Kurdish independence, Halabja and an interview at the BBC

September 26, 2017

Israel, which has a policy of supporting pro-western pro-democratic national movements, has become the only country in the world to declare support for Kurdish independence. As a result, Kurdish Muslims have regularly been flying Israeli flags at independence rallies, such as this one in the city of Erbil.



The world unites – against a free people
By Tom Gross
September 26, 2017

Yesterday millions of Iraqi Kurds voted in a free and fair process on whether to seek an independent state. The results are expected later today, and Kurds are likely to have voted overwhelmingly to approve Kurdish statehood. Kurdish leaders say they will then request that secession talks begin promptly with a view to gaining independence within a year or two.

Unlike the Palestinians, whose quest for an independent state enjoys near unanimous global support, almost the entire world has come together in recent days and weeks to oppose independence for the Kurds, the largest stateless people in the world. (For example, the Trump administration, in a statement on September 15, called the Kurdish independence ballot “particularly provocative and destabilizing.” Last Thursday, the UN Security Council voted unanimously to warn against Kurdish independence.)

Unlike an independent Palestine, which under its current leadership, would likely continue its armed struggle to destroy Israel in its entirety following independence, Kurdistan shows no signs whatsoever of attempting or wishing to destroy Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Syria or any other neighboring state.

Furthermore the Kurds have far more nationally cohesive historic roots than the Palestinians, whose national identity was practically indistinguishable from Jordanians and other Arabs until a few decades ago. The Kurds have their own language, their own ethnicity and many other national aspects that the Palestinian national movement lacks. Unlike most Arab states, which comprise rival ethnic, tribal and religious groups who hate each other, Kurds constitute a largely coherent nation.

Surely self-determination for all peoples, including of course the Palestinians, deserves support so long as they don’t seek to use statehood as a platform for waging war on civilians in an attempt to destroy a neighboring nation.

Perhaps if the Kurds had engaged in waves of airline hijackings across the world and pioneered the use of suicide bombing on civilians as the Palestinians have, editorial writers at news outlets such as the New York Times and Financial Times – both of which have opposed Kurdish independence in lead editorials – would be as enthusiastic for Kurdish independence as they are for Palestinian independence.

The Kurds are relatively democratic in a region of dictatorships. Women enjoy good rights there. They are tolerant of their Christian and other minorities. And they were loyal to western states, and at the forefront of western efforts to drive Isis from Raqqa and Mosul.

In return, not a single Western country (other than Israel) supports their quest for independence.



In my last year as an undergraduate at Oxford, I applied for a place on the BBC News training scheme. I recall how in a final round interview with a committee of senior BBC news editors, I was asked what the BBC might have done differently in its foreign coverage.

I raised the question of Halabja – the city that endured the worst chemical attack since the Holocaust (by Saddam Hussein) deliberately aimed at women and children.

I said I realized that the BBC didn’t have the capacity to cover every third world atrocity, but surely the large-scale use of chemical weapons on thousands of civilians warranted proper coverage? I told them that I noted at the time that the BBC had run only a very short report about Halabja, placed towards the end of their main half-hour evening TV news bulletin, whereas other news networks including the rival British news provider ITN, had run Halabja as its main news item and shown film footage of the victims. When I mentioned Halabja there was silence and then a murmur of laughter from the BBC news editors.

And the only thing the chief BBC interviewer said, in response to my question about the Kurds, before then closing the interview, was “Are you a Zionist?”

(Needless to say, I didn’t get the place on the training scheme which was at that time, a near certain route to subsequent employment as a BBC news journalist.)


I attach four articles on the Kurdish referendum. (All four writers are subscribers to this “Middle East dispatch” list.)



First here is a link to a piece from Rudaw, the informative Kurdish website I occasionally link to, and some of whose journalists subscribe to this list:

Kurdish girl to Trump ahead of referendum: Is democracy wrong path?

Tenth-grader Waran Hawrami, whose mother is from Halabja, writes an open letter to President Trump asking why the western democracies don’t support a free and democratic Kurdistan.



The support by the Israeli government for Kurdish independence – which has nothing to do with Zionism, but is a result of Israel having the foresight and courage to support pro-western pro-democratic national movements – has been welcomed at rallies by Kurds both in Kurdistan and among exiled Kurdish communities across Europe, as you can see from the Israeli flags being waved by Kurds at this photo montage.


* You can also find other items that are not in these dispatches if you “like” this page on Facebook www.facebook.com/TomGrossMedia



The inconvenient Kurds
By David P. Goldman, Spengler
Asia Times
September 25, 2017

Except for the State of Israel and the Kingdom of Jordan, there isn’t one state in Western Asia that is viable inside its present borders at a 20-year horizon. All the powers with interests in the region want to kick the problem down the road, and that is why the whole world (excepting Israel) wants to abort an independence referendum to be held by Iraq’s eight million Kurds on Sept. 25. If Iraq’s Kurds try to convert the autonomous zone they have ruled for a quarter of a century into a fully independent state, the Iraqi state probably will collapse, Turkey likely will invade northern Iraq and Syria, and Iran will join Turkey in military operations against Kurdish-led forces in Iraq.

There is no precedent in diplomatic history for the whole world closing ranks against the aspirations of a small people, let alone one that has governed itself admirably amidst regional chaos for the past generation. On Thursday, the United Nations Security Council voted unanimously to warn of “potentially destabilizing effects” of the independence vote. Turkey’s parliament Sept. 23 renewed a mandate for the Turkish army to invade Syria and Iraq, and Ankara’s defense minister warned that the vote could collapse a “structure built on sensitive and fragile balances.” The White House warned, Sept. 15 that “the referendum is distracting from efforts to defeat [the Islamic State] and stabilize the liberated areas.”

Just what is the “sensitive and fragile balance” that the Kurds might up-end by substituting the word “independent” for “autonomous” in the description of their land in Northern Iraq?

Most of Turkey’s military-age men will come from Kurdish-speaking families by 2040 or so, because Turkey’s 20 million Kurds have twice as many children as ethnic Turks. Last year I reviewed Turkey’s 2015 census data, which show the trend towards Kurdish demographic preponderance accelerating (“Turkey’s Demographic Winter and Erdogan’s Duplicity”). Concentrated in Turkey’s southeast, the Turkish Kurds dominate a part of the country contiguous to the Kurdish Autonomous Region of Iraq. After half a century of dirty war by the Turkish army against the Kurdish minority, Turkey’s Southeast might break away to join an Iraq-centered Kurdish state.

Stitched together from three Ottoman provinces by the British Colonial office, Iraq maintained a brutal sort of stability under the minority rule of Sunni Arabs who controlled the army and used it murderously against the Shi’ite Arab majority as well as the Kurdish minority. George W. Bush insisted on majority rule, namely Shi’ite domination, which pushed the Sunnis into the embrace of al-Qaeda and later ISIS, and left the Kurds to fend for themselves.

Iran faces a demographic catastrophe over the next 20 years because the present generation of Iranians were born to families of seven children, but have only one or two children. As the present generation ages, Iran’s elderly depends will comprise 30% of the total, about the same as Europe, but with about a tenth the per capita GDP. Iran will be the first country to get old before it gets rich, and its economy will implode. Like Turkey, though, Iran has huge ethnic disparities in birth rates. In Tehran province, Iranian women have less than one child apiece on average, but in the restive province of Baluchistan on the Pakistani border, women have 3.7 children.

Syria’s Sunni majority suffered long under the heel of a deviant Shi’ite (Alawite) minority, and rebelled with Obama’s encouragement in 2011. With Russian and Iranian backing, the Assad government squared off against al-Qaeda and ISIS elements, until the Kurds created a third force that could defeat ISIS on the ground while holding off Assad’s Iranian mercenaries. After the Iraq and Afghanistan wars America lacked the stomach to put boots on the ground, and the Kurds became America’s designated proxy.

The United States brawled into the region in 2003 in order to create a stable and democratic Iraq, and instead opened Pandora’s Box. That left Russia (as well as China) in a quandary: the emergence of a Sunni jihad movement claiming the legitimacy of a new caliphate threatens the security of Russia, a seventh of whose citizens are Muslims, and overwhelmingly Sunni. Suppressing the Sunni jihad was a prime objective of Russia’s intervention in Syria, and its uneasy alliance with Shi’ite Iran.

Washington is left without an appetite for a fight, and without the gumption to declare its Mesopotamian and Afghan adventures a failure. America’s military leadership of the past 20 years rose through the ranks by supporting nation-building in Iraq. Although the US military has backed and armed the Kurds, it will not support any action that undermines Iraq’s territorial integrity.

Western Europe is already reeling from the million and a half Syrian and other migrants dumped on its borders with the connivance of the Turkish government, which allowed the migrant horde to pass its borders en route to the Balkans and thence to northern Europe. It wants stability at all costs, fearing that more fighting would set more refugees in motion.

China wants everyone to shut up and join its “One Belt, One Road” infrastructure project, which envisions Iran as a key node and Turkey as a western terminus. The ruins of Middle Eastern states might be absorbed eventually into a Chinese economic empire stretching across Eurasia, what I previously dubbed a “Pax Sinica.”

That leaves the Kurds to fend for themselves. That is a pity, and not just for the Kurds, who have shown themselves capable of governing themselves and fighting effectively to suppress the likes of the Islamic State. If Washington were sufficiently guileful, it could use the Kurdish crisis to its advantage. Turkey has behaved execrably during the past several years, playing a double game with the Islamic State, violating its obligations to NATO by purchasing Russia’s air defense system, and above all by using the transit of refugees as a bludgeon against the West.

Washington’s best course of action would be to threaten Turkey with support for Kurdish independence – including the artillery, anti-tank weapons and anti-aircraft systems required to repel a Turkish invasion. Ankara would recoil in horror, but that would be a salutary exercise for the rogue Turkish capital. At the same time, it should counsel the Kurds to be patient, to bide their time, to trust to an American-led international commission on the future of Kurdish nationality, and to enjoy American largesse in a number of areas, including economic development and armaments. There are all sorts of ways for sophisticated weapons to get into Kurdish hands with plausible deniability. Without giving away the whole game, that should indicate how Washington might exploit the crisis.

Iran reportedly has put several army brigades into its own Kurdish areas in advance of the referendum. Iran’s Kurds would welcome American support, and I would advise Washington to engage the services of people like Michael Ledeen, the leading proponent of undermining the Tehran theocracy, to deal with the details – again, with plausible deniability.

Russia wouldn’t like this, to be sure, but Washington has few reasons to please Moscow at the moment. China wouldn’t like it; any sort of instability is bad for business. In diplomacy, though, everything is negotiable. What will Russia and China concede for America’s help in persuading the Kurds to be patient? In the medium term, Kurdish ascendancy is likely whether the great powers like it or not. They are tough, competent and impassioned about their own nationality, while the Turks and Iranians have become enervated and hollow, and the Arabs tribalistic and corrupt. America should cultivate the winners, and thereby gain the influence to moderate the course of Kurdish national aspirations.

But all this is like saying that if we had some ham, we could have ham-and-eggs, if we had some eggs. After two decades of promoting diplomats and military officers for doing the wrong sort of thing, Washington simply lacks people with the imagination to turn a good crisis to its advantage.



As Kurds vote for independence, Americans should cheer
By Jeff Jacoby
Boston Globe
Sept. 21, 2017

In a landmark referendum next Monday, Iraqi Kurdistan will vote on whether to declare independence. The outcome is not in question. Iraq’s Kurds have been largely self-governing for 25 years, but they yearn to be sovereign in a state of their own, just like the region’s other great ethnic and linguistic groups – Arabs, Turks, Persians, Jews.

The Kurdish campaign for statehood ought to have the robust backing of the United States. Iraqi Kurds are ardently pro-American, unabashed allies in a region where the US has few true friends. The Kurds make no secret of their deep gratitude to the United States for toppling Saddam Hussein, the tyrant who waged a war of genocide against Kurdistan in the 1980s, slaughtering at least 50,000 civilians with chemical weapons and aerial assaults.

Kurdistan isn’t just a grateful ally, it’s a capable and skillful one. Kurdish soldiers, known as Peshmerga, are widely acknowledged to be America’s most effective partners in the fight against the Islamic State. They played a central role in the recent liberation of Raqqa and of Mosul from ISIS. As waves of refugees have fled the violence unleashed by the Islamic State and the Syrian civil war, nearly 2 million have found a safe haven in Kurdistan. Among them are many thousands of Christians.

Yet instead of applauding the Kurds’ bid for independence, the United States keeps dousing it with cold water.

For weeks, the Trump administration has pressed Kurdish officials to call off the scheduled plebiscite. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis worry that a vote for independence - bitterly opposed by Turkey, Iran, and the central Iraqi government in Baghdad - would imperil the coalition’s efforts to crush ISIS. On Friday, the White House spokeswoman announced flatly that the United States “does not support the Kurdistan Regional Government’s intention to hold a referendum.”

This is foolish and short-sighted. It is also reminiscent of George H.W. Bush’s notorious “Chicken Kiev” speech 25 years ago.

In the summer of 1991, when it was clear that the Soviet Union’s days were numbered, pro-independence sentiment surged in Ukraine, which had long chafed under Moscow’s rule. On Aug. 1, Bush traveled to Kiev and delivered a speech cautioning Ukrainians not to be seduced by “suicidal nationalism” - i.e., not to seek a path out of the Soviet empire. Ukrainians rightly scorned Bush’s message. Four months later, they voted overwhelmingly to approve a declaration of independence.

Iraqi Kurds will do the same next week. And if any country should be applauding, it is the United States.

It’s true that an independent Kurdistan would mean the end of Iraq as a unitary state. It’s also true that it might inspire restlessness among Kurdish minorities in other countries. So what? Iraq’s borders, an artifact of post-World War I colonialism, have never made much sense. Is it in Washington’s interest that Iraq remain indivisible? No more than it was when it came to the USSR or Czechoslovakia.

And if an independent Kurdish state discomfits Turkey, Iran, Syria - well, what of it? For decades, all three have brutally repressed the Kurds within their borders. All three today are dictatorships largely hostile to US interests. That includes Turkey, which, though formally a NATO ally, now sides regularly with America’s enemies and has moved decisively into the Islamist camp.

Kurds have earned the right to sovereignty. Like the Jews of pre-statehood Palestine, they have used their limited autonomy to prove their fitness for independence - building up the elements of democracy and civil society, developing a lively economy, choosing responsible leaders, and nourishing institutions of culture and education. A sovereign Kurdistan would advance America’s goals in the Middle East, while impeding those of Russia and Iran. It would be a force for peace, stability, and minority rights, and against terrorism, tyranny, and jihadist extremism.

A free and democratic Kurdistan will be a blessing to its people, a model for the Middle East, and a rock-solid ally of America. When Kurds go to the polls next week, it should be with our admiration and support.



The Case for Kurdistan
A boon to America, the region, and the world.
By Sohrab Ahmari
Commentary magazine
Sept. 22, 2017

The Kurds have been a people without a state for centuries. Monday’s independence referendum in northern Iraq’s Kurdish zone is an important step toward rectifying this historic injustice, and I believe the U.S. is making a grave mistake by opposing the vote.

The Trump administration announced its displeasure in a September 15 statement, noting that the referendum “is distracting from the effort to defeat ISIS and stabilize the liberated areas.” It added: “Holding the referendum in disputed areas is particularly provocative and destabilizing.” The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), the White House said, should work out its differences with Baghdad through dialogue.

Not now, go away, in other words. The statement reflected the sort of rigid adherence to Washington dogma that too often prevents America from seizing the opportunities presented by the tectonic shifts in the Middle East. The Trump administration failed even to nod at Kurdish aspirations, or offer an alternative timeline if the current moment is too inconvenient. This was unnecessary slap when there are compelling moral and strategic reasons for creating a Kurdish state in northern Iraq sooner than later.

The Kurds got by far the worst treatment during the decades of Baathist rule in Iraq. Saddam Hussein ethnically cleansed tens of thousands of them in the 1970s. Then, in the closing days of the Iran-Iraq War, he set out to destroy the Kurdish community. The regime fired chemical weapons at Kurdish civilians, summarily executed men and boys, and sent entire villages to concentration camps.

President George H.W. Bush’s decision to impose a no-fly zone in 1991 granted Iraqi Kurds protection against Saddam’s depredations and a measure of autonomy. The Kurds used the opening, and the one provided by the 2003 invasion, to develop institutions of self-government. Iraqi Kurds constitute a coherent nation. They stand out in a region full of non-nation-states in various stages of disintegration. Kurds speak a common language, albeit with regional variations. Most are Sunni Muslims, though there are Christians and even a very few Jews among them, as well. They have deep historical ties to their territory. Their culture sets them apart, visibly, from their neighbors. They have distinct national institutions. And they already enjoy quasi-state recognition in the corridors of power in Europe, the Middle East, and beyond.

Iraqi Kurds, moreover, share what Douglas Feith has described as the key subjective factor in nationhood: a “type of fellow feeling” that is “an extension of the affection people tend to have for their family members.” Whatever their tribal differences–and these are real–Kurds living in Erbil or Dohuk today look upon other Kurds, not Iraqis, as their true compatriots. The bonds of Kurdish sympathy are much stronger and more enduring than those of Iraqi nationalism, if the latter means much at all.

Taken together, these factors mean that Iraqi Kurds are ripe for statehood. The Arabs have 22 states, and the Turks, Iranians, and Jews each have one–so why shouldn’t the Kurds enjoy statehood? There is no good answer to this question.

Then, too, Iraqi Kurdistan is vibrant and free. In Erbil today, within an hour’s drive from what used to be the second capital of the ISIS “caliphate,” you can enjoy a beer, surf a largely unrestricted Internet, and criticize the government without having to fear death squads. You won’t hear chants of “Death to America” or “Death to Israel” on the streets. There is corruption in the Kurdistan Regional Government, to be sure, and a degree of political nepotism that would make Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump blush. But by regional standards, KRG governance is more than acceptable.

An independent Kurdistan, moreover, will bear strategic fruit for the U.S. It could serve as a counterweight, however small, to Iranian hegemony. KRG leaders have taken a moderate, pragmatic line with all of their neighbors. That is wise policy, given the region’s size and strength relative to the likes of Iran and Turkey. Even so, the introduction of a new, fully sovereign Kurdish actor would interrupt Tehran’s so-called Shiite crescent stretching from Sanaa to Beirut. Today Iraq is trapped in the crescent. An independent Kurdistan wouldn’t be. It would irk the mullahs still more if this new state turned out to be a democratic success story. Conversely, by blocking Kurdish aspirations, the U.S. is putting itself in the same camp as Iran.

Most important, friendship should mean something. Iraqi Kurdish forces fought valiantly alongside the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition. When the jihadist army seemed invincible, it was Kurdish fighters who stopped its march across Iraq (and Syria). As Kurdish intelligence chief Masrour Barzani told me in 2015, “In this entire area the Kurds are probably the most pro-American people that you can find. Forever we will be thankful for the U.S. support since the day of toppling Saddam’s regime.”

If Washington keeps neglecting and mistreating friends, America’s credit rating in the region will suffer irreparable harm. Responsible, pro-American populations, like the Iraqi Kurds, deserve American support.



Trump Should Bet on Kurdish Independence
By Ron Prosor
New York Times
September 24, 2017

No one likes winning more than President Trump. He has a chance to prove it on Monday, when Iraqi Kurds hold a referendum on their independence.
There is no shortage of losers in the Middle East, but anyone in the business of spotting winners should bet on an independent Kurdish state. Backing the Kurds is not only strategically smart – they are a steadfast ally in the fight against the Islamic State and Islamist extremism, doing battle alongside American soldiers – it’s also the right thing to do.

Yet the Trump administration has worked to prevent the referendum, arguing that with the war against the Islamic State yet to be won, a vote could risk further dividing an already fractious coalition. In a statement, it called the referendum “provocative and destabilizing.”

This is a serious mistake. In failing to offer full-throated support for Kurdish independence, the United States is focusing solely on the short-term volatility of the region and overlooking serious medium- and long-term opportunities.

There’s no denying that the Middle East is a mess: To truly stabilize the region, we need to defeat the Islamic State, replace the brutal regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria and contain Iran, which still threatens to go nuclear. But the best way to stamp out darkness isn’t through military might, but through light. And an independent Kurdish state would be a beacon of hope in a part of the world where hope is desperately needed.

An independent Kurdish state would be a victory for democratic values, national self-determination and the rights of women and minorities. Is there a more iconic image of the fight against the Islamic State than that of female Kurdish peshmerga fighters doing battle on the front lines against jihadists who demand the subjugation of women? An independent Kurdish state would empower these warriors in a part of the world where women and girls are typically second-class citizens.

In addition to its commitment to gender equality, Kurdistan has also shown its commitment to minority rights. Over the past three years, Kurdistan, which is about the size of Maryland, has taken in nearly two million refugees, including Assyrians, Yazidis, Turkmen, Shabaks and Christians fleeing the Islamic State and sectarian violence in other parts of Iraq and in Syria.

Even without a formal state, the Kurds have built a society that meets many of the criteria of statehood. They are economically viable, with a well-developed energy industry. They have functioning institutions, including elections for Parliament and a relatively free media. And they’ve proved capable of defending themselves against the Islamic State without attacking others.

Kurdistan is already, in values and governance, a democratic nation in waiting. Is it a perfect Jeffersonian democracy? No. Does it have a long way to go? Yes. But in a region where tyranny is the norm, it’s on the right track.

With a state, the Kurds could become an even more valuable and constructive ally against extremism. That would be in the American interest, but just as important, it would be a fulfillment of American values. Supporting Kurdish independence means supporting the right to self-determination of a people that have overcome oppression, persecution and tyranny to build a thriving, vibrant society. That’s one of the reasons Israel supports the Kurds’ right to self-determination.

Some 30 years ago, the Kurdish people were being choked with chemical weapons by Saddam Hussein. Today they stand as a nation reborn, about to embark on an inspiring exercise in democracy. We have a moral duty to support its outcome. In a region where the flags of liberal democracies are routinely set alight, Kurdistan has chosen to embrace liberal democratic values.

Now the United States faces a critical choice. President Trump has the chance to demonstrate American leadership, promote American values and strengthen an American ally. Israel would welcome his support for the Kurds. And if handled intelligently, the pragmatic Arab states such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates could follow suit, on the grounds that Kurdistan could serve as a bulwark against Iran and the Islamic State.

If we wait for the region to be perfectly stable, for Islamist extremism to disappear or for the collective blessing of Ankara, Tehran and Baghdad, we could be waiting forever. If, however, the United States wants to support a stabilizing, modernizing and democratic force, the choice is clear: Mr. Trump should bet on a winner and support an independent Kurdish state.

All notes and summaries copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.