Western Hypocrisy on the Kurds

On September 29 the BBC reported that “People living in northern Iraq voted overwhelmingly in favor of independence for the Kurdistan Region in Monday’s controversial referendum.  The electoral commission said 92% of the 3.3 million Kurds and non-Kurds who cast their ballots supported secession.”

It all seems clear-cut.  But it’s not, because there are lots of powerful people who don’t want Kurds to be free.


Ten days before the referendum, Donald Trump delivered an excoriating harangue of swaggering abuse and arrogant belligerence in the UN General Assembly, but his first public utterance, the day before, was not as spiteful and malevolent. Indeed it was greeted with relief and surprise by the many people who had expected a tirade against the United Nations Organization on the lines of his comment that it was “just a club for people to get together, talk and have a good time,” which was as absurd, insulting and vulgar as most of his remarks.

But he rightly adjured the UN to concentrate “more on people and less on bureaucracy” which, as known by anyone who has had anything to do with the UN, would be a gratifying improvement.

It is obvious that reform of the UN is essential, and we should all applaud the Trump proposal, providing his strictures do not adversely affect the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) which, although admittedly far from perfect in administration, is a particularly saintly agency that needs to be helped and not hindered.

Trump is not sympathetic to refugees and wishes to ban them from his country, but the US does help UNHCR a great deal, and we must hope this policy continues. The UNHCR financial allocation for this year is 7 billion US dollars, which is a great deal of money.  But it is obvious that its budget is not over-generous when the UN reports that there are nearly 22.5 million refugees, worldwide, over half of whom are under the age of 18. There are also 10 million stateless people who are denied access to education, healthcare and employment.  As a result of the US war on Iraq 4.2 million Iraqis have had to flee from their towns and villages, and we are all only too well aware of the consequences of the sixteen-year war in Afghanistan.  All of these people need help.

Among the wretched victims around the world are two million Kurdish “displaced persons” of a total of 30 million Kurds who, CNN reports, “make up about 10% of the population in Syria, 19% in Turkey, 15-20% of Iraq, and nearly 10% of Iran.”  They have no country of their own and are subjected to varying degrees of intolerance by the nations within whose borders they are forced to live, and from where, periodically, they are forced to flee.

Many years ago, when I lived in Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, my evening walk took me past the office of the UNHCR (see this piece of 2004), since relocated far from the residential section of town. The move was made so that the office could be more easily guarded from would-be petitioners such as Kurdish refugees, some of whom had erected a neat and tidy tent hamlet on the opposite side of the road. As I walked past in the evening, one of them, a particularly villainous-looking fellow, greeted me with a charming smile. His flinty blue eyes softened as he bade me Hello, and after a few days of mutual greeting we began to chat.

The story of his group was of unrelieved persecution and privation. Having fled the savage reprisals of Saddam Hussein, following encouragement by George Bush senior for Kurds and Shias to rise against their oppressor (after which Bush did exactly nothing to help either of them), they made their way across Iran to Pakistan’s province of Balochistan, and then to Islamabad, a trek of about two thousand miles. There, they hoped, the UNHCR would look after them and relocate them to a country in which they could live like human beings, which to them, as to the other desperate displaced persons round the world, would be Paradise.

Where on earth could they go, these Kurdish orphans of Washington’s Operation Desert Storm? Who would take them? Answer came there none, except from the administration of the prime minister of Pakistan, a disreputable knave called Nawaz Sharif (recently dismissed after a High Court corruption hearing), whose solution was to gather up the Kurds in dead of night and move them all to the deserts of Balochistan, hundreds of miles away.  In fact, not quite all of them ; for left behind in one tent was a tiny baby, discovered at dawn by the scavengers who gathered to see what the Kurds, the poorest of the poor, might have left behind after they were once again hounded from one hell to another. Horrified local Pakistanis and some of us foreign do-gooding busybodies inquired about the fate of the child. But we came up against the usual brick wall of bureaucratic nonchalance. “There is no problem” we were told. No ; of course not. For the baby was only one of millions of anonymous and helpless mites born into a world grown only too accustomed to hideous inhumanity.

This band of despairing, hopeless, helpless, hounded Kurds was but a microcosm of the Kurdish problem as a whole. They are truly the world’s forgotten people, and we should be ashamed of our lack of concern about their plight.

The Kurds in Iraq have just voted for creation of a nation state, which is right and proper. After all,  referendums are regarded by Western governments as a truly democratic way for people to express their opinion. In 2008 Kosovo declared independence from Serbia, following a referendum that was energetically supported in 2014 by President Obama. The recent disastrous ‘Brexit’ referendum in Britain, in which 17,410,742 people (out of a total of 46,501,241 eligible voters) voted for the country’s economic self-destruction by leaving the European Union was of course supported by the British government. They are strident about it having been the Will of the People.

President Obama declared that “the people of the United Kingdom have spoken, and we respect their decision,” and Mr Trump, then a presidential candidate, said it was a “great thing” that the people of the UK have “taken back their country,” which was in line with Washington’s overwhelming support of referendums — except when they are held in such places as Crimea and Kurdistan.

America and Britain condemned the referendum in Crimea because its people, mainly Russian-speaking, Russian-cultured and therefore liable to persecution by the US-assisted   government in Kiev, succeeded by popular vote in rejoining Russia of which Crimea had been part for centuries. And they abhor the Kurdish referendum, too, because Kurdish independence would be awkward for them.

It doesn’t matter to Britain and America that northern Iraq — the Kurdish part of the country — is the only stable area in the entire region. The five million Kurds in northern Iraq have a semi-autonomous parliamentary democracy and the result of the plebiscite is not legally binding.  So why on earth have the Great Western Democracies objected so vehemently to a Kurdish referendum?

Britain’s defense minister, a studied oaf, to be sure, but nevertheless a person who must be taken as representing his government, said in Baghdad on September 18 that “I will be this afternoon in Arbil [the Kurdish capital] to tell Massud Barzani [the Kurdish prime minister] that we do not support the Kurdish referendum.” It escaped him (as most things do) that making such a statement in the capital of the fractured country that mightily opposes Kurdish independence is just a tiny bit ironic.

Nowadays, alas, the United Kingdom has little international standing or influence, and it can hardly be expected that Massud Barzani will pay the slightest attention to anything said by anyone from London, which has naturally followed Washington’s official line that “”The United States has repeatedly emphasized to the leaders of the Kurdistan Regional Government that the referendum is distracting from efforts to defeat ISIS and stabilize the liberated areas.” The White House declared that the Kurdish people’s referendum vote is “particularly provocative and destabilizing.”

What nonsense. What possible “distraction” could a Kurdish non-binding referendum create that might possibly affect the fight against the savages of Islamic State?

But of course it could be “provocative,” in a way, because in 2013 UPI reported that “Exxon Mobil, the world’s biggest oil company, is pushing ahead with its controversial drive to develop oil fields in Iraq’s independence-minded Kurdish enclave . . .  Exxon Chief Executive Officer Rex Tillerson flew to Baghdad to meet [the then Iraqi prime minister] Maliki in late January but apparently refused to quit Kurdistan.”

Mr Rex Tillerson is now US Secretary of State and, as Reuters recorded on September 18, “Russian oil major Rosneft will invest in gas pipelines in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan, expanding its commitment to the region ahead of an independence referendum to help it become a major exporter of gas to Turkey and Europe.”

Then things became clearer when World Oil noted that “Rosneft has completed its due diligence on infrastructure of the export oil pipeline in Iraqi Kurdistan . . . [the] pipeline will not only supply natural gas to the power plants and domestic factories throughout the region, but also enable exporting of substantial fuel volume to Turkey and European market in the coming years.”

There is little wonder that Mr Tillerson and other western tycoons and their supportive government aren’t happy about independence for the Kurds and expansion of their economic influence. Their ferocious opposition to a Kurdish referendum has got nothing whatever to do with Kurds or democracy or fighting Islamic State;  it has everything to do with getting in to Northern Iraq and making money from oil. And in this they are supported by the Baghdad government which, as noted by the BBC, has, since the US invasion,  “struggled to maintain order, and the country has enjoyed only brief periods of respite from high levels of sectarian violence. Violence and sabotage hinder the revival of an economy shattered by decades of conflict and sanctions. Iraq has the world’ third largest reserves of crude oil  . . .”  What a bunch of hypocrites.

More articles by:

Brian Cloughley writes about foreign policy and military affairs. He lives in Voutenay sur Cure, France.

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