Ever since the fall of the Ottomans, the Kurds have been a non-state nation, an insurgent population split across four sovereign states – Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran. Denied, as they see it, an independent Kurdistan by the cynical manipulations of the French and British colonial powers in the aftermath of the First World War, over the next hundred years they suffered serial and escalating repression: detention, torture and execution; the destruction of villages and bombardment with sundry weapons, including napalm and poison gas; and even – the ruling order’s last resort – genocide, as in the Iraqi regime’s 1988 Anfal counterinsurgency campaign, in which tens of thousands were systematically murdered. Yet every human disaster can be counted as a political step forward in the Kurds’ pursuit of their historical entitlement to statehood. Their recent successes in Syria and Iraq – against Islamic State, and territorially – have been met with considerable sympathy, even romantic idealisation, in the West.
But it has all happened before. The way Kurdish rebel parties make progress towards realising their people’s highest aspiration is to push when central power is temporarily weak, then try to hold the line on their gains when it rebounds, as it invariably does. Whenever possible they expand the territory they control – taking over oil and gas reserves in adjacent areas – and assert greater authority over their own heartlands. So the Kurds used Saddam Hussein’s defeat in the 1991 Kuwait war to establish a quasi-independent enclave under the protection of the US military; in 2003, they extended both their powers and their territory as the Iraqi regime collapsed; today, they are eyeing the situation in Syria as a potential opportunity to unite Kurdish populations previously separated by post-Ottoman borders, and they are seizing additional territory in both Iraq and Syria as they push back IS with Western military support.
At every turn, however, the Kurds are tripped up by the very divisions imposed on them after the Ottoman Empire’s disintegration a century ago. In theory they are fighting to create a unitary state in all of Kurdistan, a territory whose borders are undefined but that in some Kurds’ imaginings stretches all the way from deep inside Iran to the shores of the Mediterranean. Across their four main ‘host’ countries, though, the Kurds are internally divided over strategy: some seek a single Kurdish nation-state; others prefer autonomy within the state they inhabit; others would be content with recognition of their rights as a minority in a truly democratic state – of which there have been none in the region. And many seem to have internalised the post-Ottoman borders, embracing their separate identities as Iraqi, Syrian, Turkish or Iranian Kurds. Partly because of these divisions, the Kurds can’t make significant headway in their pursuit of greater freedom without the aid of an external power. This aid – whether from the US, Iran or the Soviet Union and Russia – has never been given as an act of charity: it has always been part of a strategy in which the Kurds are merely instrumental; their sponsors rarely share their goals and sometimes oppose them. The history of the Kurds’ long struggle is therefore one of a series of fleeting alliances with more powerful states, and cries of betrayal once these alliances fall apart, each followed by atrocities from which it takes them a generation to recover.
Take, for example, the predicament that now confronts the PYD, the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, in northern Syria. Its military arm, the YPG, has aligned itself with the Pentagon in the international effort to defeat IS. But the PYD, for good reason, worries about what will happen to this alliance once it has succeeded in retaking Raqqa and freeing northern Syria from IS control. Will the US continue to support the PYD when it tries to administer newly liberated territory over the strong objections of Turkey and possibly of the local non-Kurdish population as well? The PYD wants to remove IS – but primarily as a step towards the goal of establishing a majority Kurdish region it controls. This, of course, isn’t the same as Washington’s goal; it is also opposed by Assad as well as by Turkey and Iran. Washington has warned the PYD that the Kurds’ future status in Syria should be established by post-conflict peace negotiations between Damascus and the opposition and can’t be unilaterally imposed; in the new Syria that emerges, whatever it looks like, the PYD doubts that Kurdish identity and rights will be respected.
In Iraq, the Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani seized on Islamic State’s capture of Mosul in 2014 to solicit the US for military help, which his forces have since received in spades and almost without conditions. (This aid has gone to Barzani’s KDP, a political party, not to the Kurdish regional government as a whole, which has caused the KDP’s main local rival, Jalal Talabani’s PUK, to turn to Iran for support instead.) The Americans haven’t been concerned with keeping track of where their weapons go or against whom they are used, and have turned a blind eye to Kurdish land grabs – leading to the destruction of houses and displacement of people in Arab-dominated areas taken from IS, especially around Kirkuk. The KDP may succeed in pushing IS out of these areas and may even help retake Mosul, but if Washington fails to rein in the KDP’s territorial ambitions it is likely to find that the phenomenon of Sunni Arab radicalisation that created IS will pop up in another, potentially even more virulent form. Yet the Kurds would denounce any such attempt at constraint by the US as a betrayal of their long support of Washington’s objectives in Iraq. The sad reality is that ethno-sectarian politics in Iraq have made this a zero-sum game. Mutual accommodation is a term that doesn’t appear in the lexicon of Arab or Kurdish political leaders.
The pattern of Kurdish history, then, is one of recurrent promise and betrayal. Nothing better exemplifies this than the plaintive cable sent forty years ago by Masoud Barzani’s father, Mullah Mustafa Barzani, the legendary founder of the Kurdish national movement, to Henry Kissinger, then both US secretary of state and national security adviser, as quoted by Bryan Gibson from declassified US government documents:
Our hearts bleed to see that an immediate byproduct of [Iran and Iraq’s] agreement is the destruction of our defenceless people in an unprecedented manner as Iran closed its border and stopped help to us completely and while the Iraqis began the biggest offensive they have ever launched and which is now being continued. Our movement and people are being destroyed in an unbelievable way with silence from everyone.
Seldom has a leader made himself sound more like a spurned and injured lover than Mustafa Barzani. It’s the predicament of smaller nations that they must bestow (calculated, self-interested) love on their supposed protectors but rarely see it reciprocated. When things begin to unravel it’s always the weaker side that loses.
The year was 1975, and the agreement to which Barzani refers was an accord that the shah of Iran had just concluded with Saddam Hussein over the sharing of the Shatt al-Arab, the waterway in which the Tigris and Euphrates converge as they approach the Gulf. Iran wanted to draw the international border along the river’s thalweg (its deepest point). Iraq agreed, but demanded that the shah in return must stop supporting the Kurdish insurgency. Overnight the rebels, who had benefited from combined US, Iranian and Israeli military support, found their people exposed. Saddam’s revenge wasn’t long in coming, and was ferocious. Gibson, however, overturns conventional wisdom on the event. The deal wasn’t Washington’s initiative but the shah’s: it went against the explicit advice of Kissinger, who saw it as being of little benefit, especially since the Kurds had proved a useful proxy in keeping the Iraqi regime, with its ties to the Soviet Union, off-balance. Kissinger, in other words, was making a strategic Cold War calculation, but his auxiliary in the Gulf, the shah, was making a calculation of his own, using his leverage as an otherwise dependable US ally to display a streak of autonomy.
Gibson, on the basis of his research into the declassified US government documents, exonerates Kissinger, who stood accused – in the Pike Report, a Congressional investigation leaked to the press in 1976 – of having abandoned the Kurds. The report has been cited ever since as incontrovertible evidence of Kissinger’s duplicity. But the exoneration shouldn’t go unqualified. Kissinger cared for the Kurds only to the extent that they could be used in the pursuit of US interests, and he would surely have abandoned them sooner or later: Iran, Iraq and Turkey were far more important players in the larger Cold War game. In response to Barzani’s plea, he instructed the US ambassador in Tehran, Richard Helms, to convey his sympathies:
We appreciate the deep concern which prompted … Barzani’s message to Secretary Kissinger. We can understand that the difficult decisions which the Kurdish people now face are a cause of deep anguish for them. We have great admiration for the courage and dignity with which those people have confronted many trials, and our prayers are with them.
As the naked condescension suggests, Kissinger’s prayers were guided less by divine inspiration than by cold calculation. Helms had advised him to appease the distraught Kurdish leader in order to prevent an unwelcome backlash:
Since the Iranians clearly have on their hands, and we to a lesser extent on ours, an obviously distressed and disconsolate Barzani, it may be desirable for you to send him some kind of comforting message, otherwise, and maybe anyway, we will get a batch of unpleasant publicity which we may be able to avoid.
Years later, Brent Scowcroft, Kissinger’s deputy as national security adviser, would explain matter of factly to Gibson that the Kurds’ fate had been part of the natural order of things: ‘The Kurds are pawns in great power politics … as they have been for a long time.’ And so, Gibson concludes, ‘like all pawns, they were expendable.’
As the Kurds see it, their perennial status as pawns in the game of stronger powers began in 1923 with the Treaty of Lausanne, which cheated them out of the independent state they thought they had been promised in the Treaty of Sèvres three years earlier. The Lausanne treaty settled the borders of Turkey, giving it international recognition, leaving nothing for the Kurds. Although their independent entity would have covered only a relatively small area inside what became the Turkish republic – and wouldn’t have changed the status of the large Kurd-populated regions of Iran, Iraq and Syria – this would have been a symbolically important beginning for the Kurds and a critical precedent on which to base their wider ambition. Instead, they ended up split into four separate parts: as an ethnic minority among Arabs, Turks or Persians, they were in each case under the boot of a central regime prepared to use any means necessary to stifle the merest hint of autonomous sentiment. Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria – despite their abiding differences in other areas – would at times band together to hold down the Kurds, sharing intelligence and co-ordinating security operations. (At other times, they would support a neighbouring state’s Kurdish rebels to put an enemy government on the back foot.) This is when the endless cycle of rebellion, repression and renewed rebellion began.
The Kurds thus became masters at inserting themselves into the interstices of their host states’ divisions, playing one off against the other and marshalling external support at every turn, depending on which international political alignments prevailed at the time. Gibson’s book offers a detailed account of how things looked from Washington’s perspective between 1958 and 1975, the height of the Cold War. One episode stands out. In 1958, after the overthrow of the monarchy in Iraq, Barzani returned from Soviet exile. The coup unsettled the Eisenhower administration, which feared that the new leader, Abdel-Karim Qasem, might move Iraq into the Soviet orbit. The US wanted to deny the Soviets access to the Gulf, so its relationships with Iran and Iraq were paramount. Qasem’s loyalties were unknown: he declared himself an Arab nationalist in the mould of Nasser, but to which bloc would he turn for protection? Washington was suspicious of his apparent neutrality – non-alignment didn’t mesh with either side’s ‘you’re either with me or against me’ attitude – but detected an opportunity in the Arab nationalists’ explicit condemnation of communism. Qasem welcomed Barzani back, needing his support to shore up his young regime, and made him certain promises regarding Kurdish autonomy. But soon his Arab nationalism bumped up against the Kurdish variety, and by 1961 the two men had fallen out again. Qasem may also have calculated that he no longer needed the Kurds. Betrayal!
This opened the door to the Soviet Union, which began courting the Kurds as part of its new Cold War strategy of backing national liberation movements. The Kurds promptly used the Soviet offer as leverage in their negotiations with Washington, invoking an America that supported ‘causes of liberty and justice’, and declaring that a US-backed Kurdistan would be a ‘bulwark against the Soviet Union’. Barzani threatened that if Kennedy refused to help him, he would turn to Moscow instead. (This handy threat – the poor nation’s weapon of choice – has had multiple applications since, most recently in the PYD’s intimation earlier this year that it would appeal to Russia for help if Washington blocked it from keeping territories taken from Islamic State in Syria.) Kennedy didn’t bite, seeing Baghdad as the better bet, particularly since Qasem had begun purging communists shortly after taking power. Declaring it would not involve itself in Iraq’s internal affairs, Washington exposed the Kurds to repression by the regime, and the Kurdish war escalated.
In 1963, the insurgent Baath party, seeking to overthrow Qasem, asked Barzani to end the war; this would free up the military forces it needed to secure the country. The Baath’s promise of support for Kurdish autonomy lasted barely as long as its utterance and, as the war resumed, Moscow threw its support behind the Kurds, compelling Washington, which at first tried to mediate between Barzani and the Baath, to abandon Barzani definitively. Yet the Kurds had made significant progress: they had begun to build international alliances to advance their cause – a still rudimentary skill they would hone in later years – and US mediation, however tepid and inconclusive, had given support to their bid for self-rule.
The 1975 betrayal was more painful: by that time Barzani had marshalled significant support not only from the US but from Iran and – thanks to David Ben-Gurion’s ‘periphery doctrine’, which advocated alliances with non-Arab forces in the region – from Israel too. Increased military assistance, advice and training turned a local insurgency into a regional conflict by proxy. When the Baath took power in 1968, its strongman, Saddam Hussein, reached out to Barzani in an attempt to shore up support for the new regime. The negotiations that followed constituted a leap forward for the Kurds, as Baghdad’s new rulers accepted Iraq’s binational character and allowed a degree of self-government in an autonomous Kurdish region – with precise borders to be determined – and a regional parliament in Erbil. Four years later, the accord unravelled over growing tensions between Iran and Iraq and disagreement over the city of Kirkuk and its oilfields, which Barzani insisted should be included in the Kurdish region. Baghdad refused. Meanwhile, Barzani, marketing the Kurds as a ‘positive element’ in advancing US interests in the Middle East, offered Washington access to Kirkuk’s oilfields in return for US military protection. In response, the CIA secretly started arms shipments intended, in Kissinger’s immortal words, to give the Kurds ‘enough strength to be an open wound in Iraq’ and thus deter the Baath regime from aligning itself with Moscow. Fuelled by large quantities of military aid, the Kurdish rebellion escalated, threatening the regime to the point that Saddam saw no option but to settle with the shah, who immediately pulled the plug on his support of the insurgency, bringing disaster to the Kurds.
Gibson’s study throws much light on the history of US policy towards Iraq and the Kurds during the Cold War. But his relentless focus on US sources, predominantly diplomatic ones, occludes the perspectives of other key players: the Soviets, the Iraqis and the Kurds. It is one thing to use government sources as the principal basis for assessing that government’s policies, but quite another to trust the accuracy of those documents, especially when perfectly acceptable alternative sources are available. We learn, for example, that Barzani held off from taking Kurdish cities from Baghdad’s control during his insurgency in the early 1960s ‘out of fear of government retaliation against civilians’. This may or may not be true, but we can’t know from Gibson’s study because the source he cites isn’t Barzani or one of his chroniclers, or a historian reviewing an array of available evidence, but a single cable from the US embassy in Baghdad. Can this source be deemed reliable, or at least more reliable than any of the other participants and observers on or near the scene?
Similarly, Gibson cites a US cable in referring to intra-Kurdish feuds, when better sources surely exist. And reporting that when Barzani visited Israel in 1968, ‘Israel’s generosity, courtesy and the level of support impressed Barzani,’ his source both for Israel’s reception of Barzani and Barzani’s response is a not wholly disinterested Israeli intelligence officer. Later Gibson declares that ‘it is also clear that Barzani had no knowledge of the shah’s intentions … According to the shah, Barzani indicated to the shah …’ etc. This is based on a piece of information conveyed by a US diplomat, so by the time Gibson cites it in his book, it is third-hand. Where is its primary source, or the independent confirmation? Why should we trust its veracity or the soundness of Gibson’s assessment?
Underdeveloped in the book is the notion that as often as the US and others used the Kurds to serve their own ends, Kurdish leaders begged to be used that way, selling their movement as willing proxies. The Kurds have an agenda of their own. They have had agency in their own fate, and if they have shown anything over the past century it is that despite the evident, sometimes horrific, defeats they have suffered, they have made steady progress towards their goal of greater freedom. Indeed, a senior Kurdish official asserted to me recently that he thought it highly unlikely that the US would sell out the Kurds in Iraq again: ‘Betrayal is finished.’ The situation today, he said, couldn’t be compared to that in 1975: the Cold War is over; the concept of sovereignty has evolved; in a globalising world, what happens in Kurdistan has become a lot more visible to a far greater number of people than ever before; the Kurds have accumulated knowledge about how to deal with that world and how to act on that knowledge, including through a strong lobbying network in Washington; and the US army has learned from, come to trust, and even become reliant on the Kurds. ‘The US is now a friend,’ he said.
And yet. There are already signs of a new convergence between Damascus, Ankara and Tehran (and possibly Baghdad) on the one issue on which all of them can agree: keeping the Kurds down. The US may be a friend to the Kurds in Iraq – in Syria, this remains to be seen – but its friendship isn’t likely to extend beyond protecting them from external aggression or supporting their reasonable claim to a meaningful autonomy. That’s important, but how will Washington, under a new administration, assess the relative weight of the Kurds versus that of its allies in Turkey and Iraq, and perhaps a future Syria, in the furtherance of its strategic interests? Even its still hesitant accommodation with Tehran should be a cause for Kurdish worry. The risk of betrayal remains a matter of intense debate among Kurdish elites. Distrust of America runs deep (even as many dream of emigrating there), and some express a strong distaste for a global superpower which, in their view, cares little about the rights of the wider region’s people and has concentrated all its efforts on defeating Islamic State, regardless of the impact on Kurdish society. But the real issue, they add, is that their own leaders, in their internecine conflicts, their autocratic tendencies, their conspicuous corruption, their arrogant and greedy stewardship of the region’s oil wealth and their immunity to criticism, have become living exemplars of the ultimate betrayal: that of the promise of the Kurdish revolution, on which a nation had staked its hopes.