Middle-East - the Kurdish people used as a pawn by the Western powers

Winter 2014

In their search for a strategy to contain the rise of ISIS, the imperialist leaders seem to have discovered the existence of a providential, potential ally - the militias of the Kurdish parties or "peshmergas". But what an ironic twist of history! Haven't Western leaders been looking the other way, over the past century, while the Kurds were being repressed by the regimes of the Middle-East and their national aspirations trampled upon?

Today, however, western leaders have to face facts. The Iraqi army, despite all the training and modern weaponry it received from the US and Britain, has only managed to demonstrate its incompetence and failure to resist the ISIS advance. Whereas the Iraqi peshmergas have proved to be the only force capable of containing this advance.

As a result, western powers have now started providing the peshmergas with some military aid - although tightly limited and controlled. Apart from the airstrikes carried out by the US and its western allies, which are proving largely ineffective, this aid only involves the supply of light weapons, ammunition and medical supplies - but nothing that can be of much use, for instance, against the modern, western-made armoured vehicles and field artillery that ISIS took from the Iraqi army.

However, limited as it may be, this aid has been mostly supplied to the Iraqi Kurds so far. In fact, it took a full month of fierce resistance by the Syrian peshmergas in Kobane, a town on the Syrian-Turkish border which was besieged by ISIS, before the US army announced that it had dropped military supplies over Kobane. But since the existence of these airdrops have been denied by Kobane's Kurdish fighters, it may well be that this was just a piece of crafty propaganda on the part of the US, designed to dispel accusations that they are co-operating with Turkey in using this war to weaken the Syrian peshmergas, because they are closely associated with the Turkish Kurds.

A history of deceived aspirations

The western leaders' sudden interest in the Kurds shows that they only become concerned with a population's national feelings when these can be of some use to them. And all the more so, if this population can be used as cannon fodder to help maintain their world order.

Overnight, the militias of the Kurdish parties which were willing to co-operate with the West, were hailed as heroes. There were two reasons for this sudden enthusiasm. One reason was the fact that they were present in geographic areas from which the Iraqi army had already totally withdrawn. And the second reason had to do with the Kurdish militias' fighting capabilities, due to their long history of struggle and their repeated attempts to establish their own national territory.

It should be recalled that following the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire, in the aftermath of WWI, the Kurdish population was split between four different states - Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. Since then, the Kurds have never been allowed to establish their own country, nor were their most basic national aspirations ever taken into account. Instead, they were subjected to on-going repression in each one of the four countries where they lived. For the regimes of Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria, the right of peoples to self-determination was always an empty phrase. Depending on circumstances and on their political choices, they either tolerated the Kurds, repressed them or, sometimes, massacred them. Not only were the Kurds subjected to the twists and turns of these regimes' policies, but they were also affected by the tensions and conflicts which arose between them and by their changing relationship with imperialism.

Today, around 14 million Kurds live in Turkey. In the 1920s and 30s, the Turkish Kurds staged uprisings which were drowned in blood by Mustafa Kemal. More recently, in 1984, the Workers' Party of Kurdistan (or PKK) launched a guerilla war. This war was to claim a total 45,000 victims among the PKK forces and the Turkish army. It was only recently that the Turkish government led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, eventually launched a negotiating process which is still very far from having achieved any results.

In Iran, the Kurds account for around one sixth of the country's 78 million population. Despite the hopes generated by the downfall of the Shah's regime, in 1979, they neither gained the autonomy they were demanding nor any recognition of their national identity. Within a few months of the clerics' seizure of power, Khomeini issued a fatwa declaring "a jihad against the Kurds" and brutal repression followed. Today, Iranian Kurds are deprived of any rights, like other ethnic minorities, and are subject to periodic arrest and political assassination, just like all others opposing the regime. Iran's four Kurdish provinces, in the north-west of the country, are still among the poorest, with a 50% unemployment rate.

The Iraqi Kurds' slow march to autonomy

Five million Kurds live in Iraq today. The history of their national struggle goes back a long way, first against the colonial authorities and then against the various Iraqi regimes. For geographic reasons, their struggle was always dependent on their ability to have rear bases in the border region between Iraq and Iran - which, in turn, depended on the relationship between Iraq and Iran. For instance, in 1988, at the end of the Iran-Iraq war, the Iraqi Kurdish population subject to brutal repression in which 5,000 people were killed in just one operation, when Saddam Hussein's army used chemical weapons against the town of Halabja.

In 1991, after the end of the US war against Iraq, the US leaders called on the Iraqi Kurds to rise against Saddam Hussein. Bush's promises led the Kurds to believe that the US would protect them. But when the Kurdish insurrection began to develop, the US left Saddam Hussein with just enough military forces to crush the Kurdish rebellion in the north and the Shiite rebellion in the South of Iraq: the US leaders still preferred Saddam Hussein's dictatorship to the more or less radical regimes which might have emerged out of these rebellions.

Having left the Kurds to be massacred and looked the other way while huge floods of Kurdish refugees were fleeing Iraq over the Turkish border, the US leaders eventually realised that there would be something for them to gain in imposing an exclusion zone, impermeable to the Iraqi army, north of the 36th parallel, since this would serve to weaken the Iraqi regime. The exclusion zone allowed Kurdish refugees to return and the two main Iraqi Kurdish parties - Massoud Barzani's PDK and Jalal Talabani's UPK - to jointly create a de facto autonomous Kurdish area in this region. All this was done with the agreement and cooperation of Turkey, one of the US close regional allies, in return for the PDK and UKP peshmergas preventing the PKK from using Iraq as a rear base.

Soon, unlike the rest of Iraq which was driven into abject poverty by the impact of the western embargo, the Kurdish autonomous region, which was not affected by this embargo, developed a level of relative affluence.

Then came the 2003 invasion and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. The Constitution adopted by the new pro-Western regime gave official recognition to an autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan. Under the tight control exercised by the PDK and UPK peshmergas, the Kurdish region was spared the devastation resulting from the civil war between militias which had developed in the rest of Iraq and became an oasis of relative prosperity, thanks to the large oil reserves of the Kirkuk region.

Over the ten years following the official recognition of the autonomous region, 17 universities were opened, together with hospitals, airports, motorways - all of which reflected an economic development which was a bounty for the region's petty-bourgeoisie, while allowing the two main Kurdish parties to broaden their social base. These two parties, both built around a family clan, had long fought against each other. But now they co-operated to share political power and, above all, the income resulting from the increasing wealth of the Kurdish capitalist class. Taking opportunity of the weakening authority of the Baghdad government, the Kurdish authorities even took the risk of making trade agreements with the oil majors, without Baghdad's go-ahead and taking their cut in the process.

The Syrian Kurds and Bashar al-Assad's regime

Much more recently, a Kurdish autonomous zone was able to emerge in Syria, in the midst of the country's on-going civil war.

More than 10% of the 22 million population of Syria are Kurds. Under al-Assad's regime, they were officially deprived of any cultural rights and, in some cases, of their citizenship. But the uprising which began in 2011 against the regime, gave them an opening.

In the course of the ensuing civil war, Al-Assad chose to allow the militias of the Syrian Kurdish party, the PYD, to take over control of the Kurdish regions of Syria. For the regime, this was a way of avoiding yet another front in the civil war. Besides, unlike the fundamentalists and other anti-Assad forces, the PYD was not aiming at seizing power in Damascus, whereas it could be relied upon to fight the various fundamentalist groups. Finally, this was also a way for Assad to retaliate against Turkey's policy of allowing anti-Assad forces through its border with Syria, since it allowed the joint control of a whole region across this border by the PYD and PKK militias, thereby creating a real headache for the Turkish army.

As a result, a PYD-control autonomous administration has been in existence in Syria, since late 2013. How long this situation, born out of the civil war, will sustain itself, is an open question. Nevertheless, together with Iraqi Kurdistan, this has created a de facto autonomous Kurdish territory, stretching almost continuously from the north of Syria to the Iran-Iraq border - except that, of course, despite being all Kurdish nationalist, the parties which control the Syrian and the Iraqi parts of this territory do not exactly see eye to eye.

By May 2014, while the ISIS militias were advancing in the north of Iraq and the Iraqi army was withdrawing towards Baghdad, Iraqi Kurdistan came to be seen as a possible safe haven for the refugees fleeing the combat zone and its peshmergas as the only force capable of stopping ISIS.

But, despite all the "humanitarian" posturing of the western leaders, imperialism was not concerned in the least with the fate of the populations which were threatened by ISIS's brutality. Their only concern was to stop the expansion of a force which they did not control and which could, therefore, make the complex situation of the Middle-East even more inextricable. However, after their disastrous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US leaders had no appetite for sending ground troops, with the financial, human and political cost this would have involved. The existence of Kurdish militias which had no choice but to fight ISIS in order to defend their own territory was, therefore, a godsend for the imperialist leaders: provided they were supplied with some weapons, at least, and kept under control, the peshmergas could provide a convenient replacement for western troops on the ground.

As to the leaders of Iraqi Kurdistan they were rather pleased to do the fighting for imperialism, in the hope of earning some international recognition by demonstrating the ability of their militias to stand up to ISIS's threat. And the Syrian PYD opted for a similar policy, by creating a safe corridor across the Syrian-Iraqi border in order to facilitate the escape of members of the Christian and other minorities who were threatened by ISIS.

Towards a Kurdish state?

Does all this mean that the national identity of the Kurdish population will finally be recognised or that a Kurdish state will emerge, thereby freeing the Kurds from the artificial borders which have been dividing them for a century? The fact is that we are not anywhere near that point yet - and this, for a number of reasons.

For a start, there are deep divisions between the Kurdish organisations, which coincide more or less with the borders behind which they have operated so far - in fact, there have been real wars between some of them in the past.

Another reason is that, while there now exists an autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq and one in Syria, there is no question of one being formed in Turkey or Iran.

The Iranian regime would not even consider such a possibility. As to the negotiating process with the PKK which was initiated by the Turkish regime, it seems to have stalled. It may well be that Erdogan only wants to gauge the possibility of winning over the support of the Kurdish petty-bourgeoisie, in return for a stake in the economy and a few political concessions. But whether these concessions, which have yet to be disclosed, will be enough to satisfy both the petty-bourgeoisie of the Kurdish regions and the PKK leadership, is an open question. Besides, the mere fact of exploring the possibility of such a compromise is already generating strong opposition within the army and state machinery and among Turkish political leaders. And even assuming imperialism really wanted a political settlement over the Kurdish question, no amount of pressure on its part would force a regime like that of Turkey to make the concessions which would be needed to settle the Kurdish question, if it does not want to go down that road.

But do the imperialist leaders really want such a settlement? In fact, they don't. Not even in Iraq or Syria. Enforcing the imperialist order in the Middle-East has always involved playing one ethnic group, one religious minority or one regime, against the others. But such manoeuvres can only work provided divisions are never resolved. And since no settlement has ever been achieved, this game of "divide and rule" has constantly increased the balkanisation of the region. As a result, for a long time already, the Middle-East has been divided into zones - some dominated by Sunni militias which were more or less fundamentalist, others by Shiite militias, others under the influence of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Egypt, etc.. All these zones have been competing against the others to extend their influence and, in some cases, this competition took the form of an outright war. By now, this balkanisation of the Middle-East has expanded to Iraq, Syria, the Lebanon and Libya - not to mention Palestine, whose divisions date back a long time, but which remains just as explosive as ever.

The imperialist powers police their regional order by setting one player against another, using the dirty tricks department of their special services, organising arms trafficking behind the scenes, etc.. Sometimes, as is the case with ISIS, their regional order produces forces which become uncontrollable. When this happens, the imperialist leaders have to find ways of restoring some sort of balance in the region, by resorting to so-called "targeted" bombings or providing military aid to one protagonist or another, or a combination of both - which is exactly what Obama is doing and what he calls a "strategy". Within this framework, some form of Kurdish autonomy may fit in with the interests of imperialism, but only if it does not provide the Kurds with any form of international recognition - because, as long as the Kurdish leaders are seeking to gain this recognition, they are likely to be far more pliable in meeting the wishes of the western multinationals.

So, a century after the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire, imperialism is still incapable of doing more than providing the Kurds with a divided territory, with some parts enjoying a degree of autonomy, maybe, but only in so far as the Kurds prove to be effective at protecting the oil fields, willing to act as imperialism's local security guards - around the oil fields in particular, but not only - and to respect the borders of the regions which they are allocated. In return, a thin layer of wealthy Kurds and their politicians may win the right to enrich themselves out of oil production and various forms of trafficking.

The Kurdish population, just as all the other populations in the region, still have to win their right to a real national existence in which they could coexist with the neighbouring populations on a fraternal basis. And it will never really be won until the imperialist domination of the world is finally overthrown, paving the way for a socialist federation of the populations of the region.