The Kurdish people constitute an enduring symbol of international hypocrisy. For decades the international community has taken for granted that elementary justice requires an independent Palestinian state. Yet in every respect, the Kurdish claim for self-determination is far stronger than that of the Palestinians.
The Kurds are an ancient people possessing a distinct ethnic and linguistic identity (which is not to say that the variety of Kurdish dialects over a large geographical area do not often make communication among Kurds difficult.) The Kurds constitute the fourth largest ethnic group in the Middle East, and they are the largest ethnic group, approximately thirty million people, without a state in the world. They have a long and rich history.
By contrast, the Palestinians are ethnically and linguistically indistinguishable from the Arabs of southern Syria from which most of them came within the last 150 years attracted by the return of Jews to their ancient homeland.
Moreover, self-determination for the Palestinians would mean little more than the right to be governed by dictators of their own ethnicity. The vicious civil war that broke out between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority in Gaza after Israel's 2006 withdrawal presages the more widespread fighting that would take place in the event of a Palestinian state coming into being. The Palestinians have devoted little energy to developing the institutions of a civil society upon which democracy depends and democratic norms have yet to take root.
Iraqi Kurdistan has been largely autonomous since 1992 in the wake of the first Gulf War, and has exercised de facto sovereignty since 2003, after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Elections have been contested by two main parties: the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) dominated by the Barzani family and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Kurds have generally shown tolerance to minorities in their midst, such as the Yazidis.
That is not to say that Iraqi Kurdistan is a fully-developed democracy, though it is well ahead of the Palestinian Authority. Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute, who serves as perhaps the leading debunker of some of the more rose-tinted aspects of the Kurdish narrative, points out that the second (and by law final) presidential term of Massoud Barzani is far past its expiry date. The clan nature of the two major parties is inauspicious. The two major parties have very different foreign policy orientations – the KDP towards America and the West and the PUK towards Iran. Even the military of the Kurdish Regional Government, known as the Peshmerga (those who face death) is really two rival militias associated with the two political parties.
IN THE WAKE OF NEARLY COMPLETE defeat of ISIS, Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish Regional Government, decided that the time was ripe to call in the chips for the Kurds' important role in the defeat of ISIS. He declared a referendum on Kurdish independence to take place on Sept. 25. As Rubin notes, the Kurds did not bear the entire brunt of the fighting against ISIS, as they are sometimes portrayed as having done. Iraqi Shiite militias, the largest of which are allied with Iran, and the Iraqi military reconquered from ISIS the major cities of Ramada, Tikrit, Fallujah, and Mosul.
But the Kurds did lose over 1,100 fighters over the last three years and established the initial firewall blocking ISIS's advance northward in Iraq. Peshmerga associated with the KDP were the forces most closely allied with the United States during the battle against ISIS.
Barzani was careful to emphasize that the scheduled referendum was consultative only, and that it was a prelude to talks with Baghdad. He gave assurances that it would not be followed by a unilateral declaration of independence.
Nevertheless, the reaction of the various interested parties was fast and furious. Turkey, which has a large and restive Kurdish population of nine million, hinted at possible military action. Iran was equally hostile. An independent Kurdistan would serve as a barrier to Iran gaining effective control over the entirety of Iraq and stand in the way of Iran's goal of establishing a gateway to the Mediterranean through Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. The central government in Iraq also declared its implacable opposition.
Equally dismaying for Barzani was the lack of Western support. Britain and France declared it not to be the right time. It has never been the right time for the Kurds, ever since their right to self-determination was recognized at the Paris Peace Conference following World War I.
The U.S. State Department, Defense Department, and National Security Council all called upon Barzani, with red lights flashing, to call off the referendum. In part, the American opposition may reflect a reluctance to acknowledge that nation-building in Iraq, in which America has invested so much blood and treasure, has been a failure.
But likely more important was the American reluctance to make any commitment to Kurdistan that might impose at least a moral commitment to place American boots on the ground in defense of the Kurds at some future date, something anathema to President Trump. And finally. American policymakers may have simply gamed out the likely Iraqi and Iranian responses to the referendum and the relative balance of forces better than Barzani.
NEVERTHELESS BARZANI WENT AHEAD with the referendum, which garnered the support of 93% of the voters. He was soon to reap the whirlwind. And the United States was to suffer another humiliation at Iranian hands.
On Friday, October 13, President Trump announced that the Iranian nuclear deal would henceforth be judged in the context of Iran's support for terrorism, attempts at establishing regional hegemony, and harassment of maritime traffic. He mentioned the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a particular menace.
The next morning Iran provided its response. IRGC commander Maj-Gen. Qassam Soleimani, the commander of the IRGC's international Al-Quds Brigade, landed in Kirkuk, an oil rich city south of the Kurdish regions, which Kurdish forces took over in 2014, after government forces fled in the face of the ISIS onslaught. As of Oct. 14, the Kurds were a large majority of the majority of the city.
The next day, the Kurdish Peshmerga in the city, who were loyal to the Talabani family, lay down their arms with almost no shots fired, after Soleimani brokered a deal between the Talabani family, on the one hand, and the Iraqi Shiite militias, all with close ties to Iran, and the regular Iraqi forces, on the other.
The fall of of Kirkuk was a classic application of the IRGC's modus operandi: Years, even decades, of patient diplomacy laying the groundwork followed by the sudden application of force. Jonathan Speyer, director of the Rubin Center for Research in International Affairs at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, compared it to Hezbollah's (another IRGC client) swift takeover of West Beirut in 2008, when pro-Western elements in Lebanon sought to assert their sovereignty and overestimated the outside support upon which they could depend.
Soleimeini's move was preceded by 25 years of relationship development with the PUK, the Kurdish party connected to the Talabani family, since the days when Saddam Hussein was their mutual enemy. Once again, the Iranians appear to being playing chess while their adversaries are playing checkers.
In the two weeks since, it is clear that the ambitions of the forces arrayed against the Kurds go far beyond oil-rich Kirkuk. They intend to completely cut Kurdistan off from the world in order to permanently remove any future threats of secession and to erase Kurdish gains over the past 25 years. The two airports in Kurdistan have been closed to international traffic by the Iraqi government since September 29.
Iraqi army units and Shiite militias have moved to within 50 kilometers of Kurdistan's capital of Erbil. Iraqi army units have closed the principal land link between Iraqi Kurdistan and the Kurdish-controlled area of Syria. And they are moving on the only other crossing, an area also containing the vital oil pipeline through which Kurdistan earns much of its foreign currency.
Ethnic cleansing of Kurds is taking place in and around Kirkuk, with 35,000 people having fled their homes. Kurdish warnings of a potential genocide have to be taken seriously, says Julie Lenarz the executive director of the Human Security Centre, a London-based think tank with wide contacts in Kurdistan.
While the Kurds themselves are the major victims, the success of the Iraqi government and Shiite militias is another major blow to American prestige in the region -- another signal that being an American ally is worth little. As a final irony, much of the weaponry being used to attack the Kurds was supplied by the U.S. government to Iraqi government forces.
Should the anti-Kurd forces succeed, writes Spyer, it would constitute "an impressive victory for Bagdhad, certainly, but more profoundly for Teheran and the methods of the IRGC/Quds Force and its leader Soleimani."
THROUGHOUT THE DISASTER for the Kurds, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has been the only world leader to lift a finger on their behalf by trying to rally Western and American support. (Netanyahu may well be the only Western leader capable of playing chess with the Iranians.)
Ties between Israel and the Kurds have long been extremely warm. The two peoples share a history of being oppressed minorities in their host countries. A Kurdish Jew once told me that the Kurdish language is very close to the Aramaic of the Gemara. And in recent decades, the Kurds, particularly in Iraq, have stood with Israel as pro-Western islands in the larger Middle East.
That is why today, Iran is publicly celebrating the defeat of the "second Israel" in Iraqi Kurdistan.