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Guest Host: Sasha-Ann Simons
President Trump ordered the withdrawal of American troops earlier this month from the border region in Syria, leaving Kurdish refugees vulnerable to Turkish attacks.
Considered one of the world’s largest stateless nations, the Kurdish people are spread across Iraq, Turkey, Syria, Iran and Armenia. After the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, Western powers redrew the region’s borders — and the Kurds ended up without a homeland.
Since 2014, Kurdish militias have fought alongside American troops to reclaim ISIS-captured territory. But now, with the focus of the remaining American forces turned to protecting oil fields in northerneastern Syria, Kurdish leaders say they feel betrayed by the American government.
How are Kurds living in the Washington region reacting to the news out of Syria?
Produced by Victoria Chamberlin
SASHA-ANN SIMONSYou're tuned into the Kojo Nnamdi Show. I'm Sasha-Ann Simons sitting in for Kojo. Welcome. Later in the hour the final installment of our Virginia Votes series, but first, earlier this month President Trump ordered the withdrawal of American troops from the border region in Syria leaving Kurdish refugees vulnerable to attacks from Turkish forces.
SASHA-ANN SIMONSConsidered one of the largest stateless nations, the Kurdish people are spread across Iraq, Turkey, Syria, Iran and Armenia. After the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, Western powers redrew the region's borders and the Kurds ended up without a homeland. Since 2014, Kurdish militias have fought alongside American troops to reclaim ISIS-captured territory, but now, with the focus of the remaining American forces turned to protecting oil fields in northeastern Syria, Kurdish leaders say they feel betrayed by the American government.
SASHA-ANN SIMONSHow are Kurds living in the Washington region reacting to the news out of Syria? Joining me to discuss are Kani Xulam. He is the Executive Director of the American Kurdish Information Network. Hi, Kani.
SIMONSAnd Dan Lamothe is the National Security Reporter at the Washington Post. Welcome to the show, Dan.
DAN LAMOTHEThank you.
SIMONSDan, I'm going to start with you. You've been reporting on the developing situation at the Syria Turkey border. Can you take us back to the president's announcement to withdraw troops from the area?
LAMOTHEYeah. So it's -- even the way that has occurred is rather complicated. You go back to early in the month, there was a phone call between the Turkish President Erdogan and President Trump. All indications are that Turkey said, we will be sending troops over the border. We want to push the Kurdish people back from the border. And the president said, okay, seemingly. That there has been protests lodged kind of publically since then. The Defense Secretary and others have said that the United States government is very much against this. They see it as a problem. They see it as problematic behavior by a longtime ally in Turkey. But at the same time they have withdrawn those troops from the area. They don't want a war with Turkey, a NATO ally. And we've kind of seen a lot of bloodshed and a lot of chaos and a lot of uncertainty over what that area is going to look like going forward.
SIMONSAnd so to be clear, what were the American forces doing in the region to begin with?
LAMOTHESo this goes back largely to the campaign against the Islamic State. You've mentioned 2014. Back in 2014, the United States was very much looking for reliable partners on the ground. We didn't want a repeat of the Iraq war. We didn't was a repeat in a lot of ways of the Afghanistan war. We were not going to send in 100,000 troops into northern Syria. And the Syrian Kurds, who also had to deal with all of the violence and all the bloodshed that goes with having the Islamic State in the neighborhood were that ally, were that partner. And they, you know, stepped forward very heroically in a lot of ways and took the ground campaign over with American air strikes complimenting them. We had American Special Forces working alongside the Kurds, and some of the kind of famous battles of that era of that region in places like Kobani and Raqqa, you know, the Kurds were the primary ground force.
SIMONSKani, the Kurdish people have had a tumultuous history for over a century. Who are the Kurds and where is their population concentrated?
XULAMThe Kurds are the natives of the Middle East. We are, you know, for a lack of a better term, original people, who have lived there from the dawn of history. We number by some estimates close to 40 million people. I say estimates, because it's against the law to count the Kurds as such in the countries in which we live. So we estimate. For example, in Turkey there were 20 million, in Syria about 2.5 million, in Iraq about 6 million, in Iran about maybe 11 million. So we -- as you earlier pointed out live in these four countries and fight for our human rights, basic human rights, political space, political rights.
XULAMAnd in Syria as you know the Arab Spring came there in 2011. In 2012, Bashar al-Assad, the President of Syria, withdrew the Syrian Army from the Kurdish areas, because he was too busy crushing the rebellion in the Arab Syria. And the Kurds declared their own autonomous region. And then in 2014, they came under attack. In 2013 -- beginning 2013 and 2014 they were attacked by ISIS and because ISIS was also attacking Western countries, the West, the U.S. and the Kurds became allies against a common foe called ISIS.
SIMONSNow, Kani, as a Kurd living in Washington what has been your reaction to attacks on the Kurdish people of Rojava in Syria?
XULAMWell, you know what has cut the deepest is the U.S. withdrawal. President Erdogan got the news first before we did. For four years, Kurds fought as loyal allies of the U.S. military. In the liberation of Raqqa, for example, 653 Kurds and their Arab allies died. Zero American soldiers died in that battle. In the whole, you know, four years, five years, that we have fought together against this common foe all together eight American soldiers have died, whereas 11,000 have died. You know, we felt, you know, this danger, this common foe was an existential threat to us, but a danger to the West too. So we thought we had a common understanding that we would stick together. So it felt awful. It felt bad. It felt a betrayal.
SIMONSNow you've been involved in organizing politically on Capitol Hill. What are you hoping to achieve?
XULAMI have to be realistic. We cannot stop this war. NATO needs to get involved. Western countries need to get involved. Turkey is not a superpower. Turkey is a, you know, depends on the Western military hardware. The Kurds, for example, are asking for a no fly zone. The Kurdish militia feel like they can fight the Turkish land army. But they cannot fight, you know, a drone war. They cannot fight a Turkish army that flies F-16 fighter planes, U.S. made.
XULAMI have been on the Hill trying to tell the lawmakers to urge President Trump to cancel President Erdogan's trip to the White House on November 13. I don't think he should be here. I think he's a war criminal. I think he's a Slobodan Milosevic in terms of his intent to cleanse this area of Kurds and resettle close to 2 million Arab refugees. You know, this is like -- the analogy I could make for you is like Turkey feels threatened by Kurds just like U.S. feeling threatened by Mexico. Or Turkey is trying to invade Mexico, cleanse, you know, 30 kilometers zone and then resettle let's say six million undocumented refugees or immigrants that are here. So that's how it feels.
SIMONSYeah. Now before today's show we did ask for some local reaction to the events happening overseas. And we do have a caller on the line. Omer Pakal is joining us now. Hi, Omer.
OMERHi. Thanks so much for having me.
SIMONSAbsolutely. What's your reaction to what's happening?
OMERWell, it was a reaction that was kind of surprise. Many of the Kurds are living here in the USA, because -- the expectation was that, you know, the Kurds and then U.S. an international community, they fight together against ISIS. And just one night, you know, one day (unintelligible) and then USA said we are going to -- we are not going to be here anymore. And then the Kurds arrive now by themselves against all those to power between Russia and Turkey, ISIS and Assad. And it's kind of like, yes. So we feel that -- so I try to describe it. The mean -- the feeling and emotion amongst the Kurdish communities here in D.C. was the feel of the betrayal, betrayed by the USA.
SIMONSThank you for your call, Omer. Kani, does that sound?
SIMONSAnd what is the Kurdish community here doing, you know, as a response to this situation? Can you comment on that?
XULAMI mean, they have been on the calls reaching out to their representatives to their senators. In the House, Representative Angle, Representative McCall have taken the lead. For example, yesterday a resolution passed imposing sanctions on Turkey. We are hoping the Senate will take up. And yesterday's vote was over 400 for it. I believe 16 against it. If it's veto proof then President Trump has nothing -- will not be able to block it. President Trump as it stands, you know, wants to have his relationship with Turkey. And we feel, you know, the government of Turkey has ill intentions. You know, they want to engage in ethnic cleansing. This war was completely unnecessary. President Trump may want to end endless wars, but he sparked a brand new one in the Middle East, which was completely unnecessary.
XULAMSo we would love to have U.S. imposed sanctions. We would love to see U.S. rescind the invitation to Erdogan. We love to see -- war crimes have been committed. For example, a Kurdish woman was taken out of her SUV, tortured, brutally beaten and then, you know, her body was riddled with bullets. And this is a war crime. You know, Turkey as a backer of these militias should account for these atrocities that it's committing.
SIMONSDan, what's the official Turkey position?
LAMOTHEThe Turkish position is that the Syrian democratic forces, which is the Syrian Kurds, their militias, have -- basically are the PKK, which is a Turkish Kurdish group that both the United States and Turkey and some European allies see as a terrorist group. The United States if you take this back a step. When we reached this alliance of sorts with the Syrian Kurds to fight ISIS saw ties between the PKK and the SDF, the Syrian Kurdish groups, but said that they were not the same. The Turks do not make that same distinction.
LAMOTHEThey see them as one and the same. I've had conversations with both former Obama administration people, Trump administration people and U.S. service members and none of them see how this should be handled uniformly. There are groups who -- there are members of the Obama administration that say, yes, when we reach this deal with the Syrian Kurds we knew we would have to deal with how Turkey thinks about this, Turkish concerns, and basically at some point we would have to try and find a way to address their concerns without bloodshed.
SIMONSWhat can you tell us about the role of Kurdish militia forces in the death of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi over the weekend?
LAMOTHEThat creates a whole separate related conversation here, which is that it appears that the main source of information in terms of where Baghdadi was was a person very close to Baghdadi, who had been groomed and worked with for weeks if not months with the SDF as an intelligence source. That intelligence source was eventually connected with the Americans. They vetted him on their own. And as they launched this operation it was information from this individual that the SDF connected them with that allowed us to carry out that strike.
SIMONSGot you. Kani, President Trump has downplayed the Kurdish involvement in Baghdadi's death saying that the Kurds only provided intelligence and no military aid. What is your reaction to the president's statements?
XULAMI mean, I tweeted a quote from Dr. King, "Truth crushed to Earth shall rise again." He may downplay our role, but he cannot hide the truth. The New York Times, you know, front page -- the Washington Post front paged it. The American public know about it. The vote in the Congress yesterday was a clear indication of the disconnect President Trump has with the reality in the Middle East. I mean, the Kurds didn't want per say Americans to come there. Americans needed an ally and it was a confluence of interests. And now that, you know, ISIS has gone underground the threat is not gone so to speak.
XULAMAnd as far as SDF, they control -- before October 6, before the fateful call between Trump and Erdogan, they were controlling eastern Euphrates area of Syria, which is one-third of Syria. Five million people were living there. Two and a half million were Kurds. Two and a half million of them were Arabs. This was, you know, a confederation if you will of Arabs and Kurds. The 70,000 militia were Kurds and Arabs. They didn't want Turkey to come in. They were hoping U.S. would basically help them politically. In the Geneva talks that are going to be taking place hopefully when Syria -- you know, the fever for war goes down. And hopefully there will be a peaceful Syria.
XULAMOtherwise you're going to have constant refugees. You're going to have constant uprooting. And the Turkish model is just absolutely crazy. Uprooting people and then settling uprooted people there. You know, it just doesn't make sense. It's a war crime. And Erdogan should be sent to the Hague in Netherlands just like Slobodan Milosevic was sent there.
SIMONSWow. I want to jump to the phones. Paul has been waiting patiently. He's in Silver Spring. Hi, Paul, you're on the air.
PAULSo, a couple of things. Ethnically I'm assuming Kurds are not related to Arabs. Religiously, what would be the primary belief? Is it Muslim or is it some Islam or it is something else? And then a second question is what is a homeland solution? I had heard or understood that part of Iraq was being divided or was more or less had a democratic Kurdish enclave. And that seems it could be a partial solution, but I wonder what is the answer?
PAULAnd it puzzles me that we never hear about the Kurds homeland issue. We hear a great deal about -- as we should about Palestinian rights and territories. But rarely ever do we hear about Kurds and I'm wondering why that is the case.
SIMONSOkay. Paul, I want to give them a chance to respond. So first part of that was what are the ethnic and religious beliefs of the Kurds? Do you want to take that, Kani?
XULAMSure. The differences between Arabs and Kurds are like differences between French and Chinese. You know, our origins are different. They speak a Semitic language. We speak an Indo-European language. But we have common religion. We are predominantly Muslim. And when Islam grew, you know, it came to Kirgizstan too. And Kurds predominantly are Sunni as well as Shiite Muslims. Religion hasn't been an issue per say. The Syrian Democratic Forces are primarily a secular force. That's their attraction to the U.S. The Obama administration came because they're secular, because they're -- you know, they believe in gender equality. They believe in ecology. They believe in protecting Christians within -- like as minorities within their areas. That's where the attraction came from.
XULAMSolution, it is going to be a homeland for the Kurds. That's my humble opinion. You know, Bismarck apparently once said, "Europe will never know peace so long as there is no self-determination for the peoples of Europe." And today there is self-determination for the peoples of Europe. And we have relative peace, relative security, relative prosperity in Europe. We don't have any of that in the Middle East. We have chaos. We have war. We have poverty. We have refugees. And that's because people haven't addressed this issue of self-determination for subject peoples. These maps that were drawn by Europeans that have nothing to do with reality on the ground and it just perpetuates the problem.
SIMONSDan, same question for you, solutions going forward?
LAMOTHESo I think that this whole Rojava conversation, which is this area of northern Syria, where the Syrian Kurds with some minorities that they were peacefully alongside in a lot of cases, they hoped to hang onto this area once ISIS was pushed out. The United States I think saw them as an immediate ally, somebody who could help them, somebody who could keep American service members out of harm's way. However there was never the solution of, okay, once we push these ISIS fighters out of the area, the what next. I mean, if you go back five years there are stories and analysis then that said here are six other wars that could pop up in this region as a result of ISIS.
LAMOTHEDoing what they're doing and then once ISIS is dealt with -- that's not the endgame here. There are other problems that are not solved yet.
SIMONSDan Lamothe is the National Security Reporter at the Washington Post. And Kani Xulam is the Executive Director of the American Kurdish Information Network. Thank you so much for joining us. We'll be back after a short break. Stay tuned.
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