Kurdish fiasco an ‘America first’ cause

WHEN PATRICK HENRY vowed to “live free or die,” he couldn’t have known about today’s Kurdish dilemma in Iraq. Two weeks ago 92 percent of Kurdish voters in northern Iraq voted in a referendum to create an independent state, consisting of the three Iraqi provinces where they’re in a majority. Unfortunately for them, the outcome has been, not independence, but curbs on their freedom to travel, economic hardships, and political isolation in the region. Now very few Iraqi Kurds seem ready to risk further hardships pushing for independence, let alone die fighting for the cause.

Iraq already has banned air travel in and out of its semi-autonomous “Kurdistan.” No Iraqi government can expect to stay in power if it were to allow the dismemberment of the country. And the Turkish government has announced it’s going to shut off the oil pipeline of the Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), which runs through Turkey, carrying 5.5 million barrels of crude oil daily and providing more than 90 percent of the KRG’s annual budget.  Ankara fears that the secession of a Kurdish enclave in Iraq would embolden its own Kurdish militants, who have been carrying on a terrorist campaign since 1984 to create an independent Kurdish state in southeastern Turkey.  Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, like the Baghdad government, had urged the KRG over and over not to hold the referendum.

Two days ago Baghdad announced that it’s now going to host a summit among Iran, Turkey and Iraq to decide on further measures to punish the KRG for its secessionist move.

Poor Iraqi Kurds! Their grievances remind me of a Mexican official’s response to President Trump’s demand that Mexico pay his proposed wall along its boundary with the United States. An aide to President Enrique Peña Nieto told the Trump administration, facetiously of course, that Mexico would be happy to pay for the wall provided it’s “built along the northern boundaries of New Mexico and Arizona.” He was obviously alluding to the fact that those American sates used to be part of Mexico until the United States grabbed them by force.

Kurds in Iraq – and in Turkey, Iran and Syria – have a similar grievance. In reality, their plight as minorities in those Middle Eastern countries originated in the imperialist machinations of a century ago. When France and Britain were gobbling up territories of the defeated Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I, they promised the Kurds an autonomous statelet, which they said could eventually become an independent nation-state. That commitment was mentioned in the 1920 Treaty of Sevres. Little did the Kurds know that oil under their soil would turn out to be the stumbling block to their independence, just as resources in many other developing countries had cost theirs. Lure of resources drove European powers into invading and colonizing most of the non-Western world.

In the 1920s as Britain was settling down in its Iraqi colony (bestowed on it under the League of Nations mandate), the British-owned Iraq Petroleum Company struck oil near Kirkuk, in the middle of the Kurds’ “promised land” of an autonomous state. Out the window went the British and French pledge for a “Kurdistan.” The two imperial powers now decided to split the more resourceful part of the centuries-old Kurdish homeland between the British colony of Iraq and neighboring French colony of Syria and dole out the remainder of the territory to Turkey and Iran.

Thus 35 million Kurds have become the world’s largest ethnic community without a state of their own, languishing as minorities in four states and refugees in many others. During trips to Iraq and Turkey, the word I often heard Kurds mention as the source of their quandary was “betrayal” – betrayal by British and French colonial powers. Throughout the century that followed the fourfold partition of their land Kurds in one country or another have struggled off and on for a national homeland or homelands.

In Turkey bloody terrorist attacks by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and bloodier government reprisals have cost nearly 40,000 lives in three decades. In Iraq separatist uprisings by the Kurdish Peshmerga militia led to equally brutal government crackdowns, including a chemical attack in the Halabja village by the Saddam Hussein government.

Thanks to America’s need for the Kurdish Peshmerga militia to fight its wars against the Saddam government and then against the Islamic State, the United States has helped set up Iraqi Kurdistan with wide local autonomy.  But Washington never agreed to support Iraqi Kurds’ secessionist scheme.  In northern Syria Kurds have taken advantage of the five-year-long Syrian civil war to carve out a territory they call Rojava, which they aspire to turn into an autonomous or independent Kurdish stare. The Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad is also perturbed by the Rojava campaign and the adrenaline it could get from the KRG referendum in Iraq. Last week Damascus denounced the KRG for its referendum. In Iran Kurdish separatism is less assertive than in any of the three other countries. But Tehran, too, worries about a spillover of the Kurdish ferment in its neighborhood, and the Iranian government has decried the referendum in northern Iraq. The United States and several European countries have also been concerned that a Kurdish independence movement in Iraq could threaten the stability of the state system in that region. The Trump administration repeatedly warned KRG President Masoud Barzani not to stage the referendum.

Barzani couldn’t but have known that in the teeth of the strong regional and international opposition his referendum would open a Pandora’s box, instead of promoting Kurdish independence. True, the Kurds lost their territories to the four states against their will, just as Mexicans lost part of their land to America against theirs. But plenty of water has flowed down the Euphrates and Mississippi rivers since America and the four Middle Eastern countries took shape and evolved as nation-states.  The aide to the Mexican president can’t expect to wrest Texas, New Mexico or Arizona back from America anymore than Kurds in Iraq – or Turkey, Syria or Iran – stand a reasonable chance of tearing up those nation-states to create one or more independent Kurdish states.

The Kurds could achieve their goal of national independence in one of two ways: by the force of their own arms or through the military or diplomatic intervention of a major power or powers. Bangladesh, South Sudan and East Timor gained their independence in one or the other of the two processes. But Kurds in none of the four countries have the armed capability to secede, and support for their cause in the international community is zero (Oops! I forgot the vociferous Israeli support for the KRG’s independence project).

You would wonder why, then, the KRG president went ahead with his ill-fated referendum. I think his fast dwindling support base among Iraqi Kurds has something to do with it. Barzani was elected KRG president by the regional legislature in 2005. Since then he has turned into an autocrat, ruling the territory without a mandate since his term of office expired in August 2015. His blatant nepotism, rampant corruption in his government and a sharp downturn in the region’s economy have heightened his people’s discontent against him.  But the aspiration for an independent homeland still animates most Kurdish minds and hearts in Iraq. If he held the referendum to shore up his popularity among Kurds, their overwhelming yes vote shows that he made a good bet. But sadly, their euphoria was short-lived.  Media reports show that it already has died down and most Kurds are worried, instead, about the onset of the economic and political crisis, spawned by the neighboring states’ virulent reactions to the referendum.

I think the international community should get to work to help resolve the Kurdish imbroglio. The United States, which has used Iraqi Kurds in two major wars, is morally obligated to step in to pull them out of the quagmire. The Kurdish predicament also offers the Trump administration an opportunity to get away from its own quagmire created by the president’s reckless stands on the climate change accord, Iran nuclear deal, North Korea, Venezuela, Cuba, and other issues. He should get Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to take the lead in an international initiative to bring about a reconciliation between Iraqi Kurdistan and its neighbors. Because such an effort would bolster America’s standing in the world, it would be part of Trump’s “America first” agenda.

  • Mustafa Malik, an international affairs commentator in Washington, hosts this blog.