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Global View: Turnabout for the Kurds

Gershon Burstyn

Kurdish president Masoud Barzani is now set to resign and Iraqi troops have occupied large parts of Kirkuk, the Kurds’ putative capital

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

 Mishpacha image


O h, the Kurds.

Our favorite downtrodden minority in the Middle East has had a bad few weeks.

Earlier this month, it seemed as though Kurdistan might be ready for a shiny new seat at the United Nations. But a tragic turn of events has the long-dispossessed minority driving backwards. The man who arranged the Kurdish independence referendum, Kurdish president Masoud Barzani, is now set to resign, and Iraqi troops have occupied large parts of Kirkuk, the Kurds’ putative capital.

How’d we get here?

The fateful day was October 16, when the Iraqi army, backed by Iran-affiliated Shiite militias, moved into Kirkuk and captured key oil fields, largely without resistance. Those oil fields were the key to Kurdish independence dreams, but also at the heart of the dispute with Baghdad. Iraq doesn’t want to give away what represents 40 percent of its national oil store to the Kurds, whose economy in turn depends on crude exports.

So why wasn’t there a tooth-and-nail fight for the engine that would drive Kurdish independence? Iran happened. The PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan), a rival to Barzani’s Kurdish Democratic Party, struck a deal with Major General Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force, the elite branch of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. Soleimani made an offer the PUK couldn’t refuse: either withdraw or we’ll run you into the mountains. The PUK got the message, allowing the Iranians to walk in. Barzani was of course livid, calling the PUK traitors to the Kurdish cause.

Late last week, hat seemingly in hand, Barzani offered to “freeze” the independence referendum in exchange for an immediate cease-fire. But Baghdad is feeling confident. Haider al-Abadi, Iraq’s prime minister, refused Barzani’s compromise, telling him only a total repeal of the referendum would do. And now, as we go to press, Barzani is resigning, his statehood dreams dashed.


There’s more than one lesson here. One, it seems that Barzani seriously over-reached. The United States had urged him to cancel the referendum, and even tried to arrange a last-minute deal with Baghdad that would have temporarily satisfied both parties, but he didn’t listen. It seems in this case that the Trump administration favors stability in Iraq over the moral victory of a Kurdish state.

Two, the United States has once again abandoned the Kurds. Back in 1991, after the first Gulf War, President George H.W. Bush encouraged the Kurds to rise up against Saddam Hussein. They did — and Saddam proceeded to slaughter them, with Washington lifting nary a finger. This time around, the Kurds may have figured that they had American painted into a corner. For the last few years, they have ably battled the Islamic State, often fighting alongside US advisors and with US equipment. Their time had come, they might have reasoned: IS has been routed from large swaths of territory and there can be no better time for us to take our spoils. That the United States did not share their logic tells us more about the heartlessness of war and power than about the moral rights of a stateless people. (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 683)

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