Two years after the Kurds fought against the Islamic State, America turned its back as they sought independence, What has just transpired in Iraqi Kurdistan is heartbreaking.
Here is a people who, for decades, have been fighting every form of tyranny that the terrible twentieth century spawned in that part of the world.
Here is a small but great people who, in the very midst of the complex Middle East, embody an exceptional strain of enlightened Islam that is open to universal values, welcoming to minorities, and inclined toward secularity and democracy.
Here are men and women who, while the rest of the world gaped at the flood tide of the Islamic State as it rose in the summer of 2014, stood firm along a thousand-kilometer front where I had the privilege of filming them as they built a human rampart that spared the planet a worsening of the epidemic of deadly attacks that ISIS had unleashed.
Two years later, when the time came to finish off the Caliphate, it was these same battalions who engaged the front lines of the Islamic State—this, too, my crew and I filmed; it was these same Peshmerga fighters who escorted back to their villages the first Christians to return to the Plain of Nineveh; and it was these same brave fighters who forced open the gates of Mosul for the Iraqi army.
It is at this moment that their long-time leader, President Masoud Barzani, concluding that the ordeal has gone on long enough and believing that his Peshmerga have done more than their share to secure the victory over barbarity, decides that it is time for the Kurds to pause and catch their breath; and seeing light at the end of the long tunnel, he takes the initiative of calling for a referendum of self-determination.
The vote is scheduled for September 25, 2017.
And Barzani is careful, by the way, to state that this sounding of the popular will be consultative only; that its purpose will be to open a dialogue with Iraq, of which Kurdistan is, for the time being, a part; and that it will definitely not be followed by a unilateral declaration of independence.
What do you think happens next?
Kurdistan’s “friends” begin by exclaiming, in a paternalistic tone redolent of colonialism, that this is not a good idea; that the timing is bad; that it is not on the agenda of the powers and other responsible nations; that the Kurds should wait and wait some more—in some versions until the fight against ISIS has ended, in others until after the Iraqi general elections, presently scheduled for 2018, are over; and, in still others, indefinitely. Their suggestions imply that, although the Peshmerga are good enough to be shot full of holes while serving as a shield for the rest of the world, they are not quite good enough to make a decision about the destiny of their own children.
Seeing the Kurdish leaders move forward with their plans; seeing the Kurdish people—from Singhal to Sulaymaniyah, from Dohuk to Erbil—embracing by an overwhelming margin the great moment of democratic truth that the vote promises to be, American Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sends Barzani a long letter. That letter, which I held in my hands, essentially offers cash benefits in return for an indefinite postponement of the vote.
After the Kurds take no notice and spurn the handout, the chanceries raise their voices and resort to the full battery of bad faith and sleazy comparisons, starting with the case of the Catalans, who are themselves on the verge of a referendum and for whom the Kurdish vote would allegedly serve as a bad example. As if Madrid were Baghdad! As if one can compare, on the one hand, a real people seeking emancipation from a fake country with phony federalism that has oppressed them for a century, and, on the other, Catalonia, which is an integral part of a real and fully democratic country!
The referendum having been conducted under conditions of such exemplary transparency that no doubt remains as to the popular will, the community of democratic nations, with the exception of Israel, rushes to condemn the blow to Iraq’s “unity,” “sovereignty,” and “stability.” As if Iraq were not instability in state form! As if the country of Saddam Hussein and of the Bushes’ wars, a country now under the thumb of Iran, were not already the theater of a nonstop civil war between rival communities and faiths, beginning with the Shias and the Sunnis!
With the Kurds putting out flags as far as Kirkuk (where a majority voted yes), the carrot yields quickly to the stick of thinly veiled threats: “Erdogan is unhappy (the Kurds are told); Bashar al-Assad is worried; Iran is showing its teeth; don’t forget that all three have Kurdish minorities that might be tempted by irredentism; if they should decide to punish you, we won’t be able to do anything about it.” And, in fact, I find myself in Erbil on the evening of September 26, when the news arrives that Iraq will impose a terrestrial and aerial blockade if the results of the referendum are not “cancelled” within three days. That night, I watch and listen as Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani makes calls to some western capitals, where no one seems to be answering the phone…
And when, three weeks later, on October 15, the head of Iraq’s government, Haider al-Abadi, who received the message loud and clear and did not have to be told twice, sends in his Shia “people’s militias,” led by Revolutionary Guards and backed up by Iraq’s 9th Armored Division, federal police, and American-trained counterterrorism units, not a murmur of protest is heard. Washington, whose satellites can detect the slightest ground movements and whose military advisers monitor Baghdad’s army, no doubt has given an implicit green light as the Abrams tanks and the Humvees begin to roll. And not a word is said as this all-powerful and spanking new armada bears down on the Peshmerga who, as everyone knows, received equipment at a trickle during the war against ISIS and now find themselves without heavy arms and anti-tank weapons.
It has been pointed out that the progress of the militias was greatly facilitated by discord in the Kurdish ranks and by the treason of several commanders with ties to the PUK, the party of Jalal Talabani, Barzani’s long-time rival, who died on October 3. This is accurate. Moreover, it was quickly learned that surrenders, or refusals to fight, had been negotiated ahead of time by Talabani’s eldest son, Bafel, and the deputy of General Qassem Souleimani, the Iranian proconsul, who reportedly was on the spot before, during, and after the attack.
It has also been said that even line officers loyal to Barzani withdrew without fighting. And that is only partly true. In certain cases, yes, commanders made the decision, given the crushing disparity in firepower, not to lead their troops to the slaughter. But what the media have failed to note is that, in Taza, for example, southeast of Kirkuk, the Peshmerga resisted for four hours before running out of ammunition; that, further south, in Tuz Khurmatu, which was a killing field in 1988 during the Anfal genocide perpetrated by Saddam Hussein, they held on for 24 hours before being attacked from the rear and decimated along with an indeterminate number of civilians—as if history were repeating itself; and what must absolutely be made clear is that today, Friday, October 20, with the Shia militias 50 kilometers from Erbil, the Peshmerga are fighting one against ten and holding on.
But the essential truth is that this entire episode, apart from its military details, will remain in our collective memory as one of shocking infamy.
For the Kurds, who believed in the gratitude of the democracies and accepted the sincerity of the praise that was heaped on them for three years, the pill is bitter. “We thought that the world had changed,” General Sirwan Barzani told me the night of the attack. This was the same general I had accompanied three months before to the Elysée Palace, where, with President Emmanuel Macron, we watched my documentary on the battle of Mosul.
“We thought,” he went on, with a quaver in his voice that I had never heard before, “that the United States and Europe were with us as we had been with them against ISIS, but we were wrong—all that was smoke and mirrors for public opinion.” He sighed. “Now we’re back to having no friends except for the mountains of Kurdistan. General de Gaulle, who you’ve mentioned to me so often, was right: No nation has friends.”
By contrast, the whole story is a windfall for the new Gang of Four composed of Erdogan, Assad, Abadi, and Khamenei, four allies of convenience whose sole common bond is disdain for freedom and law. It is propitious especially for Iran, whose militias have paraded in the streets of Kirkuk, occupied the headquarters of the regional governor, and pillaged and burned houses of prominent Kurds.
From many signs, we know that Tehran had been waiting for the right moment to bring to heel these recalcitrant Kurds whose aspirations to independence pose an obstacle to the consolidation of the Shia crescent stretching from the Lebanon of Hezbollah to Bahrain through Syria, Iraq, and Iran. It has been reported that, at around 8 p.m. on the night of the fall of Kirkuk, at a meeting at the PUK headquarters near the K1 airbase where American advisers are stationed, an Iranian officer by the name of Eqbalpour, his finger stabbing at a map, screamed, “If you refuse to surrender, I will attack you here, here, and here.” And I am personally able to provide this corroborating account: On the night of October 11, in Paris, a telephoned SOS from the immediate entourage of President Barzani detailed the evolving troop movements, noted the presence of Revolutionary Guards dispatched by Tehran, and warned of the catastrophe that would ensue if Iran were not warned by the West to stand down and provide breathing room for the dialogue for which the Kurds had been calling—of course, I immediately relayed this information to the appropriate authorities in France.
And this, from a year earlier: On the eve of the battle of Mosul, Peshmerga general Ishmael Hajjar mused in my presence about the strange insistence of his Iraqi counterparts on postponing the taking of Hawija (near Kirkuk) after the fall of Mosul; he wondered whether the postponement might not be a ploy designed to amass a large force in the vicinity of Kirkuk at just the right moment. Well, he was right about that. Nothing was less secret or less improvised than this offensive against the oil capital that is the beating heart of Kurdistan. The West gave Iran the invaluable and incomprehensible gift of closing its eyes to the capture.
For the democracies, the episode represents a grave political error coupled with a moral failure that has no recent precedent. There may be reason to consider separately the case of France which, consistent with its pro-Kurdish historical inclination, undertook a process of mediation beginning on September 23. Barzani accepted France’s invitation, but Abadi rejected it. As for the others, it is an unmitigated disaster.
For the United States, in particular, it is one more step in the discrediting of an administration that has become incapable of the elementary political act of distinguishing friends from enemies. On the day of the vote, I revisited some of the fronts where Peshmerga was filmed. There I encountered women and men who were overjoyed at having traded their Kalashnikov for a ballot, who raised their inked forefingers to signify that they had voted, and who reveled in the birth of a body of citizens on a historic day.
On everyone’s lips were variants of one question: Will the United States sell us out? Are they going to trade us to Iraq and Iran? Hand us over on a silver platter? How can Trump recognize the ayatollahs as his enemies and yet fail to see that an independent and stable Kurdistan would block their imperial ambitions? The fighter-voters of Sultan Abdullah and Gwer were right to be concerned. They understood only too well that, if the White House persisted in its blind support of Abadi and in the absurd fable of an Iraqi unity that had to be protected at all costs, even if that meant sacrificing the Kurds, it would amount to another version of the famous red line drawn by Obama in Syria, which Assad promptly crossed by dropping bombs full of sarin gas in late August 2013—with no consequences.
For Russia, on the other hand, this stunning resignation by the West in the region where the great civilizations were born, where they are perhaps now dying, and where our shared future will in large part be decided, the October disgrace is manna from heaven. In this regard, I am amazed at the lack of attention to the news on October 18 that Rosneft, the Russian oil company most closely connected to the Kremlin, had chosen this moment to announce a framework agreement with the Kurdish government that had been under negotiation for months.
If we had wanted to help Putin extend his influence beyond his Syrian protectorate; if we had sought to push into his arms the humiliated Kurds, hurt, angry, and ready, as betrayed people often are, to grasp at the first thing that looks like a helping hand; if we had wanted to assist the butcher of the Chechens and the cleaver of Ukraine in emerging as tomorrow’s white knight in this part of the world—well, then, we could not possibly have found a better way. Time will tell, but to have sabotaged Macron’s mediation in favor, ultimately, of Putin’s would seem to be quite a feat for Iran and its Iraqi satraps—and, for the Kremlin, an unexpected opportunity to steal a march on the West.
And for the international community as a whole, as represented by the UN—what a pity! During the night of October 18–19, French ambassador Delattre took the initiative of drafting a statement that, cautious as it was, had the merit of referring to the legitimate aspirations of the Kurdish people. That text seems to have been gutted of all substance by the British, who were eager to scoop up whatever crumbs of the Iraqi oil trade that the Americans will not control, and by the Chinese who, as I was told by a diplomat who was present, “are playing the card of the status quo for some unknown reason.” In the end, the French draft became one of those obscenely empty statements that the UN does so well. It returned, again and again, to the sanctity of Iraqi unity, saying nothing about the role of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in the overthrow or about the hunting of Kurds in the streets of Kirkuk. This dodge marks a new step in a long history of forfeitures that begins with assent to the Armenian genocide, extends to nonintervention in the Spanish Civil War and Czechoslovakia, culminates in the Holocaust, and continues with the abandonment of Sarajevo, the Tutsis, the Darfuris—right on up to the present day. But now, for the new “superfluous people” that the Kurds have the misfortune to be, history has conceived a tragic new paradigm.
There was, of course, the Munich paradigm, “What occurred in Czechoslovakia is regrettable; we did not see it coming and we certainly deplore it; but a much greater problem would be created if we got involved in trying to defend you.”
Just a year later, in 1939, the Danzig variant was invented: “Terrible for the Poles; unacceptable, really, unless you look at the wider picture, of which this narrow corridor is just a minor detail; do you really think we’re going to die for a detail?”
Then came the Dayton model, named for the U.S. city and airbase where, at the end of the Bosnian war, when Bosnia’s president Alija Izetbegovic had very nearly vanquished the Serb militias that had been sowing death in his country for four years, the United States came to terms with the Serbs and ordered Izetbegovic to do the same: “Everybody has to sign; There are no aggressors and no victims, neither Serb nor Bosniak; We’re building a new kind of prison where neither God nor the devil will recognize his own.”
And now we have a new model, the Kirkuk model, which, alas, raises the spirit of capitulation to a new and unparalleled refinement: By immediately condemning the very principle of the referendum, the West adopted, right out of the gate, the aggressors’ point of view. Unceasing insistence on the unity and sovereignty of Iraq—a state that everyone knows has always been factitious and that today is, to repeat, a puppet of Iran—transformed the Iraqi-Iranian Blitzkrieg into a police action aimed at maintaining order and falling well within the prerogatives of a state. And finally there was our manner of addressing the Kurds in a tone of concerned but powerless friendship (“When everything comes crashing down on you, you’ll have no one to blame but yourselves; since you didn’t listen to us, we will be unable to do anything for you …”). And this form of address was essentially a message (and a self-fulfilling prophecy) sent to the Iranians and their client: “Do what you have to do, but do it quickly; we will express regret, of course; but we have already accepted it, and you have our absolution.”
Munich before Munich.
And an echo of the phrase famously uttered 40 years after Danzig, about Poland again, by one of François Mitterrand’s foreign ministers—“Of course, we will do nothing.” Except that in the case of the Kurds the phrase did not appear after the fact but before: the capitulation preceded the aggression, thereby precipitating it, whether we like it or not.
Night is falling on Kurdistan.
And it promises to be a long night, not only for the Kurds, but for other suffering peoples hungry for freedom who had staked their hopes on a liberation that seemed so close to being won.
As for myself and the many others who share my commitment to the cause of “superfluous peoples,” we have suffered a serious setback, but, as a philosopher who was my master once said, the future lasts a long time.
By Bernard-Henri Lévy
Translated from the French by Steven B. Kennedy