,” Bush declared on the eve of a war in which hundreds of thousands of men, women and children would die. What Bush failed to mention was that US leaders helped Hussein obtain the weapons of mass destruction he used to kill so many of his people, and did nothing after he did. In any case, Kurdish peshmerga warriors, including hundreds of women, fought alongside US troops and on their own, playing a key role in liberating Iraq and capturing Saddam Hussein and even Osama bin Laden. How did the Bush administration repay his Kurdish allies? By allowing Turkey to launch its biggest air and artillery assault against PKK fighters in northern Syria.

When Syria became the seventh country bombed during the Obama administration (Bush bombed six), Kurdish fighters proved themselves invaluable allies in the war against Islamic State (ISIS), with Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) troops doing most of the fighting on the ground as US and coalition warplanes bombed soldiers — and civilians — from above. In 2014, Syrian Kurdish fighters from the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) also rescued thousands of besieged Yazidis from the Sinjar mountains across the border in Iraq while the rest of the world did little or nothing to stop ISIS’ genocidal campaign of extermination, rape and enslavement. However, Turkey considers the YPG to be a terrorist organization due to its ties with the PKK and in order to appease Ankara Vice President Joe Biden in 2016 threatened to cut off all US aid to the Kurds if they did not comply with Turkish demands to withdraw to east of the Euphrates River.

No Friend But the Mountains

More than 10,000 SDF fighters, both men and women, died liberating their homeland from ISIS. President Trump’s decision to abandon America’s ally is all the more frustrating as it comes at a time when the so-called caliphate is on the brink of total annihilation. “This will lead to a security vacuum that ISIS will take advantage of and which will be in the ISIS interest,” SDF commander Mazlum Abdi told Defense One. “This is going to jeopardize all the achievements we have made with the coalition against ISIS.”

Trump is also throwing the Kurds under the bus at a time when a great democratic revolution is underway in northeastern Syria, one largely led by women. The president, in his self-described “great and unmatched wisdom,” is willing to sacrifice all of this in a move that will boost America’s four biggest adversaries in Syria, ISIS, Iran, the Bashar al-Assad regime and Russia. While Trump’s stated desire to get the US out of “ridiculous endless wars” is indeed laudable, giving Turkey America’s tacit blessing to wage wider war in Syria is not an anti-war move. Trump’s trust of Turkey — which allowed tends of thousands of foreign ISIS fighters to pass through its territory on their way to Syria and Iraq— also belie his claims of wisdom and genius.

For their part, Kurds have been bracing for another possible US betrayal for some time now, digging in and preparing to resist Turkish invasion and occupation. Kurdish leaders are confident that their fighting spirit and desire for freedom will see them to victory. They’ve been through this before — there’s even a popular adage that the Kurds have “no friends but the mountains.” Sadly, the old saying is once again proving more true than not.

Brett Wilkins is staff writer for Common Dreams and a member of Collective 20.