The Kurds and the US
By Hishyar Barzani
When thinking about the Kurdish question in Iraq, it might be useful to examine the worldwide political status since the end of The First World War. By doing so, one can consider which factors helped internationalize the Kurdish question and examine whether this awareness was because of “Kurdish will “.
The Kurdish question has been dominated by the colonial division of Kurdistan and its forced annexation to four nation-states. However, after the fall of Hussein’s regime this logic changed dramatically. It is useful, therefore, to consider the history of the Kurdish issue:
A. From 1918 – 1946. Colonial powers helped regional nation states, crushing all Kurdish revolts, and denying Kurds the opportunity to establish their own state.
B. From 1946 – 1990. The Kurdish question moved out of its regional framework to take an international dimension, as it happened during the Cold War. (1)
C. From 1991 – 2003. The emergence of the “Safe Haven Zone” followed the second Gulf war.
D. 2003 – Today. The fall of Hussein’s regime in 2003.
During phase B, the Kurdish question evolved around the bipolar logic of the Cold War. It was used by USSR, and to a lesser but still significant degree, the USA. The “balance of power” was a “fixed structure” dominated by the White House and Kremlin. The political game largely exceeded the Kurds. The alliance of the Kurds with a super-power during the Cold War was a short-term alliance. The great powers had not intervened with militarily force in favor of the Kurds. Their reluctance to intervene had a diplomatic and financial nature, which came at a great cost to the Kurdish people: the Moscow – Teheran agreement in 1946 led to the collapse of the Republic of Mahabad, which later contributed to Israel abandoning a revolt headed by Mullah Mustafa Barzani in March 1975 after the Algerian Accord. The Westphalia Treaty (1648) was left to govern inter-state relations.
The fall of the Berlin led to the disintegration of the Warsaw Pact, and with it, the eventual collapse of the Communist Soviet Union.
Hussein did not grasp the new changes in the balance of power and sent his armies to occupy Kuwait in August 1990. In 1991, Hussein’s army was defeated and Kuwait was able to restore its sovereignty.
The impact of Hussein’s defeat in Kuwait has brought radical changes inside Iraq. The Shia population in southern cities revolted, the Kurdish masses attacked Iraqi army garrisons, who controlled nearly the entire Kurdistan territory in Iraq. The Republican Guards crushed both revolts brutally. Allied forces watched the cruelty in silence. A massive exude of the Kurds towards the Iranian and Turkish frontiers began, becoming the focus of media attention worldwide. European public opinion sympathized with the plight of Kurdish refugees. The Allies, enabling the refugees regain their homes, created the Safe Haven Zone. An exceptional situation has emerged in Kurdistan. Gradually, the US became the main player in the Middle East politics.
Thanks pressure from America the internal bloody conflict among Kurdish chiefs ceased. With the tragedy of 9/11, the USA interest on Kurds increased, particularly after Turkey refused to allow US forces use of its airports to attack Iraq in 2003.
There is a basis for mutual interest. The Kurds are a faithful ally to the USA, in a region where enmity to USA policies is the main feature. For the last 15 years, the Allies protected the Kurds from the tyranny of the Baath Regime. The Kurds, in accordance with their limited means, helped US forces to defeat the Baath regime and helped capture Saddam Hussein, as well as some other dangerous criminals. Kurdistan is now a safe area, rich in oil, water and other minerals. Pipeline routes for oil and gas passes through Kurdish territory to Turkey, then on to Europe. There are, in general, no fanatics or dangerous extremism, despite the neighboring states’ attempt to radicalize certain religious factions among Kurds. South Kurdistan has a demographic potential of 6 million; out of the 275 seats in the Iraqi National Assembly (INA), there are 52 seats for Kurdish Alliance, plus 5 seats for the Kurdish Islamic Alliance.
According to oil industry experts, Iraq has the world’s second largest oil reserves. A recent survey calculated that there were above 200 billion barrels of high-grade crude. The oil in Kurdistan and Iraq is attractive because it is plentiful and of high quality, the cost of production is exceptionally low and it is likely to become the number one holder of oil reserves in the world.
Throughout the 20th century, major powers have battled to seize these vital sources of energy. The main international oil companies, based in USA and UK were keen to regain control over Iraq’s oil, including the oil of Kurdistan.
With the US in control of energy sources in the Middle East, it can sustain enormous economic pressure against Russia, China and even European countries that are unfriendly to USA policies. Furthermore, America will influence the OPEC quota system, by pulling out one of its main producers. The Anglo-American heavy military presence in Iraq, form a warning factor against Iran and Syria, enhancing at the same time, the security of Israel.
In order to strengthen peace and stability in the region, major oil companies should not be allowed to make a high rate of profit while the majority of people lives in poverty. Past errors of oil exploitation should not be repeated in Iraq and Kurdistan. For example, under the British and Arab rule from 1923-1991, oil in Kurdistan was a source of destruction and misery. Iraqi governments used oil profits for military equipment; the RAF and the Iraqi air forces bombed and destroyed thousands of villages, used chemical weapons. Iraqi army massacred thousands of Kurds, Shias and Assyrians. Oil is an effective weapon but extremely dangerous when it fall into the hands of a dictator. Let us take the example of oil-for-food program, handled by Hussein’s regime and the United Nations, The goal was to provide food to impoverished Iraqis, “the arrangement became spectacularly corrupt, with U.N. officials receiving kickbacks from the Iraqi regime and the humanitarian supplies never reaching Iraqis”(2)
Investors would buy oil at low market so they could sell it at higher price; Hussein used his profit to buy political influence. Hussein, who controlled vast sums of money from Iraqi oil, would choose his partners for money distribution which led to a fight among Kurdish ruling parties.
In order to build a civilised, democratic and a stable state, oil revenues must be taken out of individual and political party monopoly. This cannot be achieved without a strong USA intervention in favour of real democracy in Kurdistan. Unfortunately, up to now, we are far from such trend an objective. Rubin Michael correctly pointed out, “When the West embraces stability instead of democracy, dictators triumph”. This is what is happening now in Kurdistan.
Historically, relations between Israelis and Kurds were good. The ancient Jewish of Kurdistan lived together in the same land and shared common life with the Kurds for centuries. When Hussein’s army was defeated in March 1991, he used his forces to crush the Kurdish upheaval. Traumatised by past of chemical attacks, nearly 2 million people marched towards Turco-Iranian frontiers. Amid the harsh rain and snow, died from cold, many of whom were children or elderly. The Organization of Kurdish Jews in Israel began to mobilize, protesting against the inaction of the US. Me Haviv Shimon, the President of the Organization, declared to Jerusalem Post on April 8 1991: “This time, the Americans are to be blamed. They are advocating new world order and do not respect what they say”. There were serious attempts to make Israeli government move in favour of Kurdish refugees. (3)
In July 2003, two months after President Bush declared his premature victory in Iraq, the Israeli intelligence was much less optimistic about the outcome of the war, warning the Americans that the insurgents had the support of Iranian intelligence and other foreign fighters. Israel has kept a watchful eye on Syrian and Iranian activities in Iraq because they were fearful that Iran and Syria would recruit armed militia among the Iraqis, linking Iran, Iraq, Syria, Hamas, Jihad and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Hence, Israel has found the Kurds as a counter balance force against Damascus and Teheran policies. Israeli security vision necessitates its physical presence in the entire Middle East. Geographically, Kurdish land, borders Syria and Iran, from where Israel can have an observation on Iran’s nuclear efforts. In fact, the relations between Israel and Kurds are a delicate matter; the weak point in Kurdo-Israeli relations is that, it has no geographical connection between Kurdistan and Israel. The contacts cannot be established without raising Turkish suspicions.
Regrettably, there is no unified and coherent Kurdish foreign policy, based on long-term Kurdish interest. Each of the Kurdish ruling party leaders has his own hidden foreign policy and connections, without the knowledge of the other.
We know now for sure that relations between Israel and the Kurdish revolt headed by late (Mullah Mustafa Barzani 1964-1975) were under Iran’s close control. It could not move beyond the red line drawn by the Iranian authority. When the Shah reached an agreement with Hussein in Algeria in 1975, the USA and Israel withdrew their support. Today, under different circumstances, Turkey may be playing the same role, as did Iran, three decades ago.
Despite conflicting interests between Turkey, Syria and Iran, their mutual wariness of the “Kurdish peril”, has always transcended their differences. For Israel, four major recent events rendered the Kurdish factor indispensable: the Shia majority have democratically dominated the Iraqi National Assembly as a result. Hams will form the new Palestinian government, the election of a radical personality, Ahmedinejad as the President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, but more importantly, it seems that the US’s occupation of Iraq is in real trouble.
Meanwhile, Turkish authorities view the Kurds as a threat. In many occasions, we have witnessed the eruption of mutual critics between Tel-Aviv and Ankara over Kurds and Hamas. The recent visit to Ankara, by a delegate from Hamas, exasperated Israelis. Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, bowing to such concerns, called off plans to meet the Hamas delegation. Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul held informal talks with the Hamas represantatives. It would be naïve if Kurds underestimate the security and trade ties between Turkey and Israel. It is unfortunate that in the Middle East, enter-state treaties are imposed by the logic of security and enmity. This is an offensive strategy, undemocratic and leads to distrust, antagonism and plotting in darkness.
At this historical juncture, a sectarian violence and terrorism are the main features dominating Iraq and the Middle East. We, the Kurds, should distance ourselves from inter-community wars, by calling for dialogue, peace and friendship between nations, communities and faiths. It might be wise for the Kurds to remain neutral and embark on a global political efforts, to convince states and international public opinion, to recognise “Kurdistan neutrality”. The Kurdish Diaspora can play an important rule in such endeavours.
(1) On 9 July 1963, the Soviet Foreign Minister, Gromyko, sent letters to Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria against any pro-Iraq military intervention in the war in Kurdistan.
(2) A briefing by Claudia Rosett May 3, 2005. (Iraq and the Importance of the U.N.'s Oil-for-Food Scandal)
(3) Les Annales De L’autre Islam. No 5 (Islam des Kurdes) Paris 1998. Page 199