This piece was commissioned by the British Armed Forces’ Sound and Vision Corporation for their website: www.forces.net/news . They will probably shorten it. 27/Sep2017.
Kurds and Arabs, Ottomans and Safavids.
Hazhir Teimourian asks: What next in Iraq?
From Washington to Peking and from London to Tehran, we can imagine top diplomats in mad flurry as they scratch their heads as to how to advise their political bosses regarding the latest crisis in the Middle East. So Mass’ud Barzani, the little-known leader of the little-known regional government in northern Iraq, did not listen to their advice and threats of half-a-dozen years and went ahead with his referendum on independence. They had told him he would risk suicide and plunge the whole of the region into tumult. But now that he has made his rebellion official, what could they do to enable him to save face and yet step back from acting on the mandate that his expectant people have given him so emphatically?
The diplomats and their chiefs will, of course, all perceive themselves as true friends of the Kurdish people whose only concern is to preserve peace and prevent suffering. But whereas in an earlier age, ‘the unruly Kurdish tribes of upper Mesopotamia’, as they saw them, could be persuaded or ignored – or even bombed, as they were in the 1920s – to submit to the new states they were setting up in Baghdad or Damascus – again in the interest of peace and humanity – this time the zig-zag on the ground is much more difficult. There are other regional powers and the Kurds seem to have found a new unity and a new vigour.
As a man of Kurdish upbringing, and as a professional journalist specialising in the Middle East for four decades, I have watched the Kurds closely all my life as they have struggled for their very survival, as well as for a modicum of rights they believe the world has denied them in recent centuries, even though their numbers dwarf half the countries in the United Nations.
But even I am surprised by the resilience and the valour they are showing. When they were being gassed in large numbers in Iraq by the genocidal, Arab nationalist monster Saddam Hussein in the late 1980s, I thought they were probably finished as a people. Next door in Turkey, their very name and language were banned and the government army had burnt down 3000 Kurdish villages and reduced their insurgency to an occasional hit-and-run movement. In Iran, the horrible Islamic regime of the ayatollah Khomeini had turned almost every Kurdish hill into a garrison of the barbarian Revolutionary Guards and in Syria they were being abducted in the middle of the night by the equally monstrous ruling Ba’thists under Hafiz Assad and scattered among Arabs elsewhere to destroy their language and identity. But today, in all these countries they are making their presence felt again. In Turkey, their pursuit of a modest measure of devolution in their own region has become a sizable war, once more, and in Syria, Kurdish solders, including women, have, to Turkey’s fury, become the only effective ally of the West on the ground against both Islamic State barbarians and an eventual Russian take-over of the country through its Ba’thist clients in Damascus. In Iran, they are still oppressed badly, but the other day, thousands of their youths risked arrest to celebrate the referendum across the border. In Iraqi Kurdistan, their autonomous regional government is the only reasonably free and prosperous political entity in the Middle East, after Israel.
But as I write, the future of that mini-state looks grim. Iran has closed its borders to it, as well as the flow of an important river, Baghdad threatens to bludgeon it into submission – unfortunately with the advanced weaponry the Americans have again given it after its rout by IS in 2014 – and Turkey’s president says he will strangle it economically if it does declare independence.
But will Ankara actually do so? I wonder. Apart from the massive trace with Iraqi Kurdistan, I think that a voice inside Erdogan’s increasingly fuzzy head may well be telling him not to forget the centuries of struggle that his Ottoman heroes waged against the Shia Safavid monarchs of Iran for the control of Kurdistan and Baghdad, and perhaps that voice also warns him that he may be about to lose that battle, finally. Shia Arab Iraq is now a virtual province of the Safavids’ heirs in Tehran, and if he, Erdogan, helps Baghdad to extend its sway over Kurdish Iraq, too, he will have lost any chance of at least rescuing part of Mesopotamia as a Turkish dependency, politically and economically. He has the power to make or break Iraqi Kurdistan. Which path will he choose? His family’s coffers will suffer. We will first have to see if Barzani will go ahead with his life-long dream of declaring a free Kurdish state, even in a small corner of Kurdistan.
Unfortunately, among the great powers, only Russia seems to have awakened to the new assertiveness of the Kurds and the potential they possess to shape the new Middle East. Putin is the only world leader to announce ‘support for the Kurds’ aspiration to statehood’ and to urge Baghdad to negotiate to that end. I wish that my old friend the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson were as wise as Putin is and not gang up with Erdogan and the ayatollahs against my other old friend, Mass’ud Barzani. To his credit, the tone of his officials is softening. They are saying that their strong relations with ‘the government of the Kurdish region’ will continue. But they ought to be more active and bend the ear of the Americans, too.
Hazhir Teimourian was born and brought up in Kurdish western Iran and wrote on the Middle East for The BBC and The Times for many years.