On September 25, 2017, the semiautonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq held an independence referendum to determine the future of its quest for recognized statehood. As expected, an overwhelming majority (93% in the early returns) voted in favor of independence.
Also, as expected, no one around the world, even within Kurdistan itself, thought this meant an independent Kurdistan would be recognized by all or that such a reality is anywhere close to being around the corner. That fact shows not only how wretchedly unlucky Kurdish history is, but also how unjustifiably damnable the international process is when it comes to the fight for independence.
First, to its credit, it seems the KRG understands the referendum is never going to be the final step in this arduous process. There is debate even over whether or not the referendum can be officially declared ‘binding’ or ‘non-binding.’ More to the point, the KRG says the positive result simply signals that it will begin the long process of state-building, whatever that actually means, and will engage in negotiations with the federal government of Iraq, rather than make an outright and immediate declaration of independence and secession. In all likelihood, the KRG would prefer being able to do the latter but acknowledges the world community just isn’t likely to support such a radical maneuver. Indeed, a quick country snapshot bears this out:
Iraq: Basically, any decision about the future of Kurdistan has to involve ALL parts of Iraq. No independent initiatives can take place in a political vacuum.
Iran: It believes in the territorial unity and sovereignty of Iraq and accuses members of the KRG of being, in essence, ‘middlemen for Zionists.’
Israel: In a case of bad timing given the accusation above, Israel supports Kurdistan in its effort to be an independent state.
Saudi Arabia: Non-committal but did declare the internal powers of Iraq in general would ‘show wisdom’ in not holding the referendum at all.
Syria: Rejects any territorial division or splitting of Iraq (for obvious consequential reasons)
Turkey: The decision to hold the referendum is a ‘grave mistake.’
Armenia: Non-committal but reiterates the hope that all tension and potential conflict is resolved internally and peacefully.
Australia: Holding the referendum only guarantees the further weakening of Iraq overall and contributes to its destabilization.
Belgium: All states and peoples have a right to self-determination, but this is not the right time to be holding the referendum.
China: Believes in Iraq’s territorial integrity.
France: The referendum should lead to the proper representation of the Kurds in the Iraqi federal government (which is ostensibly a signal against Kurdish independence).
Germany: Warned the KRG against making unilateral decisions and holding a ‘one-sided’ referendum.
Netherlands: The referendum could be more acceptable if it was held in cooperation with the Iraqi federal government (which it wasn’t).
Spain: The referendum is illegal according to the 2005 Iraqi constitution and, quite frankly, all of Iraq should stay united in order to fight a coordinated effort against ISIL.
United Kingdom: While deeply supportive of the right of self-determination, like Belgium, the UK agrees now is not the time to be working on this referendum.
United States: ‘We support a unified, stable, and a federal Iraq. We appreciate and understand the legitimate aspirations of the people of Iraqi Kurdistan.”
Perhaps not so ironically, the US reaction is frustratingly familiar to anyone who supports the idea of a free and independent Kurdistan: what exactly does it mean to be for a unified Iraq but also ‘understand the legitimate aspirations’ of the Kurds? It sounds ridiculously like America is speaking out of both sides of its diplomatic mouth, which of course causes nothing but greater confusion on the ground in Kurdistan. At least many of the Western countries above expressed sympathy with the KRG but did ultimately say now is not the time for the referendum. Not good news, certainly, for the KRG, but at least it is clear on where these nations stand. In fact, the strange having-it-both-ways American reaction is probably what accounts for the KRG’s own duplicitous interpretation of the referendum results: how can the referendum be ‘binding’ but also ‘not an outright declaration of independence’, when the referendum directly asked voters to decide that very issue? It can be both when the only true global power capable of giving the referendum teeth (America) gives non-committal support, leaving the KRG uncertain as to how to proceed.
All of this signals that the continued wretched bad luck of Kurdistan is likely to continue. In a world that has seen history constantly alter and manipulate maps, split countries apart for the sake of Great Power games, and randomly assign new borders based on everything from the discovery of natural resources to diplomatic attempts to massage away ethnic tensions, Kurdistan has been unfortunate. One of the few peoples of the world that can legitimately (ie, archeologically document and historically affirm) lock its geographical location to its current position on the map, Kurdistan happens to also be split across at least FIVE internationally-recognized countries – Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Armenia, and Iran. Basically, the map makers of history have always chosen to disregard the legitimacy of the Kurdish people and its traditional homeland, even though it has been remarkably stable and consistent for millennia. There are in fact very few peoples across the globe able to make as strong a geographical, historical, and cultural claim on a very specific piece of territory.
It is this simple reality that has always damned Kurdish efforts for greater international recognition: even countries that may be sympathetic to the Kurdish cause realize any such move towards true independence would never be able to take place within a single region. The current referendum may officially be about only the Kurds in Northern Iraq, but try telling that to the governments of Iran, Armenia, Syria, and Turkey, all of whom have varying degrees of politically active Kurdish communities in their own border regions. Which means all of them will never accept a Kurdistan referendum in Northern Iraq because they will never accept it as a referendum exclusive to Northern Iraq. The fear of the cascade or ripple effect is palpable for all of these countries. And given the nature of the region and subsequent other instability and security factors, almost no country in the world today sees the Kurds in Northern Iraq as a singular question of justice, self-determination, and freedom, but a multi-layered question impacting several countries. Once more, alas, it seems the Kurds are uniquely positioned to be hurt by the grinder of politics, borders, and the cause of ‘greater global security.’ In a world on fire debating the security vs. freedom debate, the Kurds always seems to lose. It is doubtful that this referendum will reverse that trend. Rather, it will likely only affirm it.
The Turkish Gambit
The only certainty in war is its intrinsic uncertainty, something Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan could soon chance upon. One only has to look back on America’s topsy-turvy fortunes in Iraq, Afghanistan and even Syria for confirmation.
The Turkish invasion of northeastern Syria has as its defined objective a buffer zone between the Kurds in Turkey and in Syria. Mr. Erdogan hopes, to populate it with some of the 3 million plus Syrian refugees in Turkey, many of these in limbo in border camps. The refugees are Arab; the Kurds are not.
Kurds speak a language different from Arabic but akin to Persian. After the First World War, when the victors parceled up the Arab areas of the Ottoman Empire, Syria came to be controlled by the French, Iraq by the British, and the Kurdish area was divided into parts in Turkey, Syria and Iraq, not forgetting the borderlands in Iran — a brutal division by a colonial scalpel severing communities, friends and families. About the latter, I have some experience, having lived through the bloody partition of India into two, and now three countries that cost a million lives.
How Mr. Erdogan will persuade the Arab Syrian refugees to live in an enclave, surrounded by hostile Kurds, some ethnically cleansed from the very same place, remains an open question. Will the Turkish army occupy this zone permanently? For, we can imagine what the Kurds will do if the Turkish forces leave.
There is another aspect of modern conflict that has made conquest no longer such a desirable proposition — the guerrilla fighter. Lightly armed and a master of asymmetric warfare, he destabilizes.
Modern weapons provide small bands of men the capacity and capability to down helicopters, cripple tanks, lay IEDs, place car bombs in cities and generally disrupt any orderly functioning of a state, tying down large forces at huge expense with little chance of long term stability. If the US has failed repeatedly in its efforts to bend countries to its will, one has to wonder if Erdogan has thought this one through.
The Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 is another case in point. Forever synonymous with the infamous butchery at Sabra and Shatila by the Phalange militia facilitated by Israeli forces, it is easy to forget a major and important Israeli goal: access to the waters of the Litani River which implied a zone of occupation for the area south of it up to the Israeli border.
Southern Lebanon is predominantly Shia and at the time of the Israeli invasion they were a placid group who were dominated by Christians and Sunni, even Palestinians ejected from Israel but now armed and finding refuge in Lebanon. It was when the Israelis looked like they were going to stay that the Shia awoke. It took a while but soon their guerrillas were harassing Israeli troops and drawing blood. The game was no longer worth the candle and Israel, licking its wounds, began to withdraw ending up eventually behind their own border.
A colossal footnote is the resurgent Shia confidence, the buildup into Hezbollah and new political power. The Hezbollah prepared well for another Israeli invasion to settle old scores and teach them a lesson. So they were ready, and shocked the Israelis in 2006. Now they are feared by Israeli troops.
To return to the present, it is not entirely clear as to what transpired in the telephone call between Erdogan and Trump. Various sources confirm Trump has bluffed Erdogan in the past. It is not unlikely then for Trump to have said this time, “We’re leaving. If you go in, you will have to police the area. Don’t ask us to help you.” Is that subject to misinterpretation? It certainly is a reminder of the inadvertent green light to Saddam Hussein for the invasion of Kuwait when Bush Senior was in office.
For the time being Erdogan is holding fast and Trump has signed an executive order imposing sanctions on Turkish officials and institutions. Three Turkish ministers and the Defense and Energy ministries are included. Trump has also demanded an immediate ceasefire. On the economic front, he has raised tariffs on steel back to 50 percent as it used to be before last May. Trade negotiations on a $100 billion trade deal with Turkey have also been halted forthwith. The order also includes the holding of property of those sanctioned, as well as barring entry to the U.S.
Meanwhile, the misery begins all over again as thousands flee the invasion area carrying what they can. Where are they headed? Anywhere where artillery shells do not rain down and the sound of airplanes does not mean bombs.
Such are the exigencies of war and often its surprising consequences.
Author’s Note: This piece appeared originally on Counterpunch.org
Could Turkish aggression boost peace in Syria?
On October 7, 2019, the U.S. President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of American troops from northeast Syria, where the contingent alongside Kurdish militias controlled the vast territories. Trump clarified that the decision is connected with the intention of Turkey to attack the Kurdish units, posing a threat to Ankara.
It’s incredible that the Turkish military operation against Kurds – indeed the territorial integrity of Syria has resulted in the escape of the U.S., Great Britain, and France. These states essentially are key destabilizing components of the Syrian crisis.
Could this factor favourably influence the situation in the country? For instance, after the end of the Iraqi war in 2011 when the bulk of the American troops left the country, the positive developments took place in the lives of all Iraqis. According to World Economics organization, after the end of the conflict, Iraq’s GDP grew by 14% in 2012, while during the U.S. hostilities the average GDP growth was about 5,8%.
Syria’s GDP growth should also be predicted. Not right away the withdrawal of U.S., French, British, and other forces, but a little bit later after the end of the Turkish operation that is not a phenomenon. The Turkish-Kurdish conflict has been going on since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire when Kurds started to promote the ideas of self-identity and independence. Apart from numerous human losses, the Turks accomplished nothing. It is unlikely that Ankara would achieve much in Peace Spring operation. The Kurds realize the gravity of the situation and choose to form an alliance with the Syrian government that has undermined the ongoing Turkish offensive.
Under these circumstances, Erdogan could only hope for the creation of a narrow buffer zone on the Syrian-Turkish border. The withdrawal of the Turkish forces from the region is just a matter of time. However, we can safely say that the Turkish expansion unwittingly accelerated the peace settlement of the Syrian crisis, as the vital destabilizing forces left the country. Besides, the transfer of the oil-rich north-eastern regions under the control of Bashar Assad will also contribute to the early resolution of the conflict.
It remains a matter of conjecture what the leaders of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Russia agreed on during the high-level talks. Let’s hope that not only the Syrians, but also key Gulf states are tired of instability and tension in the region, and it’s a high time to strive for a political solution to the Syrian problem.
Turkey and the Kurds: What goes around comes around
Turkey, like much of the Middle East, is discovering that what goes around comes around.
Not only because President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appears to have miscalculated the fallout of what may prove to be a foolhardy intervention in Syria and neglected alternative options that could have strengthened Turkey’s position without sparking the ire of much of the international community.
But also because what could prove to be a strategic error is rooted in a policy of decades of denial of Kurdish identity and suppression of Kurdish cultural and political rights that was more likely than not to fuel conflict rather than encourage societal cohesion.
The policy midwifed the birth in the 1970s to militant groups like the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), which only dropped its demand for Kurdish independence in recent years.
The group that has waged a low intensity insurgency that has cost tens of thousands of lives has been declared a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union.
Turkish refusal to acknowledge the rights of the Kurds, who are believed to account for up to 20 percent of the country’s population traces its roots to the carving of modern Turkey out of the ruins of the Ottoman empire by its visionary founder, Mustafa Kemal, widely known as Ataturk, Father of the Turks.
It is entrenched in Mr. Kemal’s declaration in a speech in 1923 to celebrate Turkish independence of “how happy is the one who calls himself a Turk,” an effort to forge a national identity for country that was an ethnic mosaic.
The phrase was incorporated half a century later in Turkey’s student oath and ultimately removed from it in 2013 at a time of peace talks between Turkey and the PKK by then prime minister, now president Erdogan.
It took the influx of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Kurds in the late 1980s and early 1990s as well as the 1991 declaration by the United States, Britain and France of a no-fly zone in northern Iraq that enabled the emergence of an autonomous Iraqi Kurdish region to spark debate in Turkey about the Kurdish question and prompt the government to refer to Kurds as Kurds rather than mountain Turks.
Ironically, Turkey’s enduring refusal to acknowledge Kurdish rights and its long neglect of development of the pre-dominantly Kurdish southeast of the country fuelled demands for greater rights rather than majority support for Kurdish secession largely despite the emergence of the PKK
Most Turkish Kurds, who could rise to the highest offices in the land s long as they identified as Turks rather than Kurds, resembled Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, whose options were more limited even if they endorsed the notion of a Jewish state.
Nonetheless, both minorities favoured an independent state for their brethren on the other side of the border but did not want to surrender the opportunities that either Turkey or Israel offered them.
The existence for close to three decades of a Kurdish regional government in northern Iraq and a 2017 referendum in which an overwhelming majority voted for Iraqi Kurdish independence, bitterly rejected and ultimately nullified by Iraqi, Turkish and Iranian opposition, did little to fundamentally change Turkish Kurdish attitudes.
If the referendum briefly soured Turkish-Iraqi Kurdish relations, it failed to undermine the basic understanding underlying a relationship that could have guided Turkey’s approach towards the Kurds in Syria even if dealing with Iraqi Kurds may have been easier because, unlike Turkish Kurds, they had not engaged in political violence against Turkey.
The notion that there was no alternative to the Turkish intervention in Syria is further countered by the fact that Turkish PKK negotiations that started in 2012 led a year later to a ceasefire and a boosting of efforts to secure a peaceful resolution.
The talks prompted imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan to publish a letter endorsing the ceasefire, the disarmament and withdrawal from Turkey of PKK fighters, and a call for an end to the insurgency. Mr. Ocalan predicted that 2013 would be the year in which the Turkish Kurdish issues would be resolved peacefully.
The PKK’s military leader, Cemil Bayik, told the BBC three years later that “we don’t want to separate from Turkey and set up a state. We want to live within the borders of Turkey on our own land freely.”
The talks broke down in 2015 against the backdrop of the Syrian war and the rise as a US ally of the United States in the fight against the Islamic State of the PKK’s Syrian affiliate, the People’s Protection Units (YPG).
Bitterly opposed to the US-YPG alliance, Turkey demanded that the PKK halt its resumption of attacks on Turkish targets and disarm prior to further negotiations.
Turkey responded to the breakdown and resumption of violence with a brutal crackdown in the southeast of the country and on the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).
Nonetheless, in a statement issued from prison earlier this year that envisioned an understanding between Turkey and Syrian Kurdish forces believed to be aligned with the PKK, Mr. Ocalan declared that “we believe, with regard to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the problems in Syria should be resolved within the framework of the unity of Syria, based on constitutional guarantees and local democratic perspectives. In this regard, it should be sensitive to Turkey’s concerns.”
Turkey’s emergence as one of Iraqi Kurdistan’s foremost investors and trading partners in exchange for Iraqi Kurdish acquiescence in Turkish countering the PKK’s presence in the region could have provided inspiration for a US-sponsored safe zone in northern Syria that Washington and Ankara had contemplated.
The Turkish-Iraqi Kurdish understanding enabled Turkey to allow an armed Iraqi Kurdish force to transit Turkish territory in 2014 to help prevent the Islamic State from conquering the Syrian city of Kobani.
A safe zone would have helped “realign the relationship between Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and its Syrian offshoot… The safe-zone arrangements… envision(ed) drawing down the YPG presence along the border—a good starting point for reining in the PKK, improving U.S. ties with Ankara, and avoiding a potentially destructive Turkish intervention in Syria,” Turkey scholar Sonar Cagaptay suggested in August.
The opportunity that could have created the beginnings of a sustainable solution that would have benefitted Turkey as well as the Kurds fell by the wayside with Mr. Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from northern Syria.
In many ways, Mr. Erdogan’s decision to opt for a military solution fits the mould of a critical mass of world leaders who look at the world through a civilizational prism and often view national borders in relative terms.
Russian leader Vladimir Putin pointed the way with his 2008 intervention in Georgia and the annexation in 2014 of Crimea as well as Russia’s stirring of pro-Russian insurgencies in two regions of Ukraine.
Mr. Erdogan appears to believe that if Mr. Putin can pull it off, so can he.
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