Kurdistan - The Kurdish people, victims of the imperialist order and their own leaders' policy

Oct/Nov 1996

Since April 1991 and the end of the Gulf War, the Kurdish region in the north of Iraq, had up to now, enjoyed relative autonomy. This period is probably now over, after the fighting in early September which saw Iraqi army troops and those of the Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani take total control over this region at the expense of the rival Kurdish militias of Jalai Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.

Once again, recognition of the autonomy of a Kurdish region will have been merely a brief interlude, for although the Iraqi troops intervened at the request of Massoud Barzani and his organisation, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, this leaves Barzani himself with no political future other than as an auxiliary of the Baghdad regime (that is, if the regime does not simply decided to eliminate him).

The Kurdish population is divided between four states - Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran - or even more if one adds the several hundred thousand people scattered around various republics of the former Soviet Union. But, at least in the four main states where they live, the Kurds have nowhere managed to gain recognition of their right to exist as a nation. Their many attempts in this direction have invariably led to failures, often marked by bloody repression by the regimes concerned. This September's events appear to confirm what seems to be a kind of historical fatality. Above all, however, they show that this fatality is no accident: it has very concrete reasons, not only in the policy of imperialism and the regimes linked to it, but also in the policy of the Kurdish leaders themselves.

The current division of the Kurdish region between Syria, Iraq, Turkey and Iran results from the conditions under which the Ottoman empire was divided and the new borders drawn up after the First World War. In none of these countries was the Kurdish people in a position to impose its right to exist as a nation.

Since then, the periods in which some of the Kurdish regions have enjoyed a certain autonomy have been mere parentheses, corresponding to periods of temporary weakening of the regimes concerned. Invariably, however, these brief periods of Kurdish autonomy have been ended by the restoration of the regime's authority and the imperialist status quo. This is what has just happened again.

The creation of the Kurdish "safe haven"

We need to remember the conditions under which the Kurdish "safe haven" in Northern Iraq was created. In the period prior to the Gulf War, the United States and its imperialist allies had made a point of condemning Saddam Hussein's dictatorship and promising to support Iraqi dissidents or minorities oppressed by the Baghdad regime, such as the Shiite Muslims in the south of Iraq and the Kurds in the north. With the victory of the imperialist coalition and the withdrawal from Kuwait by the Iraqi army, these minorities had reason to believe that the regime was about to collapse, and that the time had come to rise up in arms against it.

In reality, however, the imperialist leaders had placed the Gulf War under the banner of the fight against the Iraqi dictatorship solely for propaganda purposes, largely to mislead public opinion at home. The only real aim of the war was to uphold the existing division of the Gulf region between the different Arab states, particularly the Emirates and Saudi Arabia, together with the resulting distribution of oil wealth. Once Saddam Hussein's army had been driven out of Kuwait and the emir's regime restored, the imperialist leaders quite clearly preferred not to try to overthrow the Baghdad regime. If they had been able to get rid of Saddam Hussein, using another general who was just as reactionary but more pro-American, and without causing instability in the region, they would no doubt have done so. And the CIA apparently even spent millions trying to do this, without success. But the imperialist leaders did not under any circumstances want Saddam to be driven out by a popular insurrection, which would have opened the way for all sorts of national and social demands. Once Saddam's territorial ambitions had been curbed, his dictatorship was clearly preferable to the unknown and potentially very unstable situation which could have resulted from a victorious insurrection by the Shiites in the south or the Kurds in the north, or even a revolution against Saddam in Baghdad.

The western armies therefore stood by unmoved when Shiites and Kurds tried to rise up against Saddam Hussein. And while the Iraqi army had not had the means to resist in Kuwait against the coalition of imperialist armies, it nevertheless had all the forces it needed to drown these rebellions in blood. It did so under the impassive (and in reality conniving) gaze of Western armies who had no qualms about allowing populations to be crushed in this way after leading them to believe that they would support them against Saddam Hussein's dictatorship.

What the Western leaders feared, in fact, much more than the maintaining of Saddam Hussein in power, was the uncontrollable insurrectional situation which might have resulted from the collapse of the dictatorship, or at least the anarchic situation which might have arisen from the vacuum of power. This situation might have led to a division of Iraq between different ruling armed bands, as occurred in Lebanon in the civil war there.

Despite this calculation, the Western leaders were unable entirely to prevent the incipient "Lebanonisation" of Iraq, at least in the Kurdish region in the north. The repression by the Iraqi army, driving out thousands of people who sought refuge in Turkey, might have led to the setting up of refugee camps on Turkish territory - something the Turkish government did not want at any price. The Turkish army, which was itself engaged in an operation of bloody repression against the PKK - the Kurdish guerilla organisation in Turkey - did not want this influx of refugees liable to destabilise even further the situation in Turkish Kurdistan and provide support for the people it was fighting.

This led to the so-called "Provide Comfort" operation by the Americans. It consisted in first parachuting emergency aid to Iraqi Kurdish refugees camping in the mountains in the border region, and then promising them they would be able to return safely to their homes under the protection of the American army. At the same time, the United States proclaimed a no-fly zone to the north of the 36th parallel. In other words, in the Kurdish region of Northern Iraq, Saddam Hussein's aircraft were forbidden to intervene, but his land troops were not explicitly prohibited from doing so.

A Kurdish state that imperialism did not want

It was under these conditions that the Kurdish "safe haven" was thus created in Northern Iraq, a zone in which the rival Kurdish militias of Barzani and Talabani have been in power for several years, maintaining a kind of status quo with the Iraqi army.

But this was a de facto situation which the imperialist leaders had had to accept for want of anything better, simply to prevent the flow of Kurdish refugees, or even armed groups, from undermining the Ankara regime, an essential ally for the US and a key element in the imperialist order in the region. For the same reason, however, there could be no question of the US allowing this situation to lead to the explicit creation of a Kurdish state in northern Iraq: there again, Turkey could not accept the creation of a Kurdish state which might have encouraged the struggle of the Kurds in Turkey. The same applied, in fact, to the Syrian and Iranian regimes, with which the United States does not of course have the same special relationship as with the Turkish regime, but which they do not wish to destabilise any more than they wish to destabilise the Iraqi regime.

That is why the imperialist leaders, despite their condemnations of Saddam Hussein and their occasional declarations of support for the Kurdish population against the Baghdad dictatorship, in reality want the situation to be settled in the simplest possible way: by the restoration of Baghdad's authority in the northern region of Iraq. The United States' attitude in the course of this month has just demonstrated this again. The fact that American missiles were launched against Iraq is apparently above all because President Clinton, who is in the middle of an election campaign, needed to make a show of firmness with regard to the Baghdad regime. But the choice of the military targets, and even the explicit declarations of the American spokesmen, demonstrated that the US did not in any way wish to prevent Saddam Hussein from sending troops into the Kurdish region.

In reality, the Iraqi regime was doing the Western leaders a favour by relieving them of a problem which they were not too sure how to solve. The only condition for them was that this should not be accompanied by excessively visible repression which might put them in difficulty with regard to their own public opinion - and shatter any illusions that the population of the United States or European countries might still have had about the hypocritical claim that Western armed interventions was aimed at uholding the "rights of peoples".

On this score, unfortunately, the imperialist leaders and the Baghdad regime have received invaluable help from the Iraqi Kurdish leaders, who over the past five years have set about proving that they are no better than the leaders of the neighbouring regimes in Baghdad, Ankara, Damascus or Teheran.

The main Kurdish parties

There is certainly nothing democratic about the Kurdish parties and their militias. They are armed bands obeying warlords who are at the same time feudal chieftains. This is particularly true of Massoud Barzani's party, the KDP (Kurdistan Democratic Party), formed around the traditional clan leader who himself inherited this role, much as one might inherit an estate or a house, from his father Mustafa El Barzani, who was the Kurdish guerilla leader for thirty years. But it is also true in fact of Jalai Talabani's organisation (the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan), even if it has sought to present the image of a more modern nationalist organisation.

The Kurdish guerilla organisation in Turkey, the PKK (Kurdish Workers' Party) is probably the one most closely modelled on the nationalist organisations which came into being after World War II in many poor countries. An organisation which originally claimed to be Maoist, it visibly bases itself on the methods of the Algerian FLN and other organisations of this type. It is a purely nationalist organisation which proclaims itself to be the only legitimate representative of the Kurds in Turkey, seeking to impose its leadership and the authority of its leader Abdulla Ocalan, known as "Apo", and is prepared to use violence to eliminate all possible rivals. It is a bourgeois nationalist organisation which wishes to be accepted by the Kurdish petty bourgeoisie and its dignitaries as their representative, and which also wishes to demonstrate to the Turkish leaders themselves its readiness for collaboration and dialogue. Recently, it declared through the mouthpiece of "Apo" himself that its original references to Marxism-Leninism were now a thing of the past.

In any event, whether in their quasi-feudal version (Barzani's KDP) or in their more modern versions (Talabani's PUK or Ocalan's PKK), not only do the Kurdish organisations remain within the limits of nationalism, but their form of nationalism is also strictly limited to the borders of the country in which they operate. The PKK claims only to represent the Kurds in Turkey, and does not offer any political perspective for the Kurds of Iraq or Iran. The KDP and the PUK are rivals, but only claim to address the Kurds of Iraq. And the main Kurdish organisations of Iran follow basically the same policy.

A "realism" which leads to failure

All these organisations thus act in accordance with an alleged "realism" which not only does not aim to combat all enemies at the same time, but also seeks to make allies of one or more of the existing regimes. Thus the Kurdish guerillas of Iraq traditionally seek the support of Iran, which, because of its chronic conflict with Iraq, may be interested in arming groups which threaten the Baghdad regime. The reverse is true of the Kurdish guerrillas of Iran, who seek the support of Iraq. In Turkey, Ocalan's PKK enjoys the support of Syria and seeks to obtain at least the neutrality of Iraq. The KDP and the PUK in Iraqi Kurdistan have established contact with the Turkish regime to reassure it that they would not provide support for the PKK against Ankara, and to attempt to convince it that, on the contrary, the establishment of a Kurdish state in the north of Iraq would be a guarantee of stability for Turkish Kurdistan. Extending this attitude into armed action, the Iraqi Kurdish guerrillas have fought against the PKK troops to try to prevent them from establishing bases of support on Iraqi territory for their operations in Turkey. As it happened, their "realism" consisted in cracking down on the PKK in Iraq themselves, to attempt to prevent the Turkish army from coming and doing it - which it still does anyway.

These organisations claim to be fighting for the Kurdish national cause. But their policy in fact reduces them more or less to behaving as back- up armies for the country on the other side of the border, being dependent on the assistance or complicity of this country, and collapsing as soon as political circumstances result in this support being cut off. One can recall the almost instantaneous collapse of the Kurdish guerillas of Mustafa El Barzani in Iraq, in 1975, when the Shah's regime abandoned its Iraqi Kurdish protégés overnight following an agreement between Baghdad and Teheran. And there is no doubt a similar explanation for the events this month, when Talabani's PUK collapsed almost without a fight against Massoud Barzani's KDP, admittedly helped by the Iraqi army. The PUK had no doubt wrongly banked on Iranian support which did not come. On the other hand, conscious that at one point or another Baghdad's army would want to restore its authority over Northern Iraq, Massoud Barzani and the KDP could find no other way of holding onto their power than to act as auxiliaries of Saddam Hussein's army against their rivals in the PUK. Calling for the "help" of Saddam Hussein's armies against Talabani's troops, who were accused of "betrayal" because they had allied themselves with Iran, Barzani provided Saddam Hussein with the excuse he needed to move back into Kurdistan. At the same time he provided an excuse for the American leaders, who were able to justify their non-intervention by the fact that it was an "inte-Kurdish conflict" (between the KDP and the PUK) which they had no reason to get involved in.

Barzani's attitude, moreover, is merely an extension of other episodes in which the militias of the PUK and the KDP have fiercely confronted each other for control of the different parts of "liberated" Kurdistan. Barzani's call for the intervention of Saddam Hussein is just a further step in this "realistic" policy - which could better be described as simply cynical.

In this fighting between armed cliques, it is clear that the opinion of the Kurdish people is what counts the least. At the very most they are asked with varying degrees of pressure to provide fighters for the warring militias; and they are in any case the victims of the repressive operations which regularly follow changes of authority - operations which they can only flee by thronging along the roads as refugees and running up against the nearest border, which the neighbouring country's army is careful not to allow them to cross. These repeated tragedies in the border areas between Iraq, Iran and Turkey do not prevent the leaders of the various Kurdish factions from persevering with the same policy.

None of the regimes concerned is anything more than a military or police dictatorship. Not recognising any real democratic rights for their own people, there is no question for them of recognising any right of the Kurdish population to autonomy, even in a neighbouring country. Despite the conflicts which may divide them, the Iraqi, Iranian, Turkish and Syrian regimes are very much accomplices when it comes to denying the Kurdish populations this right. Imperialism itself, which needs the assistance of these various regimes to keep law and order in the region, is also very much an accomplice. And the alleged political realism the Kurdish organisations demonstrate in seeking to establish good relations with at least one of these regimes against another will not save them any more than it saves their people.

A historical fatality?

The nationalist organisations offer nothing more than an impotent outlet for the national and democratic aspirations of the Kurdish people. These organisations do not even practice a form of nationalism claiming to offer the perspective of a national state for the whole Kurdish people. All they offer is a means of conscripting its Iraqi, Turkish, Iranian or Syrian fraction to serve rival reactionary political and military forces.

The dispersal of the Kurdish people between four states integrated in the imperialist system, is a major obstacle to the creation of a Kurdish national state because the creation of such a state would necessarily put in question the status quo in a vital strategic region for the imperialist order. But this situation could in fact be transformed into an advantage, provided one was determined not to respect this imperialist order which, up to now, has never been willing to satisfy Kurdish national aspirations. All the more so as one cannot see why imperialist would change its mind on this in the future - unless maybe they tried to use Kurdish nationalism as a weapon against a revolution breaking out among other peoples in the region, for instance.

This dispersal could become an advantage, provided that a policy was conducted in complete opposition to the narrow policy of the Kurdish nationalist organisations, provided that the organisation concerned fought in the name of a bold programme of democratic and social demands - on demands capable of uniting not only the scattered fractions of the Kurdish people but also the exploited classes of other peoples. And this would be possible since all the peoples of the region have in common that they are oppressed by authoritarian regimes, plundered by imperialism and imprisoned in archaic social structures.

Geopolitics and history have placed the Kurdish people in a situation which is in many respects comparable to that of the Palestinian people. The reasons for which they have been denied the right to genuine existence as a state are also comparable. The Palestinian people, which had been scattered between several reactionary Arab states, was for a number of years, by force of circumstances, a revolutionary factor throughout the Middle East. It is this role that their nationalist leaders have refused to take on, preferring to content themselves with the mock state which imperialism and Israel were offering them.

The Kurdish people could have comparable possibilities. Mixed in with the Arab, Turkish and Iranian populations, they could become a revolutionary lever in the region with the power to overturn this imperialist order which has nothing to offer them - not even the right to genuine existence as a state.

It is not true that, as the often-quoted saying goes, "the Kurds have only their mountains, they have no friends". On the other hand it is true that they have no genuine friends among the imperialist powers or among the regimes of the four states between which their territory is divided, nor among their existing leaders. But they do have possible allies, firstly among the Kurds of the neighbouring states, and secondly among the popular masses, the working class and all the exploited of these states, for whom the regimes in Baghdad, Teheran, Damascus and Ankara are at least as much enemies as they are for the Kurds.

The modern-day Kurdish population is no longer solely composed of peasants up in the mountains. It comprises an urban population, and in particular a working class, which is now very numerous. This population is considerable in the towns of Iraqi Kurdistan, which is also an oil-producing and industrial region. But the same is true of the main towns of Turkish Kurdistan. Finally, Kurds form a significant proportion of the working class in the main cities of Turkey, starting with the country's economic capital, Istanbul. It is often the most conscious, most politicised and most left-wing fraction of the working class.

A proletarian revolutionary path

This working class could play a decisive role in the class struggle and influence the Turkish, Iraqi, Iranian and Syrian working class. But this would require its organisations to conduct a revolutionary policy, to be prepared to fight all the way against these regimes instead of presenting them as possible sources of support against the neighbouring regime - support which is always illusory and likely to backfire on the Kurds.

This would mean going beyond the nationalism of the existing Kurdish organisations - a nationalism which, far from seeking to offer perspectives to the Kurdish people as a whole, ends up putting its Iraqi, Iranian, Turkish and Syrian sections at the service of rival reactionary state machineries. In fact, in order to break up the existing system of complicity linking the four states between which the Kurds are divided, it would necessarily mean that a nationalist perspective would have to be abandoned.

Kurdish nationalism is not something which can provide common ground for the Kurdish working class and the Turkish working class, or the Arab working class in Syria and Iraq, or more generally the peoples of the region, all of whom suffer oppression by authoritarian regimes and plundering by imperialism. In fact, providing such common ground could only be achieved proletarian, communist and internationalist organisations which did not limit their aspirations in advance to the sole satisfaction of the Kurds' national aspirations.

Obviously, in fighting against any form of oppression, the Kurdish, Turkish or Arab working class would have to include in its programme the recognition of the full right of nations to self-determination, beginning with the right of the Kurds to exist as a nation, and to speak, write and study in their language; an elementary right which the Turkish regime, for example, has been denying for seventy years. But a proletarian revolutionary movement would not limit itself to such objectives. It would have to fight for the overthrow of the existing oppressive regimes, for the power of the proletarian masses of Turkey and Iraq, Iran and Syria, and of course Kurdistan, and for the replacement of the existing division of the Middle East between these imperialist-supervised regimes by a socialist federation of the region's peoples.

There is in fact no other way for anyone who wants to fight against the existing system of oppression, which takes the form of the division of the region between four rival states whose borders represent for imperialism the basis of a status quo to be maintained at all costs. As even greater victims of this situation than any others, the Kurdish people have no other way out than to attempt to shatter this system of domination. In fact they have no other way even simply to impose their right to national existence than to fight alongside the working class of the states where they live, against the domination of the local bourgeoisie and imperialism itself, and also indeed against the bourgeois or feudal clans which currently present themselves as the Kurds' leaders.

This would involve the creation of proletarian revolutionary organisations, fighting on the basis of the workers' movement. This may be a long and difficult path. But it is the only one which can lead the Kurdish population out of the encirclement it currently faces, by finding with all its fellows in oppression a way to break this oppression. And how many sacrifices and massacres have the Kurds already had to suffer in vain because of the repetition of the nationalist leaders' dead- end policy?