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Kurds in Iraq and Syria: What Went Wrong?

By Hemin Lihony 29/3/2018
A Kurdish man protests against the Iraqi takeover of oil-rich Kirkuk in October 2017 in front of the US consulate in Erbil. File photo: Safin Hamed | AFP
A Kurdish man protests against the Iraqi takeover of oil-rich Kirkuk in October 2017 in front of the US consulate in Erbil. File photo: Safin Hamed | AFP
The world is still reeling from the shock of Donald Trump's ascension to power as the president of the United States and we are all witnessing unprecedented polarisation, of a kind that hasn't been seen for many decades. Protectionism and populism are becoming the norm of the day as more and more countries around the world are taking this path. In these times, smaller countries and non-state actors like the Kurds become victims.

The Kurds are at the moment in a state of despair, especially as they were expecting a payback from the world for their hands-on and on-the-ground fight against terrorism on behalf of, or at least alongside, the international community. But that was all done when more liberal politicians led the world. Things have changed now and the Kurds should determine whether they need economic partners or political allies in the new order.

The policy of protectionism stresses a focus on domestic politics and economy and turns away from the international arena. For instance, Trump's ‘America First’ has driven a wedge between the United States and its allies in Europe. Unlike the past, US foreign policy does not stand on universal values, nor does it say much about other countries' human rights record or democratic principles. Current US-Saudi relations are based on how much cash the Saudi government can deliver to serve Trump's protectionist policies.

The United States looks to Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt from the lens of how many jobs they may create for American citizens in America than how they may handle freedom of speech or how many activists they may throw in jail.

In the same vein, after Brexit Britain will do whatever serves its economy without regard to the EU values and principles. To reduce the impact of leaving the EU London is now seeking stronger trade ties and arms deals with Saudi Arabia and Turkey. 

This kind of policy by such big powers as the US and UK undermines organisations like the United Nations, EU and other international agencies.

Serious disagreements are also on the rise among European countries. Germany and its EU partners do not see eye to eye on the issue of refugees and migrants. Under Emmanuel Macron, France also wants to expand its influence beyond the European Union and is not satisfied with the current form of the Union. Recent electoral results in Italy and Austria a similar loss of hope in the EU.

A report prepared by at least one thousand experts and researchers for the Davos Forum 2018, clearly outlines several risks associated with the world's current political trend. Establishing a ‘strong government’ has become a characteristic of this era. Some countries do this by democratic means, others do so undemocratic. For example, Trump wants to be the one man in charge. He has sacked and replaced many members of his cabinet in order to create a government that suits him and his policies.

In China, Xi Jinping has been named president for life. The Chinese know they cannot afford any change in leadership at this time of global rivalry. And in Russia Vladimir Putin won 75 percent of the votes as president, albeit in dubious elections.

Turkey's Erdogan likewise tries to prove every day that there is only one man in charge and that his word is what counts. India is similarly enjoying a strong government that has begun to act on a global stage especially in Asia.

The Davos Forum report warns that the concept of strong establishment and protectionism will led to more tensions and complication in international relations in 2018:

First: If every government focuses on strengthening itself, the work of international organisations, especially the UN, will gradually weaken. We saw how the Britain weakened the EU.

Second: Minorities and non-state actors will continue to become victims of stronger states.

Third: Countries will meddle in each other’s affairs and establish proxy groups (i.e. Lebanon, Libya, Syria).

Fourth: Smaller countries like Qatar--despite economic strength--will be at the pity of stronger regional powers.

The Munich Security Conference also touched on some of the risks emanating from undermined international cooperation:

First: As a result of the vacuum created by the US under Trump, China has entered the global market and is expected to take the trade war to a higher level. The war to control the world of technology between the US and China is also expected to broaden.

Second: Geopolitical tensions in the Korean peninsula and instability in Iraq and Syria will keep international actors at bay.

Third: The collapse of big treaties like NAFTA and creation of economic crises for countries like Mexico.

Fourth: Pressure will be exerted on Iran to a degree that it will be forced to leave Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria.

Fifth: Political and economic establishments will weaken and their legitimacy questioned, in a way that they won't be able to make accurate political and economic predictions.

Sixth: The danger of Islamist populism in Indonesia and Malaysia and nationalism in India will cause further tensions.

Seventh: Terrorist activities by groups like the al-Qaeda, which remains strong in Africa, will further endanger a divided world.

Kurds in light of this reality

In a divided world, small countries and non-state actors like Kurds cannot protect themselves or count on others. Therefore they have to read the situation and have a deep understanding before making any moves.

One reason the Kurds now feel betrayed is that they fought ISIS in a time much different from the world we are living in now. We all remember how Barack Obama used the US air force to protect Erbil and the Kurds. Obama was the leader of a liberal-democratic world. He believed it was the duty of the US to protect minorities and condemn human rights violations. There is a completely different administration and mentality in Washington now.

The Kurds now appear to have lost many of the achievements they had made over two decades. That would most likely not have happened in a liberal-democratic world. If Obama was still president, the US might have at least prevented the situation that forced the Kurds to hold an independence referendum in the first place.

Disregarding international relations stung the Kurdistan Region badly. The world only dealt with the KRG from a security/military perspective during the ISIS war, but the Kurds misread this and became politically vain. They wanted to turn these relations into a quick political gain. Their confidence went so far that Kurdish leaders believed the world, including the US, did not have the right to meddle in their affairs.

They misread regional equations to the extent that they believed Iraq was gone, and Turkey and Iran couldn’t stop the creation of a Kurdish state. If Erdogan’s remark that the KRG didn’t consult Turkey on the referendum is true, then it is truly disastrous because Erbil had all its eggs in Ankara’s basket.

On the Rojava front, Kurdish parties affiliated with the PKK initially played a good political game by forging close relations with the United States, which made the Kurds in Syria important actors. But their political vanity and disregard for international equations led to the Afrin disaster and the receding of Kurds there, too.

The United States tried hard to persuade the YPG to distance itself from the PKK. But YPG leaders refused to listen and had even told America that they would switch to Russia if the US was unhappy with how they operated.

Failing to correctly read regional and international state of affairs and forgetting that they were non-state actors, the Kurds of Syria turned out major victims, too. The world didn’t come to the defence of Afrin with even a single statement in support of YPG that was once the main partner against ISIS. In the end, neither the American flag nor that of Russia, nor posters of Assad pictures saved the YPG.

In North Kurdistan (Turkey), Selahattin Demirtaş managed to present a successful example of Kurdish politics which led to 80 seats in the Turkish parliament in the 2015 elections. It was once unimaginable that Turks may one day vote for a Kurd for president.  This historical success by Demirtaş definitely deserves years of study and research. But it was all short-lived and the PKK is responsible.

The PKK resumed and stepped up its guerrilla attacks in Turkey at a time when Demirtaş had just rocked Turkey with his victory and brought Kurds to the heart of the government. The cost was a staggering loss for HDP in the rerun elections.

Kurdish parties from East Kurdistan (Iran) might be hoping for a US attack on Iran, especially now that Trump has a new national security team and a new Secretary of State. The US might at some point strike Iran's proxies in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, in which case these Kurdish parties could only sit and be onlookers.

What's next for the Kurds?

First: in this new era Kurds should quit the idea of armed struggle whether against Turkey, Iraq or Iran. It is now clear that the international community doesn’t tolerate any change to borders and a new state at this stage seems impossible, especially by military means. The Kurds need to find common ground with these countries, especially economically. We all saw Kurdistan Region's economic boom during its good ties with Turkey. There was talk of turning Erbil into a second Dubai. But in the end, the Kurdistan Region changed from being a semi-state to a weak region controlled at Baghdad's mercy. 

Second: Rather than expand, Kurds should work to protect what they've so far achieved. Instead of holding a referendum in Kirkuk, the Kurds should have thought of presenting a good model of governance to its people and the international community.

Rojava Kurds should have thought about protecting their cantons, instead of posing a threat to any party or fighting on behalf of the PKK, or arresting members of other Kurdish groups. In North Kurdistan, Demirtaş should have entered the government and not gone from town to town digging trenches for democratic autonomy.

Third: When disaster strikes, instead of learning from it Kurds tend to start a blame game and accuse each other of betrayal and treason. They refuse to take responsibility for and learn from their mistakes.

Now is the time to turn a new page and focusing on protecting what they have. Kirkuk and Afrin are gone. We need to save Erbil, Sulaimani and Qamishli from the same fate. 

Fourth: The Kurdish political elite must shoulder more responsibility and rid themselves of arrogance and populism. Our national losses affect us all not just a specific group or party leader. The KRG and opposition parties should behave rationally and know that provoking regional countries will only do us harm.

Instead of expecting more from the international community, the Kurds need to know where they stand, what they are worth and what they are capable of doing. They should know any move will have major implications. 

In the end, it is democracy and tolerance with a stable economy that will win the Kurds the day.


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Elsan | 29/3/2018
Love the picture. Sums up Kurds and their aspirations. Biji Turkey
friederich | 29/3/2018
KRG had the chance for independence after the fall of mosul. they had a window over about 2 years. in this time KRG could easy call out the independence of a kurdish state. nobody would have done anythinf against that. also many experts, polititians said at this time - the kurds should call out independence. they will have not a good chance like this for many, many years. ...but barzani always told the kurds. not now. we must wait a bit longer. but´s not the right time.. he always told the same...and in the end. when it was too late, barzani got panic that they will never have their owen state and he made the referendum, and baghdad , turkey and iran attacked the kurds. -but also at this point. it was agood chance to defeat the attackers. but the kurdish military leaders acted not smart. - they watched iraqi forces build up comfortable of all kinds of weapons at the outskirts of kirkuk for mounths. and then they let the attackers attack and got bombed out, because iraqi army - used long distance weapons....the kurds were so stupid to sit in their positions, shoulder on shoulder and wait for the bomb rain... they have not attacked and disturbed the military build up from iraqi army. ****and turkey is for sure no partner for any kurdish fraction, even if they believe this. turkey has always act against KRG. for example: they paid flynn 500.000 dollar to make lobby against the KRG in usa. - and nobody can trust turkey, even not the turks in turkey.
Pliny the Kurd | 29/3/2018
Need to convene the Kurdish National congress, where all parties can agree on a common strategy for Kurdistan as a whole and stop partisan and opposing agendas that divide them.
Pliny the Kurd | 29/3/2018
No fight against Turkey, PKK must dissolve to preserve what is left of Kurds and Kurdistan. The Kurds cannot afford a suicide war. Enough is enough.
Hope | 29/3/2018
In these hard times let's forget partisan agendas and ambitions, let's drop outdated ideologies which divide and harm the nation, avoid provoking the powerful, War is no option for now as we are weak,defenseless and with no external support in a world dominated by dragons and monsters. The world considers us as a forbidden nation. We have to try to survive and salvage what is left after this storm is passed, and hope for a better future and better times to come .

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