Erbil, capital of the Kurdistan Autonomous Region, in the north of Iraq, is booming. Brick houses are giving way to shopping malls, hotels and apartment buildings, while in the suburbs, there are villages newly built or under construction to house the new Kurdish middle class. Most shops sell construction materials, furniture and electric appliances. Four-wheel drives jam the wide streets. Iraqis from other regions come to the Kurdish areas to shop or for recreation, while Lebanese managers, Turkish merchants and Indian hotel workers are there to make their fortune. Security and oil money have turned Iraqi Kurdistan into the place to be, although inequalities are growing and agriculture has been neglected (most food is now imported).
The Kurds were treated badly by history (1). After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, they were divided between four states carved out by the European powers, and at a distance from the new capitals. Kurdish nationalism was weak, but grew with marginalisation, discrimination and repression, though with some reverses. “The past is the fault of the Kurds,” says historian Jabar Kadir. “Internal divisions reflect former emirates based on clan/tribal divisions, which in modern times took the form of political parties.”
But now, “for the first time, history is giving the Kurds a chance,” says Kadir. “It started with the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the Kurdish intifada that followed. The imposition of a no-fly zone by the Americans created a Kurdish safe haven” protected from Saddam Hussein’s regime, and allowed the “setting up of a parliament through elections under difficult conditions.” In 1991 the Iraqi Kurds had a new kind of ally, a superpower from outside the region.
The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 led to the advance of the Peshmerga (Kurdish combatants) southwards, where they took over part of Saddam’s military hardware. The creation of autonomous status for the Kurds in northern Iraq through the 2005 Iraqi constitution led to demands by Kurds in Iran, Turkey and Syria. The formation of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), with its autonomy and the Peshmerga legally recognised, has made the KRG the centre of Kurdish politics and a new political actor in the Middle East.
When the US overthrew Saddam, the Iraqi Kurds were the only organised political/military force, and played a central role in supporting the occupying forces, forming the nucleus of the new Iraqi army. That is why many high-level Iraqi officials are from a Kurdish background, such as the president Jalal Talabani, the foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari and the army chief of staff Babaker Zibari.
Controversy Over Kirkuk
But these high-level posts did not translate into real political influence. This was made clear by the crisis between Iraq’s prime minister Nuri al-Maliki and the KRG in November 2012. Last July, Al-Maliki formed a new military force called Dijla (Tigris) Operations Command. At its head, General Abdelamir Zaydi introduced infantry and tank units into the regions south of Kirkuk, and then this March into Sinjar Province, where the population is mostly Kurdish and Yezidi. This alarmed the KRG leadership, which dispatched thousands of Peshmergas to the area. There is a very real fear of armed conflict erupting, and negotiations have in no way solved the problem.
Iraqi Kurdish politicians like to present their region as a safe haven for minorities, something of an idyllic vision (although in the Ainkawa neighbourhood of Erbil, Christians have maintained their traditions). While in the past the Peshmergas fought Christian communities, repression under Ba’ath Party rule created a feeling of shared destiny between Kurds, Assyrians and Yezidis (2). However, in Kirkuk, tensions persist between the Kurdish-dominated administration and police, and the Turkmen, and especially Arab, population.
The Kirkuk controversy is a legacy of Ba’athist policies. Under Ba’ath rule, Iraq adopted a policy of Arabisation in this strategic region, which has 10% of Iraq’s hydrocarbon resources. As a result, 300,000 ethnic Kurds — as well as Assyro-Chaldeans and Yezidis — were chased out of their homes and Arab tribes were settled. Some settlers were from Anbar; others were Shia Arabs from southern Iraq. After the US invasion, the Peshmergas took control of these areas, now known as “disputed regions”. Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution recommends “correction” by encouraging Arab settlers to return to their area of their origin, with compensation and aid. When this process has been completed, there is to be a census to decide the demarcation line between KRG and the rest of Iraq, followed by a referendum to determine if the region should be included within Kurdistan. The referendum was initially planned for 2007, but no new date has been fixed.
The situation in Kirkuk illustrates the struggle between Arabs and Kurds, Baghdad and Erbil (3). The city is part of disputed territories that stretch south to Salahuddin and Diyala provinces. The police are in the control of Kurdish forces, and the region is under the political control of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), with Talabani at its head; although Iraqi army units are also present. Any army movements in these areas are met by protests from Erbil, where there is concern at the billion-dollar arms contracts Baghdad is currently negotiating with Moscow (4).
Meanwhile the KRG is in dispute with the Iraqi government over the status of the Peshmergas. The KRG insists these combatants should be considered part of Iraq’s national defence forces, and should therefore receive funding and heavy armaments from the central budget, but maintain their autonomy. Baghdad argues that the Peshmergas should come under central command and not behave as an independent army.
The dispute extends to oil and gas. According to the constitution, the KRG should receive 17% of the state budget (5), which is mainly based on oil — the major source of KRG prosperity and also the link between the Kurdish regions and the Arab part of the country. But Baghdad accuses Erbil of not playing by the rules, and independently exporting hydrocarbons through Turkey without putting the revenue into the central budget (6).
‘A Factory for Producing Problems’
What makes it hard to find a solution is the personal animosity between the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, and the KRG president, Masoud Barzani. Barzani played a key role in mobilising the Iraqi opposition in an attempt to oust Al-Maliki, which failed and led to personal clashes. In Erbil, officials openly criticise the prime minister. Fallah Mustafa, the KRG foreign minister, claims that “Al-Maliki was not elected directly by the Iraqi people.” Fouad Hussein, the KRG chief of staff and close to Barzani, goes further: “The office of prime minister Al-Maliki is a factory for producing problems.”
Military pressure by the Iraqi army can create real fears in the Kurdish psyche. For decades after the formation of the Iraqi state, the Kurdish minority suffered from the authoritarian policies of the Baghdad rulers. The repression worsened from 1963 with the formation of the Ba’ath Party and its intransigent Arab nationalist ideology, which acquired a genocidal dimension during the Iraq-Iran war (1980-88). These memories are still alive in Kurdistan: no one has forgotten the gassing of 5,000 Kurds at Halabja.
The Kurds have new fears: any armed conflict in the Kirkuk area could cause economic harm to the KRG, ending investment and scaring foreign multinationals. “Baghdad looks enviously at us, at our security and our prosperity,” said Hussein. “But there is also stability in Basra and Nasiriya; why don’t they fix its electricity and water problems, and build hospitals and schools, instead of buying F-16 military jets?”
At least the pressure from the central government has unified the divided Iraqi Kurdish political formations: even President Talabani, always ready to negotiate with the Arab parties, could not fail to join Barzani and criticise Baghdad’s behaviour, demanding that troops be withdrawn and the Dijla Operations Command dissolved. Pressure from Baghdad has helped unify society (even if oil income has created divisions between the extremely rich ruling class and everybody else). In March 2011, as the Arab world was rising against the old regimes, there were protests against KRG buildings in Kut and Sulaimaniya.
Tensions with the central government have unexpectedly brought Erbil closer to Ankara. In 2003 Turkey opposed the US invasion of Iraq and did not allow its territory to be used for the allied ground attack. It feared that the overthrow of Saddam’s regime would lead to Kurdish statehood in the north of Iraq, inspiring Turkey’s own large Kurdish population, which had been restive since the start of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK)’s insurrection in 1984. Now Turkey’s relations with the KRG have dramatically improved.
The KRG’s foreign trade passes through Turkey, and Turkish companies are investing in Kurdistan, poised to profit from any potential oil exports from the Kirkuk area, which despite the presence of Iraqi central army units, is under Kurdish control (7). Turkey has taken account of the situation and Barzani has become a trusted intermediary. Turkey, which has traditionally supported Iraq’s Turkmen community, now sees itself as a champion of autonomy for the Iraqi Kurds. Though media attention is focussed on Iranian influence in Iraq, the Baghdad government is worried about Turkey’s influence over political actors. (Former vice-president Tarek Hashemi, accused of having links to terrorism, has been granted asylum in Turkey.)
Tensions between Baghdad and the KRG have put Iraqi president Jalal Talabani and his party in a difficult position. Talabani’s deteriorating health may not allow him to be the fireman of Iraqi politics but his Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) is the second biggest Iraqi Kurdish party (after the Kurdistan Democratic Party, KDP) and has enjoyed good relations with Iran. It has therefore found itself in the new Tehran-Baghdad alliance, while the KDP gravitates towards Turkey.
Fruits of Syria’s Revolution
But the future of the Iraqi Kurds also depends on the battle in Syria. “We have a golden opportunity,” said Behjet Bashir, the Erbil representative of the Kurdish Democratic Party of Syria. “We must be ready for it, as it is unlikely such an opportunity will repeat itself… There are different possible scenarios in Syria but even in the worst case, the Kurds will be winners. At least they will run their own regions themselves.”
Syria’s Kurds are poised to profit from the Syrian revolution. Syria’s Ba’athist regime was rough on its Kurdish population. Inspired by Arab nationalism, it did not recognise Kurdish identity and marginalised the Kurds politically and economically, withdrawing citizenship from 100,000, and settling the Kurdish regions with Arab tribes. When a revolt broke out in 2004 in Deir al-Zor after a fight between Kurdish and Arab football supporters, the repression became fierce. The Kurds were forbidden from teaching their own language, unlike ethnic minorities such as the Armenians and Assyrians who had the right to have their own schools. The authorities banned the public celebration of Nowruz, the Kurdish New Year. Names of towns and villages were Arabised and references to Kurdish identity removed from official textbooks (8).
Yet the Syrian regime was happy to give sanctuary to Kurdish armed groups from neighbouring countries to increase its leverage against Iraq and Turkey. Talabani, for instance, lived in Damascus for many years and founded his PUK there in 1975. But it was another party, from the north, that grew the deepest roots among the Syrian Kurds — the PKK.
Syria’s Kurdish regions have not been hotbeds of revolution. Although there were large demonstrations in Qamishli, the biggest Kurdish town, they did not join the armed Syrian revolution. In August 2011, when the Syrian National Council (SNC) was formed, Kurdish militants asked for specific recognition of their past suffering and future guarantees for their cultural identity and political self-rule. SNC activists took such demands as a sign of chauvinism, and invited them to join the revolution, leaving their own problems to be addressed in a future democratic Syria. The formation of the SNC was announced from Istanbul, and the Free Syrian Army was based in Turkey’s Hatay Province, so pro-PKK Syrian Kurds saw Ankara behind Syria’s opposition.
The Syrian authorities have been careful not to open a new front in the northeast. In 2011 they distributed 300,000 citizenship documents to ethnic Kurds and released a number of Syrian Kurdish political prisoners. (Though this did not stop the repression of activists, such as the assassination of Mashaal Tammo in October 2011.) Syria’s Kurds, who were quite dispersed, have never demanded autonomy or self-rule, so they were attracted by the more powerful Kurdish political movements, in Turkey to the north and Iraq to the east. The first to affirm a Kurdish identity was the PKK-affiliated Democratic Union Party (PYD) (9).
Armed Struggle Against Turkey
The PKK, founded in 1978 by Kurdish students in Ankara, turned to armed struggle against Turkey after the military coup of 1980. The movement had support from the Syrian regime and its leader Abdullah Ocalan was based in Damascus for years. It was able to set up military training camps in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon, then under Syrian control, and could recruit among Syrian Kurds: young Kurdish men who joined the PKK were spared compulsory military service. Though estimates vary, 7,000-10,000 Syrian Kurds are believed to have died fighting under the PKK banner (10), and even now a third of the PKK guerrillas in the high mountains of northern Iraq are of Syrian origin.
In 1998, under threat of war with Turkey, Syria closed down the PKK bases and expelled Ocalan, who was arrested by Turkish security agents in Kenya. But then the tide then turned. The Syrian government developed good relations with Turkey and sent hundreds of PKK militants to prison. The PKK, isolated after Ocalan’s capture, pulled back to the Kandil Mountains in the northeast, and its militants were hunted down by neighbouring states, as if to prove the saying “The Kurd has no friend but the mountain”.
Effects of the Arab Spring
But the Arab revolutions changed regional alliances. In 2011 hundreds of PKK-PYD militants left their mountain sanctuaries and took up positions in Syria’s northern areas, which they call “Western Kurdistan”. When the battles for Damascus and Aleppo erupted last summer, the Assad regime was no longer able to hold the entire country, and withdrew its forces from some Kurdish towns. In June 2012 PYD activists took control of Malekiyeh, Ayn al-Arab, Amuda and Afrin. “The regime is finished, its presence is disappearing day by day. Therefore, we cannot enter into an alliance with them,” said Hussein Kojer, a PYD spokesman. He said accusations of PYD-Damascus cooperation came “from Turkey. We have hundreds of martyrs who died in prison under torture by the Ba’ath.”
The PYD show of force has created suspicion among other parties, and alarm in Ankara. The 16 Syrian Kurdish parties who founded the Kurdish National Council (KNC) began preparing their own military forces, recruiting young Syrian Kurds who had deserted from the Syrian army and found refuge in the Domiz camp in northern Iraq. Peshmerga officers recruited 1,600 deserters inside the camp to train them so they can “play a role in Syria once the situation collapses and there’s a vacuum,” in the words of Barzani (11). With fears of clashes between the PYD and its rivals, the KRG president mediated at meetings in Erbil, in June and November 2012. This led to the creation of mechanisms for military and political coordination between the PYD and KNC (which groups 15 organisations not linked to the PKK). Although there have been no major inter-Kurdish clashes inside Syria, tensions remain high.
There is another danger: a war between Kurdish fighters and Syrian rebels. There have been clashes in Afrin, and in the Ashrafiyeh neighbourhood of Aleppo. The most serious involved three days of fighting in Ras al-Ayn in November 2012 between Kurdish militants and rebel Islamist forces linked to Ghuraba al-Sham and the Al-Nusra Front. The ceasefire that followed did not hold, and there were more violent clashes this January. A new ceasefire has been agreed, under the auspices, notably, of Syrian opposition figure Michel Kilo.
If Syria’s Kurdish regions were to fall under PKK-PYD influence, they would be caught between opposing powers: Turkey and the Syrian rebels. The Kurdish regions within Syria are on a long strip of flat land, not suitable for guerrilla warfare. The Syrian Kurds need to make a choice, which could be made easier by the renewed negotiations between the Turkish authorities and the PKK.
On 1 January 2013 the Turkish media revealed negotiations between Ocalan and Turkish intelligence services, which seemed advanced; Turkish Kurdish MPs were invited to visit Ocalan in prison to confirm Ankara’s willingness to negotiate. A week later, three PKK members were assassinated in Paris, including Sakine Cansiz, a founding member of the party. This was seen by Kurdish sources as a professional hit ordered by a group aiming to derail the negotiations. The funeral of the three was held in the large Kurdish city of Diyarbakır, in southeastern Turkey, and attracted large crowds who carried slogans — not for revenge but peace.
Vicken Cheterian is a journalist and author of War and Peace in the Caucasus: Russia’s Troubled Frontier, Hurst, London, and Columbia University Press, New York, 2009.
(1) On the Kurds, read David McDowall, A Modern History of the Kurds, 3rd revised edition, IB Tauris, London, 2004.
(2) The Assyro-Chaldeans are Christians who speak a modern version of Aramaic; the Yezidis belong to a monotheistic religion and speak a Kurdish dialect.
(3) Stefan Wolff, “Governing (in) Kirkuk: Resolving the Status of a Disputed Territory in post-America Iraq”, International Affairs, London, vol 86, issue 6, 2010.
(4) The Iraq-Russia arms deal remains uncertain. The $4.2bn deal was first announced during Al-Maliki’s visit to Moscow in October 2012, but “cancelled” a month later over a corruption scandal, only for the Iraqi prime minister to announce that the deal was to be renegotiated.
(5) The Iraqi state budget for 2013 is 138tr dinars ($115bn).
(6) Currently, KRG oil production is at 30,000 barrels per day (See Al-Hayat, 21 December 2012); regional prosperity therefore depends on Iraqi oil produced mainly in the Basra region.
(7) Ben Van Heuvelen, “Turkey weighs pivotal oil deal with Iraqi Kurdistan”, The Washington Post,11 December 2012.
(8) “Group Denial, Repression of Kurdish Political and Cultural Rights in Syria”, Human Rights Watch, November 2009.
(9) The PYD has its own armed wing, Yekîneyên Parastina Gel (YPG or Popular Defence Units).
(10) See Ilhan Tanir, Wladimir Van Wilgenburg and Omar Hossino, “Unity or PYD Power Play? Syrian Kurdish Dynamics After the Erbil Agreement”, The Henry Jackson Society, London, 2012.
This article appears in the excellent Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.