This piece was orginally posted on Kings of War, the blog of the War Studies Department at King’s College London.
A few weeks ago, fighters of the Islamic State (IS), formerly known as ISIS, seized control of significant swaths of territory in northern Iraq. Ostensibly to stop the IS offensive toward the Kurdish regional capital of Erbil and to provide indispensable humanitarian relief to thousands of displaced civilians, the international community soon mobilized.
US President Barack Obama ordered targeted airstrikes against IS forces and humanitarian air drops in northern Iraq. The US administration also began to send hundreds of military advisors and weapons to help the Kurdish peshmerga in their effort to fight the Islamists back.
French President Francois Hollande and British Prime Minister David Cameron said their countries were also ready to supply arms and other forms of aid to Iraq’s Kurds. Similarly, in a meeting in Brussels, the foreign ministries of EU countries agreed to arm the Kurdish forces.
There have been speculations that the current international support for Iraqi Kurds could translate in the near future into international support for a Kurdish breakaway from Iraq and the formation of an independent Kurdish homeland.
What does the XX century history of Kurdish relations with foreign powers tell us about such a possibility?
After the end of World War I, the victorious Allied powers met to dismember the vast territories of a defeated Ottoman Empire. The 1920 Treaty of Sèvres proposed the creation of an autonomous homeland for the Kurdish people. Noticeably, this proposed Kurdistan would not include the Kurdish communities of Iran, French-controlled Syria, and British-controlled Iraq but would grant the Kurds control of an area on what is now Turkish territory. The Allies also made quite clear that they would not provide military or financial assistance to the fledging Kurdish state. As a consequence, it did not take long before Kemal Ataturk’s Turkish nationalist forces, who strongly opposed the recognition of autonomy to ethnic or cultural minorities within Turkey, violently dashed Kurdish hopes for an autonomous homeland.
In 1946, when Soviet troops were still occupying northern Iran, the Soviet Union encouraged Iran’s Kurds to form an autonomous state entity. In doing so, Soviet leaders were reaffirming the longstanding Czarist Russia’s objective of exerting influence on Iranian territory. The resulting Kurdish Mahabad Republic was short-lived though. Under increasing US and British pressure, in fact, the Soviet Union was eventually compelled to withdraw its troops from Iran. Abandoned by their foreign patron, the Kurds were left defenseless against the subsequent offensive mounted by Iranian government forces.
During 1974-75, Iran, with US and Israeli blessing, supported a Kurdish uprising against Iraq’s central government. Iranian leaders were only too willing to seize any opportunity of weakening their rivals in Baghdad. However, in a sudden about-face, Iran concluded a treaty with Iraq, known as the Algiers Agreement, where Teheran pledged to cease assisting the Kurds’ rebellion in Iraq. The agreement resulted in the quick end of the uprising and the forced relocation of more than 250,000 Kurds from northern Iraq to other areas of the country.
In the 1980s, the United States and the Soviet Union played Iran and Iraq against each other as part of their cold-war struggle for global dominance. Iraq’s Kurds rose up again in a renewed effort to gain independence. The Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein responded by using chemical weapons against Kurdish rebels. In one particularly infamous case, the use of poison gas by Iraqi armed forces led to the death of at least 5,000 civilians in the Kurdish city of Halabja. Confronted with such a blatant violation of international law, the international community stayed silent.
Again, during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the United States instigated Iraqi Kurds to take arms against the regime of Saddam Hussein. However, by the end of February of that year, US President George H.W. Bush abruptly halted Operation Desert Storm thus providing the opportunity to the Iraqi military to regroup and crash the Kurdish upheaval in the north. Fearing a repetition of the terrible events of the 1980s, two million Kurds escaped toward the Turkish and Iranian borders; at least 20,000 of them died in trying to do so.
Even today, while the international community has declared its willingness to provide military and humanitarian assistance to Iraq’s Kurds in their fight against the Islamic State, important international actors, including the United States, are contributing to a problem that is weakening the Kurds at their most vulnerable moment: the Kurds, in fact, are running out of money. The Iraqi central government is required to share oil revenues with the Kurdish regional government in Erbil, but Kurdish authorities have stated that authorities in Baghdad have failed to do so recently. At the same time, the US administration and others have stopped Kurds’ attempts to sell oil of their own. Tellingly, a tanker carrying about $100 million worth of Kurdish oil is currently sitting off the coast of Texas in the Gulf of Mexico unable to unload its valuable cargo. For the Kurds, reaching economic self-sufficiency would undoubtedly represent an essential step toward achieving political independence.
This all but complete historical overview clearly shows that the relations between the Kurds and foreign powers have been characterized by a pattern of cynical exploitation and cold abandonment. If I were a Kurd, I would be extremely skeptical about the possibility that the current international mobilization will translate into genuine future support for the creation of an independent Kurdish homeland.