Prior to the referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan on Sept. 25, the leaders of Iran, Turkey and Iraq all foretold of the coming of a “second Israel” if Kurdish independence was the end result.
They meant it as an insult, but it’s really a compliment. Israel has sustained its democracy amid regional conditions that would make most Americans and Europeans balk at the thought of being in same position, and a sovereign Kurdistan would be an invaluable partner simply through sharing basic liberal norms—like freedom of expression, freedom of worship, full civil rights for all ethnic, national and sexual minorities—in a Middle East that is largely contemptuous of such trifles.
Yet even though almost 93 percent of voters in the Kurdish referendum opted for a sovereign Kurdistan, the end result has not been a “second Israel,” but a “second Iran.”
For the last fortnight, Iraqi Kurdistan has borne the brunt of an Iranian-backed military offensive, involving Iraqi government forces and the Hashd al Shaabi paramilitary organization—an Iraqi equivalent of Lebanon’s Hezbollah and perhaps, as we may yet discover, a Shi’a equivalent of the Sunni Islamic State. These forces used American-supplied weapons and vehicles to threaten the Kurds into withdrawing from strategic positions around Kirkuk as well as other cities and towns, and didn’t hesitate to use them where the Kurds resisted.
Did the U.S. agree that its weapons could be used to crush our most loyal regional ally at the time that it supplied them? No, it didn’t, but nobody cares, because no one—not the Kurds, not the Turks led by the fiercely anti-Kurdish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and certainly not Qassem Soleimani, the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps general who coordinated the offensive in Kurdistan much as he has in the Syrian and Lebanese theaters—believes that the U.S. is going to do anything about it.
The Iranian sweep through Iraqi Kurdistan means that more than 50 percent of the territory recently liberated from Islamic State by Kurdish Peshmerga fighters is now in the hands of the Iraqi central government and Hashd al Shaabi. Kurdish President Masoud Barzani has stepped aside amid internal recriminations among the Kurds themselves, in part due to persistent rumors that a rival Kurdish group gave into Soleimani’s pressure. (Some say they did so too easily, others say Soleimani told them plainly that the alternative was an all-out war.)
Credible reports of murder, looting and rape committed by Hashd al Shaabi fighters have emerged from the Yazidi and Christian communities, who were already battered, abused and enslaved by Islamic State. Rather than implementing the results of the independence referendum, the Kurds have been press-ganged into “negotiations” with Baghdad; the Iraqi central government is demanding that the Kurds withdraw as far back as the 2003 border that separated them from the armed forces of Saddam Hussein, but this time without American and British air power to protect them.
The current plight of the Kurds is nothing other than a Western, and especially American, disgrace. Who can blame the Kurds if they conclude that the 2,000 fighters they lost in the battle against Islamic State were really just cannon fodder for a cynical, short-term American policy that only recognizes the Iranian threat when it’s politically convenient?
The warning signs were there already before the referendum, when the State Department reaffirmed its “one Iraq” policy—something that has been little more than a discredited brand for years now, and one which should rightly have been buried once it was clear that the Kurds, a century after being cheated out of independence by Britain and France, decided that they’d had enough. For more than a decade, the Kurds have succumbed to American pleas to remain inside Iraq, despite their previous experience of genocide at the hands of Saddam’s Sunni Arab regime and the abiding sense that—as one Kurdish official told me this week—“the Iraqi Shi’a and the Iranians distrust us not just because we are Sunni Muslims and Kurdish nationals, but because they see us as Israelis.”
I don’t believe that was meant metaphorically. Iranian and Turkish propaganda has been clear from the beginning that the Kurds are Israel’s fifth column, that 250,000 Kurdish Jews will be resettled in an independent Kurdistan, and similar nonsense. Why should a Hashd al Shaabi fighter, taught to distrust all other sources of information, see it any way other than literally?
If the Kurds are Israelis, if the Israelis are Zionists and if it is firmly believed that—as Iran’s “Supreme Leader” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei put it this week—“The Divine promise guarantees definite victory … against the usurper Zionist regime,” then what will be the fate of the people in this region under the boot of Iran? A rump Kurdish authority surrounded by the intractable Turks, Iraqis and Iranians might turn out to be the best-case scenario.
The worst-case outcome is another round of genocide and ethnic cleansing, this time at the hands of Iran.
For all of President Donald Trump’s bluster about Iran, he chose appeasement when put to the test; thus the Kurds are plunged into crisis once more. Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin’s visit to Tehran suggests that the Russian-Iranian partnership in defending the Assad regime in Syria is now entering its next phase. Can it really be true, as the traditional saying has it, that the Kurds have no friends but the mountains?
Ben Cohen’s column is distributed by JNS.