Speyer: The Kurds Deserve a Country of Their Own / New English Review

By Jerry Gordon – The Iconoclast – 4.9.2013 – As I watched  the US Senate and House Foreign Affairs hearings on President Obama’s request for limited authority  to strike  Syria’s Assad for the sin of gassing 1,500 of his own people, I remarked to myself how soon we forget what happened to another group in the Middle East. I am referring to the Kurds, a non-Arab ethnic group split across four countries: Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria who number in excess of 40 million.

The Kurds were denied sovereignty promised at the Versailles Peace discussions when the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923 established the Republic of Turkey and the secret Sykes Picot agreement of 1915 was implemented with French and British Mandates decreed at San Remo in 1920. What became the modern nation of Iraq under Hashemite King Faisal was designed by noted British Arabist Gertrude Bell and became a reality in 1926.  The modern nation of Syria was created out of the French mandate in 1938, while Lebanon, a province became an independent country in 1944.   As a result of  geo political map making of the modern Middle East , the Kurds were split asunder.

Kurdish gas attack victim Halabja, Iraq, March 1988

Fast forward to the mid-1970’s when the Iraqi Kurds were a pawn in an unsuccessful covert war  for autonomy  against Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein which ended in 1975 when the late Shah of Iran inked a treaty with Hussein in Algiers. Effectively the Kurds were abandoned and covert Israeli military and technical assistance to Kurdish leader Mustafa Barzani was shut down at the request of Dr. Kissinger as national security advisor to President Ford.  That set the stage for retaliation by Saddam Hussein , when he undertook punitive action against the Kurds who had joined up with the Islamic Republic in Tehran.  In 1985, Saddam Hussein launched chemical warfare attacks against Kurdish villages in northwestern Iraq, the ancient  Kurdish homeland.  An estimated  5,000 Kurds were killed in the village of Halabja. This was part of the genocidal  1988 Al-Anfal Campaign that slaughtered in excess of 50,000 Iraqi Kurds.

We have written about the plight of Syrian Kurds and their resistance against Islamist rebel forces that have besieged  them  in the Syrian civil war, the  al Nusrah Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.   Sklaroff and Abbas have  recently written about the looming humanitarian crisis that Syrian Kurds face this fall and winter.  We  interviewed Dr. Sherkoh Abbas of KURDNAS about a federated Syria and a place for fellow Kurds in the June 2012, NER, Will There Be Room for Kurds and Other Minorities in a Post-Assad Syria?.

The Syrian civil war has reached a crisis stage for its 2.3 million Kurds.   That crisis has displaced  more than 300,000 Syrian Kurds to the sanctuary of adjacent Iraqi Kurdistan.  Nowhere in the current US Senate and House debates over authorizing secular opposition elements to fashion a democratic Syria. It would  be comprised of  ethnic religious  semi-autonomous states  including a Kurdish one to govern their homeland in northeast  Syria. A homeland  enriched with the country’s breadbasket and source of most of the  Syria ’s  known oil reserves.

 In these debates we hear no mention of the mass gassing of Iraqi Kurds under the late Saddam Hussein during a war with the Islamic Republic.   Then there was no international outrage while the US government provided de facto support for Hussein and was embroiled with the Iran Contra affair.

Against this background, Jonathan Speyer of the Inter-disciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel has published a hopeful article in Tower Magazine of The Israel Project, “Say It Again. Kurdish Independence Now.”  Speyer writes:

Half a century of misery in Syria and Iraq have come to a head. But one people—proud, self-sufficient, and surprisingly pro-Western—has waited far too long for their place at the table of nations.

The civil war in Syria and the increasing fragility of Iraq have thrown the long-term future of these states into question. For years, they were ruled by brutal regimes that held power in the name of Arab nationalism; as a result, they failed to knit together the populations they ruled into a coherent national identity. With the decline of repressive centralized authority in Syria and Iraq, however, older nationalities and identities are reemerging. Chief among them are the Kurds. Indeed, current regional developments make Kurdish statehood a realistic possibility for the first time in living memory.

I have reported on a number of occasions from both Iraqi and Syrian Kurdistan. I last visited these areas four months ago, and have an extensive network of friends and contacts there and in the wider Kurdish world. And it has become overwhelmingly clear to me that Kurdish sovereignty would be of benefit to the Kurds, the region as a whole, and Western interests in the Middle East. I find it unfortunate that the emerging Kurdish success story receives so little attention in the West—both among policymakers and the general public.

Kurdish statehood is good for the Kurds. It’s also good for the West.

Speyer goes on to recount the troubled history of the Kurds in the 20th and 21st Century. He evaluates autonomy alternatives to Kurdish Statehood:

The turbulent events of the last decade have brought an unexpected bonanza for the Kurds. Two powerful—if very different—Kurdish autonomous zones have emerged out of the collapsing societies of Iraq and Syria, while Turkey’s Kurds are engaged in negotiations to advance their rights. Only the Kurds of Iran remain firmly behind prison walls.

The question before the Kurds today is how to consolidate these gains and build on them. It is rarely discussed openly, but looming above it all is the question of Kurdish statehood and what it would mean for both the Kurds and the region in general. Will the Kurds continue to develop their quasi-states while avoiding a direct push toward sovereignty? Or are events leading inexorably toward Kurdish independence, with the resulting partition of Iraq and Syria?

                [ . . .]

One way to do so would be for the US and other Western powers to support Kurdish sovereignty as a legitimate goal. This would pave the way for greater Western investment and diplomatic support for Kurdish goals and weaken Turkey’s ability to snuff out a Kurdish bid for independence. A second way is, of course, Kurdish unity. The establishment of a single “national congress”-type organization could defeat Turkey’s strategy of divide and rule. An upcoming conference in Erbil is intended to lay the foundation for such an organization. It remains to be seen if it will succeed.

Speyer’s urges the US and other Western countries to get behind Kurdish sovereignty:

The moral and strategic case for Kurdish sovereignty is therefore a strong one. Western endorsement of the principle of Kurdish statehood, removal of the PKK from lists of terror organizations, and the development of closer relations with the Iraqi and Syrian Kurdish enclaves could help break the current stalemate on the issue.

His warning to the US and the international community is;

In order for this to happen, however, the US must adopt Kurdish sovereignty as a strategic goal. At the moment, caution, timidity, and the desire to withdraw from the region make this unlikely. The last of these is probably the most difficult to overcome. After all, if the US and other Western nations do not want to be involved in the Middle East, then there is no point in supporting the emergence of a pro-Western ally in the region. But recent events in Syria and Egypt have shown what happens when the West fails to cultivate allies or abandons reliable clients in the region: Chaos.

[. . .]

A sovereign Kurdish state could be a powerful bulwark against such disorder and a solid, pro-Western ally in this most troubled of regions. It would also realize the Kurds’ desire for long-delayed historic justice. It is an idea whose time has come.

Against the backdrop of current Congressional debates over how to punish Assad for the taboo of gassing his own population, let’s not forget the Kurdish precedent in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq of the 1980’s.  Perhaps motivated by what Speyer is proposing,  sympathetic friends of the Kurds in our Congress might raise the important prospect of a Western oriented Kurdish state. 

The Kurds and Jews share respect for an ancient conqueror of Babylon, Cyrus the Great.  There are an estimated 150,000 Israelis of Kurdish descent in Israel. They have rallied to the Kurdish independence cause.  Cyrus a Mede, an ethnic group from whom Kurds allege descent,   is mentioned over 30 times in the Bible.  His decree freed Jews to return and rebuild their homeland and Temple in Jerusalem, see 2 Chronicles 36:22-23.   As a mark of respect for fulfilling G-d’s promise of redemption for his people, Cyrus’s decree was given an honored place in the Bible:

This year Cyrus’s cylinder,  the first recorded human rights document , was placed on a revolving exhibit by the British Museum  and  shared with a  number of US  museums.  The least that Americans and  Israelis   can do is to fulfill his promise made to us by resolving to establish an independent and proud country for his descendents, the Kurds.