Homage to Kurdistan

Homage to Kurdistan

  • Samuel Helfont
  • April 13, 2016
  • Center for the Study of America and the West
  • Middle East Program

Iraqi KurdistanIraqi Kurdistan


It is easy to like the Kurds. In the first half of the 20th century, the international community slighted them, dividing historic Kurdistan among the newly formed states of Iraq, Syria, Iran, and Turkey. Now, in the 21st century, the Kurds claim to form the largest self-identified nation without a nation-state of its own. Over the decades, the Kurds have fought on-again-off-again insurgencies against the various states in which they live. Their goals have ranged from autonomy to complete independence, depending on the circumstance. In return, the brutal regimes that often ruled these states employed all manner of atrocity against them.  Standing among the mass graves of Halabja, where Saddam gassed thousands of Kurdish civilians during the Anfal campaign of the late 1980s, it is impossible not to sympathize with Kurdish aspirations for a land of their own. And through it all, the Kurds have been absolutely resilient in the face of adversity. They have consistently been a force for moderation. While their neighbors have alternated between radical nationalism and religious fanaticism, the Kurds sought to establish secular democratic institutions, protected religious and ethnic minorities, and even promoted women’s rights.

Recently, they have enjoyed some stunning successes. In Iraq and Syria, they have managed to wrestle some sort of autonomy from their respective central governments and to turn the dream of Kurdistan into a de-facto reality. In the face of the ISIS onslaught, which seemed to paralyze both regional and international actors, the Kurds of Syria and Iraq used their newfound power to save Christians and Yazidis from rape, slavery, and death. Instead of shaming (or worse) the women that ISIS victimized, the Kurds enlisted them into military brigades. The sight of these unveiled women, dressed in fatigues, carrying assault rifles, and preparing to confront the men who would have them as concubines, is one of the more inspiring images one can conjure up in this war-torn region. Images such as these have rightly gained Kurdistan and the Kurds a special place in the minds of those who would rather not see the Middle East as a cesspool of radical ideologies and religious extremism. Here is a historically persecuted Muslim force that is politically moderate, pro-western, secular, and perhaps even feminist. And it is fighting the undeniable evil of ISIS. It is no wonder that they have attracted the admiration western intellectuals. The Kurds have even inspired some occidental idealists to travel to Kurdistan and join the ranks of their fighters.

Although we are meant to be in a post-ideological age, the situation in Kurdistan harks back to other idealistic causes in the 20th century. George Orwell went to Catalonia to cover the Spanish Civil War, and ended up joining the anti-fascist militias “because at that time and in that atmosphere it seemed the only conceivable thing to do.”[1] Traveling through Iraqi Kurdistan, it is difficult not to come to similar conclusions. But before we get swept up into an idealistic fervor, we need to remember that while Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia has inspired countless revolutionary romantics, it is more of a cautionary tale than a call to arms. And it is this cautionary tale that offers the most pertinent lessons for today’s Kurdistan.

Orwell, by his own admission, was quite naïve when he joined the anti-fascist militias in Spain. As he recalled: “The revolutionary atmosphere of Barcelona had attracted me deeply, but I had made no attempt to understand it.”[2] A gaggle of political parties, each with their own acronym, fought the fascists in Spain, This created a type of militia alphabet soup. The PSUC, POUM, FAI, NNT, UGT, JCI, JSU, and AIT were all organizing against the Spanish military regime. Each group represented a variation of some form of left wing ideology. Orwell joined the POUM, which had a Trotskyist bent, but only because he “happened to arrive in Barcelona with ILP papers” (the ILP was the POUM’s sister party in England).[3] At first, Orwell did not grasp the significance of the various fissures and splinter ideologies that inspired the militias: “I knew I was serving in something called the POUM … but I did not realize there were any differences between the political parties.”[4] He claimed to be “suffering from a plague of initials” and when his colleagues pointed out the Socialists on the next ridge – by which they meant the Stalinist PSUC – Orwell naively asked, “Aren’t we all Socialists?”[5] He found out later that there were indeed differences when PSUC turned its weapons on its erstwhile allies. Orwell was forced to flee Spain, narrowly escaping with his life.

In Kurdistan, one can get lost in a similar “plague of initials.” There is the KDP, PUK, PKK, PYD, YPG, and YPJ. From a distance, these groups all seem vaguely similar. They are all fairly secular Kurdish nationalists and most adhere to some shade of leftish/socialist ideology. They all fight together against the common scourge of ISIS and anyone else who threatens Kurdish interests. If one scratches the surface, however, significant differences emerge. The KDP, or the Kurdish Democratic Party, is the moderate, longstanding Iraqi Kurdish party with which the United States has had very close relations for decades. The PKK, or Kurdish Worker’s Party, is a US designated terrorist organization with Maoist roots. It has been responsible for numerous bombings of both military and civilian targets in Turkey. The PUK, or Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, is also a moderate Iraqi party, but it has close ties with Iran. The PYD, or Democratic Union Party is based in Syria and while it seems to be moderate/leftist, its roots are in the PKK and the extent that the two parties are still connected is unclear. The YPG and YPJ are male and female militias respectively, connected to the PYD.

In Spain, no amount or idealism could overcome hard facts of political dysfunction and a failure to face the fact that some parties on the “correct” side of the conflict were not what they seemed. As much as the Kurdish cause may seize one’s heart, it would be foolish not to recognize that the same political dysfunction and duplicitous politics also define the current conflict. In Spain, the real power turned out to be the Soviet backed communists. In Kurdistan, the moderate parties like the KDP and PYG have been the flag bearers for victories against ISIS in places like Sinjar (in Iraq) and Kobani (in Syria), but on the ground, one hears whispers that the real force behind those successes was the more radical PKK.

And like in Orwell’s Spain, an idealistic veneer in Kurdistan hides a deep rot below the surface. After a decades long struggle, the international community helped Iraqi Kurdistan to free itself from Baghdad’s yoke in the early 1990s. Iraqi Kurdistan became an autonomous, but not independent territory. As the home of the first “free” Kurds, Iraqi Kurdistan emerged as the political and cultural capital for Kurds more generally. Following Saddam Hussein’s demise in 2003, Iraqi Kurds developed the political and economic institutions that one normally associates with an independent state. They convened their own parliament, which held free and regular elections. Universities opened, and international oil companies began to exploit the considerable oil reserves found in the territory. High oil prices kept the economy buzzing, and venerable Kurdish militias, known as the Peshmerga (literally: those who face death) were able insulate the Kurdish region of Iraq from the chaos and terrorism that had gripped Iraq proper following the fall of Saddam’s Ba‘thist regime. Foreign investments poured in, and against all odds, the Kurds were even able to attract tourists. In 2014, Kurdish businessmen in the city of Sulaimaniya built the five-star, Grand Millennium Hotel, which would not be out of place among the ornate skylines of Dubai or Doha. Yet, by the time this very visible symbol of success opened, the optimism that it represented was beginning to wane. Over the past few years, Iraqi Kurdistan has been hit with a perfect storm of political, military, and economic crises that have left it paralyzed.

Nowhere were such crises more evident than in a policy forum that I attended on behalf of the Foreign Policy Research Institute earlier this month in Sulaimaniya. The Suli Forum, as it is known, began four years ago, and has emerged as one of the most important opportunities for regional and international stakeholders, as well as academic and policy experts to meet. The situation has deteriorated to the point where, at times, the Suli Forum has been the only venue where some Iraqi factions will be seen in the same room. And while the Grand Millennium offered many of the participants five-star accommodations, it has not been able to disguise the intractable problems that they confront. The disintegration of Syria and the corresponding ISIS assault on Iraqi and Syrian Kurds has been costly in terms of both blood and treasure. The Kurds have lost over a thousand fighters in the conflict. As the Prime Minister of Iraqi Kurdistan, Nechirvan Barzani, stated, they are grateful for US air strikes, but it is the Kurds on the ground are doing the real fighting. He pressed the international community to do more to train and build Kurdish Peshmerga forces. Other Kurdish officials raised similar concerns. Jaafer Mustafa, a Peshmerga Commander so charismatic that President Obama asked him for an autograph when they met in 2015,[6] stressed not only Kurdish losses on the battlefield but also the generosity of the Kurds in hosting throngs of refugees from Syria and Iraq proper. Indeed, driving through the Kurdish countryside, one sees refugee camps that stretch from one horizon to the next.

The Kurdish officials hoped to receive more military aid in the near future. In response, one could hear experts murmuring under their breath that they are just as likely to turn them on each other as they are to use them in the fight against ISIS. The Iraqi Kurds are politically deadlocked at the moment. Some elected members of the Kurdish Parliament are unwelcome in the capitol of Erbil and are pressured not to attend Parliament by rival factions.

Much of this unrest can be linked to recent shifts in structures of political power in Iraqi Kurdistan. The Kurdish Democratic Party, KDP, has been the vanguard of Kurdish nationalism in Iraq since the mid-20th century. It is led by the Barzani family. Its founder, Mustapha Barzani, was the single most important Kurdish leader in 20th century Iraq. Following his exile and then death, his son Masoud Barzani rose to the top of the party. Yet, in the 1960s and 70s, tension between the modern institutions of a political party and the more traditionally clannish rule of the Barzani family began to fester. Some Kurdish nationalists led by Jalal Talabani broke off to form a rival party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).[7] For the past 40 years, these two parties have dominated Kurdish politics. They have largely been divided along the tribal and ethnic substrata of Kurdish society. The KDP is strongest in the northwestern sections of Iraqi Kurdistan, which is home to the Barzanis and where the Kurmanji dialect of Kurdish is spoken. The PUK has been strongest in the southeastern sections of Iraqi Kurdistan, where Jalal Talabani was born, and where the Sorani dialect is spoken. Over the years, the KDP and PUK have endured a love-hate relationship, sometimes fighting each other, sometime aligning against Baghdad, and sometimes siding with either Baghdad, Tehran, or Ankara to gain the upper hand over one another. In post-Saddam Iraq, a golden period of cooperation arose. Prior to 2003, Iraqi Kurdistan simply was not big enough for the two parties and the egos of their leaders. But following the fall of the Ba‘thists, new positions in Baghdad were opened to Kurds. This relieved some of the pressure on Kurdish politics. The KDP’s Masoud Barzani became the President of the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq, and the PUK’s Jalal Talabani became the President of Iraq. Such a happy scenario created an atmosphere of cooperation between the two parties. They combined forces with some smaller parties to run on a joint list, termed the Democratic Patriotic Alliance of Kurdistan, which dominated Kurdish electoral politics from 2005-9. While this arrangement created stability, some younger and more liberal Kurds resented the clannish and corrupt politics that allowed certain families to dominate the political parties. They formed an opposition “Movement for Change,” also known by its Kurdish name, Gorran.

Gorran cut into the support of the other parties, particularly the PUK. The PUK’s troubles were exasperated in 2012, when its leader, Jalal Talabani, suffered a stroke and could no longer continue in public life. The PUK has not been able to fill the void. Instead factions representing Talabani’s family on one side, and former Kurdish Prime Minister Barham Salih on the other, have vied for control of the party. This left Gorran an opening, which it seized in the last election to overtake the PUK. Gorran MP, Yousif Muhammed became speaker of the Kurdish Parliament. The KDP won the most seats and has a frim hold on the Presidency (Masoud Barzani) as well as the Premiership (Nechirvan Barzani). The PUK was mostly left out in the cold receiving only a Deputy Premiership, which went to Jalal Talabani’s son, Qubad. And Gorran did not stop there. From its new position of power it has also critiqued the KDP and demanded that it reform. In a traditional society such as Kurdistan, major political parties with deeply entrenched patronage networks do not respond well to political upstarts. They obstruct, sometimes violently. The emergence of Gorran was thus a major earthquake in Kurdish politics, and neither the Parliament nor Iraqi Kurdish politics has functioned effectively since. The Gorran Speaker of the Parliament, Yousif Muhammed, has been banned from entering the Kurdish capitol and from using his government offices.

The resulting tensions were evident at the Suli Forum. Participants included, among others, Yousif Muhammad (the Gorran Speaker of Parliament), Nechirvan Barzani (the KDP Prime Minister), Fuad Hussein (the KDP Chief of Staff of Kurdish President Masoud Barzani), Barham Salih (the former Kurdish Prime Minister and leader of one faction within the PUK) and Qubad Talabani (the PUK Deputy Prime Minister and the son of Jalal, who is a leader of the other PUK faction). While the leaders of these various blocs remained civil, they exchanged veiled barbs, insisting that their rivals needed to compromise. Each acknowledged the deadlock. They called for unity and reform of the political system, but no one had any suggestions for how to relieve the stalemate.

If the conflict between the Kurds remained in the realm of snide remarks and innuendo, the clashes between them and Baghdad were out in the open. The Kurds and the Arabs of Iraq have never sat well together, but the relationship has ebbed and flowed over the years. As mentioned above, the Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani even served as the President of Iraq for a period. Those happy days, only a few short years ago, seem like a distant memory. Kurdistan is entitled to 17 percent of the Iraqi budget. When it did not receive payment in early 2014, the Kurds began to bypass Baghdad and export their oil directly to the international market through a pipeline in Turkey. The legal status of this oil is shady at best. However, the Kurds were able to exploit rivalries between Ankara and Baghdad to their advantage, and then rely on friends in the international community to wink, nod, and buy the potentially illicit crude. This cut Baghdad out of the profits. In return Baghdad has refused to pay the money it owes the Kurds. If oil prices had remained high, such an arrangement may have been sustainable, or even desirable for an Iraqi Kurdistan hungry for independence. However, the fall in oil prices over the past couple years has put severe strains on Kurdish budgets.

Over the past two years, the economy in Iraqi Kurdistan has spiraled downward. The regional government has racked up more than 25 billion dollars in debt, which is twice the size of its economy.[8] The Kurdish Regional Government has not been able to pay its employees for several months; public services, including schools are closed. And these budget shortfalls came after public sector pay cuts over the past year that have ranged from 15 to 75 percent.[9] War and instability in the region have added additional complications and compounded the economic pain. For three weeks in February and March of this year, Turkey completely shut down the pipeline that exports Kurdish oil. Turkey claimed that it needed to do so because of military operations against the PKK in the vicinity of the pipeline. This left the Kurdish Regional Government with only 233 million dollars in revenue from oil exports in February. That was less than a third of what it needed to cover its costs.[10]

The oil pipeline is back online, but the incident highlighted Kurdistan’s precarious geopolitical situation. If it does not reconcile with Baghdad, the Kurdish economy has a single point of failure. And that point of failure is an erratic regime in Turkey, which has had good relations with Iraqi Kurdistan recently, but has no love for Kurds in general. The Iraqi Kurds need an agreement with Baghdad to ensure any hope of long-term stability. Yet, Kurdish and Iraqi Arab politicians are at odds over the basic outlines of such an agreement. At the Suli Forum, Iraq’s then Foreign Minister, Ibrahim Jaafari (it has since been announced that he will be replaced), and National Security Advisor, Faleh al-Fayyadh (both Shi‘i Arabs) called for a unified Iraq, which includes Iraqi Kurdistan. They dressed down Kurdish politicians who insisted on more autonomy or even hinted at independence. Considering their weak geopolitical position, Kurdish leaders were reluctant to call for independence outright, though they skirted very closely to that line. Fuad Hussein, the Chief of Staff to the Kurdish President, insisted that “the first priority for the Kurdish Region is to protect the Kurdish Region.” The Speaker of Kurdish Parliament, Yousif Muhammad, stated that all options are on the table with regard to Kurdish independence. He maintained that Kurds have the right to self-determination and that they should not be afraid of partition or independence. In the end, he refused to take a stand, but it was clear where his heart was. When asked which was more important to defend: Baghdad or Kobani (in Syrian Kurdistan), he stated Kobani, but then quickly backtracked claiming Baghdad was also important.

The situation in Kurdistan is likely to get worse before it gets better. If there was one point on which most participants at the Forum could agree, it was that the demise of ISIS is a foregone conclusion. No one knows exactly when this will happen, but ISIS is steadily losing territory and strength. The operation to retake the northern Iraqi city of Mosul was at the forefront of many discussions. Yet, no one seemed to know what would happen during or after such an operation. Similar campaigns to take back the cities of Tikrit and Ramadi nearly resulted in their destruction. Whole sections of those cities were flattened, and most of their populations became refugees. Mosul is many times larger than either of those cities, and ISIS is much more firmly entrenched there. Nofal Humadi Sultan, the Governor of Nineveh Province, which includes Mosul, warned the Forum that if the operation to retake the city does not go well, it could be like a “nuclear attack,” laying waste to entire districts and making the city uninhabitable. Some estimate that there are nearly 2 million residents in the city. What will happen to those people during and after the operation? Will they flee like residents in other cities have? If so, where will they go? Will the Kurds be asked to take them in as they have other refugees? Do the Kurds even have the resources to do so? These questions were raised repeatedly. No one had answers.

Even if we could wish away ISIS and then liberate Mosul without a fight, deeper disputes over territory, power, identity, and politics threaten to tear apart Iraq. As Jan Kubis, the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General to Iraq, pointed out, post-ISIS Iraq cannot remain the same as pre-ISIS Iraq or something like ISIS will simply come back. Something was wrong, he continued, that allowed ISIS to sweep through the country. Something was wrong that minorities were leaving Iraq even before ISIS took power. Baghdad officials hoped delegating power from Baghdad to the local forces would help bring disgruntled sects back into the political fold. These officials were quick to point out that some Sunnis Arabs were also taking part in the fight against ISIS as part of the Popular Mobilization (al-Hashd al-Sha‘bi) forces. The Iraqi National Security Advisor, Faleh al-Fayyadh, is also chairman of the committee of the Popular Mobilization forces. He insisted that everyone—the Peshmerga, Iraqi Army, and Popular forces—will need to work together in Mosul and that they will be key to ensuring that another ISIS does not return. Others were less enthusiastic. One of the most decent and respected men at the Forum was the Iraqi Minister of Education, Hussein Shahrastani. As a youth, he was a science prodigy and rose to the highest levels in Iraq’s nascent scientific community. However he refused to help Saddam develop weapons of mass destruction and was imprisoned for more than a decade. He has remained a principled voice in post-Saddam Iraq. Defeating ISIS, he insisted, will require reform. Though he is a Shi‘i, he critiqued the political process that brought Shi‘is to power in post-2003 Iraq. The Iraqi Constitution, he insisted, was written in a hurry and not all groups (read Arab Sunnis) participated fully. He championed the need for constitutional reform that will decentralize Iraqi politics. And while he is against dividing the country, he recognized that economic and political reforms will be required to keep Iraq unified. Furthermore, he threw cold water on the idea that the Popular Mobilization forces were the key to stability in a post-conflict Iraq, asserting that no militias should be permitted in the country after the fight against ISIS is over.

Shahrastani’s warnings about the popular forces were quite prescient. While other Baghdad officials repeatedly highlighted the fact that Sunni Arabs were now taking up arms against ISIS, Sunni Arab representatives at the Forum seemed less than convinced. One such Sunni, Usama al-Nujaifi served as Speaker of the Iraqi Parliament and was the foil of Iraq’s former sectarian Shi‘i Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. Hence, al-Nujaifi is the just the type of Sunni Arab leader who will need to brought into the fold in a post-ISIS Iraq, but he showed no signs of being placated. He condemned the Popular Mobilization forces and insisted that since 2003, the government’s policies were based on domination. This domination continued today, he continued, highlighting that the Shi‘i block in parliament is against federalism in the constitution. He maintained that the tools that are being used to fight ISIS are not helpful. People are not allowed to return to their homes after the liberation of their towns. There are innocent people in prisons. He insisted that “If we do not start the reform processes, even if ISIS goes, another ISIS will come.” But the types of reforms he wants have meager support in Shi‘i dominated Baghdad because they would distribute power away from the capital and into the hands of other sects.

The liberation of Mosul and the defeat of ISIS are just as likely to exacerbate these problems as they are to alleviate them. Everyone recognizes that Kurdish forces are necessary in the fight against ISIS. But much of the territory that the Kurds are retaking from ISIS has been disputed between Kurds and Arabs since the founding of Iraq. The Kurds are unlikely to relinquish their hold on these areas, and the Arabs, as well as other minorities, are just as unlikely to acquiesce to Kurdish control of places like Kirkuk and sections of Nineveh Province, which have mixed populations.

The Kurds will not be easily placated on these issues. Events in recent years have triggered considerable soul searching about their past and future. The destruction wrought by Saddam Hussein’s regime is a fresh memory for them. March 16 was the first day of the Suli Forum. It also marked the day that Saddam gassed Halabja. In a memorial service, Forum attendees heard the story of a boy who was separated from his family during the attacks. His mother had left a shelter in an attempt to save one of his siblings and then collapsed. She woke up alone in a hospital. The boy was three months old when the attack occurred. He was found by an Iranian soldier who brought him to Iran, where he was adopted by a local family. Twenty years later, he returned to Halabja and through DNA tests, he was reunited with his birth mother. He stayed in Iraqi Kurdistan and went on to become the valedictorian of his class at the American University of Iraq – Sulaimaniya, where the Suli Forum is held. Such stories of tenacity and triumph amidst heart wrenching pain are commonplace in Iraqi Kurdistan. This history has imbued them with an absolute certainty in the righteousness of their cause. In the Halabja memorial museum, they proudly display the rope that was used to hang Saddam’s commander, Ali Hassan al-Majid, who is also known as Chemical Ali for his role in gassing the Kurds. The jarring confidence of such an exhibit is impossible to miss.

As former Kurdish Prime Minster Barham Salih lamented, after Halabja the Kurds said that they would never let something like that happen again. But it is happening again now. Saleh Muslim, the Co-Chair of Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syrian Kurdistan argued that the same chemical weapons that were used in Halabja are now being used by ISIS against them. Similar sentiments were expressed by almost every Kurdish official at the Forum. They were often followed by the question: What is necessary to ensure that it will not happen again once this crisis is over? Given the emotions tied up in Kurdish history, they are unlikely to settle for anything that requires them to rely on outsiders for protection. But as should be abundantly clear by now, birthing a new order in the region will not be easy.

Military operations against ISIS appear to be moving forward. However, the politics of Iraq are a mess and there is little optimism that the country will emerge a unified, stable entity. In Western discourse, the one bright spot on the map and the one hope for the future of the region has been Kurdistan. However, if Kurdistan is to be saved, we will need to take seriously Orwell’s cautionary tale from Catalonia. Orwell’s Spain was lost to blind idealism. It is time for those who claim to support the Kurds to stop romanticizing them, and to begin helping them not only to solve their military problems but also to address their deep political challenges. This will require economic aid and political commitment—not just military assistance. A failure to do so opens the door for hardline elements, such as the PKK, to gain strength and push out the moderates. It will also pave the way toward future wars and instability. The Spanish Civil War became a dry run for World War Two and spawned an autocratic regime that ruled the country for almost 40 years. We should not let something similar happen in Kurdistan.

[1] George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia (New York: Mariner Books, 1980, original publication 1938), 4.

[2] Orwell, 47.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] “Obama Asks for Peshmerga Commander’s Autograph” Rudaw (Kurdistan), November 27, 2015. https://rudaw.net/english/kurdistan/271120154

[7] Ofra Bengio, The Kurds of Iraq: Building a State Within a State, (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2012), 32-3.

[8] Patrick Osgood, “KRG Woes Deepen Amidst Production, Export Constraints,” Iraq Oil Report, March 5, 2016. https://www.iraqoilreport.com/news/krg-woes-deepen-amidst-production-export-constraints-18238/

[9] Patrick Osgood, “Kurdistan Oil Revenue Collapses,” Iraq Oil Report, March 8, 2016.  https://www.iraqoilreport.com/news/kurdistan-oil-revenue-collapses-18253/

[10] Dmitry Zhdannikov and Humeyra Pamuk, “Kurdistan resumes oil exports after three-week break squeezes budget ,” Reuters, March 11, 2016. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-kurdistan-oil-exports-idUSKCN0WD1YF