25 October 2017

The struggle for Kurdish independence

After a years-long struggle, Dâ'ish (ISIL) is now almost defeated.  However, a new conflict is threatening to break out, one which the US risks gravely mishandling.

The Kurds are a distinct ethnic group with their own language and culture, who live mainly in Iraq, Turkey, Syria, and Iran.  The Kurdish language belongs to the Indo-Iranian group, closely related to Persian but not related at all to Arabic.  There are over five and a half million Kurds in Iraq, making up 15% of the country's total population.  Most of them live in the autonomous territory of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northeastern Iraq, but Kurdish-majority areas extend beyond the borders of the KRG.  Most of the rest of Iraq's population is Arab, divided between Sunni and Shiite; most Iraqi Kurds are Sunni, though some are Yezidis, an entirely separate religion.

Kurdish militias (peshmerga) played a major role is defeating Dâ'ish, and in the course of doing so, gained control of some areas of Iraq beyond the KRG.  Those areas include the city of Kirkuk, which is the capital of the oil-producing province of the same name.  This province's population is now predominantly Arab, but a few decades ago Kurds were the largest group; the demographic change was brought about by Saddam Hussein's policy of "Arabization" of the area, including his genocidal 1988 "Anfal" campaign which used mass killings and deportations to thin out the Kurdish population throughout Iraqi Kurdistan.  Estimates of the death toll range from 50,000 to 180,000.

On September 25 the KRG held a referendum on independence from Iraq; turnout was 78%, and 93% of the vote favored independence.  The Shiite-Arab-dominated Iraqi government immediately responded with punitive measures such as an air-travel blockade and began moving military forces, including irregular Shiite militias (some of them supported by Iran) into Kirkuk province.  These forces have now occupied Kirkuk city.  Kurdish peshmerga offered little resistance, perhaps because Kirkuk is outside the official borders of the KRG.  100,000 civilians have fled Kirkuk since the takeover.  Despite such abuses, the KRG has offered to negotiate with the Iraqi government on the basis of the existing Iraqi constitution.  However, the government shows every sign of taking a hard line against Kurdish independence.

If it comes to a fight, it will be a real fight.  Where the peshmerga have resisted Iraqi and militia advances, they have been effective, and they are beginning to push back near Kirkuk.  It is also possibile that Israel will assist the Kurds, even if covertly.  To its great credit, Israel is the only country so far to openly support Kurdish independence.  Perhaps it feels a kind of kinship; more than half of Israel's Jewish population is descended from Jewish refugees from Arab countries, whose ancestors suffered centuries of persecution in those countries.  The Iranian theocracy has gone so far as to call an independent Kurdistan "a second Israel".

So far the US has followed its usual line of supporting existing borders and states regardless of history or the realities on the ground.  Tillerson has expressed "concern" but suggested that "both parties commit themselves to a unified Iraq" to resolve the conflict, thus conceding in advance the very issue in dispute.  The main US priority seems to be that Iraq not align itself with Iran, as if that weren't already a foregone conclusion; both governments are Shiite, and so far at least, holy water is proving thicker than blood.

Iraq is a recognized state, but it is not a real nation; it's an artifact cobbled together by British imperialism less than a century ago, containing three groups (Kurds, Sunni Arabs, and Shiite Arabs) who have no particular sense of common identity nor any reason to feel loyal to that state.  Kurdistan is not (yet) a state, but in the minds of the Kurdish people, it is a nation.

The Kurds deserve American support -- if not outright support for independence, at least a firm policy against Iraqi use of force to suppress it.  The peshmerga were the toughest and most effective fighters in the long war against Dâ'ish.  The Kurds are relatively secular by Middle Eastern standards, and there's a good chance that an independent Iraqi Kurdistan would be a stable democracy in a region where such governments are not plentiful.  It would probably be an ally of Israel, something even rarer there.  If it would annoy the Iranian theocracy and the increasingly authoritarian Erdoğan regime in Turkey, too bad.  We should not betray courageous allies for their sake.


Blogger riverrider said...

these brave people have done our bidding on many occasions yet we throw them to the wolves every time when we are done needing their help. we kowtow to the disgusting turks like beggars groveling for crumbs, its sickening to me as a soldier, as an american. i say give them back their tribal lands, let trump make great deals with them, arm the shit out of them and tell everybody else that we kiss ass and pay big bucks in the region to get with it or lose the cash and face the wrath. we pay lip service to "supporting democracy wherever it springs up" but when its inconvenient like kurdistan or caladonia or georgia or chechnya we look the other way. sn,afu.

25 October, 2017 06:00  
Blogger Comrade Misfit said...

The problem is that the international community has largely stopped recognizing the redrawing of borders by force. Sucks for the Kurds.

25 October, 2017 09:36  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Riverrider: Needless to say, I agree. At some point we need to start favoring the people who favor us.

Comrade: In this case, the effort is to redraw the boundary by a referendum. It's the Iraqi government which is using force to try to stop it.

25 October, 2017 10:51  
Blogger Comrade Misfit said...

Like it or not, Iraqi Kurdestan is on territory that is internationally recognized as Iraq. For the Kurds to have it as their own country, Iraq will have to agree to give it up.

Just because California may want to separate, the rest of the country doesn't have to agree. Even if the Californians voted 95-5% to go.

(That's why the Crimean referendum and Russia's takeover of the place has only been recognized by a handful of pissant nations.)

25 October, 2017 12:40  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Maybe so, but there's been no initiation of force by the Kurds, only by Iraq. Anyway, that's pretty much the problem I was pointing out -- that governments treat existing states and borders as sacrosanct regardless of the realities of the situation.

25 October, 2017 16:39  

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