Mindy Belz, journalist for Globe Trot Weekly Newsletter and former senior editor of WORLD magazine, has done on-the-ground reporting in the Middle East and authored the book, They Say We Are Infidels: On the Run from ISIS with Persecuted Christians. She was interviewed about her experiences in the Kurdish regions of Iraq and Syria by Cliff Smith, director of the Middle East Forum's Washington Project, in an October 14th Middle East Forum Webinar (video).
Belz said that in a highly contested region riven by "terror groups, by the Iranian regime, [and] by corrupt politics," the Kurdish people have become an "economic and political powerhouse to be contended with." The Kurds were the U.S.'s "foremost ally" after America went to war in Iraq two decades ago with the Saddam Hussein regime. Kurdistan encompasses Kurdish-inhabited land in sections of Syria, Iraq, Turkey, and Iran. With the assistance of Kurdish groups, Belz made her way to Iraq prior to the 2003 invasion "through the back door into Iraqi Kurdistan." In light of the spreading movement throughout Iran protesting the death of Mahsa Amini, the young Kurdish woman arrested in Tehran by the ayatollah's modesty police and allegedly murdered in their custody, the focus on the long-persecuted Kurds inside Iran has come to the fore.
The "understandable outrage" over Amini's death has spread beyond the regime's persecuted Kurds, Christians, and other minority groups. Belz said that across Iranian society, particularly in universities, Amini's arrest for simply exposing her hair under her hijab has become "fuel for the protest fire." As the protests expanded beyond its control, the regime unleashed a barrage of "seventy-three surface-to-surface missiles" against Kurdish groups in Syria and Iraq. The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) protested the attack but chose to avoid an escalation. Belz said the Iranian regime has "widened the conflict" by striking and killing a number of Kurdish civilians in a region that "both the United States and Russia have a strategic interest in."
Belz said the Kurds, notwithstanding issues of "corruption and problems," have largely become a "force for freedom both inside Iraq, inside Northeast Syria, and inside Northern Iran." As advocates "for openness and democracy," they accepted Christian communities in the region that ISIS targeted in 2014. Belz said that in its capital, Erbil, she has seen Kurdish Peshmerga forces providing security for Christians at churches "where two thousand people" attend "a Chaldean mass."
Even though the Christians have found refuge among the Kurds, Belz said that there is "an uneasy truce" and "definitely some friction" between the two groups. In Northeast Syria, the Kurdish YPG forces ousted ISIS from "historically ... Christian towns" now largely populated by Kurds. From 2015 through 2018, the Kurds replaced the ancient Assyrian names of these towns with Kurdish names. Belz said "it's become ... a political battle fought at the local level" that the U.S. and other Western powers avoid since their priority is keeping the area out of ISIS' hands. Belz sees this approach as short-sighted because she anticipates that "long-term," the Kurds' erasure of the Christian name of "an ancient historic town" that had existed for "millennia" is going to cause conflict "among Assyrian groups, the ancient Christian groups of the region, and the Kurdish groups."
U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) forces maintain a supportive role for Kurdish forces which operate largely "on their own." CENTCOM has also worked to rebuild trust with the Kurds that was eroded under successive U.S. presidential administrations which treated the region as a political "football." Belz said Northeast Syria is a "very tense place" with the presence of Russian, Syrian, and YPG Kurdish checkpoints in close proximity to each other.
Turkey's numerous cross-border incursions into the area of Northeast Syria governed by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which are primarily comprised of Kurdish fighters, have heightened the tensions in the region. Under the "pretext" that the SDF has ties with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), regarded by many as a terrorist group based in Southeast Turkey, Turkish president Erdoğan justified invading Syria and created a "buffer zone," displacing thousands who remain in "displacement camps" in Syria. Turkey, a NATO member, has breached the organization's charter with its cross-border action, but Belz said NATO has "been looking the other way" since the incursions began in 2019 in order to keep Turkey "in the fold."
The persecution of Kurds in Iraq and Iran contributed to the emergence of a large Kurdish diaspora spread across Europe and the U.S. Beginning in the 1990s, Scandinavian countries brought in persecuted Kurds, and Erdoğan is using their Kurdish population to "blackmail" Finland and Sweden. Belz said Erdoğan's promise to smooth the countries' entry into NATO if he is able to wring "concessions" from them regarding their Kurds is a Turkish modus operandi. The Kurds "suffer" as pawns used in negotiated "side deals" because they do not have "their own country" or representatives in the UN to advocate on their behalf.
Belz noted tensions that have emerged between the Kurdish authorities in Iraq and Syria, and Assyrian Christian communities. Yet she also said that despite these issues, Christians continue to seek refuge in the Kurdish areas. She suggested that the US might take a more active role in "bringing these groups to the table."
Belz said there will continue to be an "uneasy ... jockeying for power" in the region. "At some point, this is going to blow up into a wider conflict again." She said there are strategic ramifications" if Turkey and Iran "conspire" to attack the Kurds, as it would create "a big problem" for the West. All reasons why Belz believes it is "important to pay attention to what happens to the Kurds."
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.