Sunday,22 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1283, (18 - 24 February 2016)
Sunday,22 October, 2017
Issue 1283, (18 - 24 February 2016)

Ahram Weekly

The West’s new cause

Kurdish militiamen are being embraced by the West in a manner that recalls earlier forms of Western intervention, writes Ali Murat Yel

Al-Ahram Weekly

Many people nowadays tend to think that current nation-states have existed since antiquity. For example, modern Greece as a state is less than 200 years old, having only gained its independence in 1832. Greece was a vassal territory of the Ottoman Empire until this date, and it took almost a decade for it to gain its sovereignty.

In the Greek case, many people also tend to ignore the fact that it was not the Greeks themselves but an Englishman who helped to start, or rather triggered, the fire of independence among the Greek subjects of the Empire.

Lord Byron, a famous personality in Britain at the time, galvanised support for the Greek cause among a group of European authors, artists, scholars and travellers who were called Philhellenes (admirers of Greece). They sought to restore, or rather to regenerate, the spirit of ancient Greece. The motives of these individuals were understandable as they were educated in the virtues of the Greeks of ancient times, such as democracy, stable states, art and history.

Notwithstanding their view of the modern Greeks as degenerate, they still hoped that the country, upon gaining its freedom, could revive the classical heritage at its roots. They were thus influential in drumming up sympathy for the Greek cause.

The emergence of the Islamic State (IS) group has given rise today to a new form of sympathy among Western audiences, this time for the Kurdish militiamen who have fought against this terrorist organisation.

Having failed in previous attempts in the Gulf Wars, the United States and the European powers are today reluctant to be engaged in the conflicts that have erupted in the Middle East region. Instead of sending in land troops, they have preferred to support Kurdish militias, providing them with air cover, arms and other materials. Having become the new allies of the West, the Kurdish militias have become the new Greeks of the Middle East.

A similar trend has been seen in the international support for the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighters who have also been fighting IS. This has led to a general international sympathy towards the Kurdish militias, regardless of the abuses they have committed against fellow Kurds or civilians of other ethnicities, such as Arabs or Turkmens.

These Kurdish militiamen have their own agendas and the temporary fight against IS is not their main long-term objective. The West does not even care that these militiamen do not really represent the Kurds, or that many Kurdish civilians are themselves afraid of or have fallen victim to such warlords.

In the 1930s, hundreds of European leftists joined “voluntary brigades” to fight for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. Today, however, the self-proclaimed European anti-war left has not supported a military campaign. Instead, some individual volunteers have joined the “good guys” to defeat the “bad guys” in the conflict zone. It is estimated that some 100 Westerners (including Europeans, Australians and Americans) have joined the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in the Middle East.

These Western fighters may have different motivations from those of Lord Byron in Greece or the British author George Orwell in the Spanish Civil War. Yet some of them, especially those coming from Britain, have changed their Facebook profiles to include pictures of Lord Byron wearing Albanian dress.

They could be considered simply as adventurers, but nonetheless they are trying to push their governments to be further involved in a war. Ironically, many on the self-described pro-peace left have made themselves into the advocates of war if it is the right —i.e., pro-Kurdish — war.

Lord Byron and his Philhellene friends eventually managed to attract the attention of the European powers in support of Greek independence. Today’s Western fighters are indifferent to the plight of the marginalised Muslim youth in their own societies, whose reality is more complex than what can be comprehended by such ideological warriors.

During the Spanish Civil War, the foreign fighters who initially came to Spain to fight against the fascist General Francisco Franco ended up slaughtering each other instead and further destroying the country that they had been meaning to save. Today, by siding with the Kurdish militias, a new generation of foreign fighters is helping to terrorise the innocent civilians of the region, including in Turkey.

Western help for the Syrian Kurdish militias will end up shedding Turkish blood at the hands of militants from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in the southeast of Turkey, a country that is already fighting and being attacked by IS terrorists. World public opinion may differentiate between Kurdish militias and IS militants, but to the victims of both in the region terror is terror. Western distinctions will not make their lives any better.

These newly emerging “Philkurds” will continue to support the Kurdish militias as their governments embark on new attempts to refashion the previous Sykes-Picot carve-up of the region. But what they all seem to forget is that today’s world is a small world: sooner or later the mess you make in the Middle East will rebound to haunt you at home.

Those who are used by the West are not always being led in the right direction. Just ask the Greeks following the 2008 financial crisis.


The writer is a professor of anthropology at Marmara University in Turkey.

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