Words Matter: It’s War, Not Genocide

The furor over the US troop pullout from northern Syria continues. Critics are lambasting the Trump administration relentlessly for “abandoning the Kurds” and, to paraphrase, hanging them out to dry.

The idea of dropping a friend suddenly is repulsive to most of us, especially if it is in their time of need, right after we have reaped enormous rewards from their friendship. The reproachful tempest in reaction to the US withdrawal is sourced from this deeply personal unease, even though such judgements in the self-interested international relations system are extraneous. As with any furor, this one is accompanied with superlative terms meant to excite minds dulled to the quotidian news of death, murder, and war.

Emblematic of, and useful to, this effort to incite action through the gratituitous use of language is a piece by the commander-in-chief of Syria’s Democratic Forces (SDF), published under his nom de guerre Mazloum Abdi, titled “If We Have to Choose Between Compromise and Genocide, We Will Choose Our People.” In it, he reasons that given this choice, the Kurdish military force he represents will have to compromise and negotiate with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and Russia, the antagonists of its former ally, the US. If they don’t, genocide.

Rarely are world events so neatly divided between the horrendous and the not-great-but-not-bad categories. But it is the flagrancy with which a word like genocide is now used, to describe civilian casualities in war or, as with Abdi’s use, war itself, that should be cause for alarm. Genocide is a grave dereliction of humanity and to augur such an outcome as a means of political and military expediency is irresponsible and distasteful.

This is not to make light of the Kurdish burden since Turkey became a republic. It was clear in the early years of the Turkish Republic, founded in 1923, that the largest remaining minority in the country, the Kurds, were going to be a liability. If they could be considered a minority, that is.

Turkey had just emerged from the war as a shadow of the formerly massive Ottoman Empire. In the process, it had succeeded in almost entirely eliminating the Assyrian, Armenian, and Pontic Greek populations that would otherwise be living in modern-day Turkey in the 20th century’s first genocide. The Ottoman Turkish Caliphate system afford the Kurds some benefits as Muslims in a society stratified by religion. As the major minority in a single-identity nation-state, their former brethren were less amicable. Turkish authorities, suffused with a ferocious jingoism, hastily tried to assimilate millions of these ethnically non-Turkic countrymen who spoke an Iranian tongue into a country where only one identity was allowed: Turkishness.

The Turks tried everything. Kurds were not Kurds but were Turks who had forgotten their Turkic origins. They were “Mountain Turks” who had, according to official Turkish history books, adopted the demonym Kurd because the sound they made while walking on the snow in the mountains was “kurt, kurt, kurt.” If all else failed, they just denied any Kurds existed at all.

After coming to terms with the undeniable fact that Kurds are a distinct group, official Turkish policy was to suffocate Kurdish culture until it disappeared. No schools, no language instruction, no TV or radio channels. There was a total blackout on all Kurdish cultural production and this continued until the end of the 20th century.

A crucial turning point was in 1977 when the Kurds, under the banner of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its leader, Abdullah Ocalan, began advocating for an independent Kurdistan. In 1980, after one of several coups in Turkey, the Kurdish language was banned as the antagonism dovetailed into armed conflict. By 1984, the PKK and Turkish Armed Forces were at war.

Which, after 35 intervening years of tremendous bloodshed on both sides of the fight, brings us to Syria.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are effectively composed of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) which, in turn, is the Syrian arm of the PKK, considered by Turkey, the EU, and the US a terrorist organization. Putting aside that designation, which can be as much political as it can be real, the SDF/YPG is an armed and, by all accounts, proficient military force; Abdi writes that “U.S. soldiers and officers now know us well and always praise our effectiveness and skill.”

Indeed, the uproar about the removal of US troops has partly to do with the Kurds’ usefulness in assisting the US in eradicating Islamic State from northern Syria. In short, the SDF/YPG are not the Yazidis of Sinjar, whom they helped liberate. They are, according to Abdi himself, “a very disciplined, professional fighting force.” A people with such a formidable army, one capable of defending it from the likes of a truly maniacal force like ISIS while garnering praise from the most powerful military on earth, is not on the brink of genocide.

Genocide happens against defenseless people, against people who have been disarmed and, often, lied to. They are led to their demise under the guise of relocation, as with the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, or forced labor, as with the Jews in Germany and eastern Europe, or they are killed suddenly and unexpectedly, as with the Tutsis in Rwanda. Those who become a genocide’s victims do not typically have a force of 70,000 armed, battle-hardened soldiers standing between them and the genocidal executioners.

There is no defending the Turkish incursion. Turkey is no benign altruist and to be anything but suspicious about the cunning Reccep Tayyip Erdogan’s designs in northern Syria would be folly. It would be misguided to neglect previous Turkish guilt in myopically and dangerously employing Islamic State fighters in their previous battles against the YPG. It would likewise be irresponsible to ignore a potential Turkish subterfuge to permanently occupy Syrian territory, à la Cyprus.

But as we keep Turkey under a watchful eye, let us also be honest about what the SDF/YPG is facing: war. Described redundantly, they face a brutal, unforgiving, horrific war against a grievous foe. Such a fate is adequately reprehensible without mention of genocide and the consequent enfeebling of the word and the idea that its superfluous use entails.