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Winners or losers?

Safe in their northern no-fly zone where they have prospered quietly for over a decade, the Iraqi Kurds are now playing for very high stakes indeed. To optimists among them, at the very least the war seems to offer an opportunity for enhanced autonomy within a federal Iraqi state. Maybe, if they are particularly lucky, they will be able to gain an independent mini-state of their own. Some of the dreamers, thinkers and activists among the Kurds feel that they may even hit the jackpot and finally see a state of Kurdistan—a state which would unite all 30 million of the region’s Kurds under a single flag and within safe and secure borders. The Kurds are the world’s largest national grouping who still lack a country of their own, and now the dream of independence appears to be in reach.

But the war presents the Iraqi Kurds with threats as well as opportunities, and if history is anything to go by, the optimists should temper their hopes with a strong dose of reality. By almost any estimation, the Kurds are among the greatest victims of the 20th century’s grisly history.

Led by powerful but scheming friends, they were first offered a state by the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres, signed in the aftermath of the First World War, when the Ottoman Empire was broken up. This was in accordance with US President Wilson’s widely publicised promises of independence for subject peoples. But this offer was later withdrawn, and the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne saw the Kurds dispersed between Turkey and Iran, and the new states of Iraq and Syria. Localised revolts were crushed and national aspirations were thwarted—especially in Turkey, where for generations the Kurds were forbidden to use their own language, and were even described as ‘mountain Turks’.

In the early 1970s the Kurds of northern Iraq rose up in revolt against the Ba’athist government of Baghdad. They were armed and supported in this revolt by the Shah in neighbouring Iran, and by extension the Shah’s superpower patron the United States, and were holding their own against Baghdad. But in 1975 the Shah decided to make peace with Iraq in return for a border readjustment involving navigation rights on the Shatt al-Arab waterway. The Algiers Agreement was signed by a much younger Saddam Hussein who had not yet assumed the Presidency. With the signing of the Algiers Agreement, the Kurds were deserted by their erstwhile backers and left, once again, to their fate at the hands of the Iraqis.

In 1988, in the aftermath of Saddam Hussein’s eight-year war with Iran, Iraqi Kurds who had supported Iran were ruthlessly suppressed by Baghdad. The best known example of this was the gassing of about 5000 Kurdish men, women and children in the town of Halabja. At the time, Saddam’s use of weapons of mass destruction against the Kurds received little condemnation in the West. He was our valuable ally in the struggle against the spread of Islamic militancy from Iran. But much has been made of the horrors of Halabja in more recent days, and we have been constantly reminded by the likes of Bush and Blair of Saddam’s use of weapons of mass destruction ‘against his own people’.

At about the same time, the Kurds of Turkey were in the middle of a long campaign against the government in Ankara—under the rather eccentric leadership of Abdullah Ocalan, or ‘Apo’, and his Marxist/Leninist PKK. Eastern Turkey became all but ungovernable. A mini civil war ground on year after year, affecting all around it. The Turkish military often entered northern Iraq in ‘hot pursuit’ of PKK forces who sought haven with their fellow Kurds. Turkey’s human rights abuses in pursuit of this war became notorious and delayed Turkish entry into the European Union. An uneasy calm was restored when Turkish agents, aided by Israel and probably the US, captured Ocalan in Kenya and spirited him back to Turkey, where he remains imprisoned in an island fortress.

The first President Bush, after his victory in the 1991 Gulf War, called on the Iraqi people to rise up and overthrow their dictator. The Kurdish people of northern Iraq duly rose, along with the Shi’ites of the south, but for a variety of reasons Washington failed to follow through and support the revolt. As he had done so often in the past, Saddam Hussein retaliated with the ferocity that has become his hallmark. The humanitarian catastrophe in both northern and southern Iraq became so great that the US and Britain imposed unilateral no-fly zones. These have remained in force until today and have enabled the Kurds to develop their semi-autonomous region beyond the reach of Baghdad, financed by a share of Iraq’s oil-for-food money and the proceeds of lucrative smuggling. Yet once outside threats were removed the Kurds began fighting among themselves.

In the light of this sorry chronicle of betrayal and sell-out, it would be a brave Kurd who would once again trust the promises of outside players. Washington, Ankara, Baghdad and Teheran all see the Kurds as expendable pawns. Turkey in particular will not tolerate Iraqi Kurdish moves toward independence, fearing that they would galvanise the separatist ambitions of Turkey’s own Kurds. And Turkey, despite the current tensions with the US, is a NATO member and a valued ally whom nobody wishes to see destabilised.

The Iraqi Kurds may be valued players in the US war against Iraq, but despite the current rhetoric they seem to be headed for another fall. In many ways the Kurds have proved to be their own worst enemies—if history is any guide, any small success will see them fighting among themselves. But it will probably not come to this. The Kurds do not seem destined for even a small success. They are more likely to become one of the many casualties of the 21st century, continuing the patterns of the 20th. 

Dr Andrew Vincent is Director of the Centre for Middle East and North African Studies at Macquarie University.



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