Yearning for a new Saladin

Over centuries – when faced with adversity, invasions and threats – much of the Arab world has often yearned for a new Saladin.

The newest English language biography, The Life and Legend of the Sultan Saladin by Jonathan Phillips, recounts not only the story of Saladin’s great victories, including the liberation of Jerusalem from the Crusader invaders, but how he has been regarded down the years and how figures as diverse as Nasser and Saddam Hussein have been seen as potential new Saladins.

But the irony is that for centuries the people who have most needed a Saladin to rescue them are those of whom he was arguably the greatest of all time – the Kurds – and who are once again facing yet more suffering and slaughter.

More than 55 years ago the editors (the blog along with John Spitzer were two them) of the University of Melbourne student newspaper, Farrago, drew on Amnesty International material to publish a two page tabloid spread on the Kurds and other forgotten wars. Today nothing seems to have changed.

The Kurds have lived in western Asia for more than a millennium. Today they live across what is known as Kurdistan but which includes south eastern Turkey, north western Iran, and northern Iraq and Syria.

They were promised a state of their own by the 1920 Treaty of Sevres. That was nullified three years later by the Treaty of Lausanne which created modern Turkey, and was followed by decades of attempted genocidal attacks and rebellions.

At the beginning of the 20th century Zionists popularised the slogan of a land without a people for a people without a land. While that was always inaccurate it could have been accurately said about the Kurds that they were a people with many lands amid many nations trying to deny those lands to them.

They did get footholds however. In south eastern Turkey they have a tenacious foothold despite oppression by the Turkish state which is getting worse under the Erdogan regime; a sort of functioning state in northern Iraq; and, a strong base in northern Syria where they have battled bravely to defeat ISIS.

Yet in the next month or so they face, yet again, military attacks which will almost certainly result in the slaughter of many of them. They will be victims of a tragic irony of modern times. After a century of western interference in the Middle East from the World War I and its post war carving up by European powers; the pioneering bombing of innocent civilians in Iraq by the British; the UK-US organised coup against the Iranian Mohammad Mosaddegh; and, the Bush-Blair invasion of Iraq the Syrian Kurds are going to be sacrificed to Erdogan’s Turkey not because of western involvement, but because of western non-involvement.

Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw support from the Kurdish militias, and to bless Erdogan’s proposed invasion, will have a predictable result consistent with much Kurdish history.

It is doubtful that Winston Churchill ever actually said that “You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing, after they have exhausted all the other possibilities” but perhaps it might be recast as: The Americans can be counted on to do the wrong thing, ignoring all the possibilities of doing the right thing, then finally doing the wrong thing  when it’s the thing they should have been doing the previous times they got it wrong.