My experience with the Kurds was in December 2003, when I was with a U.S. Army Reserve Civil Affairs unit near Suleimaniya. I had spent many years on active duty in the Middle East as a Foreign Area Officer, but knew very little about the Kurds, as my studies at the American University of Beirut were almost totally focused on Sunni Arabs, Persians and the Palestinian issue.
In my stay near Suleimaniya, I was impressed with the order and security — as opposed to Baghdad, where one was not even safe traveling the road from the airport to the Green Zone. The people were very friendly but reluctant to speak Arabic. I later learned the core of this reluctance while talking with a young Kurd who pointed to a decrepit, old building upon which a tattered Iraqi flag flew. In passable English, he said the sight of that flag gave him a feeling of shame.
There were some vignettes that brought home to me the spirit and tragedy of the Kurdish people, e.g., the unit bringing musical instruments to the townspeople of Halabja and their sense of joy in receiving them. It brought to mind passages in the Thomas Bois book, “The Kurds,” in which he described the Kurdish passion for music.
I remember the exuberance of the youth crowded around our vehicles; very different from the sullen looks we often received in certain neighborhoods in Baghdad. After visiting the museum of the Halabja chemical attack, it brought on the same sense of revulsion as the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.
I also remember the old Iraqi army tank parked at the entrance of Suleimaniya festooned not with imprecations against an implacable enemy, but with multicolored paintings of flowers.
Returning home, having waded through many books on Kurdistan and the problems involved with support of an independent Kurdistan, I try to reconcile the spirit of the people there with realities on the ground.
Those realities are, to say the least, formidable. The cultural map of Kurdistan encompasses Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq. None of those states want an independent Kurdistan anywhere near them. In addition, the Abadi government of Iraq and, nominally at least, Turkey are allies in the war on terrorism.
Independence for Kurds is not a one-state problem any longer. It is a Middle East problem. During my years of duty in the Middle East, the oft-repeated shibboleth of this half-century was that solving the Arab-Israeli problem was the key to stability in the Middle East. Of course, that was never true. But today we face the spread of political Islam; the imperial ambitions of Iran; and the flashpoint of a Kurdistan or a “greater Kurdistan,” as the suspicious leaders in the Middle East view it.
The problems are easy to point out, but the solutions are well beyond the current diplomatic influence of any great or regional power in the Middle East. Two salient issues among the many are the Kirkuk issue and the plight of the Kurds in Turkey. In the first, facile suggestions that Kurds should be persuaded to give up territory for which they sacrificed a great many lives is a non-starter. In fact, the Kurds can claim credit for stemming the initial ISIS onslaught, giving the Iraqi government breathing space to begin their tortuous counteroffensive. And they blunted the ISIS offensive with inferior weapons, as the ISIS had captured an immense amount of American weapons and ammunition from the Iraqi army fleeing Mosul.
Addressing the second issue: Despite some cosmetic approaches to the Kurds, as long Turks still maintain that Kurds are “mountain Turks,” and treat them accordingly, no real progress is possible.
The Kurds have been separated by internal divisions, imposed languages, different writing systems, second-class citizenship in four countries, and a host of self-inflicted wounds. Now, however, as the diaspora of Kurds around the world share in their common ethnic identity, their political clout has elevated Western sensibilities to the Kurdish issue.
It would be a mistake to put off recognition of a Kurdish state until all the many disputes, especially borders, are settled. The European case of fragmented communities of Poles and Ukrainians is instructive. For centuries, they were ruled off and on by others, with borders frequently changing, but that never meant they were not Poles or Ukrainians. So it is with Kurds. Their quest for national identity should not be submerged in the morass of great and regional power rivalries or cartographic “abstractions of reality.” They have earned what President Woodrow Wilson promised them 99 years ago.
• Retired Army Col. Norvell B. DeAtkine is a Middle East Area Specialist with many years experience in the Arab world. He has been an instructor in Middle East Studies at the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School for 18 years.
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