The Turkish word ‘ferman’, meaning a state order or decree such as those issued under the Ottoman Empire, has passed into the Kurdish language and in particular into the Kurdish dialect spoken by the Yazidi religious minority as a synonym for ‘mass killing’ or ‘genocide’. An Ottoman ‘ferman’ preceded the genocide of up to 1.5 million Armenians during World War 1, while Yazidis commonly speak of 74 ‘fermans’ or campaigns of mass killing and extermination against their embattled people, culminating in the 2014 genocide at ISIS’ hands.
As the term suggests, centralised state directives have all too often resulted in the slaughter or attempted extermination of Middle Eastern religious and ethnic minorities. But in the era of 20th century realpolitik and US hegemony, over which US Secretary of State, diplomat and éminence grise Henry Kissinger presided like a bespectacled battlefield deity, mass death came about by omission as much as by commission. In Kissinger’s ultra-realist perspective, the state and only the state could serve as a legitimate or functional vehicle for foreign policy, with the lives, experiences and suffering of people living in and under those states so much chaff in the wind. Little wonder, then, the stateless Kurds suffered the darkest period in their bloody history under Kissinger’s sneering, distant direction, in what one author has called a “ruthless, deceitful process, which resulted in hundreds of thousands of Kurds being slaughtered and displaced.”
Kissinger has died at the age of 100, peacefully, at his home in Connecticut. But many of millions of Kurds continue to live each day in conditions of grief, mourning, disenfranchisement, precarity and despair driven by the same spirit which animated Kissinger’s approach to the Middle East, And so too do many more ordinary people across the ‘Third World’ where the US sought to achieve absolute influence and dominance through any means necessary, up to and including the endorsement and facilitation of genocidal, right-wing, nationalistic state violence, rather than brook the risk of communist influence growing or even the election of social-democratic governments seeking to tread a third path away from Washington and Moscow alike.
In this respect, Kissinger’s treatment of the Iraqi Kurds is paradigmatic. Under Kissinger’s influence, the Iraqi Kurds were treated as a strategic asset, with the USA exploiting Kurdish national aspirations and rightfully-founded fear of violence at the hands of the Iraqi and neighbouring Iranian states. Under Kissinger’s aegis, US support for the Iraqi Kurds was always transactional, temporary and transitional. The withdrawal of that aid, and subsequent slaughter of up to 185,000 Iraqi Kurds, was dismissed by Kissinger with a shrug and sneer.
If that phrase – ‘temporary, tactical and transitional’ – sounds familiar, it’s because these are the terms in which the US has publicly downplayed its relationship with the Syrian Kurdish forces who were its key partners on the ground in the battle against ISIS. And sure enough, that support vanished in the face of Turkish pressure, resulting in the 2019 slaughter of hundreds and displacement of hundreds of thousands of Syrian Kurds, Yazidis and Christians living on the border with Turkey. Kissinger’s famous dictum – ‘covert action should not be confused with missionary work’ – did the rounds following that latest betrayal.
In realist terms, Kissinger is of course correct. The Kurds and their allies cannot expect the interests of an ailing, paranoid, power-hungry hegemon to align with Kurdish national aspirations contrary to the interests of the USA’s authoritarian regional partner Turkey, and still less with the Kurdish-led vision of decentralised, inter-ethnic cooperation undergoing trial by fire in Kurdish and neighbouring regions of northern Syria. It’s a lesson the Kurds have learned often enough throughout a century of betrayal, and their Syrian representatives have made it clear they expect no ‘missionary work’ from their erstwhile US partners, and will continue to follow their own path as best they can within the harsh bounds circumscribed by great-power politics. In the dying days of the Ottoman Empire, ‘ferman’ became a byword for genocide: so too, under Kissinger’s aegis, did ‘US foreign policy’ become more synonymous with betrayal and the slaughter of innocents than ever before.
*Matt Broomfield is a freelance journalist, poet and activist. He writes for VICE, Medya News, the New Statesman and the New Arab; his prose has been published by The Mays, Anti-Heroin Chic and Plenitude; and his poetry by the National Poetry Society, the Independent, and Bare Fiction. His work was displayed across London by Poetry on the Underground, and he is a Foyle Young Poet of the Year.