THE KURDISH region’s High Elections and Referendum Commission holds a press conference in Erbil, Iraq..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Kurds along the borders of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey have long been subjected to torture, humiliation and massacres. The leaders of both Shi’ite Iraq and Sunni Turkey warned Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani, president of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region, headquartered in Erbil, not to hold a referendum on securing an independent state for the Kurdish people, among the largest oppressed ethnic groups on earth. Around 30 million Kurds live in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran.
During the reign of Iraqi president Saddam Hussein the Kurds were persecuted and massacred. Hussein’s military killed around 50,000 Kurds with chemical weapons in the 1980s. Iraqi Kurds, however, succeeded in establishing regional autonomy in 1992 in Northern Iraq after the United States enforced a no-fly zone in the area with the approval of the UN Security Council following the 1991 Gulf War.
Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan, who started a bloody armed conflict with Turkey decades ago, declared in April 2013 an end to the fighting, and called on the Kurdistan Workers Party, the PKK, to lay down its arms and withdraw to its bases in Iraq and accept autonomy in Turkey.
That was in fact massive victory for then Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who had begun negotiations with Ocalan while Ocalan was imprisoned in Turkey. Since 1984, nearly 40,000 people have lost their lives in the conflict, half of them Kurdish militants, while hundreds of thousands of villagers were displaced.
Kurds in Turkey were assured autonomy.
Erdogan has been claiming to have provided a greater degree of official tolerance for Kurdish cultural activities, encouraged by European Union, but no autonomy was granted. That appears to be a betrayal by Erdogan, who has since become totalitarian president of Turkey.
The Turkish constitution is designed to deny Kurds any rights or basis for political participation. That was reflected in July 2017 when two Kurdish parliamentarians in Turkey’s parliament lost their memberships on a charge of alleged association with the PKK, which Turkey considers to be a terrorist organization. Both belonged to People’s Democratic Party.
As many as 16 mayors were summarily removed recently in Turkey for alleged connection with the PKK.
The president of the Kurdish autonomous region in Iraq, Masoud Barzani, declared on 26 September that the Kurdish people unanimously voted for an independent Kurdish state on September 25. That is a significant development for the Kurds in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey.
International opinion is divided on the issue. The Iraqi prime minister argues that secession would escalate regional instability, and is determined to use force to intervene against any attempt at secession.
The Trump administration has sided with Iraq and Turkey, which also strongly opposes Kurdish independence, but America’s closest ally, Israel, extended support for Kurdish independence. Guarded comments, however, came from the US State Department September 26, opposing independence and secession on the grounds they would “increase instability and hardships” for Iraq’s Kurds, while at the same time stating that the “historic relationship [of the US] with the people of Kurdistan would remain unchanged despite the move.”
The semi-autonomous Kurdish region is largely peaceful, prosperous and democratic in nature. Having discovered its own oil reserves, Barzani’s government is increasingly under pressure to split with its violent southern neighbors. Fuad Hussein, chief of staff to KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani, is reported to have said recently that, “We are talking about a culture of life while they are busy with a culture of death.” There are several consulate- generals and consulate of foreign countries located in Erbil. Bangladesh, Pakistan and Ukraine propose to open consulates.
Iraqi Kurdistan has its own parliament and maintains its own security forces, known as Peshmerga. Peshmerga forces in fact succeeded in driving ISIS fighters from Kirkuk and took control of a large oil field there as well. Over the past few years the Peshmerga, in cooperation with US armed forces, drove ISIS fighters from many areas in Syria, while Turkish President Erdogan had been conducting terrorism against Kurdish fighters along the Syrian border who were fighting against ISIS in collaboration with US.
US military commanders warned on August 29 that the US would not provide air support to Turkish forces pushing southward because Turkey had targeted the Kurdish fighters with whom the US had been collaborating to fight ISIS in Syria. From April, US forces have been engaged in patrolling Turkey’s border after Turkish strikes against Kurdish fighters known as The People’s Protection Units, as well as the Peshmerga.
It is ironic that the Turkish president is shedding crocodile tears for Myanmar’s Rohingya people while pursuing a hardcore policy against an ethnic minority in Turkey. It is high time the international community came forward to acknowledge an independent Kurdish state.
The author, a retired diplomat from Bangladesh and former president of the Nova chapter of Toastmaster International club of America, writes from Falls Church, Virginia.