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The Collapse of the Kurdish House of Cards


Outside powers have been playing ducks and drakes with the Kurds for more than a century.  In Ottoman times they were reviled in Europe as tribal predators and persecutors of the Christians. Now they are everyone’s favorites.

After 1918 they hoped for independence. The allied victors were favorable but the advance of the Turkish nationalists and their own inability to pull together put an end to that. 

In the newly-formed state of Iraq they were bombed from the air by the British in the 1920s. In the Kurdish mountains, the noise and unfamiliar sight of planes was enough to make villagers run for their lives. Churchill toyed with the idea of teaching the Kurds a lesson with poison gas but it was never needed: air and land attacks did the job. Fifteen years late, over the border in Turkey, the military bloodily crushed the 1937/8 Kurdish uprising in Dersim (present-day Tunceli). 

After the second world war the Kurds again found themselves caught between the machinations of central governments and outside powers. They still struggled for independence and at least autonomy but had neither the firepower nor the international support needed to achieve it. In Iraq, Mullah Mustafa Barzani appealed to Europe as the rebel romantic, rifle in hand and bandolier across the chest. Relations with the Iraqi government gravitated between the carrot and the stick, between promises of autonomy and repression. Outside actors, the US, Israel and Iran especially, looked on to see what was in it for them. The Israelis presented the Kurds as another version of themselves, outsiders,  distrusted within their host states.

Iran used the Iraqi Kurds in its long-running disputes with the secular Baathist government of Iraq but in the 1975 Algiers agreement it abandoned them. Soon they had to deal with Saddam Hussein, who reflexively distrusted anyone outside the ranks of proven loyalists, irrespective of whether they were Arab, Kurds, Christian or Shia.  Repeatedly over the years the Kurds lined up with outside actors against the Iraqi government, only to be betrayed by them, as they would see it.

In the late 1980s, during the war with Iran, Saddam turned on the Kurds with unparalleled viciousness.  They were ethnically cleansed and mass murdered, with chemical weapons being dropped on them at Halabja after the town was captured by Iranian forces backed by Kurdish peshmerga fighters in March, 1988.  Somewhere between 3000-5000 men, women and children were asphyxiated.   

US condemnation was muted, probably because the US had supplied Iraq with chemical weapons material, had helped it with battlefield coordinates and knew that Iraq was using neuro-toxins and mustard gas against civilians as well as the Iranian military.   It shared the Iraqi government’s view that the Iranian advance had to be stopped whatever the means, including chemical weapons and ‘force enhancers,’ cluster bombs supplied covertly through Chile. Virtually all European governments were involved in the same dirty business, providing Iraq with the material it needed to develop chemical weapons along with arms and dual-use weaponry such as trucks and helicopters.

No sooner had the Iraq-Iran ended in a stalemate (1988) that the US, having taken Iraq off the terrorist list and having used its army to bludgeon Iran, turned on Saddam. Debate continues over whether he was lured into attacking Kuwait in 1990 but the fact is that he did.  Once it had him on a hook the US was not going to let him off it.  The air war of 1991, followed by a decade of genocidal sanctions, destroyed Iraq as a functional state but Saddam was deliberately left in power. As long as he was there, the US would always have a reason for blocking Iraq’s regrowth as a front-line Arab state against Israel.  In 2003, with Iraq finally struggling back on to its feet, and with no-one but the US and Britain prepared to keep the sanctions going, the time had come to destroy Saddam.

In the aftermath of the war the US unilaterally declared a no-fly zone over northern Iraq and a ‘safe haven’ that created space for the political regeneration of the Iraqi Kurds even as the Turkish government was engaged in a bloody way with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Many Turkish Kurds fled across the border into Syria, where Kurdish organizations were tightly controlled by the government.

The second war on Iraq in 2003 was nakedly illegal. It was followed by occupation, the execution of Saddam and a new constitution, dictated by the US, which broke Iraq up as a unitary Arab state.  The Iraqis might be Iraqis but constitutionally they were no longer Arabs. They were Sunni Muslim Arabs, Sunni Muslim Kurds, Shia Muslims and Christians. All had the nominal right to seek autonomy but only the Kurds had the capacity and the international support to move towards the achievement of this goal. In time, their autonomy turned into independence in all but name.

What the US and Israel clearly had in mind was a new strategic base of operations in the Middle East.  Both developed close military and political relations with the Kurdish governorate, which under the new constitutional arrangement was able to develop a large ‘security force,’ effectively an army.  Encouraged by their outside sponsors, selling oil independently, over the objections of the central government, the Kurds brought relations with Baghdad to breaking point.

The attack on Syria in 2011 opened up new options centering on the Kurds.  The US used the ‘threat’ from the Islamic State as the pretext to send troops into Syria and establish a range of military bases.   Its activities were concentrated in the northeast, where it developed a largely Kurdish force as a proxy militia against the objections, this time, of its presumed NATO ally, Turkey. 

What the US and Israel clearly had in mind was an expanded Kurdish state that would embrace at least Iraq and Syria and perhaps in time the southeast of Turkey.  The US shut its ears to Turkish objections and gave its Kurdish allies free rein in Iraq, where they garnered even more international support for their protection of the Yazidis. On the battlefront they used their strengthened position to occupy a mass of Iraqi territory, including the contested city of Kirkuk:  Kurdistan without Kirkuk, they were fond of saying, was like Israel without Jerusalem.

Then in 2017 all of this abruptly collapsed.  Against all the advice he was getting from his allies, Masoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq, called a referendum on independence.  More than 93 percent of the voters said ‘yes’.  The reaction from the central government in Baghdad, and from Iran and Turkey, was instantaneous.  Road and air access to the north was cut off and Iraq and Iran threatened joint military action.

This was a blockade the Kurdish regional government could not survive.  In military action which followed, the Kurds lost all the territory they had recently conquered, including Kirkuk and its outlying oil fields, the main source of their revenue.   Having brought on this disaster, having encouraged the Syrian Kurds to take advantage of the chaos in Syria to go for autonomy, Barzani resigned as president of the KRG, while remaining president of the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP).  The KRG later accepted a federal court ruling that no part of Iraq would be allowed to secede, declaring the importance of “inclusive national dialogue” to solve all issues between Erbil and Bagdad.

The collapse of the independence movement was the death blow to US and Israeli aspirations centering on the Kurds.  They had worked hard for a long time to turn the Iraqi north into a Kurdish client state and a new base of operations, next to iran, Syria and Turkey and close to the gulf.  Netanyahu had been especially outspoken in his support of Kurdish independence.  Now it was all gone. The US was left occupying the north-eastern corner of Syria and now that has gone as well.

In Turkey, too, the Kurdish cause is blocked. The ‘Kurdish peace’ pledged by Erdogan a few years ago evaporated between the two elections in 2015 (June and November) when Turkey launched an air and land assault on the PKK in south-eastern Turkey and northern Iraq following the murder of two policemen suspected by the PKK of complicity in the recent Islamic State suicide bombing that killed more than 30 young people in the border town of Suruc. The regression of the Kurdish cause has also been marked by the prosecution and imprisonment of the joint founder of the largely Kurdish People’s Democracy Party (HDP) Selahettin Demiras and the replacement of elected Kurdish mayors in the southeast with government ‘trustees.’ 

The ‘abandonment’ of the Syrian Kurds is regarded by the Washington political and media establishment as an own goal of the first magnitude. Through the Pence visit to Ankara and other machinations,  it is now trying to get back into the game and outflank Russia behind the screen of protecting the Kurds.  This game has been played by imperial powers in the Near/Middle East for the past two centuries.    Assyrians, Armenians, Maronites, now the Kurds, and who knows who else in the future, there is always an ethno-religious group in whose interests outside powers will insist on protecting, and will demand an autonomy that curiously enough fits in with their own strategic interests.  Since Ottoman times regional governments have known where this ‘autonomy’ is intended to lead in the minds of governments professing to have only humanitarian interests at heart: at the very least to the implantation in their midst of a tool that can be used to serve ‘western’ interests and to the break-up of their states if that can be achieved.

As the Kurds know, unless these states break down or, more accurately,  can be made to break down,  their independence will remain a chimera.   They had one opportunity in the 1918 breakup of the Middle East and came close following the US wars on Iraq in 1991 and 2003 but now the moment has again been lost. 

Too weak to stand on their own, most Syrian Kurdish fighters have been absorbed into the Syrian army, their political parties returning to the national fold: whatever the terms agreed with the Syrian government, they will not include the granting of Kurdish autonomy.

These developments are a corner-turning strategic setback for Israel. Its own Kurdish policy dated back to the 1950s and David Ben-Gurion’s ‘periphery doctrine,’ based on developing strategic alliances with non-Arab ethnic groups.  From this seed grew the Yinon plan of 1982 and Netanyahu’s policy document of 1996, A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm, which was the template for the destruction  of unitary Arab governments and indeed the very idea of an Arab national identity in a ‘new Middle East’ superintended by the US and the Zionist state.  Henceforth the US and Israel would take over the course of Arab history: it would be what they wanted it to be.  The arrogance and racism in this plan were equally colossal. 

Now the Kurdish element in this scenario has collapsed.   There will be no more room for Israel in northern Iraq, while in Syria, where it would have wanted the war to continue forever, the Kurdish card is almost played out. Through air attacks and support for the takfiri armed groups, Israel did what it could to prolong the destruction but now has to face up to the looming triumph of the ‘axis of resistance’ (Iran, Syria and Hizbullah) over the ‘axis of reaction’ (the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia).

The emergence of what Israel regards as a Turkish-Russian-Iranian axis is another concern. As well as the Syrian Kurds, Israel sees itself as being abandoned. “The strategic balance is shifting right before our eyes,” a defense official moaned. “The bad guys won and the good guys are abandoning us. Now Israel is left almost on its own to deal with the powerful Turkish-Russia-Iranian axis.”  (Ben Caspit, ‘US policy changes leave Israel alone against Iran,’ Al-Monitor, October 11).

This is hardly true.  Irrespective of who is the bad guy and who the good, Israel has not been abandoned by its allies, especially the US:  on the contrary its support in Congress and the Washington political establishment has never been stronger. Over many decades, however, raising false alarms has never failed to screw more money, more weaponry and even louder declarations of undying support from US administrations.  

Quick to see itself surrounded by enemies bent on its destruction, and stunned by the dramatic shift in the geopolitical balance across the Middle East generated by developments in Syria, Israel is now preparing for war on more than one front.  The military command’s “all-out war scenario,” involving a war with Hizbullah, Syria, Iran and Gaza and – casually – “maybe a few others,” (‘US policy changes leave Israel alone …’)  is surely further evidence that whom the gods would destroy they indeed first make mad.