Paradoxically, the one people who might have thought of themselves as a nation have no state. The Kurds have been the big losers, with Kurdish enclaves in Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. The one thing the four are agreed on is that there must never be an independent Kurdish state, because they would all be losers. It is on account of the Kurds that Erdogan has made an about-turn and chummed up with Putin. His aim is to prevent the Kurds from holding a strip of northern Syria along the border with Turkey lest they are then able to collaborate more effectively with the Kurds in Turkey who seek independence or at least autonomy. Kurdish forces have been the most effective opponents of ISIS, but the chances are that, when the long agony of Syria and Iraq at last drags to an end, the Kurds will be losers again. They always have been because no external power identifies its interests with theirs.
What should the West do now? Any answer is complicated by memories of what the West—the USA, the U.K., and France—has done in the past. Our folly has been remarkable. If, after the Iranian Revolution and the rise of Islamist extremism, we concluded that this ideology was our main enemy, why then attack Iraq, one of the few states that, as brutal a dictatorship as it was, permitted religious diversity? The idea that we could in a few years impose democratic forms of government in states where people would vote according to tribe, sect, or creed was an exercise in fantasy. Then we compounded the errors made in Iraq by giving material support to the Syrian rebels, who were never likely to be strong enough to overthrow Assad unless his Iranian and Russian allies deserted him.
Consequently we now find ourselves on the sidelines, which is perhaps where we deserve to be, and should have been from the start. Meddling in lands may appeal to imperialist ambitions, but it usually gets you into trouble. As far as Syria goes, our only interest is humanitarian, and the humanitarian interest is that the war should end as quickly as possible with—no matter how it grates—the victory of President Assad. Meanwhile, a certain humility is required from America and Britain: Our meddling in the Middle East has done far more harm than good, and it hasn’t even been successful in any way.
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