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15 March 2016

Don’t let Iraq’s Kurds be erased from the conversation about the Middle East

Elements on left and right want to forget the Kurds and their plight. 

By Gary Kent

The month of March marks the most traumatic moments of the past, present and future of the Kurds in Iraq. It starts on 5 March with the anniversary of their uprising against Saddam Hussein in 1991. This week sees the 28th anniversary of why they had to rise up in the first place and that is the day when Saddam’s forces used mustard gas and slaughtered five thousand people in Halabja. Next week is Kurdish New Year – Newroz.

The Kurds were long seen as a cause celebre on the left. Jeremy Corbyn spoke passionately in the Commons debate on the 25th anniversary of Halabja and the wider genocide campaign three years ago. Thanks to him and others such as Mike Gapes, Ann Clwyd, Nadhim Zahawi and Robert Halfon, the Commons formally agreed to recognise that Saddam had committed genocide.

But Corbyn’s comrades in the Stop the War Coalition (StWC) have now turned on the Kurds in Iraq. Perhaps they are miffed that Kurds stood outside their Christmas Dinner to make clear they supported Western airstrikes in Iraq and Syria. Daring to disagree with the Stoppers about how best they can fight the existential threat of Islamic State (IS) may have gone too far for the comrades.

Perhaps their nose is out of joint because the Kurdistan regional government high representative to the UK, Karwan Jamal Tahir, scolded leading Stopper Tariq Ali in the New Statesman for denouncing “stage Kurds” who were wheeled into BBC studios to support the invasion of Iraq – as if they have no agency and are merely stooges of imperialism.

The StWC’s leaders have pickled the concept of imperialism. Yes, imperialist powers acted selfishly, used the Middle East as a petrol pump, and forced peoples into countries where they had little in common or much that divided them. The centenary of the Sykes-Picot agreement of May 1916 may highlight a process that led to dividing Kurds across four countries and locking some in a prison-nation called Iraq.

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From 1945, world affairs was played through the prism of Cold War rivalry. The Kurds of Iraq were courted by the Soviets in the 1960s and supported by the Americans in the 1970s. America’s aim, via the Shah’s Iran, was to check Soviet influence and tie down the Iraqi military, eighty percent of whom were focused on the Kurds during the 1973 Yom Kippur war.

Many think Henry Kissinger cynically betrayed the Kurds for the 1975 Iran/Iraq deal on the contested Shatt-al Arab waterway, although he considered it small beer. Bryan R Gibson’s magisterial account of America’s Kurdish intervention Sold Out?: US Foreign Policy, Iraq, the Kurds and the Cold War suggests the Shah concluded a fait accompli behind Kissinger’s back. It illustrates the limits of imperial power but also how the Kurds were used as pawns.

Saddam’s campaign against the Kurds intensified after 1975. It began with the abduction and murder of 8,000 male members of the Barzani clan. It proceeded to systematic genocide in the late 1980s, and Halabja. But Saddam overreached himself by invading Kuwait in 1990. The UN sponsored and US-led coalition evicted him but refused to stretch the mandate and go after him in Iraq. They assumed Saddam was monstered by his massive defeat and urged repressed Shias and Kurds to revolt. They also stupidly agreed that Saddam could use his air force internally and the Shia uprising was crushed while up to two million Kurds fled to the mountains.

Their suffering and deaths dominated the news and deft lobbying by the Kurds persuaded John Major to propose a no-fly zone. This prevented further attacks and allowed the Kurds to return home, while Saddam’s forces left most of Kurdistan. The safe haven continued for another 12 years during which Western warplanes were fired on almost every day. Public opinion can change Western foreign policy for the better.

Yet the StWC wades without nuance or understanding into the chequered and complex history of the Kurdish relationship with the West. An anonymous statement on their website baldly asserts that “the Kurdish people in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran do have some friends globally: the anti-war movement in 1991, 2003 and today is among them. The governments of the US, Turkey, Britain, Israel and the rest of the alliance for Iraq War III most certainly are not.” Western action in 1991 saved the Kurds and most see 2003 as a liberation.

The delusional statement asserts that nowadays “the US, Britain and their allies are bombing Iraq and Syria in the name of destroying IS [but]….they remain studiously fixed on their aim of crushing progressive forces – Arab and Kurd.” It also claims that the KRG’s Peshmerga were marginal in liberating Sinjar last November and Kurdish forces from Syria and Turkey were more important.

This is untrue. They all co-operated. Nor does it suit the StWC’s anti-Western version of reality to mention that Western airstrikes were crucial in protecting Erbil, and freeing Kobane and Sinjar. And they overlook American supplies of 50 tonnes of weapons to the Syrian Kurds.

The statement also slams the “neo-liberal KRG,” which is puerile demonization. It lacks sympathy for and understanding of a place whose economy has been crashed by war, a massive humanitarian burden of refugees (a one third increase in population, and chauvinist and obstructive attitudes in Baghdad. It fails to acknowledge the dangers of a state-dominated economy reliant on one commodity for revenue, which has slumped. It omits to mention that all Kurdistani parties seek to reduce reliance on state employment and energy by diversifying their economy, vital given that slump in oil prices. And it completely ignores their desire to ally with the West on the basis of shared values.

So what if a far-left group fools itself? The StWC has diminishing importance although its campaigning still influences decisions on military action and misleads elements of the left, including Labour leaders. The priority should be backing the Kurds in opposing IS and reforming their economy. 

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