This betrayal of the Kurds is a moral travesty
The West stabs Kurdish independence in the back. Again.
It was all too sadly predictable. A few weeks after the citizens of northern Iraq’s Kurdish Region voted overwhelmingly in favour of full indendepence, the Iraqi government, backed by Iranian-sponsored militias, made good on its military threat to the Kurds, sending in troops and tanks to roll the Kurds back.
The signal moment was the Kurds’ loss of Kirkuk, a city in the oil-rich Kirkuk Governate. Long a source of conflict between the Iraqi state and the Kurds – up until 2003, Saddam Hussein had attempted to drive out its majority Kurdish population, and import Iraqis from the south, as part of a so-called Arabisation process – Kirkuk had been claimed as part of the Kurdish Region after the Kurdish Peshmerga retook it from ISIS in 2015. That, remember, was after Iraqi security forces abandoned it, with barely token resistance to ISIS, in 2014. And yet, less than a month after the independence referendum, the Iraqi military has miraculously rediscovered its mettle, and is now in the process of driving the Kurds out and back within the pre-2014, pre-ISIS territorial boundaries.
And with considerable success, too. While thousands of Kurds were busy fleeing Kirkuk in the face of both real and imagined threats of retaliation, Peshmerga units were pulling out of the towns of Bashiqa, Khanaqin and Sinjar, leaving the Iraqi military to retake yet more land lost, first to ISIS and then to the Kurds, in 2014. Indeed, since the Kurdish Region made its stab for independence, that which was to become independent has shrunk by 14,000 square miles. Once again it seems the Kurds are fighting less for independence than for survival.
This is a political and moral travesty. Not only have the Kurds long justifiably aspired to a form of statehood, on the grounds that, as a people, they have distinct interests better served by nationhood than by persisting as a minority in nations that have unerringly sought their oppression, or in Saddam’s case, their annihilation; they also were just about the only force in the Middle East possessed of the will and conviction to fight back against ISIS. They showed a desire for self-determination absent from the Iraqi military, which melted, US paychecks in hand, into the background, or those other Western-backed coalitions of ‘moderate’ Islamists and ex-Syrian military types fighting half-baked actions against ISIS in Syria. It was telling that it was Syrian Kurdish YPG units leading the Syrian Democratic Forces to this month’s victory over ISIS in the now former capital of its supposed caliphate, Raqqa.
Yet despite the Kurds taking the fight to ISIS, and helping to roll it out of Iraq and Syria, those benefiting from the impending defeat of ISIS are now taking the fight to the Kurds. All muttered promises of negotiations, let alone full independence, have been rowed back on; all forms of support, especially from the US and the UK, have been steadily withdrawn. As one veteran Peshmerga commander put it: ‘We expected the international community, our friends and allies in the world and the region, to honour our nation and listen to us to build a bright future for our future generations. But unfortunately, they instead all collectively stood against us, once again proving the fact that the Kurdish nation has no friends but the mountains.’
It is not as clear-cut as all that, of course. Certain Kurdish political factions have also betrayed the cause of independence, with reports emerging that the Peshmerga units loyal to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the main opposition to Kurdish president Masoud Barzani, effectively stood down in Kirkuk, allowing the Iraqi security forces and militias to waltz in unimpeded. Yet even here, it is the treacherous role of a foreign agent that stands out, with claims that Bafel Talabani, the son of the late leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) bloc, fell under the influence of the Iranian general Qassem Suleimann thanks to a combination of threats and bribery. Indeed, Iran’s involvement in pushing back the Kurds, and undermining their quest for independence, is pronounced given the prominence of the Iranian-sponsored Shia militias working with the official Iraqi security forces to defeat the Peshmerga.
But then, that shouldn’t be a surprise. Iran has never been a supporter of an independent Kurdish Region in Iraq, and therefore on its doorstep, not least because of the sizeable and restive Kurdish population within its own borders. It is difficult for Iran to betray the Kurds given it never promised them anything in the first place. The same goes for the Turkish state, whose enmity towards its own Kurdish population is long established. Following the independence referendum, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan not only issued barely veiled threats of military action, but also fully explict threats of economic action. ‘The Kurds will be left in the lurch when we start imposing sanctions’, he said. ‘It will be over when we close the oil taps, all [their] revenues will vanish, and they will not be able to find food when our trucks stop going to northern Iraq.’
No, it’s the role of the US and its allies that must really stick in the Kurds’ craw. They really did seem to support the Kurds, hence when the Iraqi military took Kirkuk with US-made tanks and artillery, the PUK-supporting Peshmerga laid down its own US-made-and-supplied weapons. They really did seem to suggest that when the Kurds had finished helping to defeat ISIS, they would be supported in a fresh round of negotiations with the Iraqi government over the question of Kurdish independence. They really did seem to be willing to repay the Kurds for their struggle and sacrifice. And yet when the independence referendum made real the desire for Kurdish independence, the US and friends abandoned and threatened the Kurds. In its disavowal of the Kurds’ cause, in its brutally bland insistance on the importance of Iraq’s unity, the West effectively green-lit the regional rounding on the Kurds. The Iraqi government was this week even able to claim, following a meeting with the UK Foreign Office, that ‘the British government hails the Iraqi central government stance’.
In an irony no Kurd will appreciate, the cause of Kurdish independence has managed to do what many thought impossible: find something that the US, the EU, Russia, China, the Arab League, Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey all agree on. But that’s what has happened, as they all rally round to undermine and isolate the Kurdish Region. For General Gazi Mala Salih, the director of Iraqi Kurdistan’s finance ministry, the betrayal not just of the Kurds but of the principle of self-determination cuts deep: ‘If you go back through the French Revolution and American history, self-determination has been a basic right. We had strong cards to play – 92.7 per cent [in favour of independence] is the overwhelming support of people. The US, Britain and Western powers are not faithful allies. They are lying to themselves and their people and they are betraying their principles. They should feel shame for the rest of their histories for not supporting us.’
Tim Black is a columnist at spiked.
Tim is speaking at the session, ‘Truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth’, at the Battle of Ideas festival in London on Sunday 29 October. Get tickets here.