Saturday, 10 July 2010, 06:01 GMT
Kurdistan Region through the eyes of a Middle East expert

Gerald A. Honigman

By Rebaz Chomany
The Kurdish Globe

U.S. educator and lecturer Gerald A. Honigman speaks of a Kurdistan without U.S. support

"Mr. Honigman's book presents a look at justice in the region from a much broader perspective than the view that is so prevalent today, one which only addresses the Arab cause."--Dr. Sherkoh Abbas, Kurdistan National Assembly of Syria.

Q. Kurds are scared of being left and ignored by America once again. Despite the fact that the Kurds have been marked as traitors because of their close ties to America, do you think America will turn its back on Kurds again when Baghdad and Erbil are in trouble? The only source of stability America can count on in Iraq is Kurdistan Region?

A. I fear that the long-held ties between the American State Department and the Arabian American Oil Company--ARAMCO--will continue to cause America to see the Middle East primarily through Arab eyes. This is very similar to what happened after World War I--the abandonment of former promises to Kurds due to the collusion of British petroleum politics and Arab nationalism.

Arabs see the possibility of an independent Kurdistan as the creation of another Israel--and have said this over the decades themselves; i.e., how dare anyone but Arabs get some bit of justice in the region that they call "purely Arab patrimony."

I don't see the Obama Administration coming to the Kurds' rescue if something happens. And the previous Bush Administration was no better on this either. James Baker III is a Bush family confidant and former Secretary of State. He led a key mission to Iraq and his recommendations were not friendly to Kurds. He also has huge personal ties to Arab oil.

What would happen two years from now after the next American presidential election; if someone beats Obama who has a broader perspective and can resist the influence of the State Department is another matter. With the new alliance between Syria, Iran, and now Turkey emerging even greater than before, you might think that saner minds in Washington would be working to strengthen Iraqi Kurdistan as a possible counter to this development. The problem is that any such moves would very probably bring a backlash from surrounding Arab countries for the reasons mentioned above. I doubt that the folks controlling things at this end will risk that.

The big question then becomes whether America will be ready to make a major shift in its policies given these new realties--such as an Islamist Turkey, the emergence of a Shi'a Islamic Republic of Iraq after America's withdrawal, continued troubles of all sorts coming out of Syria, and so forth. I wish I could say that America will opt to strengthen its Kurdish friends--maybe even set up a major base in Iraqi Kurdistan as it had at Incirlik, Turkey. But I don't think that this will happen...at least not with an Obama Administration at the helm, and despite Vice President Biden's relative understanding of the Kurdish issue in Iraq.

Q. Is the reason America and European countries do not want or support an independent Kurdish State because they don't want to anger the Arab states in the region and thus destabilize their interests with them, or because they think Kurds do not have the prerequisites of being a State?

A. There is no independent Kurdistan today largely because of the first part of what you asked above...fear of angering Arabs. British imperial interests--the Navy, the main arm of British imperialism, which recently switched from coal to oil--led London to abandon promises made to Kurds regarding independence in at least part of the Mandate of Mesopotamia after World War I. After receiving a favorable decision on the Mosul Question from the League of Nations in 1925, the Kurds were dropped like a hot potato. London's long-term interests were seen as lying with the "Arab" world.

Since powerful leaders had emerged in both Turkey and Iran, Mesopotamia was the only real hope for Kurdish independence in the new age of nationalism. And a collusion of British petroleum politics and Arab nationalism aborted that option as well. While we have some new players today, the game is still basically the same.

As I answered in my response to the first question, the Arabian American Oil Company (ARAMCO) has had enormous influence with the American State Department for over half a century; together, they have shaped much of Washington's policy in the region. Arabs see the whole area as simply "purely Arab patrimony" and have written and stated this repeatedly. They have viewed the birth of Kurdistan as "another Israel." In other words, how dare anyone else but Arabs demand a slice of justice in the region, whether its kilab yahud (Jew dogs), Kurds, Copts, pre-Arab Lebanese, Imazighen (Berbers), and so forth. Those folks--tens of millions of them--must consent to being Arabized in order to just be able to safely exist. By the way, one half of Israel consists of Jews who fled "Arab" lands--the other side of the refugee problem one seldom hears about.

While there are other reasons, the oil issue has driven many countries to adopt a hypocritical double standard. So, for instance, while demanding a 22nd state (most having been created by the conquest and forced Arabization of non-Arab peoples' lands) for Arabs--a state that will be dedicated to the destruction of the sole resurrected, miniscule state of the Jews--there is still no "roadmap" for the creation of the very first state for some 35 million truly stateless Kurds. Fear of angering the Turks has also helped shape this hypocritical double standard. While I too want good relations for America with Turkey, Arab nations, and so forth, those relations must be built on moral integrity. And it is not naive to suggest that, even though such things don't seem to matter too much these days to the folks shaping foreign policy.

Q. Condoleezza Rice, the former U.S. Security Advisor, said on August 19, 2004, that the U.S. President believed that the Palestinian people deserve a state that serves their interests and fulfills their decent aspirations. Concerning Kurds in Kirkuk, she said with "disdain" it's the role of leadership to convince people that they really ought to stay in the same body. How do you read this contradiction policy between America and Kurds?

A. First, let's understand something. However you define the term, "Palestinians" are Arabs--most of whom migrated into the Mandate from elsewhere in the "Arab" world. There is lots of valid evidence from the Records of League of Nations Permanent Mandates Commission, official correspondence, and so forth. Arabs have almost two dozen states to date--as discussed in my previous responses. And most of those states were created by conquering non-Arab peoples and their lands.

It is hypocrisy at its worst to cry tears for the creation of yet another state (# 22) for Arabs--their 2nd, not first, in "Palestine"--while telling 35 million truly stateless Kurds, who have been massacred, subjugated, and so forth by their various "landlords," that they should not want something better for themselves.

Right from the start, in 1922 almost 80 percent of the original April 25, 1920, Mandate of Palestine was handed over to Arab nationalism with the creation of Transjordan--today's Jordan. A second partition proposed in 1947 (the same time that mostly Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims were dividing up the Indian subcontinent into India and Pakistan) would have given Arabs roughly half of the Mandate that remained after the creation of Transjordan. In other words, Arabs would have wound up with about 90 percent of the total area. The truth is indeed very different from what they claim about this issue themselves.

Arabs rejected the <47 partition because in their eyes, Jews were entitled to nothing--the same subjugating and murderous attitude that they have toward Kurds, Imazighen, black African Sudanese, and anyone else wanting a slice of the justice pie in what Arabs simply call "purely Arab patrimony."

Q. History witnessed that Kurds have been suppressed by successive Iraqi governments. Do you think that the Kurds may face a similar fate or at least tough challenges by the new government, especially when Nouri al-Maliki and Allawi have formed a government together?

A. There has historically been competition between a broader-based "Iraqi nationalism," in which non-Arabs could also participate, and Arab nationalism in Iraq. Arab nationalism always won out in the long run--despite periods where one new Arab regime made concessions to folks like Kurds in order to gain their support against their other Arab competitors. This is what is happening today as well. Shi'a Arabs need the Kurds to outflank their Sunni Arab tormentors. After that problem gets resolved to an extent believed acceptable in Baghdad, I doubt that the Shi'a will look any more kindly toward Kurdish rights, autonomy, and such than the Sunni have. And I hope that I am wrong about this--for everyone's sake.

Q. The President of Kurdistan, Massoud Barzani, paid a landmark visit to Turkey recently. What course might the relation between Turkey and KRG evolve if one considers the PKK's renewed clash with Turkish security forces?

A. The KRG is doing what it needs to do in this matter. It needs to push for good relations with Ankara to ease the latter's fears that Kurdish autonomy or independence in northern Iraq will cause problems for Ankara with its own huge Kurdish population. The PKK must not be supported. At the same time, however, the KRG should diplomatically press for great improvements for Turkey's Kurds (not "Mountain Turks"!). If this occurs, the PKK's support should diminish.

I would personally like to see a major American military base established in Iraqi Kurdistan and have written about this for years now. This would help to stabilize that tense Turkish-KRG border area, giving assurances to both parties, and also send a message to Baghdad as well--especially after America officially withdraws from the rest of the country. The problem, of course, is that Baghdad makes these decisions in a unified Iraq--not the KRG--and so it is very doubtful that such a base will be agreed to. Again, I fear the Arabs have something else in mind down the road.

Q. Israel and Turkey have been a close ally in the region. However, the good relations are now in tense and deteriorating particularly since the Israeli attacks on Turkish flotilla. Do you think that Israel-Turkey may turn their backs to each other and support each other's enemies? Do you believe the speculations that Israel provides any support to PKK as some circles in Turkey claimed?

A. Israel has longed for good relations with all of its neighbors--not only non-Arab Turkey. But, because Arabs refuse to grant others a slice of the justice pie in a region that they proclaim solely as their own, this has not been possible--except with the Muslim, but non-Arab, Turks. That is, until fairly recently.

This has led Israel to do things that it shouldn't have--supporting Ankara against its Kurds, for example. One could argue that Israeli support was aimed against the PKK and not the Kurdish people. But given the plight of those people in Turkey--which gave rise to the PKK--that support for Ankara in these matters was/is wrong.

Unlike Hamas--and even the supposedly more "moderate" Arab groups like Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah--which refuse to accept a Jewish State as a neighbor and act to destroy it--the Kurds do not seek Turkey's destruction, not even the PKK. Yet, the Turks support Hamas and those Arabs who elected Hamas in Gaza and elsewhere against Israel and expect the Jews to simply sit back and do nothing when attacked.

While I do not expect that Israel will--or should--support the PKK, it is well overdue in time that Israel speak up more loudly and clearly for the rights of another truly stateless people who suffered dearly because of this condition just as Jews themselves did prior to the rebirth of Israel in 1948--both in Turkey and elsewhere in Kurdistan.

Q. Since some Arab chauvinists see Kurds as a second Israel in the region, is it not better for the Kurds to link with Ankara politically and economically rather than with Baghdad, especially when issues between them remain unsolved?

A. You make a good point, unfortunately. I do believe there is a good case to be made for strong ties between Kurds and Turks--as unbelievable as that might sound. But that would involve a drastic change in Turkey's approach toward the Kurdish issue--something, especially now with Islamists tied to Arabs in the ascendancy in Turkey, I don't believe will happen. After World War I, Ataturk drew his lines in the sand beyond which there would be no further loss of former Ottoman Empire Turkish lands. This led to all kinds of things to achieve this. The denial of Kurdish rights and even existence as a distinct people was part of this strategy. As Arabs "Arabized" others, Turkey Turkified them--and for similar reasons.

If both Kurds and Turks can see an Iraqi Kurdistan as an economic and political friend, and work toward the improvement of the Kurdish condition in Turkey as well, what you propose becomes possible. The obstacles are great, however.

Q. Kirkuk is a decades-long problem between Arabs and Kurds, and sometimes Turkey involves itself in it because of Turkmen. How can these questions be resolved? Don't the Kurds have the right to control their own natural resources like everybody else?

A. There are half a dozen Turkic states that exist in Central Asia--besides the major state that exists for Turkic peoples in Turkey today. Kurds, Assyrians, and some others are the truly indigenous people of the region we are discussing--not Turks. Having said that, Turks have also lived in the region for centuries now, so their rights can't simply be dismissed either. The problem then becomes one of relative justice--just as when judging the right of Arabs to their 22nd state by the destruction of the Jews' lone one.

Turks have multiple states. Kurds have none. Kurds are the indigenous folks--Turks are the relative newcomers, and many were very likely deliberately moved into the region to support Ankara's claims to the oil of the Kurdish regions--similar to what Saddam did with Arabs and Kirkuk. The same way some 15 million Kurds are expected to live as citizens in a Turkish state, some Turkic people will have to live in one Kurdish state. Again, Turkic peoples have multiple states gained as a result of their conquests--as Arabs do.

The oil of Kirkuk is as Kurdish as that of Iran's Khuzestan province is Iranian. Keep in mind that so many Arabs live in Khuzestan that it has been called Arabistan even by the Iranians themselves for centuries. The war between Iraq and Iran was largely fought over this, etc. And the same goes for "Arab" Libya's claims for its oil. Like much, if not most, of North Africa, the land belonged to others long before the Arab conquest--the Imazighen, [for instance]. Some 35 million of these native people are subjugated and oppressed to this date--very similar to what Kurds now face in Syria, for example. They are not allowed to practice their own culture, speak their own language, and are increasingly being told that they even have to name their children with Arab/Islamic names, not their own. As an Amazigh publisher has told me, "Israel is a dream democracy for all peoples compared to this."

Q. What would be the likely policy of US towards any hostility between Erbil and Baghdad after the US troop withdrawal?

A. The best advice that I can give is for the KRG to strengthen itself as much as possible now. Tank divisions and air squadrons must become part of what the Peshmerga have to counter what may very well be thrown against them when America leaves. And I wouldn't rule out that trio becoming a four-way alliance against the Kurds--with Baghdad joining the other three mentioned earlier in solving all of their mutual Kurdish problems. I realize it will be difficult if not impossible to achieve what I'd like to see the KRG's military capacity grow into.

If America rethinks its policy and decides to prop up the Kurds in a truly significant way, then the picture becomes brighter. I would really like to see a huge American base set up and retained in Iraqi Kurdistan and believe, as stated earlier, that this would help solve a lot of problems--especially with the decline of America's abilities via its Incirlik facility in Turkey. Hopefully, I am worrying over nothing and Baghdad will allow a truly meaningful Kurdish autonomy to continue. I have serious doubts, however, that this will be the case after America leaves. Iran is right now hanging Kurds as I respond to you here; its like-minded Arab pals have a long history of that sort of "tolerance" as well.

Q. Do you think Kurdistan really needs U.S. sympathy to exist? Or can the Kurds be a force that jeopardizes U.S. interests in Iraq and the region?

A. Unless you can tell me that the KRG has ample tank divisions, air squadrons, missile and anti-aircraft batteries, and is capable of resisting a combined attack by the new trio we discussed earlier--or just an attack by any one of the three, or just coming from the newly propped up Shi'a Arab military in Baghdad, then the answer is that it cannot take on these enormous problems alone and succeed in its positive and worthy desires.

The Kurdish leadership must do all that it can to convince the American people and others that the Kurdish areas are truly something that Americans can be proud of in a wider region largely known for its despots and tyrants. It must cultivate Congress--and this does not mean bribe it. The KRG must show that it is open to real democracy in a broader region starving for it--with the exception of Israel, of course--the nation everyone loves to hate.

The two leading families have done much for the sake of Iraqi Kurdistan. They must now be courageous enough to also trust in their own people to allow for even better things to evolve later on for everyone concerned. As the Hebrew Bible called for Israel to be a light unto the nations thousands of years ago, Kurdistan must strive for this as well--even despite the hypocrisy of many of those watching.

There is another avenue of approach--increased cooperation between non-Islamist powers in the region and adjacent to it...Israel and India, to name a few. To what extent this is possible is the question. Baghdad makes foreign policy for the united state--not Erbil. After America leaves Iraq, however, events might dictate something quite different indeed. But, as I stated earlier, let's hope it doesn't come to this and Baghdad will not interfere with a truly autonomous Kurdish north.

The main point is that Kurdistan is not in a position to "go it alone" and succeed now. The lessons of Anfal are many. The enemies of the Kurds are numerous and powerful. Unless totally impossible to achieve, the KRG must cultivate friends...even if the attempts sometimes are futile. Perhaps there are better ways to do this than those engaged in before.

Gerald A. Honigman is a Florida educator who has done extensive doctoral studies on Middle Eastern Affairs. His articles and op-eds have been published in dozens of newspapers, magazines, academic journals, and websites all around the world.