Our friends – the Kurds

September 25, 2017 is a very important day. It is the day that the KRG (Kurdish Regional Government) held a referendum on declaring independence from Iraq. Although there are roughly 30 million Kurds in a contiguous area that includes parts of Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria, there is no Kurdish homeland. Following the defeat of the Ottoman empire in WWI and its carving up by Britain and France, no territory was set aside for the Kurds. (The history is complicated. You can google ‘Treaty of Sevres’, ‘Treaty of Lausanne’, ‘Sykes-Picot’ and ‘Ataturk’ to learn about the twists and turns of the partitioning of the Ottoman empire.)

The referendum has carried with a yes vote of more than 90%. This approval comes in spite of threats by Turkey and Iran to intervene militarily and Iraq’s refusal to accept the results of the referendum. Turkey, Iran and Syria fear that the passage of this referendum will stir up the Kurds within their borders for control of their destinies.

There is an affinity between the Kurdish national aspirations and Zionism. Israel is the only country that has come out in favor of the Kurdish referendum. As David Halbfinger notes in a New York Tines article of September 22, ‘The Kurds and the Jews, it turns out, go way back. Back past the Babylonian Captivity, in fact: The first Jews in Kurdistan, tradition holds, were among the last tribes of Israel, taken from their land in the eighth century B.C. They liked it there so much that when Cyrus the Great of Persia conquered the Babylonians and let the Jews go back home, many chose instead to stick around. Sixteen centuries later, Saladin, a Kurd, treated the Jews humanely after he conquered Jerusalem, and notably hired a Jewish doctor, Maimonides, as his physician.’

More recently, ‘After Israel’s defeat of its Arab neighbors in 1967 and the Baathist coup in Iraq a year later, Iraq became inhospitable to its dwindling Jewish population. Then it was the Barzanis’ turn to help. After nine Jews were hanged in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square in 1969, Iraqi Jews were desperate to flee. The Kurds helped some 1,000 of them escape, over land to Iran and then by plane to Israel.’ Note (1) those were the days when Iran was an ally of Israel and (2) it is the Barzani family that heads the KRG today.

It is natural for any group to want to control its destiny. But the motivation of the Kurds has far deeper roots. David Zucchino reviews the history of Iraqi genocidal attacks on the Kurds. “Kurds know no one will protect us but ourselves,” said Mr. Hama, 35, whose back was injured by an roadside bomb as he battled Islamic State militants last year. “That is why I fought — for the day we Kurds will be both free and safe.” Almost every Kurd in northern Iraq can trace a family history stained by treachery and dispossession: Kurdish women and children killed in chemical attacks, villages razed, Kurdish men detained and murdered, families deported or banished to internment camps.

From 1977 to 1987, more than 4,500 Kurdish villages were razed and thousands of residents forcibly removed to detention camps, according to Human Rights Watch. During Mr. Hussein’s Anfal campaign against Kurds in 1988, up to 100,000 Kurds were executed. “The history of the Kurds is one of betrayal,” said David L. Phillips, a former State Department adviser who worked on Iraq for 30 years.

For decades, Baathist-led governments in Baghdad tried to crush or evict the Kurds, and to repopulate their ancestral lands with Arabs. But protected from Saddam Hussein’s troops by an American no-fly zone since 1991, {thank you George H.W. Bush} the Kurds have since built a thriving proto-state across northern Iraq.

If the vote does go forward, “there is no going back on independence,” said Peter W. Galbraith, a former American diplomat who is close to the Kurdish leadership. Mr. Galbraith predicted a solid majority in favor of independence. “Would you want to be part of a country that committed genocide against you?” he asked.

With this history, it’s hard to take the arguments made against the Kurdish referendum seriously.

One argument is that it destroys the territorial integrity of Iraq. Given the outsize influence of the Iranian government in Iraq, that’s not very impressive. David Zucchino notes, ‘While United States policy is to try to preserve Iraq as one entity, the Israelis are more practical, said Peter W. Galbraith, a former diplomat with extensive experience in Kurdistan: “Why lose all of Iraq, when you could save part of it?”’

Then there’s the argument that the KRG leadership is corrupt and the referendum gives the Barzani clan an undeserved mandate. If the Iraqi government were a model of integrity, there might be some point to the argument. However Iraq ranked as the 9th most corrupt state out of 175 countries surveyed in 2016.

There are indications that cooler heads may prevail in Turkey. Sertan Demirtas writes in Hurriyet of September 27, ‘Trade ties between Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) should not be affected by the recent independence referendum, Economy Minister Nihat Zeybekci has told the Hürriyet Daily News, saying the current state of economic relations are “business as usual.”

“During the crisis with Russia in 2015, the first thing they did was [restrict] trade. They tried to teach a lesson to Turkey through trade. This was very wrong. I wouldn’t find it right to repeat this mistake in the same way [against the KRG],” Zeybekci said on Sept. 26. ‘

G’mar Tov!

About the Author
Richard Chasman, 1934-2018, was a member of the Modern Orthodox community in Chicago. Professionally, he was a theoretical nuclear physicist. Richard, who described his perspective as "centrist," wrote a newsletter for more than 20 years called "Chovevai Tsion of Chicago," on subjects of interest to the Modern Orthodox community.