On March 21, 2013, after years of armed struggle, Abdullah Öcalan—Turkey’s imprisoned Kurdish leader—accepted a peace deal proffered by Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. While Erdoğan will claim credit for winning an agreement to have PKK fighters withdraw, the life expectancy of the deal remains in question because Erdoğan seems unwilling to implement the confederation which Turkey’s Kurds and Öcalan’s followers demand. Such a confederation would not only require political reorganization, but would also demand fundamental reform of Turkey’s arm forces and security services to enable Kurds to serve in the bodies which once oppressed them.
So what is Turkey’s motive for pushing a peace process which the Turkish leadership is not willing to see to the end? In my Kurdistan Tribune column, I cynically suggested two theories: First was Erdoğan’s desire to win the Kurdish vote for any constitutional referendum that could propel Erdoğan into a revamped presidency, offering him even greater powers. And the second was a desire to win the 2020 Summer Olympics, the award of which to Turkey could personally net Erdoğan’s family hundreds of millions of dollars since, regardless of what debt hosting the Olympics might incur to the Turkish people, seldom is there a large project which Erdoğan cannot direct to Çalik Holdings, a company run by his son-in-law.
Every so often, an article or report will come out that repeats a common theme: Iraq itself may be a disaster, but Iraqi Kurdistan is secure, developing, and democratic. Here’s one from CBS News, another from the Washington Post, a third from National Review Online and, most recently, a piece from the Weekly Standard, in which the author ironically does not realize that he relies on a man accused by the U.S. army of corruption.
The Kurdistan Regional Government is slick and does not hesitate to pay visitors’ ways, shower them with hospitality, or hold out the possibility of a slice of the Kurdish oil pie. As with the Mujhaedin al-Khalq, which essentially was able to bribe former officials to get it de-listed as a terrorist group, too many former officials—both Republicans and Democrats—are willing to let greed trump principle when it comes to the Kurds. Yes, Kurds have made tremendous success (as has southern Iraq) since their removal from the yoke of Saddam’s dictatorship, but democratic they are not.
Salih Muslim is the leader of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The U.S. government has long considered the PKK a terrorist group, a designation which Secretary of State John Kerry reinforced in his recent swing through Turkey. He has applied for a visa to enter the United States to take part in consultations with officials in Washington, but the State Department has so far been unresponsive.
Denying the PYD leader a visa makes no sense for five reasons:
Saturday, March 16 will mark the 25th anniversary of Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons strike on the Iraqi Kurdish town of Halabja. The chemical bombardment may not have been Saddam’s first chemical weapons strike nor was it his last, but it was his most devastating: Perhaps 5,000 Kurdish civilians died in a matter of minutes. Kurdish doctors say that survivors still suffer a disproportionate number of cancers.
Because the Reagan administration sought rapprochement—and valuable arms contracts—with Saddam Hussein, both the White House and State Department turned a blind eye to Saddam’s use of chemical weapons. That was reprehensible and remains a stain on U.S. foreign policy. Still, despite the self-flagellation of some American academics and the America-bashing of others, it was not the United States which provided Saddam Hussein with the chemical weapons or their precursors (and, indeed, declassified documents show Donald Rumsfeld had warned Saddam about any use of CW in Rumsfeld’s earlier capacity as Reagan’s special envoy), but rather European commercial enterprises which were happy to make a neat profit and not ask questions. The German NGO Wadi explains:
While Iraqi officials have a tight hold on news, reports both from Iranian doctors who treated Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and some Iraqi sources suggest that Jalal Talabani may be stable, but that he cannot recover nor, for that matter, can he live without permanent attachment to life support machines. Let us hope such rumors are untrue, but the embargo on news does little to contradict the whispered reports.
Over at CNN, I discussed the politics surrounding the choice of successor, and at AEI-Ideas, I outlined some of the candidates whose names have been bantered about as successor. Several Iraqi Kurds—and a commenter on my AEI-Ideas post–have put forward another name: Jalal Talabani’s wife, Hero Ibrahim Ahmad, also known as Hero Khan.
A few days ago, I mentioned one of the baleful consequences of the U.S. pullout from Iraq: our current inability to stop the flow of arms from Iran to Syria via Iraqi airspace. This article highlights another worrying issue: the tensions between Arabs and Kurds. Two New York Times correspondents write:
When federal police agents sought to arrest a Kurdish man last month in the city of Tuz Khurmato in the Kurdish north of the country, a gunfight ensued with security men loyal to the Kurdish regional government.
Kurdish security forces, called the Peshmerga, have been in a standoff with the Iraqi Army near Kirkuk, a northern city claimed by Arabs and Kurds. When the bullets stopped flying, a civilian bystander was dead and at least eight others were wounded.
In response, the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, rushed troop reinforcements to the area, and Masoud Barzani, the president of Iraq’s semiautonomous northern Kurdish region, dispatched his own soldiers, known as the Peshmerga, and the forces remain there in a tense standoff.
Bashar al-Assad increasingly appears on the ropes, unable to contain the violence his brutal regime unleashed. The government’s violence has not been indiscriminate but has sectarian cleansing overtones, as Sunni Arabs are forced from towns and villages which the minority though dominant Alawites hope to make their own.
Behind its rhetoric, the Obama administration hopes the Syria problem will simply resolve itself. If there was any move behind-the-scenes to stop the worst atrocities, this ended the moment a bomb went off in Syria’s national security headquarters. Deep down, the Obama team hopes a coup or an assassin’s bullet will head off the need for any action.
Assad’s fall, however, will mark the end of one chapter and the start of another that could be far bloodier in the region.
What could come next?
It has now been a month since Mawloud Afand, the editor of Israel-Kurd magazine, went missing in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Sulaymani. Afand had published Israel-Kurd for two years when he disappeared. Abe Greenwald covered the kidnapping, here.
Both Israeli intelligence sources and the Kurdish press say he was kidnapped by Iranian intelligence agents in Sulaymani after the Kurdish government ignored Iran’s demands that the Kurdish government shut down the magazine. In July 2010, the Kurdistan Regional Government’s representative to Tehran sent a letter to Barham Salih, the Kurdish prime minister, in which he reported Iranian unhappiness with the magazine, after Kurdish authorities promised Tehran that it would be closed down.
Rudaw, a Kurdish news outlet funded by Nechirvan Barzani, places blame on both Iranian authorities and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). The PUK, for its part, refuses to investigate the case. While the PUK has a pro-American reputation in Washington, thanks largely to the efforts of Barham Salih and Qubad Talabani, the pro-Iranian faction inside the organization has long been dominant. Indeed, Barham Salih recently left for a four-day trip to Iran, and Qubad’s eldest brother Bafil Talabani was exiled after he helped Iranian agents infiltrate through PUK territory and into Mosul, where they killed American contractors.
According to Kurdish authorities, the exile came after an American intelligence ultimatum that he either leave Kurdistan or suffer the consequences more directly. Former PUK Prime Minister Kosrat Rasul has once again cast his lot with the Iranians, after concluding the Americans are a fleeting power, at least in Iraq. Barham Salih, while perceived as pro-American in Washington, is perceived as pro-Iranian in Tehran. He often travels to Iran to meet with senior Iranian politicians and security officials and, according to the Iranian press, he is there now. When Jalal Talabani fell ill several years ago, Barham met Iranian authorities to help him fill the vacuum should Talabani not recover. Abe Greenwald was right when he concluded that Afand’s kidnapping was “another reminder of the Iranian regime’s implacable and ever more brazen savagery in a world abandoned by the leadership of the American superpower.”
There is some horrible news out of Kurdistan today. Ekurd.net reports that Mawloud Afand, editor of an Israel-Kurdish magazine called Israel Kurd “disappeared ten days ago in [the] Kurdistan region of Iraq.” Israeli news sources say he was kidnapped by Iranian intelligence in the city of Sulaimaniyah. Ekurd.net claims that Iran had told the Kurdish government to shut Israel Kurd down and it refused.
The Kurds have long been accused of Zionist collaboration owing to their mostly cooperative relationship with Israelis. In fact, one popular argument against a safe and autonomous Kurdistan is that it would be a “second Israel” in the region. There are obvious commonalities between the Middle East’s Kurds and Jews. Both are overwhelmingly pro-American (the Kurds rightly credit the U.S. with saving them from Saddam), largely inclined toward democracy, and have histories as persecuted minorities. Afand’s interest in an Israeli-Kurdish connection is representative of a not-so-quiet sense of Kurdish solidarity with Jews. He also, from what I can gather, has some Jewish family. There are Jewish Kurds, some of whom claim that Abraham of the Hebrew Bible was Kurdish.
Kurdistan may be the “other Iraq” but, when it comes to corruption, it is in a league all its own. After a disappointing trip to Washington capped off when TSA agents subjected his entourage to searches, Kurdish President Masud Barzani has now, according to a report in the Kurdistan Tribune, cut short a trip to the United Arab Emirates after his son Mansour Barzani lost $3.2 million in a local casino. Where his son got $3.2 million, whether it came from government coffers and, if so, why Barzani was traveling with so much cash is unanswered. Mansour has always been tempestuous; in his youth, a dispute about a woman led to a botched suicide attempt. Elder son Masrour Barzani, whom Kurdish dissidents accuse of running death squads, has, according to multiple sources in the American Kurdish community, set up a corporation to acquire a $10+ million villa in northern Virginia. Youngest son Mullah Mustafa publicly consorts with figures during his Washington trips which make even Secret Service agents blush. Masud Barzani’s nephew expropriated $600 million from the public coffer to fund his bid for the Korek company. The multibillion dollar return flowed not into the public coffers, but into Barzani private coffers.
The question regarding Barzani’s family holdings will come to a head next year as the Kurdish presidency again comes up for election and could undermine the stability and security about which the family brags and foreign investors depend. Masud Barzani, first elected in 2005 and then re-elected four years later in elections marred by widespread fraud, should, by law, not run for a third term. If he does seek to become president for life, the disgruntled youth may again take to the streets, and all pretense of Kurdistan being anything but a Mafioso state will disappear. Few expect Barzani to follow the lead of the opposition Kurdistan Islamic Union party leader who resigned his post to allow a true successor to emerge.