Wednesday, 29 March 2017
by Hugh Fitzgerald
“Masoud Barzani: Independent Kurdistan is loyal response to Peshmerga sacrifices,” Rudaw, March 5, 2017:
The largest ethnic group in the world without its own state, a people without a country of their own, are the Kurds. By the Treaty of Sèvres in 1920, they were originally promised local autonomy in Anatolia, with the possibility of establishing, within a year of the Treaty’s signing, an independent Kurdish state. Section 3, Article 64 of the Sèvres treaty stated:
But that promise was never fulfilled; the treaty was annulled. After the Turks under Ataturk had managed to expel the last foreign troops from Anatolia, the Turkish government refused to recognize the commitments it had made in the Sèvres treaty, a refusal reflected in the Treaty of Lausanne, signed in 1923. The result was bitter: no autonomy for the Kurds, and certainly no independent Kurdish state. But the Kurds did not abandon their dream of an independent Kurdistan; though the Lausanne Treaty meant the postponement of the dream of Kurdish autonomy, or of a Kurdish state, it did not destroy it. Though the Kurds are still stateless, circumstances today in the Middle East may have brought their goal closer to being realized than at any time before.
The Kurdish people now number between 35 and 40 million. Most of them are to be found in four Muslim countries – Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. They have been mistreated, to varying degrees, in all of these countries. In Turkey there are 10-15 million Kurds, about 20% of the population, living mostly in eastern and southeastern Anatolia. There has been a long-running simmering rebellion by these Anatolian Kurds against Turkish rule, involving several different groups of Kurdish rebels, the most important group being the PKK, or Kurdish Worker’s Party. Serious organizing for Kurdish rights began in 1974; an open insurgency started in 1984, and since then there have been varying levels of violence, intermittent truces, suppression by the Turkish army — but the aim of Kurdish autonomy or, for a growing number of Kurds, the further aim of outright independence, remains despite defeats. That desire is no doubt heightened in the Turkish Kurds by their having to endure that Lord of Misrule, the self-proclaimed Padishah, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and in the Iraqi and Syrian Kurds, by their having proven their military mettle against the Islamic State.
About six million Kurds live in northern Iraq, the country where they have fared worst. The Arab army of Saddam Hussein killed 182,000 Kurds in Operation Anfal (a name taken from the eighth sura of the Qur’an, which is called Surat al-Anfal, or “the Spoils of War” chapter), and then moved Arabs into formerly Kurdish-populated villages, in a campaign of forced Arabization. After the Gulf War, the American military provided air cover for the Iraqi Kurds, beginning in 1991, which meant that none of Saddam’s planes dared enter the airspace over Iraqi Kurdistan. The Kurds are keenly aware of how much the Americans have done for them. Since 2003, while Shi’a and Sunni Arabs have been locked in conflict, Iraqi Kurds have enjoyed a semi-autonomous existence in the north. This experience has whetted Iraqi Kurdish appetites for independence, and also turned them into the most pro-American ethnic group – save for Israeli Jews – in the Middle East. It is worth noting that since 2003, not a single American has been killed in Iraqi Kurdistan. Today a Kurd, Fuad Masum, is President of Iraq, but one shouldn’t make too much of this, for it’s a largely ceremonial position, and has not diminished the desire of many Kurds for full independence, and not just de facto autonomy, for Iraqi Kurdistan. When Masoud Barzani (see above) claims that now is the time for Kurdish independence in northern Iraq, he talks about how an independent Kurdistan could help bring “stability” to a region rocked by sectarian conflict. Shouldn’t he wish that sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shi’a Arabs to continue forever? Isn’t that what may make possible an independent Kurdish state in Iraq in the first place?
The Kurds in Syria, of whom there are two million in Rojava, since the civil war began a de facto autonomous region in northern Syria, have proven themselves to be the most effective fighters against the Islamic State, with their Peoples Protection Units, or YPG, doing the bulk of Kurdish fighting. These Kurdish forces have not only had to contend with the Islamic State, but they have been targeted by the Turkish Army, which is supposed to be in Syria only to fight the Islamic State. In its waning days, the Obama Administration was planning to send arms to the Kurds in Syria, but the Trump Administration appears to have dropped that plan, reportedly because it might offend Erdogan.
But why should Washington try to please Erdogan? Since so much of what the Americans do or don’t do infuriates Erdogan as, for example, Washington’s refusal to extradite Fethullah Gulen, and as other Westerners – the Dutch, the Germans – are repeatedly called “Nazis” by Erdogan because they had the gall to keep Erdogan’s men from campaigning among Turks in their countries, it is clear that he is mercurial, ill-tempered, bullying, often hysterical, a false friend who in many ways has become an enemy of the non-Muslim West. He went into a towering rage against Israel because of the Mavi Marmara episode, in which Israeli soldiers dared to defend themselves against attack. He has fomented antisemitism at every level, accusing “the Jews” of harming the Turkish economy, causing a mine disaster, spreading anti-Turkish stories through their supposed control of the world-wide -media, and so on and so predictably forth.
Officially our military ally (and member of NATO), Turkey did not allow the Americans in 2003 to invade Iraq from the north, considerably complicating their military task. Erdogan has now been making noises about denying the Americans the use of the Incirlik airbase they built and share with the Turks, in order to force them to provide air support for his troops in Syria. The Americans are reluctant because they fear that they might inadvertently harm our Kurdish allies in the area. Erdogan is angry that the Americans are becoming too close to the Kurds, whose successes against the Islamic State appear not to please but to alarm him. He has even told the Americans that his first priority is fighting the Kurds; the Islamic State comes second. Finally, and most disturbing, Erdogan appears to take pleasure in his current prediction that a new “religious war” between Muslims and Christians — between “the cross and the crescent” — is brewing in Europe, leaving no doubt which side Turkey will be on. All this makes it harder and harder to justify treating Turkey as an ally or allowing it to remain in NATO.
In Iran there are six million Kurds, both Sunni and Shi’a, who since the First World War have demonstrated various levels of loyalty to the central government in Tehran. In 1946, Kurds in Iran established a “Republic of Mehabad” that only covered a minuscule territory along the border with Iraq and Turkey; it lasted less than a year. When the Islamic Republic was declared, many Kurds were at first enthusiastic, because the Shah had shown no patience with Kurdish nationalism, and they hoped for better treatment. They were soon disabused of that hope. As soon as Khomeini’s Islamic program became clear, the Kurds, always more secular than the Arabs (because their ethnic identity worked against, rather than reinforced, the hold of Islam) started a series of demonstrations that were suppressed far more brutally than they had been under the Shah. The Ayatollah Khomeini called for a Jihad against Kurdish separatists in August, 1979; mass executions of Kurds promptly followed.
All further attempts by Kurds to demonstrate against the Khomeini regime were crushed. The Iranian Kurds were on their own, for in Iraq the Kurds were held down by Saddam’s men after the 1986 Al-Anfal campaign of mass murder against them. And in the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88), two despots, Saddam and Khomeini, forced “their” Kurds to fight against those on the other side, instead of the Kurds in both countries being able to join forces to fight both the Arabs of Iraq and the Persians of Iran.
Now the future of the Kurds in Iran depends on what the Kurds in Iraq manage to accomplish. If they achieve independence, the route will be open for them to aid the Iranian Kurds militarily, perhaps even supplying them with arms that might be supplied by the Saudis, or the Israelis, for both Saudi Arabia and Israel have a stake in weakening Iran. (Geopolitics makes strange bedfellows.) The Saudis have recently announced their support for the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan, knowing that it will cause trouble for Iranian interests in Iraq and, even more importantly, in Iran itself.
Why has the West been so hesitant to support an independent Kurdistan when there are so many reasons why it should be enthusiastic?
The main American worry is that of alienating Turkey. The American government treats Turkey as if it were still the Kemalist Turkey of 1980, or even of 1951, when Turkey was invited to join NATO as a payback for sending its troops to fight in Korea. Turkey was once a stout ally, but that was in the heyday of Kemalism, when the forces of secularism seemed unstoppable and Ataturk’s reforms appeared to be permanent. Erdogan has been systematically undoing Kemalism, that is, reintroducing signs of Islam everywhere Ataturk had managed to banish them – especially in the army, the civil service, and the universities. He has been busy re-islamizing the country; both he and his ministers extol Islam and denounce secularism. Physical attacks by mobs on secularists, including those who only tried to distribute leaflets denouncing the Islamic State, have become more frequent and go unpunished.
He has just ended the ban on the wearing of hijabs by female army officers; he had previously lifted the ban on hijabs in the universities, police, civil service and government. .
Erdogan has built 10,000 new mosques in Turkey since 2004. His Deputy Prime Minister and others in his government have called for turning Hagia Sophia, currently a museum, into a mosque, which would further efface the Christian history of Byzantium, and of Christian Constantinople, for half a millenium the largest and richest city in Christendom, from historic memory. He has waged war on his own officer corps, using the failed coup as his excuse for a massive purge of the secularists in the army, while accusing those officers of taking their orders from Fethullah Gulen, a mild-mannered Muslim cleric who, Erdogan claims, directed the coup from his Pennsylvania exile. That officer corps, which for nearly a century has been the ultimate guarantor of Kemalism, has now been weakened by Erdogan’s removal of hundreds of secularist officers, the same officers whom he accuses of being the agents of a Muslim cleric.
Turkey under Erdogan has, as noted above, been an inconstant ally of the West. It’s hard to believe that a leader of Turkey, a country that for decades has received military supplies and training and aid of all kinds from the Americans, a country that was originally allowed into NATO thanks to American sponsorship, has turned out to be so ungrateful for all those decades of support of every kind.
What the Kurds need is a clear sign that the West, and especially the American government, supports the goal of an independent Kurdistan, beginning with the Kurdish territory in northern Iraq. Suppose our politicians – for example, Representative Tulsi Gabbard — were to begin to make known their own support for such a state by speaking out in Congress? Columnists might begin to write about why an independent Kurdistan would necessarily be a firm ally of the United States. David Brooks, E. J. Dionne, or any of the other grand panjandrums of the American commentariat could devote a few columns as to why an independent Kurdistan makes both geopolitical and moral sense. Just getting people to talk about the possibility, to examine it from every angle, would be helpful. For there are many reasons for thinking that this is a singularly propitious moment for the Kurds, having proved themselves militarily in both Syria and Iraq, to make a move for an independent Kurdish state.
If a state of Kurdistan were to be declared in northern Iraq with American political support, this will not stop the sectarian conflict among Iraq’s Arabs. And, pace Masoud Barzani, both we and the Kurds benefit from that conflict continuing. Neither the Shi’a nor the Sunni Arabs in Iraq now possess the wherewithal to suppress a Kurdish state, and neither will want to divert what military resources they now have to use against the Kurds. In many ways, Baghdad has already lost control of Iraqi Kurdistan over the last quarter-century, ever since the Americans started providing air cover in 1991. The Sunni Arabs might, in fact, begin thinking not about forcing the Kurds to remain within an Iraqi state, but rather, about the possibility of independence for themselves, since the Shi’a-run government in Baghdad, having undone the Sunni ascendancy under Saddam Hussein, now possesses the political and economic power (those oil revenues) that the Sunni Arabs once controlled. Those Sunni Arabs constitute about 20% of Iraq’s population, while the Shi’a Arabs make up more than 65% of Iraqis. That means there is no chance, in the new democratic polity that the Americans helped bring, that the Sunnis will ever again regain the power they once possessed. Instead, as a permanent minority, they are doomed to endure second-class status under the newly empowered Shi’a. But the Sunnis can continue to resist, and might attempt to create a Sunni state carved out of central Iraq, which could count on Saudi Arabia (and the smaller but very rich sheikdoms of the Gulf) to support them with money and weaponry, so that they might stand in the way of further Shi’a expansion. The main goal of the Saudis is to everywhere limit the influence and power of Shi’a Iran, which they regard, correctly, as Saudi Arabia’s mortal enemy. So this sectarian conflict can go on indefinitely, a proxy war between Iran-backed Shi’a and Saudi-backed Sunnis, and it is this war that gives the Kurds in Iraq their chance for independence.
Even more disturbed than Iraqi Arabs at the prospect of an independent Kurdistan in northern Iraq will be those who run things in Tehran. For they will naturally fear the potentially galvanizing effect on the six million Kurds in Iran and, even more disturbing, the effect on other, non-Kurdish, minorities in Iran. The Iranians have reason to worry. After all, only 61% of the population of Iran consists of Iranians.
The remainder are Baluchis, in the east, next to Pakistan’s Baluchistan, who make up 2% of Iran’s population, Azeris to the north, next to Azerbaijan,who make up 16% of the population, Arabs in the south, in the oil-bearing region of Khuzistan, who number fewer than two million (there are 8 million Arabs in Iran, or 2% of the population, widely dispersed) and the Kurds, who make up 10% of the population, on the western border with Iraq – or what could now be Kurdistan. And then there are a dozen smaller peoples. If the nearly seven million Iranian Kurds were able to rise up and join Iraqi Kurds in the new state of Kurdistan, that would by itself weaken the Islamic Republic. And it would also encourage other minorities to try to break away from Iran. The Azeris in Iran have not heretofore shown great interest in joining their territory to Azerbaijan, and Khomeini’s ferocious 1979 declaration of Jihad against all separatists scared many, but the tug of Azeri nationalism might grow stronger pari passu with the prospect of its success.
Right now Iran is involved, directly or through proxies, in Syria and Lebanon, in Yemen and Iraq. If Tehran had to simultaneously deal with internal uprisings by Kurds, Baluchis, Azeris, and Arabs, it would likely have to pull back from its foreign adventurism, and perhaps have to choose which of its minorities, or the land they live on, it could least afford to lose. The 2.4 million Baluchis in eastern Iran, almost 30% of the total Baluchi population in the world, live in one of the poorest parts of Iran, ignored by Tehran except when some separatists set off a bomb. 70% of the world’s Baluchis live just across the Iranian border in Pakistan, where they have been carrying on a low-level rebellion for many years. The Baluchis have a strong sense of national identity, despite, or possibly because, they are spread between Iran and Pakistan and ill-treated in both countries. They are Sunnis, which is another reason why the Islamic Republic treats them badly. If the Iranian Kurds were to be successful in leaving Iran, the Baluchis in eastern Iran might be inspired to join their territory to that of the Baluchis in Pakistan. The Sunni government of Pakistan would be glad to receive territory subtracted from Shi’a Iran, and might then grant the Baluchis greater autonomy, in the hope of forestalling demands for Baluchistan’s independence. The Iranians are unlikely to want to fight Pakistan in order to wrest back control of an impoverished land and its impoverished, rebellious, and hostile people.
The Arabs of Khuzistan number fewer than two million, though there are another six million ethnic Arabs spread out in Iran. Khuzistan is next to Iraq, but Shi’a Arabs in southern Iraq are not likely to help the Arabs of Khuzistan, for they are grateful to Iran for having backed the Shi’a militias in Iraq to the hilt, with weapons, training, and even some soldiers, for their fight against Sunni Arabs. Kuwait, too, is a country that traditionally has fostered close ties with Iran, calling relations with the Islamic Republic “excellent and historical.” How much of this friendship is real, and how much dictated by considerations of Realpolitik, given that Iran is the most powerful country in the region, is unclear. But what is clear is that Saudi Arabia, the second power in the region, and a determined enemy of Iran, could support a Khuzistani independence movement all by itself, by paying both for military supplies and for Pakistani Sunni “volunteers” (like the Pakistani mercenaries who have been employed to keep down the Shi’a in Bahrain) who could fight against Iranian forces trying to hold onto Khuzistan. The Iranians do not want to lose Khuzistan’s oil, so they will never relinquish the territory. And the deep-pocketed Saudis, for their part, can keep the fight in Khuzistan going as long as they are willing to spend some of their spare billions, and to hire Pakistani mercenaries. The Iranian army cannot simultaneously suppress the Kurds, the Azeris, the Baluchis, and Arabs at home, and at the same time, deploy forces to back Shi’a militia in Iraq, and Assad in Iran, and keep its commitment to Hezbollah (especially if the Israelis keep bombing those supply routes from Syria to Lebanon with such deadly accuracy) in Lebanon.
Even the attempts at rebellion by Kurds, Azeris, Baluchis, and Arabs, whether or not any or none or some of them succeed, will keep the Islamic Republic off balance, occupied with holding Iran together, in the face of centripetal forces to the north, the south, the east and the west, and keep the mullahs out of mischief elsewhere. The regime in Tehran instead will be forever teeter-tottering, as it tries to extinguish separatist fires that can re-flame up at any time, on all four sides.
In Iraq, the Kurds, who are both Sunni and Shi’a, want to stay out of what they regard as a religious quarrel among Arabs, insisting that their sense of peoplehood transcends that sectarian fissure. They have enjoyed autonomy ever since 1991, and have the economic wherewithal, from oil and natural gas fields, to support a viable Kurdish state, even if Kurds elsewhere do not join them. Their bitter memories, of the nearly 200,000 Kurds murdered by Saddam, the forced Arabization of Kurdish lands, the appropriation of Kurdish oil and gas revenues by the Arabs in Baghdad, have been more than enough to keep their dream of an independent Kurdistan alive. Having become used to living with autonomy, they now want more, and as it turns out, in Iraq and elsewhere in the neighborhood, the conditions are more propitious than they have ever been for obtaining Kurdish independence.
In Iraq, where the Kurdish Peshmerga has demonstrated its mettle against the Islamic State, it would be unimaginable for the Sunni and Shi’a Arabs, at this point of maximum sectarian mistrust and conflict, to join forces against the Kurds, or that either sectarian group would expend its own forces to fight the Kurds alone, which would only help their sectarian Arab enemy.
In Syria, the Kurds have won the trust and support of the Americans because they have proven themselves to be the most effective of all the groups fighting the Islamic State. There are only two million of them, and they would not try for independence on their own, but if the Kurds in Iraq declare independence, those in Syria, who enjoy de facto autonomy in Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan) might quickly act to join them. There are several reasons why Assad would not dare, nor even care, to try to stop them. In the first place, he has been weakened militarily by the war, even if he now seems to be winning, and needs to husband his military resources for fighting those who still threaten to topple and murder him. These are the various rebel groups, as well as Al-Qaeda and, of course, the Islamic State, still holding on in Raqqa. The Syrian Kurds have no such desire to topple Assad. They don’t care which Arab rules in Damascus. What they want is be out of Syria altogether, and as far as they are concerned the Arabs can, as in Iraq, fight among themselves for as long as they want.The sliver of land – Rojava– that the Kurds inhabit will not be missed by Assad, who is more worried that he could lose his power, and his head. The Assad regime’s enemies are not just the fighters of the Islamic State and the various Syrian rebel groups. He has one more enemy in the neighborhood – Turkey. Erdogan entered Syria originally, as he put it, to end “the cruel regime of Assad.” He’s put aside that goal for now, but Assad will not have forgotten the threat. Assad, who has defied all the predictions of his demise, has much to gain from an independent Kurdistan. For that Kurdish state consisting of parts of Iraq and Syria will be a permanent threat to Turkey, and to the cohesion of the Turkish state. The loss of Syrian Kurds to this new state would be well worth it to Assad if, as a result, that independent Kurdistan attracts Turkish Kurds, prompts them to a rebellion in eastern Anatolia, and keeps the Turkish military busy trying to put down a large-scale Kurdish revolt, one which they will not easily be able to suppress given the military aid and volunteers from Kurds outside Turkey. Letting the Syrian Kurds join the Iraqi Kurds is the cleverest way for Assad to divert or curb Erdogan’s efforts against him. It’s akin to sacrificing a piece in order to trap, and checkmate, one’s opponent.
In Turkey, the conditions for Kurds rising up in southeastern Anatolia are more favorable than they have ever been. Why? Outside of Turkey, both the weakness — and cold calculation — of the Assad regime will keep it from suppressing two million Syrian Kurds who, while not formally his allies, are the most effective fighters against the greatest threat to him, that is the Islamic State. The Iraqi Kurds have similar battle experience, have heavy weapons from the Americans for the fight in Mosul, and have the declared support of the Saudis for an independent state in Iraqi Kurdistan (not out of love for the Kurds, but because they want to weaken an Iran-backed Shi’a-ruled Iraq). They have experienced de facto autonomy that whets their appetite for more. They are certainly aware that the Shi’a-Sunni conflict between Iraq’s Arabs prevents a united Arab front against the Iraqi Kurds. And there is now strong sentiment in Washington against Turkey, thanks to Erdogan. In Turkey, Erdogan’s despotic and erratic behavior has weakened the Turkish army, beginning with the officer corps that has been demoralized by Erdogan’s arrests, with some of the remaining officers, and certainly all of Turkey’s secularists, eager to see Erdogan come a cropper. He has damaged Turkey’s relations with America and Europe by trying to campaign for Turkish votes abroad, and calling the Dutch and Germans “Nazis” for attempting to stop his interference in their countries. He has damaged, above all, his relations with the Americans, whose military aid he would need to put down a Kurdish rebellion. His re-islamizing of Turkish society, his aggressive demands that the American government hand over Fethullah Gulen, and his repeated gleeful prediction that there would soon be a war in Europe between Christians and Muslims, have lost him many former friends in Washington.
By way of contrast, as we have seen, the Kurds have been solidly pro-American ever since American warplanes began patrolling over Iraqi Kurdistan in 1991 to keep Saddam’s warplanes out. Americans who served in Iraq have reported that the Kurds were the only locals in Iraq whom they fully trusted; they would take their R-and-R in Kurdistan.
To recapitulate all the reasons why the time may be ripe for an independent Kurdistan:
And should we care if Erdogan’s Turkey were to lose its Kurds – that is, one-fifth of its population and of its land area? Why? What has Turkey done for us lately? Remember that as the Kurdistan in northern Iraq would be strengthened by the addition of Syrian and Iranian Kurds, the position of the Turkish Kurds, who could not receive military aid, including heavy weapons, from that new state – the Turks can’t seal off their entire border with an independent Kurdistan – also would become stronger. The fight to keep the Turkish Kurds in Turkey would be much more difficult for Ankara, with its officer corps demoralized by Erdogan’s purges. The conflict would be different from Kurdish revolts of the past, because the Turkish Kurds would now have their own powerful ally in the neighborhood just to their south, that is, independent Kurdistan. It would not be easy for the Turks to suppress the Kurds in Anatolia, given the military supplies, and even Kurdish volunteers, that could now arrive from Kurdistan. One welcome result of this strengthening of the Kurdish movement would be that the Kurdish conflict will drag on in Anatolia, with the result uncertain. And Erdogan, the ruler who antagonized and threatened the West, would be revealed as not even being able to assure those over whom he ruled that Turkey would remain intact. Would not Erdogan’s regime then collapse? And if it did, wouldn’t the successor be an anti-Erdogan regime, secular, pro-Western regime, one that would return Turkey to its Kemalist past and that would cease to treat the West as an enemy?
The establishment of an independent Kurdistan would weaken Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran, four Muslim countries whose regimes do not wish us well. An independent Kurdistan would be the fulfillment of a promise made by the Great Powers in the Treaty of Sèvres in 1920, and breached by the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923. We have been helping the Kurds since 1991. Most recently, we have supplied heavy weapons to the Peshmerga to aid them in their fight against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. That battle experience, and those heavy weapons, make a Kurdish state more likely. An independent Kurdistan would be an unshakeable outpost of pro-American sentiment in an anti-American Muslim sea. No doubt there is something wrong with this vision of an independent Kurdistan. But I’m still trying to figure out what it might be.
First published in Jihad Watch.
Posted on 03/29/2017 7:51 AM by Hugh Fitzgerald
No comments yet.