Millions of Kurds live in Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria but the British-French imperial division of the region left them without a state of their own, adding to the region’s tensions. But some Kurds see the current chaos in Iraq as a pathway to nationhood, as scholar Edmund Ghareeb told Dennis J Bernstein.
By Dennis J Bernstein
As Iraq unravels amid Sunni-Shiite sectarian warfare, the chances have increased that the relatively peaceful and prosperous Kurdish autonomous region in northern Iraq may break off and form an independent Kurdish state, a long-treasured dream of the Kurdish people who also inhabit parts of Iran, Turkey and Syria.
Kurdish and Middle East Scholar Edmund Ghareeb believes this possibility could be the major story emerging from the chaos unfolding across Iraq and Syria. Ghareeb spoke with Dennis J Bernstein on Pacifica Radio’s Flashpoints show. A scholar at American University in Washington, he has written extensively about the Kurdish movement.
DB: You said today “The 21st Century is likely to be the Kurdish Century in the Middle East. There is both great opportunity, right now for the Kurds, perhaps the greatest in recent history, and serious threats.”
EG: Well, the Kurds are going to be a major player, whatever happens in Iraq. To a certain extent a great deal will depend on what kind of a stand do the Kurds take in this vicious, fierce fighting that’s taking place between the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant that’s taking the fighting in Iraq.
But for the Kurds, I think there are three major forces. Of course, there is the [Iraqi] government, there are the forces of the Islamic State and its allies. And there are the Kurdish forces. The Kurdish have in the last two decades, established their own autonomous region. They have established a secure region, compared to what’s been going on in Iraq. Their economy is thriving. They have their own pesh mergas, their own military force. And so they have an effective military force in Iraq.
And they have recently taken over the city of Kirkuk, which they had been claiming for quite a while. Kirkuk is a very important city, for a variety of reasons. For instance, [it is] one of the more cosmopolitan cities in Iraq, it used to have, and to a certain extent still does [have] many different ethnic and religious communities. But, what makes Kirkuk very important, one, is that it is the center for the northern fields … Iraqi oil fields. And before the discovery of the oil fields in the south, that was Iraq’s main oil field.
And there are probably, still today, somewhere between 17% and 20% of Iraq’s oil is in that area. The Kurds have claimed this, as their own Jerusalem, in a sense. The Turkoman, another ethnic community, which at one time, used to be protected by Turkey and used to look to the Turkish government for support also claimed Kirkuk as have Arabs.
So as a result of this, you have now the control of this area by the Kurds, as well as the important, the disputed areas, in other parts of Iraq. What this says, if the Kurds can keep this area … then they might be able, if they wished to do so, and many of them have been saying that … “Maybe this is the time.” They might be able to establish an independent state of their own, which has been the Kurdish dream for many, many decades. The Kurds had not been able to achieve that, and there is question whether they will or not be able to achieve it now.
But if they decide to move in that direction, then that means that the Iraq, that we used to know, is finished, and for sure. Because that will leave only the Sunni areas, and the Shiite areas, which are basically at each other’s throat. And if that fighting continues, then we are likely to see the end of Iraq.
DB: Now, unlike in prior days, there seems to be some support from the Turkish government for an independent Kurdistan, on the one hand, of course, there are 5 million Kurds, as you point out, in Iraq now, or Kurdistan, and 20 million in Turkey, so if the Turkish government supports the state next door, this could be trouble for Turkey. You want to talk about this complicated situation?
EG: Absolutely. And I think this is fascinating, in a sense, what’s going on. On the one hand, we have seen a real improvement in the relationship between Turkey and the Kurdish regional government. Which is the autonomous government, Kurdish government in Iraq. The Kurds have had problems with the central government in Baghdad. They’ve had disputes over oil revenues. The Kurds have wanted to explore the oil, for oil in their own region, and they wanted to be able to export it. And Turkey has been sympathetic to that view. And in fact we have recently seen oil, for the first time, about the equivalent of two tankers, have been sold through Turkey, Kurdish oil, or oil from the Kurdish region.
So that is one problem which has brought the Kurds and, the Iraqi Kurds and the Turkish government together. The second factor is that the Turkish government and the Iraqi government have not seen eye-to-eye on a number of issues; whether it’s Syria, whether it’s a question of trade with the Kurds. And, in fact, the Iraqi government has threatened to bring what they consider to be the illegal act by Turkey of buying oil from Iraq without the approval of the central government in the International Arbitration Court.
So, there is bad blood between the two governments. On top of that, Turkey needs the Kurds of Iraq to help in its efforts to achieve dialogue and perhaps reconciliation and the beginning of a resolution of the problem of the Turkish Kurds. And, so the Iraqi Kurds have been trying to play the role of the mediator between the Turkish government and the Kurds.
And the last item, which is very important, is also that Turkey would like to diversify its oil [supplies]. Turkey is energy poor, and therefore if it could get more oil from the Kurdish region then that would strengthen its economy and would sort of relieve them from relying on Baghdad or on other oil and energy rich countries, whether it’s Iran, or whether it’s Russia. So there are complicated games being played. But at the heart of it, if the Kurds decide to go ahead and establish an independent republic of their own, an independent state, then there is going to be trouble.
There are many Turks who are very much opposed to the present government’s efforts to negotiate with the Kurdish population and with [Abdullah] Ocalan, head of the Kurdish Workers Party, which is a party which had been fighting against Turkey since 1984. And there are many Turks who worry, as you pointed out correctly, that if the 5 million Kurds in Iraq can establish their own state, why can’t the 20 to 22 million Kurds in Turkey do the same thing, and emulate their brethren in Iraq?
DB: Do you expect that there will be more fighting [in Iraq involving the Kurds]?
EG: I think there might be trouble between this Islamic State [of Iraq and the Levant] and the Kurds of Iraq. Then as you pointed out, some clashes that have taken place. However, they have not entered into any major battles recently. Nevertheless, I think the danger is there because there was bad blood, also, between this group when they were in Syria, or their branch in Syria has also entered into a battle with the Syrian Kurds.
And right now there are also disputed areas. The southern part of Kirkuk, there has been fighting between this group and the Kurdish pesh merga fighters and I think the danger is there. On top of that, there are also the Turkomen who are the third largest ethnic community in Iraq, who are a people of Turkish origin and they have had some problems with the Kurdish government because they are both claiming Kirkuk. And some of them have warned that if Kirkuk is not returned to the central government in Baghdad, the Turkomen might begin to carry on against the Kurds. So the situation is very fragile, very volatile, and extremely complex. And the danger of further fighting, bringing in new parties, is certainly a real one.
DB: And, complex is putting it mildly, I guess, because there are reports that Kurdistan already has a contract to export oil to Israel. Now that would certainly be something that many people in the region would be taking note. And then, of course, you have the United States, all of a sudden, they may be partners with Iran to bring peace to Iraq. You want to sort of talk about these dynamics?
EG: Well, this is another fascinating thing, and, although each one is a little different, but they are, in a way, both related. The Kurds are very much interested in getting money because Baghdad has stopped paying them when they refused to agree to Baghdad’s decision that they need to get approval from the central government before they can explore for oil, and export oil outside of Iraq. So that’s why they needed Turkey, and that’s why they’ve established this new pipeline to export oil from the Kurdish region through Turkey. Turkey has been very helpful.
There have been reports that they have sold two tankers full of oil. One of them reportedly has gone to Israel. The Kurdish regional government has denied this but there are a lot of questions. What has happened? Was it sold directly? Was it sold through other parties, and then the third party sold it to Israel? There are a lot of questions about this, so it is not very clear.
The other point that you mention, which is the issue of Iran. The Kurds have a good relationship with Iran. But Iran, also, has its own large Kurdish community of nine million or a little more than that, and they have been also pressured. In fact, the only place where you have had a Kurdish state, was in Iran after the Second World War. And at that time the United States and Britain helped Iran to suppress that revolt.
But what gives Iran, the Iranian dimension, the Iranian angle is much more complex because Iran also, as you know, supports [Nouri al-] Maliki, the current prime minister of Iraq. They have provided some intelligence support, also there is a report that they have been recently providing some planning assistance to defend Iraq and to regain some of the territory lost. At the same time the United States appears to be also very much interested in helping Baghdad against this Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
So that, in a way, puts Iran and the United States on the same side, at least, on Iraq. While they disagree, they stand on different sides inside Syria. There’s the opposition to the Syrian regime [that] has been getting support from Washington, while Iran has been supporting the Assad regime in Syria. So as a result of that, what we are finding is while the two countries may not see eye-to-eye on Syria, they appear to be seeing eye-to-eye, or at least have some common interest, when it comes to Iraq. And this is going to be fascinating to see where this is likely to go in the future, especially if you also bring in the five-plus-one negotiations with Iran over its nuclear pile.
DB: Particularly we’ve been focusing on Kurdistan. I do want to just spend a minute or two to look at the larger regional situation. Syria’s bombing, we don’t know if they are bombing inside Syria, or if they are in Iraq, because really the border has disappeared. These are two wings of the same group fighting in two countries. Your assessment of the broader picture, what that looks like, the disappearing border, the wars spreading. It’s almost like it could look like the worst nightmare that many people feared in terms of a real breakdown after the Iraq destruction.
EG: Absolutely. You put your finger on one of the most complex, the most dangerous aspects of this conflict. As you know, the British and the French divided the region, what was known as the Sykes-Picot Agreement. This led to the creation of the current nation states in the region. But now, with the rise of this new movement that’s known as ISIS, or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, in Iraq, but it’s also moved into Syria. It helped to create the al-Nusra Front [in Syria]. They have been both part, or very close, to al-Qaeda. And they are both part of it, although they have sort of splintered. But as a result of the recent fighting we have seen elements of the al-Nusra Front now joining again with the Islamic State. And this is creating a much larger area under their control.
However, one of the errors, I think, that many in the media have been making is that they assume that much of what’s going on in Iraq has been the work of ISIS. While ISIS has had many fighters, especially they have many of the suicide bombers, have come from their ranks, they have a lot of foreign jihadis fighting with them. However, much of the fighting that took place in Iraq, in the last few weeks come from, not only ISIS, but from the former soldiers and officers of the Iraqi army under Saddam Hussein, and also from some of the tribes, Iraqi tribes in the Sunni area.
Plus, another group, known as the Naqshbandi Sufi army which is led by Saddam Hussein’s former vice president. So, basically what we are seeing is that these groups, although they have a different ideology, and so many of them are far more secular, they are willing to cooperate right now against Maliki, because they feel Maliki has excluded and marginalized the Sunnis.
But these groups have very different ideologies and very different visions of what they would like to see in Iraq and in the region. So basically you are seeing new forces emerging, you are seeing new identities, new loyalties although in some way they are not really that new but they are a new version to much older identities, primordial kind of identities, where people identified themselves with their religion, with their sect, with their tribe, and in part the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The way the [George W. Bush] administration and Paul Bremmer worked with the Iraqis, they didn’t deal with the Iraqis as an Iraqi community, as a one Iraqi nation or people, they dealt with them as components of ethnic and religious groups. As Shiites, as Kurds, and as Sunnis.
They divided the government [among these groups] and so as a result of this what you ended up seeing was the Lebanonization of Iraq, whereby a people identify much more than they ever did before with their ethnic, and religious and sectarian identity, and making for a very complex, and a very difficult situation on the ground. As the two,.the main Islamic sects, the Shiite and the Sunnis, have rallied around their religious and political leader, leading to this very, very violent situation in Iraq.
DB: And a final question about U.S. policy. It seems as though it’s going to continue down the same road, as I said in the introduction, Barack Obama has asked Congress for $500 million to equip the moderates, in Syria. Your thoughts on continuing the same U.S. policy. Three hundred troops … they are really special forces/killers on the ground, now. Same policy, is this going to go anywhere? Your thoughts.
EG: Even if you think what happened in Iraq with basically the arming and training of the Iraqi military. Well, $25 billion were spent to do that. Tens of thousands of American trainers, Special Forces and other groups have helped train the Iraqi army. But as we saw in the last couple of weeks when these forces were faced with the attacks on them they ended up giving up their posts, and leaving, even leaving them to ISIS and other groups. So basically, the Islamic State ended up gaining major, large numbers of weapons, of equipment, of Hummers, of some tanks, some armored personnel carriers…
DB: Lots of cash, too, huh?
EG: Exactly. Some people have said $435 million or thereabouts. But all of this raises questions … here you have the United States fighting, providing help to groups and organizations which in some ways are allied, some of them at least, with the same groups fighting in both Syria and Iraq. And so that raises a great deal of questions, about the wisdom of this policy.
Dennis J Bernstein is a host of “Flashpoints” on the Pacifica radio network and the author of Special Ed: Voices from a Hidden Classroom.