No Friends But the Mountains

By Michael J. Totten

A visit to Kurdistan reveals an autonomous people ready for an alliance with America and Israel.

Arab nationalists and Islamists have been at war with the State of Israel since its founding, and at war with the presence of Jews in the Middle East before then, during the period of aliya in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In Iraq, they have been at war with the Kurds for almost as long, and for many of the same reasons. So it is quite natural that the Arab-Israeli conflict looks different from the vantage point of Kurdistan than from, say, Damascus or Cairo. Indeed, Kurds and Israelis have something very important in common—they are, and have long been, besieged minorities in the Middle East, and at war with the same people.
But the Kurds have something important in common with the Palestinians, too—statelessness. One might imagine, then, that Kurdish culture would be more or less equally divided on the matter of the Arab-Israeli conflict, or that individual Kurds might be conflicted internally, or even that Kurdish opinion would naturally side with fellow Muslims rather than with Jews. And indeed there are many Kurds who are conflicted when it comes to the Arab-Israeli dispute; you can find individuals who sympathize more with Israelis, and you can find, in principle, individuals who sympathize more with Palestinians. But every Kurd I have met supports the Israelis.
It is not hard to understand why: No one in Iraq can forget that Saddam Hussein’s staunchest apologists in the Arab world were the Palestinians. In the run-up to the 1991 Gulf War, President George H.W. Bush assembled a coalition that included numerous Arab and Muslim countries, but Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat sided with Saddam Hussein. And the Kurds know that the primary weapon in the Palestinians’ fight against Israel is terrorism—the one violent act Kurds in Iraq refused to commit, even when they were victims of genocide. Palestinian terrorism may be explained away, even celebrated, in most of the Arab world, but in Kurdistan it is offensive.
I asked Peshmerga colonel Mudhafer Hasan Rauf if the Kurdish army or regional government has any relations with the Israelis. “We live in the Middle East,” he said. “The Arab countries don’t want to have a relationship with Israel. Many Islamic groups inside the Arab world regard a relationship with Israel as something unholy. We believe in Islam, but if you compare us and the Arabs we think of Islam as a religion of brotherhood and peace. The Arab chauvinists wronged the religion’s direction and made it another thing.”
“We would like to have a relationship with Israel,” Colonel Ameen said. “We have the same destiny. We are secretly their friends. We have many Jewish Kurds there now. They write articles for our magazines.”
“The problems in the area are because of a misunderstanding of each other’s religion,” Colonel Rauf concurred. “Between the Jews and the Muslims and the Christians. I believe in the Koran. I know that Allah is the only God. God orders people and nations to have relationships with each other. But the fundamentalist Muslims don’t think like this.”
A member of the Kurdistan regional government explained how the Kurdish government is compelled to publicly split the difference between Arabs and Israelis, because Baghdad demands it. “Right now we have to follow Baghdad on foreign policy. But at the same time, we say we have nothing to do with the Arab-Israeli conflict. If you told me you were Israeli I wouldn’t have any problem with that. Most people here would rather meet an Israeli than an Arab. Arabs murdered our people.” Thus is Kurdish affection for Israel an open secret. Kurdistan regional government President Masoud Barzani said more or less the same thing on al-Arabiya earlier in the year: “The constitution does not give us the right to maintain ties with any country,” he said. “Diplomatic relations are the exclusive authority of the federal state. If an Israeli embassy were opened in Baghdad, we would no doubt open an Israeli consulate in Erbil. If diplomatic relations are not established between the Iraqi and Israeli states, there will be no relations between the Kurdistan provinces and Israel. But, in fact, as I have said in the past, I do not consider relations with Israel to be a crime or something forbidden… I support the rights of the Palestinian people, but at the same time I am against driving Israel into the sea. This is impossible… this policy is wrong, illogical, and unreasonable. Why annihilate a people? I do not believe in annihilating the Israeli people.”
I asked General Rostam why the Kurdistan regional government does not simply cooperate with Israel clandestinely, since both have few friends and many common enemies. “We don’t have enough relations to be able to cooperate or discuss,” he said. “But we expect to have that in the future. We will have relations and cooperation.” It is unclear whether Rostam means he expects Baghdad to come around, which would mean that Erbil could cooperate openly, or if he expects Kurdistan to declare independence, in which case it will do whatever it wants. But one can make an educated guess.
If Kurdistan is a nation in all but name, Iraq is a nation in name only. Indeed, almost everyone in Iraqi Kurdistan thinks Baghdad is the capital of a deranged foreign country. The belief that northern Iraq is actually a nascent Kurdish state is so widespread, in fact, that the only people one meets there who think of Kurdistan as “Iraq” are from somewhere else.
In January 2005, the Kurds held an informal and non-binding referendum on Kurdistan’s status. 98.7 percent voted to secede permanently from Iraq. This is not surprising: If Middle Easterners had drawn their own borders, Iraq would not exist in its current form; the British shackled Kurds and Arabs together when they created the post-imperial map. But the dream of an independent Kurdistan dates back to the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I, when Arab and Turkish nationalism were born as well. The League of Nations promised the Kurds autonomous rights. Instead, their homeland was broken up and parceled out to Iraq, Turkey, Syria, and Iran. Only in Iran, where the Kurds call Persians “cousins,” do they feel much kinship with their nominal countrymen.
And nowhere do Kurds feel more distant from their fellow citizens than in Iraq. Old people’s views of Baghdad are colored by memories of brutal oppression, genocide, and war, but young people have no memories of living under Saddam, no memories, in fact, of living among an Arab majority. Most do not even speak Arabic; English is now the second language taught in schools. Nor do they see any point in creating ties with Baghdad that haven’t existed in living memory, especially when Baghdad is burning. Today, the Iraqi flag is not flown in Erbil; it has been banned. The defiance of the Kurds may be quiet, but it is strong, and hardening.
Kurdistan regional government officials, when they are speaking on the record, say they support federalism in Iraq, and do not seek independence. Privately, though, they say they are simply stalling. Even that puts them out of step with most Kurdish citizens—but everyone knows they are not sincere. Maintaining nominal relations with Baghdad is a pragmatic, temporary, and likely prudent position for them to take. Better, they think, to hold off on declaring independence until their nation is strong enough—or until that independence can be guaranteed by foreign powers.
Kurdistan regional government President Barzani, who is little more than a figurehead, plays the bad cop. He has influence but little real power, and he isn’t constrained by Iraq’s internal politics. So he broods in his mountain palace and openly threatens secession. “Self-determination is the natural right of our people,” he says. “When the right time comes, it will become a reality.” As Christopher Hitchens has written, “The Kurds have now stepped onto the stage of Middle Eastern history, and it will not be easy to push them off it again. You may easily murder a child, as the parties of god prove every single day, but you cannot make a living child grow smaller.”
The United States will possibly withdraw from Iraq before the fighting is finished. American public opinion may well demand it. But if that should happen, the war will simply rage on without the Americans, and the Iraqi government might not survive the post-withdrawal scramble for power from insurgents, militias, terrorists, and their foreign patrons. And if the government falls, there probably won’t be another.
Iraq may end up resembling other regional weak-state anarchies, such as Somalia, which exist solely as geographic abstractions. Or it could go the way of Lebanon in the 1980s and divide into ethnic and sectarian cantons. Perhaps it will be invaded and picked apart by Turkey, Syria, and Iran, all of which have vital interests in who rules it and how. Iraq could even turn into a California-size Gaza, ruled by militants who wear black masks instead of neckties or keffiyehs.

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