Recently, Donald Trump announced that the US would be pulling its troops out of Syria, more particularly the areas in the north of the country inhabited mostly by ethnic Kurds. What this meant was that the US would be abandoning its most reliable ally in the region, one which was instrumental in displacing ISIS from the region. Cynically, Trump followed this up by saying: “the Kurds didn’t help us in the Second World War, they didn’t help us with Normandy.”
This statement probably tops the list of the most bizarre excuses ever, but it turns out that it isn’t even true. In fact, the Kurds did help the Allies in World War 2, both directly and indirectly. While you might not find the Kurds listed among the official Allies, what we have to remember is that the Kurds don’t have their own country, but instead form significant chunks of the population in Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran. During the times of the Second World War, Syria was a French mandate, while Iraq was a British one, so any local troops would have fought in the army of those two countries.
The French took over Syria and Lebanon from the Ottoman Empire after the end of World War One and immediately formed a force made up of local recruits called the Army of the Levant. After the capitulation of France to Nazi Germany in 1941, the French became divided between the part of the army that was loyal to Vichy France (which became a Nazi ally) and the Free French who were on the Allied side. In order to take Syria and Lebanon away from Vichy, the British decided to launch an invasion in early 1941, supported by Free French and Czechoslovak forces. The armies of both Britain and the Free French consisted of a large number of colonial troops, with Kurds among them.
This campaign resulted in Syria and Lebanon being wrestled away from Vichy France and falling under Free French control. In February 1942, the Free French once again reconstituted their Special Troops, which were originally part of the French Army of the Levant. In all, these included 3 Lebanese battalions, 8 Syrian battalions, as well as 17 squadrons composed of further Lebanese, Syrian, Circassian, Druze and Kurdish troops. So there you have it, Kurdish troops as part of the Free French forces.
However, that’s not all. Another big player in World War 2 was Great Britain, which controlled another chunk of territory with a significant Kurdish population, Iraq. Just like the French, the Brits formed their own units composed of local recruits, the most significant of which were the Iraqi Levies. The majority of the Levies were made up of Assyrians, but there were also significant numbers of Arabs, Turkmen, and of course Kurdish troops.
What is interesting is that some of the Kurdish members of the Levies are still alive! After Trump made his statement, Ahmad Mustafa Delzar, a Kurdish WW2 veteran spoke up:
“I was the 8,000th Kurd who joined the Levies during the Second World War. I joined the Levies on February 28, 1943.”
While Delzar stayed in the Middle East area for the remainder of his service, some Kurdish members of the Levies participated in battles on the European front.
“There were around 40 Kurds who participated on the northern Italy front and one of them was Karim Abdulwahid Haji Aziz. Karim was a paratrooper and I remember he parachuted twice in Habaniyah.”
The British and French forces were not the only ones who had Kurds in their ranks. It was the Soviet army that produced several ethnic Kurdish war heroes, among them Saband Siabandov, who was decorated with the Soviet Union’s highest military honor, Hero of the Soviet Union.
Siabandov was part of a Kurdish diaspora, most of whose members emigrated to the territories of the Russian Empire (and some also during Soviet times) from the Ottoman Empire and Iran. Many of them ended up joining the Soviet army during the Second World War and participated on many of the fronts that the Red Army fought on.
Abandoning the Kurds could mean ethnic cleansing
Despite having fought bravely against ISIS (and despite even having fought in WW2 on the Allied side), the Kurds are getting a raw deal again. The Turkish military invasion of northern Syria has as its aim the creation of a buffer zone between the Kurdish-controlled area of Syria and Turkey proper. As part of the plan, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s President, announced that he would start resettling over 2 million ethnic Arab Syrian refugees there, effectively changing the ethnic composition and displacing the Kurds.
Hundreds of thousands of Kurds have fled their homes and more are likely to do so in the coming days. Some of them have left with only the clothes on their backs and if the Turks keep their presence in occupation zone, then they are likely never to come back. Ethnic cleansing has likely returned to the area. All of this under the watchful eye of Donald Trump, who has abandoned America’s staunchest supporters in the region. This is a geopolitical disaster for the United States, one that will have repercussions far into the future, and one that will diminish the stature of the US in the world.