I wrote this article originally for BasNews, here is the link to the article.
Erbil - Kurds greatly appreciate the airstrikes by the US and coalition warplanes against the extremist group Islamic State. The strikes have played a key role in the Kurdish pushback to recapture areas they lost to the group also known as IS, ISIL and ISIS. But they have also been complaining recently that the US promised delivery of heavy weapons of which few have made their way into the Kurdistan Region that has become the forefront of the fight against ISIS while at the same time a bastion of peace for refugees as well as internally displaced people from other parts of Iraq. All this, despite an economic crisis that began last year when the Iraqi government cut off Kurdistan’s share of the Iraqi budget.
There seems to be one main reason why the US is not so willing to directly arm the Kurds as it is in helping the Iraqi army: the weapons given to Kurds could be used later for Kurdish independence against Baghdad, and the US does not want to be blamed for “creating” a Kurdish state in the Middle East only to destabilize the region as the conspiracy theory goes. And while exploiting the weapons for independence may well be the reason why Kurds want the weapons so badly, there are several other reasons why they are losing patience.
First of all, they are losing many lives on the battlefield (over 1000 Kurdish Peshmerga fighters have been killed) against IS because of a lack of sufficient military equipment as simple as body armor, helmets, and night vision, let alone heavy weapons they need to counterbalance the large number of heavy weaponry IS took (estimated at 1,700 pieces including tanks, Humvees, MRAPs, artillery, etc) from the three Iraqi army divisions that ran away in the face of an IS offensive in June last year. Not a single day of foggy weather passes easily in Kurdistan without thousands of families struggling to go to sleep because of fear of a possible large scale, surprise attack by IS who use suicide fighters with explosive vests, as well as car bombs which they have learned to armor in a way that only planes, or direct hits from a tank or other heavy weapons like anti-tank MILAN rocket systems, which Peshmerga forces received from Germany, could stop. Members of these families are on the frontline and when it is foggy enough to make IS movement invisible, the planes aren’t able to help, and the tanks and MILANs are few, and also face the same visibility issue in such weathers. The Peshmerga are left to a IS special combo of ferocious man-vehicle bombs who are only too eager to blow themselves, and their bomb-laden cars, up in the middle of a group of Kurdish fighters. Moreover, the US and coalition airstrikes will not be there forever, in which case IS has to be fought and defeated on the ground where heavy weapons are needed.
Second, there’s a strong sense of betrayal among Kurds who never killed Americans, or ever think they will. Yet, the US heavily supports Baghdad where the Shiite dominated government – let alone the Shia militias the Iraqi government supports and arms – don’t like Americans very much, or maybe at all. Some Iraqi Shia officials have also gone so far as accusing the coalition forces of dropping weapons, ammo and military supplies to IS militants.
And third, when the US spends billions of dollars training the Iraqi army, which has a bloody history in Kurdish memory no matter how hard Baghdad or Washington tries to paint a different picture, and when it tries very hard to keep Iraq united, it is only really frustrating at best – Kurds are fighting ISIS on a nearly 1000 km long frontline and received only 25 MRAPs from the US (of course apart from light weapons and ammo), and insulting at worst, especially to the countless Kurdish families whose loved ones died fighting for independence over the past decades against the Iraqi Army and successive Iraqi governments. So, many Kurds could now ask: Did we fight Iraq for over half a century only to see that our dream of independence, which never before has seemed so within reach, is being rolled back by the US when even some high profile Iraqi leaders, one way or another, have come to terms with the idea?
Iraqi Prime Minister Hayder al-Abbadi reportedly said at the Munich Security Conference recently held in Germany that he believed it was up to the Kurds to choose whether or not to stay as part of Iraq. And an Iraqi lawmaker, Mishaan Jubouri, a Sunni who is known for his anti-Kurd comments, told NRT TV – a Kurdish news channel – that he supports Kurdish independence, although he supports a Kurdish state that does not include the oil-rich Kirkuk province, and that his support for a Kurdish state is rooted in his beliefs that Kurds are like cancer in Iraq, that they are working on “weakening Iraq” so they get stronger and that Iraq will only rest when Kurds are no longer part of. Also, Iraqi lawmaker Abdulsalam al-Maliki, a Shia from the former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s party, also known for their anti-Kurds comments, recently called on Nechirvan Barzani, Prime Minister of the Kurdistan regional Government (KRG) to hold a referendum to secede from Iraq and “drop their Iraqi citizenship.” Similarly of course, al-Maliki sees the Kurds as a kind of cancer in Iraq and that Iraq can only enjoy peace when Kurds separate. And Ayad Allawi, a secular Shia leader who won the most seats in the parliamentary elections 9 years ago beating Nouri al-Maliki before Maliki forged an alliance in the parliament to claim the largest bloc, is well known for his position regarding a Kurdish state which can be put simply like this: In principle, I support a Kurdish state. Kurds deserve to have their own state; my only concern is that it is not the right time now. All of these voices stand in stark contrast with the nationalist Arab rhetoric of, say, a few decades ago, or even with that of the early years after the US war in Iraq in 2003 when speaking on not only Kurdish independence, but also of a more decentralized Iraq, was a taboo among Sunni and Shia Arab politicians alike.
Besides, the more the US – or any other nation – pushes on Kurds to disown aspirations for independence, the more attractive the idea becomes. Successive Iraqi governments used all types of intimidation from revoking their Iraqi citizenship, expelling, forced resettlement (also true in the case of Syrian Kurds) to clamping down on them militarily, and using chemical weapons against them. Only a total genocide could remove the Kurdish dream of independence altogether. That’s exactly the kind of realization former Iraq dictator Saddam Hussein must have had when he ordered the Anfal Operations – a series of military operations that killed as many as 182,000 Kurds, flattened some 4,000 villages, and forced rural populations into urban settlements to control them, but to no avail.
It is simple. You can’t impose on Kurds (or almost any people) what they don’t want, and history supports this claim. Kurds are known for their stubbornness, and perhaps it is only this stubbornness that has kept the people as distinct from other neighboring peoples as they can be despite decades of harsh assimilation policies by the Middle Eastern countries. The word “stubborn” in Kurdish is a compound word that, when translated word for word, becomes “hard-skulled” in English. Iraqi Arabs have jokes and sayings about this stubbornness of Kurds. And internally, Kurds have different jokes about the degree of “hard-skulledness” of Kurds from different tribes and areas. One joke is roughly as follows: A man was hammering a nail on a wall as hard as he could, but the nail wouldn’t make a dent. When he looked at the other side of the wall, a Khoshnaw (member of a Kurdish tribe of the same name) was leaning against the wall with his head right against the opposite side of where the man was trying to hammer the nail. The lesson: you cannot penetrate Kurdish skulls (i.e. mentality) the hammering (forceful) way, at least not with the dream of independence.
More important than US officials realizing that when Kurds talk about independence there’s nothing that can dissuade them to keep Iraq together, is realizing that the US should not worry about the outcome of arming the Kurds. Because, the weapons will never be used against the US and American people unlike what has happened in other places where the US supported certain groups with weapons: for example in Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq’s non-Kurdish parts (a lot of the weapons given to Iraq end up in pro-Iranian Shia militia hands who see no difference between the US and IS – remember the comment by Iraqi MPs that US drops weapons for IS). Also, it would be false to say that in the event of an emerging Kurdish state – that the US “carved out” a Kurdish state from Arab, Turkish, or Persian lands, like the WWII superpowers are accused of “creating” a country for Jews. Unlike the case of Israel, there’s a whole century of armed struggle behind today’s Kurdish aspirations for independence. And what lands Kurds claim are actually overwhelmingly Kurdish-populated lands in addition to some disputed land still with a majority Kurdish population that underwent an Arabization policy under Saddam Hussein, especially around the oil-rich Kirkuk province, plus more and more Iraqi leaders are beginning to realize that they cannot, and should not oppose Kurdish independence. Today or tomorrow, the Kurds will always be pushing for independence. Therefore the US should not treat Kurdish concerns the hammering way.