Estonian Member of Parliament, former adviser to the Iraqi government and Middle East expert, Eerik-Niiles Kross says that the United States and the West need to support Kurdish independence.
The ongoing civil war in Syria and the war of the West with ISIS that invovles Iraq, Syria and several other countries in the region, is the fourth time during the last fifty years that the West has used the Kurds for its security policy interests. They have been repeatedly betrayed before, from the time the peace treaty of 1919 -which promised a Kurdish state,-was broken. Today we have to ask – are we taking advantage of them again, do we plan to betray them once again, or will it be different this time?
In 1973–74, during one of the revolts of the Iraqi Kurds against Saddam Hussein’s regime, the Kurds were supplied with arms from Israel, (pre-revolutionary) Iran and the United States. Allegedly, then US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger’s instructions to those helping the Kurds in the US, were that the Kurds were not to be allowed to win, but they should not be told so. The Kurds were needed to force Hussein to agree to the terms of, then friend of the USA, Iran. After Iran and Iraq reached agreement, US aid to the Kurds was cut off; the Kurds lost their struggle; more than 10,000 Kurdish fighters perished, and their leaders were either killed or escaped to Iran. Washington renounced its aid programme for Kurdish war refugees, which was requested by US officials who had made earlier promises to the Kurds. The prevailing position was that ‘foreign policy should not be confused with missionary work.’
During the first Gulf War, in 1991, the West again called to Kurds to rise up and revolt. The aim of the West was essentially the same as before: to use the Kurds to weaken the main enemy and as a bridge-head.
The goal of the Kurds from the beginning of times has been autonomy, the ability to decide their own fate and independence. In the 1980s, when Iraqi forces suppressed another Kurdish revolt, scorching Kurdish villages and gassing their people, there was no help from the West. However, in 1991, Kurdish help was needed. On 1 March 1991, President Bush said in a speech that was broadcast to Iraq: “the Iraqi people should put [Saddam] aside, and that would facilitate the resolution of all these problems that exist…”
Certainly the Kurds interpreted this as promising more than was actually intended, but for them, only one problem had existed for decades, and that was the absence of freedom. The Kurdish forces took control over all their territories and expected the West to give them arms and recognition. This did not happen. Hussein’s forces recaptured the Kurdish territories and hundreds of thousands of Kurds were forced to leave their homes.
It should be said, to the credit of British Prime Minister John Major, that he almost single-handedly managed to promote within NATO, and later also in Washington, the idea of establishing a no-fly zone in North Iraq, which saved the Iraqi Kurds from destruction.
In the 1990s Iraqi Kurdistan became a de facto independent region, which was not recognized as such by any state, but was also not controlled by Hussein either. To a certain extent, the West saved face by keeping air missions in North Iraq to ensure the no-flight zone.
In 2003, when the USA started the second Gulf War, the Iraqi Kurds turned out to be natural allies of the Western coalition. The northern front of the war was to a large extent covered by the Kurds. They fought bravely and again, the hope of being recognized as a state emerged. Again the Kurds were needed for regional balance and the Western-minded force in the new Iraq, not as an independent political entity by the West. The Kurds achieved recognition of their autonomy in the new constitution of Iraq. They again agreed to remain part of Iraq, but refused to allow the units of the Iraqi army to enter their territory or have their Peshmerga forces join the Iraqi army. The constitutional agreement of 2005 provided holding a referendum on the future of the city of Kirkuk in 2007 at the latest. This historic Kurdish city was ethnically cleansed by Saddam in the 1970s, but over time, the Kurds have moved back. As of today, the promised referendum has not been held. The USA withdrew from Iraq and the power was transferred to the Shiite government, who started to repress both the Sunnis and the Kurds. The Kurds held their territory under control, and used their de facto independence to build up their economy and to develop international relations. The economy of Kurdistan was opened to Western (oil) companies and they established their own visa-free regime – unlike the rest of Iraq -and modest economic growth was achieved. Over the last ten years, Iraqi Kurdistan, which once depended almost exclusively on smuggling, has now become a quasi-state with a developing international economy.
The greatest breakthrough achieved by the Kurdish President Barzani was in establishing relations with Turkey. Meetings between the presidents of Kurdistan and Turkey have taken place and economic relations, and even certain security cooperation has been established. One of the most interesting agreements mediated by the leadership of the Iraqi Kurds was the relocation of several thousands of PKK fighters from Turkey to Syria some years ago. Turkey rid itself of a part of its separatist Kurdish problem, the Kurds of Syria received considerable support for their activities against the Assad regime, and Barzani showed himself as the defender of the wider national interests of the Kurds.
Relations between Iraqi Kurdistan and PKK have been complicated. The price of reducing the hostility of Turkey has been agreeing with the Turkish operations against PKK in North Iraq, which is considered a betrayal by many Turkish Kurds.
To sum up – the policy of the Iraqi Kurds has been wise and targeted at tactical steps, without ever forgetting the further aim of becoming independent. It is very hard to find any legal arguments against the right of the Kurds to independence. Therefore other kinds of arguments are used. Turkey and Iran, and earlier, Syria threatened with the use of military force, while the USA has hinted at ending military support.
The geopolitical balance in the region was turned upside down by the civil war in Syria and the unexpected military success of ISIS since the beginning of 2013. The Kurds have been the strongest and the most important allies of the West. Again, they have been promised support, and they have again been told that the idea of independence would be discussed in the “future” but current problems would have to be dealt with before any such discussions.
In July 2014, when a large part of Syria and North Iraq fell into the hands of ISIS, President Barzani declared that as Iraq had essentially collapsed, he decided to proclaim that a referendum on Kurdish independence would be held. The US convinced the Kurds to be patient and wait. When ISIS attacked Kurdish territory and several villages fell to the Islamists, the US began air raids against ISIS to protect the Kurds. At the same time, the Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki, who had been totally unacceptable to Kurds, was forced to resign. The condition for US military assistance was that the Kurds must participate in the formation of the new government of Iraq. In September 2014, President Barzani’s chief of staff said, “We now have a priority: to clean the area of ISIS. ISIS must not remain our neighbour. When you have this priority, other priorities will be delayed.”
The Kurds have maintained and achieved this goal. Barzani (probably with the help of the USA) succeeded in convincing the Turks to allow the Peshmerga fighters to help the Syrian Kurds in their fight against ISIS. The territory of Iraqi Kurdistan is protected, and the Kurds have achieved considerable success with the help of the Western arms and air strikes. At the same time it has become apparent that when Kurdish fighters leave the ethnic Kurdish territory and liberate the Arabic-speaking villages and towns, they are not able to hold them for long periods of time. The Kurds do fight outside their territories, but in the interests of the common front against ISIS and not in order to expand their territory.
The war against ISIS has changed Western attitudes towards the status of (Iraqi) Kurdistan. Providing direct military assistance to the Kurds (until now, everything went through Bagdad with considerable trouble) has become an accepted practice of even the most cautious European countries. Even Sweden has sent an armed unit to Erbil. Barzani has met with Angela Merkel and, in May, also with President Obama. Washington has now officially agreed to help establish a full Kurdish army that, in addition to the heavy armour of ground forces, also includes the air force and (strangely enough) a naval element.
Providing arms assistance to the Kurds, and the rise of the Kurdish leaders among the actors of global politics has evidently irritated Turkey. During the last Turkish election, the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) – which is supported mainly by Kurdish voters – for the first time in history gained noteworthy Kurdish representation in the Turkish parliament. The HDP openly supports negotiations with the PKK and wants to secure protection for Kurdish rights in Turkey.
In 2014, when ISIS attacked the Kurdish territories in Syria and killed hundreds of Kurds in Kobane, the HDP organized large demonstrations against the Turkish government, and accused the government of inactivity and of silently supporting ISIS. Until last week, Turkey was essentially a bystander in the operations against ISIS. Several critics have said that Turkey has nothing against ISIS as long as it weakens the Kurds in Syria.
Allegedly some ISIS attacks against the Kurds have been conducted from inside the territory of Turkey. Since the beginning of the conflict, the West has tried to get Turkey to intervene militarily against ISIS, but Turkey has been more concerned about the possibility of Kurdish autonomy along the Turkish border in Syria and the general strengthening of the positions of the Kurds if ISIS were to be defeated.
The latter, and especially the establishment of a Kurdish army in Iraqi Kurdistan and the emerging joint force of the Kurds of Iraq, Syria and Turkey, have forced Turkey to change its policy. Ankara’s agreement with Washington to allow the US to use some Turkish airfields and to participate in military operations against ISIS, brought along Turkey’s parallel attacks against both the PKK and the YPG of the Syrian Kurds, in which Iraqi Kurds also fight. YPG is also the main ally of the US against ISIS in Syria.
Turkey’s message is that: “if you want our help, you have to tolerate our activities against the Kurds, because for us, the Kurds, too, are a threat.” History has proven that it is not a problem for the West to push aside the interests of the Kurds as soon as its own security interests are solved and protected.
According to the representatives of President Barzani, the Americans told them in summer 2014: “We understand your long-term aims, but please do not sacrifice these priorities in the name of independence. In return, you will receive our assistance and we will protect you.”
Th Kurdish army is will soon be ready. If the West tolerates the military activities of its ally Turkey against its Kurdish allies, such treachery may bring along unforeseeable consequences. Proclaiming support for Kurdish independence would be one of the simplest forms of support.
Eerik-Niiles Kross is one of the few Middle East experts in the Baltics. In 2003-2004 he worked as Senior Director of Intelligence Development for the CPA in Baghdad. He later advised the Iraqi Ministry of Defense and participated at the negotiations with the Kurdistan Regional Government on the new Iraqi Constitution and was responsible for aspects of developing the new Iraqi security services. He has also worked in Jordan and Lebanon. Kross has published several articles on the Middle East, Iraq, the Kurdish question and also Central Asia. Kross is the chairman of the Estonia-Kurdistan parliamentary group and a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Estonian Parliament