“The Kurds: Everything You Didn’t Know” — Dave Rubin Doesn’t Talk to Max J. Joseph
This piece is largely in response to the interview: “The Kurds: Everything You Need to Know” — Dave Rubin talks to Bayan Sami Rahman. Let me plain at the outset: the idea of inviting Bayan Sami Rahman, the Kurdistan Democratic Party’s (KDP) High Representative to the U.S. (and formerly to the U.K.) onto the Rubin Report without asking one difficult, uncomfortable question about the Kurds, their politics, their claims, or the narrative they have been weaving specifically in the Kurdish Region of Iraq, then calling the farce “Everything You Need to Know”, is disingenuous and misleading. How low is the bar now?
That said, welcome to my show, “The Kurds: Everything You Didn’t Know” where I will first comment on Bayan Sami Rahman’s statements then provide you with what could have been touched on in relation to her stated focus, which will be mine too: the Kurds in Iraq.
Bayan Rahman sets the tone for the interview by claiming the three wise men who visited Jesus were from Kurdistan. Eyes bulging already, let’s pretend this wasn’t a serious assertion and continue.
She claims Kurdistan was divided between four countries after the First World War, when in reality, it was the Ottoman Empire that was divided into different states under mandate from European powers. What she is referring to is an idealized Kurdish homeland which would be the largest country in the Middle East, all at the expense of other nations of people who live heterogeneously within those lands, many of which suffered genocide at the hands of Ottoman Turks and Kurds and were expelled, their lands forcibly seized or lying in ruin.
Speaking of the genocide: the total Assyrian population was reduced by as much as 75%, and with no recognition, no compensation, and no appreciation of this, we are simply expected to accept this great crime, to forget our murdered ancestors, and move on.
“The people of Kurdistan were divided up” says Bayan Rahman, whilst conveniently omitting the fact that the people of Assyria were slaughtered by the “people of Kurdistan” on many occasions whilst they were both being divided up. These are historical facts, omitting them when talking of modern history and how Kurds have come to the precarious situation they find themselves in amongst the faltering Sykes-Picot states is nothing short of historical revisionism.
She goes on: “in Iraq, they put the Sunnis and Shias together, and wanted the Kurds as the third element to balance the other two”
Again, this is complete historical revisionism. It was the mixed Iraqi Levies who were put together, trained and deployed by Britain to keep order in their fledgling colony. These levies soon became almost exclusively Assyrian, since for some reason, Britain seemed more inclined to manipulate Assyrians into being this balancing force Bayan Rahman has cited. It was these Assyrian Levies that alienated the other groups in the new state of Iraq.
The first military act Iraq conducted by the Iraqi Army after winning independence in 1932 was a massacre of Assyrians in Simele and surrounding areas. Under the leadership of the Kurdish General Bakr Sidqi: Kurds, Arabs and others united under one common cause: to inflict more violence against Christian Assyrians and plunder their towns and villages, murder the men, and rape and murder the women and children. Many of these Assyrians were still recovering from the Ottoman Genocide that happened less than twenty years prior.
This next bit is crucial:
Dave Rubin asks “what will become Kurdistan — or what you hope will become Kurdistan — will encompass more areas, is that correct? And Bayan Rahman replies, “The KRG (Kurdistan Regional Government) now controls now all of the Kurdish territory, officially we administer only part of it, but after we pushed ISIS out after they attacked us, we now have control of all of Kurdistani areas in Iraq.”
She is starting with an idealist premise of what constitutes Kurdistan — an idea so loosely defined that many Kurds I speak to all have a different vision of it accompanied by a different map.
Of course, what Bayan Rahman defines as ‘Kurdistan’ is totally in line with what the KDP define as Kurdistan, namely, areas which they do not currently control, but want to because of geography, resources etc. What is her criteria for “Kurdish territory” — ? The common definition that persists today is simply “where Kurds live”, but this definition doesn’t even fit with areas like the Nineveh Plains, where Kurds have almost no presence yet still claim.
She starts from the position that these lands are Kurdish and that the KRG is reclaiming them from ISIS. This is conquest masquerading as liberation.
These lands never belonged to the Kurds, not in modern nor ancient history. These lands belonged to Assyrians, who have remained a constant in them for thousands of years. Nothing about the Nineveh Plains is Kurdish, nothing about Nohadra (or Dohuk) or the lands immediately surrounding it is historically Kurdish: its full administration was offered to the KRG as a bargaining chip to shift their gaze away from Kirkuk, which is much richer in oil. Huge influxes of Kurds moved into and settled in Dohuk and surrounding areas in very recent times which now seemingly made it “Kurdish”. — (I write this knowing of Assyrians who still have deeds to their lands in Dohuk but were forced out).
Employing a fluid notion of what constitutes ‘Kurdistan’, i.e. merely a place where even a small number of Kurds are today, this actually works. However, if one was to respect history, exhibiting even some awareness of the crimes of the past, honouring deeds to land, or any kind justice at all, it plainly doesn’t.
Search for Nohadra (Dohuk) on Google, and you would think the place didn’t exist before the soft partitioning in 1991 which asserted the no-fly zone, and created a space from which long-suppressed Kurdish nationalism could flourish. In reality, Dohuk was seized upon in the 90’s by the Barzani family as a key smuggling route into Turkey for Saddam’s discreet dealings away from the UN sponsored Oil for Food sanctions. Both Barzani and Saddam cooperated in this illicit commerce and mutually benefited to the tune of millions of dollars.
You can observe two things at work here: firstly, what Dave Rubin and Bayan Rahman telepathically agree to call “complex” with reference to Kurdish politics is simply “cynical”, and it has proved so time and time again since the birth of the Kurdish Region of Iraq. Second, what the Kurds have adopted in Iraq is a policy of “we will take what we can get.” Yezidi (some of whom identify as Kurdish, some of whom do not) and Assyrian lands were easily conquered: we have no backers, no support, and no media attention; incipit aforementioned “liberation”.
Bayan Rahman: “Kurdistan is multicultural and multi-religious. In Iraqi Kurdistan, we have Christians, they are Assyrian, and we have Chaldeans, Yezidis, Shabaks, Kakais and Arabs as well. Maybe some of those communities may think that well we would rather be under Iraqi authority, but I’m confident that the vast majority of people who vote in the referendum would rather have self-determination than be under the authority of Baghdad.”
At this point, it’s really becoming painful to listen to. No, you don’t “have” Assyrians. What the KRG considers “having” they have taken by force to further their interests (namely, the desire to be seen by the West as progressive, pluralist and tolerant, undoubtedly to attract investments and businesses).
Besides the bizarre and sickly possessive language, she is actually saying that the communities who now find themselves living under newly planted Kurdish flags have to suddenly decide and vote for Kurdish independence — and this implication went unchallenged.
It would be like me waking up tomorrow and finding the borders of Scotland expanded to include London and being compelled, most likely with threats of violence or impoverishment by well-funded, well-armed Scots, to vote positively for Scottish independence with absolutely no thought as to who I am, my history or my own aspirations.
As I understand it, even if every Assyrian voted “no”, they will be outvoted by “yes” — and since the Assyrians all live in newly conquered Kurdish territory, their “no” won’t matter, Assyrian areas won’t suddenly go back to Iraqi administration (much less their own administration), they will just comprise the losing vote in a successful “yes” campaign.
The referendum won’t simply apply to parts of Iraqi Kurdistan for strategic, cynical reasons, but the whole of it. Peshmerga Commanders have already been quoted saying they will not “give back” these territories because “they are Kurdish”.
“Who wants to live under a dictatorship?” Bayan Rahman asks with reference to Saddam and other despots “For us Kurds, Iraq has failed us repeatedly. I can’t think of one good thing we seen out of being part of Iraq.”
Let’s cut the hyperbole: despite the terrible massacres, hardships and suffering the Kurds have endured in Iraq, Iraq has also given the Kurdish people more than any other country in the world.
Within the incubator of Iraq, Kurds have formed first their ever recognized government in history. Established under the no-fly zone in 1992 under the protection of numerous International governments and their armed forces, and with aid rising in the billions of dollars since, the Kurdish Regional Government has grown into something ubiquitous and monolithic — it has 19 ministries, employs representatives in all major countries, hosts foreign embassies, has a direct relationship with all of the biggest global organisations, millions of dollars dedicated to international scholarships, trade deals independent of Baghdad etc.
The myth that the ‘poor KRG’ is this downtrodden, underdog is truly divorced from reality. Since its inception, it has enjoyed steadfast international support at every turn: economically, politically, and militarily.
What an insult to Kurds in Turkey, Syria and Iran, who have enjoyed absolutely none of these privileges.
What an insult to Assyrians and other minorities, who have been crushed under the full, extended weight of unchecked and celebrated Kurdish nationalism in their own lands with no recourse to law, domestically or internationally.
“Because really, in the Middle East, we are still at the stage of evolution where force is what gives you authority. […] values of freedom and liberty, freedom of speech, are a luxury. In much of the Middle East, it’s whose got the gun that counts.”
Interestingly, Bayan Rahman seems to say this whilst thinly suggesting Kurds in Iraq have a different mentality.
Let me be clear once again: the only reliable noise you will hear from the KRG is a constant pitch for more arms to be delivered directly to them. It’s something all of their officials say, wherever they are, and whoever they are talking to. This was best demonstrated after ISIS took shape and started threatening Kurdish territory: reports surfaced that arms shipped from the U.S. arriving in Erbil airport were initially seized by the KDP and not a single bullet was shared with the PUK, who were fighting ISIS in and around Kirkuk. There is no secret that the two major parties, whilst currently operating under a power-sharing deal (which has swung mightily in favour of the KDP), were killing each other in the thousands with their party-loyal Peshmerga militias as recently as the 90’s in a bitter power struggle which saw the PUK move closer to Iran and the KDP bargain with Saddam for support, the man who had used chemical weapons against Kurds less than a decade previous — another fact shamelessly omitted by Bayan Rahman.
The KDP and PUK know full well the value of arms in the Middle East, which is why they are obsessed with having all of the weapons they can get their hands on, and depriving those who are not loyal to them of those weapons.
This was most notable when the KDP’s personal army numbering over 10,000 was busy systematically disarming, and then abandoning minorities such as the Assyrians and the Yezidis in preparation for the ISIS assault on their respective territories. Adding to this the collapse of the widely criticised Iraqi Army, these minorities were failed twice by two governments eager to rule over them but not willing to defend or empower them. Where the Iraqi Army simply ran away, the KRG also deprived us of any means to defend ourselves and then did the same.
Notices were distributed to the Assyrians of the Nineveh Plains by the KRG demanding full disarmament and relinquishing of weapons in July 2014, threatening severe punishment to anyone who did not cooperate. ISIS invaded less than two weeks later in August 2014. Assyrians and Yezidis were disarmed and reassured that the Peshmerga would protect them. What happened instead was a full scale retreat just before ISIS approached. This retreat was undertaken discreetly, with no notice or evacuation of the now disarmed and defenceless civilians (who would have otherwise fought and defended their homes had they been left armed).
Many articles and testimonies have surfaced, such as the statement given to the UK parliament by Yezidi ex-captive Salwa Khalaf Rasho, where Peshmerga, eager to flee first ahead of Yezidi civilians, refused requests to stay and protect Yezidis or at least leave them their weapons. They even reassured them that they should return to their homes where they will be defended. Some Peshmerga even started firing on Yezidis when their protestations grew forceful, killing some, in order to clear the way for their convoy of vehicles to pass unhindered. Yazda, an organisation which campaigns for Yezidi genocide recognition, wrote in their last report in January 2016: “had they [Yezidis] been defended for one day, they could have been evacuated safely and the massacres and enslavement crisis could have been averted.”
Haydar Shesho, a Yezidi commander, had even requested weapons from the KDP only to be flatly refused since his allegiance was not to them. He then proceeded to acquire arms through Baghdad and the PUK, but was immediately arrested by KDP authorities for “creating an illegitimate militia” of Yezidis desperate to defend their homes. It took a German dignitary (since he is a resident of Germany) to fly to Erbil to negotiate Shesho’s release.
The situation in the Nineveh Plains was not dissimilar. 150,000 Assyrians were violently driven from their ancestral lands. To add to this, there is a chorus of noise from Kurds demanding any vocal, dissenting Assyrians be thankful for being robbed of all means to defend themselves and having their lands stolen — they define this as “protection”, akin to mafia-speak.
The actions of the fully armed Peshmerga here were not born from instinct, but from instruction by Peshmerga commanders and senior KDP leadership. There could be no other reason why over 10,000 soldiers would flee without firing a single bullet, positively refusing to engage ISIS on any level, even when ISIS were in the vicinity harassing fleeing civilians — in this, it makes no difference how well armed the Peshmerga are. If they are not willing to fight owing to political manoeuvring, they are an unreliable force.
An anonymous KRG official was quoted in a Reuters article from June 2014 as saying “ISIL gave us in two weeks what Maliki couldn’t give us in eight years”. By disarming and disabling communities who live in territories the Kurdish leadership have designs on controlling, then letting a ready-made aggressive foreign force invade and uproot these communities, forcing them to flee, KRG forces backed by Western airstrikes will be seen as “retaking” land never even theirs.
It is simply one conquering force displaced by another conquering force. One perpetrated the now recognized genocide of Yezidis and Assyrians, and the other allowed it to happen.
Dave Rubin says “Everything I see about the Kurds — I literally see pictures of women fighters — women that look like Western women, fighting ISIS […] how did the ethos of the Kurds, where you guys do respect minorities, the Yezidis and many others come from? […] and there is a feeling that Western values are good within the Kurdish community. How did that actually flourish amongst so many places you’re surrounded by where it doesn’t flourish at all?”
To which Bayan Rahman replies:
“I think we have a tradition, a part of our heritage, a part of our culture, which looks for peaceful coexistence […] it’s just something very normal, we do have quotas for our parliament where the minorities have an allocated number of seats, whether they get the votes or not they get those seats […] when you’re surrounded by authoritarian regimes destroying everything, we are the underdogs, there is an idea of common good we all share.”
Besides this passage being introduced by Dave Rubin being slobbering, orientalist nonsense, Bayan Rahman’s reply consists of conjuring democratic concessions for minority representation whose lands they have seized as their own.
Let’s briefly detail the recent history and dynamics here: the Assyrians do have quota seats, but the majority of “Assyrian” parties who run are founded and openly depend on KDP funds and support. This is done in order to split any coherent, unified Assyrian voice in the KRG, a tactic employed by all of the major tyrannies in recent history.
The KRG does exceptionally well in setting themselves apart from the authoritarian regimes Bayan Rahman cites, despite having all of the hallmarks of one. In this, they actually benefit from being a relatively unknown entity in the West — whereby Westerners can look at pictures of smiling, unveiled women holding assault rifles or rugged men feeding puppies, and immediately feel disarmed and arrested by them (of course, in a much different way than the Assyrians and Yezidis were disarmed and arrested by Kurds in Iraq).
“Why do you think the whole story of your people is simply ignored in the West?” Dave Rubin asks.
“I suppose there are many reasons, the Kurdish story is complicated — as much as I might try and simplify and always want to be truthful to the story […] the other is frankly speaking, money: to really run an effective campaign where you win people to your side, you need money, you need to propagate soft power, we need universities to be teaching about Kurdistan, we need advertising campaigns saying come to Kurdistan, we need heavy lobbying, particularly in countries like the United States, and everywhere, not just in Washington D.C. That needs money, we’ve never had that kind of money.”
How much more money does the KRG need?
It is $25bn in debt despite its recent territorial conquests and the resources those conquests bring. There are reports from Kurds themselves in oil-rich Kirkuk of oil tankers coming and going from the city with no signs of any money coming back to it. Previously, Kirkuk had its budget allocated from Baghdad, but this ended when the KRG started making its own oil deals. Now, Kirkuk is not receiving any money from Baghdad nor from any sales of its oil by the KRG. Where is all this money?
Millions in aid designated for vulnerable groups and minorities have been consistently lost to corruption, so much so that small independent charity groups like Khalsa Aid are providing support necessary for the survival of Yezidis and Assyrians under the protectorship of the KRG.
“The vast majority of Kurds are Muslim, but I would say we are moderate, we believe in coexistence, we look to the West and admire the West.” Bayan Rahman says.
Now, any attempt to speak on behalf of tens of millions of people shouldn’t be taken seriously, and this is no exception — for one, there are hundreds of Kurds in ISIS. In 2011, radical imams in Zakho, Dohuk Province encouraged Sunni Muslim Kurds to go on a riot and destroy Christian shops selling alcohol, places of worship, or anything else they wished. In total, 30 shops were ransacked and burned; a Chaldean Diocese in Zakho was attacked; an Assyrian Social Club in Nohadra besieged by a mob of 200 people; a Yezidi club, restaurants, hotels, and other various stores were shot at with automatic weapons. Fliers were then posted on all properties threatening more violence if reopened. “Coexistence” comes with conditions.
In responding to how ISIS came about, Bayan Rahman says “Take ISIS in Iraq, it’s a marriage between ISIS […] and the Ba’athists […] the Ba’athists want to come back to power in Iraq, and ISIS want a caliphate. It’s a marriage of convenience.”
This glib, simplistic analysis ignored so much.
First, the policy of de-Baathification after 2003 completely wiped out any role the Sunni Arabs had in Iraq. This is because during Saddam’s reign, one had to be a Baath member to have any kind of life, or any kind of job in the public sector (including apolitical roles such as teacher or nurse). This meant huge swathes of Sunnis who did not care for the Baath party or its principles, and who were only members to secure themselves a livelihood, were immediately cast aside and smeared for the rest of their lives.
This is ironic, since if anybody wants any kind of livelihood in the KRG, they must join one of the dominant political parties, KDP or PUK, in an environment resembling a prison with competing factions vying for turf and numbers.
To add to the complete alienation of civilian Sunnis, the Iraqi army was disbanded in its entirety. This brought about a complete collapse of all security functions and several hundred thousand redundant soldiers, as perfectly outlined in this excerpt from a NY Times piece from 2004:
“An American special-forces officer stationed in Baghdad at the time told me that he was stunned by Bremer’s twin decrees. After the dissolution of the Army, he said, “I had my guys coming up to me and saying, ‘Does Bremer realize that there are four hundred thousand of these guys out there and they all have guns?’ They all have to feed their families.”
Fast forward to 2010 (and several thousand murdered Iraqis later). The Shia bloc headed up by Ayad Allawi which the Sunnis threw their support behind won the election. However, they were not allowed to form a government due to Iranian influence within Iraq and Iran’s very clear preference for Maliki to retain power. What then ensued was surprising by Allawi’s own testimony: the US, in the sake of maintaining whatever fragile stability they were newly acquiring in the region, advised Allawi to desist and let Maliki form a government.
The bloc which won the most votes and seats across Iraq, the bloc which included the alienated and disenfranchised Sunnis, were yet again forced out of government and away from any kind of power sharing.
ISIS have no doubt exploited this disconnection ordinary Sunni Arabs have felt since 2003, but to underplay the role de-Baathification had as a precursor to the horrible security situation is irresponsible.
There is no doubt that hard-line Baathists would like a return to power, but for once in this interview, I would have liked to see “complex” used here where it is actually appropriate, but instead, we are treated to a partial story.
Dave Rubin then asks about Turkey and how badly they’ve treated the Kurds, including banning the Kurdish language, at which point Bayan Rahman smiles uncomfortably: “some letters were not allowed to be used because they were not in the Turkish alphabet, so that essentially meant Kurdish names were banned. But Turkey has made a lot of progress on these things.”
The reluctance to elaborate on this topic and the attempt to immediately try and shift the conversation into more positive territory is quite telling.
Dave Rubin: “So on one hand, they’re [Kurds] on the ground fighting ISIS, and at the same time, they’re being bombed by Turkey. I know it’s a complex relationship […] it seems Turkey is playing both sides.”
Bayan Rahman replies “I think Turkey’s main focus is Syria. Turkey wants to be rid of Assad. That is President Erdogan’s priority. Many of Turkey’s actions can be seen through that prism. Turkey has a very large Kurdish population. Some people say twenty million, some people say thirty million[…] those people demand their rights, as they should, but Turkey has made a lot of progress, particularly under Prime Minister Erdogan, when he was Prime Minister, Turkey decriminalized the Kurdish language, there is at least one Kurdish TV station which is state run, a lot of progress has been made. There was even a peace initiative started in 2012 […] we need Ankara and the Kurdish population in Turkey to have peace so that they can get on with things, but unfortunately, you have seen a reversal of many of those steps taken, and now there is a huge tension in Turkey.”
She further states: “A Kurdish party did very well in the elections and managed to get over the 10%. There has been a lot of progress […] we have to balance a cooperative relationship with Iran and Turkey. Our oil is exported through Turkey.”
The sheer distance Bayan Rahman, Barzani and the KDP puts in place between themselves and Kurds in Turkey would have you believe they were different people. And this praise — this relentless focus on “progress” (when neutral observers would claim the opposite) — and the spinning of the situation to depict a benevolent, noble Turkey dealing with Kurds who have good cause but are going about it in the wrong way isn’t realpolitik, it’s just cowardice and cynicism designed to appease Erdogan’s ruling AKP party.
Here, it is the KDP and its supporters who put their party first and the Kurdish people second. I put it best in previous writing related to Barzani’s last interview with Al Monitor from March 2016:
As disgusting and awful as it is, I can understand why Barzani despises any non-Kurd who isn’t strictly with him, and wants to crush them, drive them away, steal their lands, or disempower and absorb them. It’s pretty a common drive among your standard tyrant, racist, supremacist. But Barzani is even worse than that, here’s another perspective or dimension:
What makes him extraordinarily repugnant is the fact that he praises Erdogan, a man whose country supported ISIS with freedom of movement, supplies, medical care, arms, money, and oil trade, a man who has imprisoned any Turkish legal official, judge, journalist, border guard, academic who has uncovered Turkish>ISIS support, a man who let ISIS militants across the border to slaughter Kurds in Syria and Iraq, a man who is still conducting massacres of Kurdish men women and children across Turkey, destroying entire towns and villages in the process, a man who simply staged another election because the Kurdish HDP party in Turkey received more votes than he wanted them to have, and then conducted a terror campaign in the interim to violently coerce more votes for his AKP — a party more focused on building mosques than schools and hospitals, a man who apparently had it all to give to the HDP had they entered into coalition with them, a decision not taken by the HDP which Barzani rues and disapproves of.
Erdogan is the man who Barzani celebrates as understanding the Kurdish cause more than any other, and against this, he paints as the victim — despite the streets in the South East of Turkey littered with the bodies of dead Kurdish children.
It is one thing to destroy Assyrians and Yezidis and others who do not identify with him, his party or the Kurdish people, but to forsake fellow Kurds and their families for the sake of politics, money and power — this really does speak of the man.
“You’re sharing a border with ISIS and you are the ones fighting them?” Dave Rubin asks, coming back to Kurds in Iraq and their battle with ISIS. Bayan Rahman takes this is an opportunity to end on a plea:
“Yes we need more weapons, we need heavy weapons. We need protective gear for our Peshmerga. We are also facing a humanitarian crisis, our population is about 5m and it has increased by 30% […] They are all refugees, they don’t know anything, they can’t work, they have nothing, we have to provide everything. We used to have 24 hours of electricity, suddenly we don’t, because we have to share it […] The other crisis we face is financial […] we are trying to find a way for helping Kurdistan out of this financial crisis.”
This insatiable thirst for more (and heavier) weapons just betrays their intentions to have the best weapons available to their forces, securing their position in the region (reminiscent of the reality of the Middle East Bayan Rahman evoked, but mildly distanced herself from earlier).
And anyway, they haven’t used any of these weapons to defend the minorities they claim as Kurdistan’s before they were violently purged from their own lands (which are now suddenly Kurdistan too).
All in all, the whole interview was conducted without even mentioning the other “c” word: “corruption”. As if the KRG, now newly anointed in the media as the West’s “best bet”, this old “new Dubai” needs to find its feet again, and in order to do that, the West must funnel even more money and weapons to them as they take over more and more non-Kurdish territory. The level to which the West is now invested in the KRG has reached a limit where governments simply do not even want to hear about its failures and discretions, including continuing to fund the lucrative commerce of “ghost soldiers” according to this piece by the Washington Institute, March 2016:
“Each month 60,000 anonymous members of forces, names and ranks unknown to the parliament and Ministry of Peshmerga receive their salary from the Ministry of Peshmerga while 53,000 identified members of forces are receiving their salary from the Ministry.”
I have to add: the influx of “refugees” who “don’t know anything” are mostly Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) who know a great many things. Many of them were betrayed by the Peshmerga and had to flee their homes towards lands they knew their conquerors would defend.
Barzani and the KDP
Now onto Barzani, Bayan Rahman’s paymaster, and the Kurdish Regional Government’s recently announced referendum on independence (as well as all of the ugly present-day realities not mentioned by Bayan Rahman).
Barzani has said that he will step down after Kurdistan becomes independent, and you can read that in two ways: first, Kurdistan won’t be independent anytime soon, second, he will move for independence but then stay in power for another reason or another, as he has always done in the past. There will always be one more reason for dictators to remain in power — since his official (and final) term ended in 2013, he is now President by decree going on three years.
And here I have to mention heroic young Kurds such as Sardasht Osman, a university student who penned a satirical poem about the Barzani family hegemony and was shortly after kidnapped and murdered, his body found in a dumpster. His murderers were never identified publicly and still walk the streets. If Barzani and his followers are willing to commit murder in the face of creative dissent, what will they do when it comes to accession to real power? Countless Assyrian martyrs who proved to be emerging dissenting forces, such as Francis Shabo, know all too well.
The referendum was floated to Kurds had in the past, and it came at the height of frustration in the Kurdish region when protests were breaking out and ordinary Kurds rightly felt cheated by their government. This is a general breakdown of events then, and in some ways, now:
2. Barzani threatens (or proudly declares, used interchangeably) referendum on independence.
3. Ordinary Kurds calm down, get back to work, live somehow whilst being unpaid.
4. Turkey makes a phonecall to the KRG and asks them if they are actually serious, and the KRG duly reassures them they are not. Erdogan puts the phone down and continues to kill Kurds in Turkey.
5. Issue becomes submerged, and ultimately forgotten, business as usual gradually commences.
6. Back to (1), rinse and repeat.
Anyone who wants to understand the KRG must understand their economic situation as well as the often talked about political situation, so here are some very straightforward facts:
They are $25bn+ in debt and are touring the West, cap in hand, begging for money.
Pre-ISIS, the Kurdish Region produced 7% of Iraq’s oil and had a budget allocation of 17% from Baghdad, meaning they were heavily subsidized and relied heavily on Baghdad for even basic functioning. Since ISIS, Baghdad have stopped budgetary payments to the KRG because the KRG had begun making oil deals independent of Baghdad (with Turkey).
Under Iraqi law, all such oil deals must be sanctioned by the Federal Government, with all proceeds distributed centrally to the various provinces and regions. Given events, the agreement collapsed and the economy is now operating largely undocumented and unregulated. You can see the effects of this now in over six months’ worth of unpaid public sector salaries in the Kurdish Region prompting emigration out by ordinary Kurds losing hope, and deserting Peshmerga no longer able to provide for their families.
The Kurdish Region has a public sector that comprises 75% of the whole region wide workforce — meaning 75% of all workers in the Kurdish Region work for the Kurdish government in some way shape or form. Even under Saddam, this figure was 40%. This is because a very, very low % of workers in the KRG (like under Saddam’s Iraq) produce most of the region’s revenue (via incredibly heavy reliance on oil trade with and through Turkey) and the rest are either in the Peshmerga or occupy jobs that simply serve as ‘padding’ for the employment market.
This means that most people in the KRG are heavily reliant on the government for money, and the KDP and the PUK take advantage of this through a patronage system: you as an individual must demonstrate complete, uncritical loyalty to our political party, its aims and its rhetoric, and in exchange we will pay you primarily for this loyalty so you can eat and feed your family. As I stated previously, the system is very similar to Baathist Iraq, which nostalgists still pine for due to the heavily conditional ‘freedoms’ it bestowed on them.
In order to maintain this almost state-wide pseudo-welfare system, predicated on an incredibly unbalanced ‘get rich quick’ economy run almost entirely by a very small group of people, and endemic corruption throughout all 19 wasteful government departments from the bottom to the very top, the KRG is driven to steal more and more resource rich land to feed their aforementioned, fatally flawed economic (or kleptocratic) model.
Their second political project has involved nurturing a mutually beneficial master/slave relationship with Turkey, primarily to distance themselves from Baghdad, but at the expense of helping or expressing any real solidarity with fellow Kurds who are truly suffering under the yoke of Turkish nationalism. Barzani and the KDP have done almost everything in their power to acquiesce, praise, and endorse the Erdogan government, even throughout their terror campaign against Kurdish areas in the south east of Turkey.
In this affair, the KRG serves as little more than a province for Turkey and its interests in Iraq: nearly every military move the KDP adopts in Iraq via its Peshmerga is given with either the instruction or the blessing of the Turkish government. This is evidenced simply in how events have unfolded, and how they are unfolding with relation to Mosul: Turkey’s “Fulda Gap”, as expressed in an excellent article on the subject by War on the Rocks in December 2015.
Tensions are rising so much here that the PKK/YPG and the Peshmerga forces are actually competing to liberate Mosul: the PKK for influence in the region, and the KDP at the behest of Turkey, who mustn’t lose yet another corridor into what they vaguely believe is their old province, Iraq, given their failures in Syria and the emergence of the Kurdish Federal Region there.
That said, with the conquering of Kirkuk, the Nineveh Plains and Sinjar, the KRG might be in a position to offset losses incurred by completely surrendering subsidies and back payments from Baghdad since they can harvest the resources in these lands. But given the economic model they are maintaining, and almost complete reliance on Turkey for any economic prosperity, it isn’t sustainable. Civil war will likely erupt once again as the money inevitably runs out and the prospect of expanding territory and conquering land that is better defended becomes distant and remote.
And as always, with any such tension between local, warring political parties and their personal armies, defenceless Assyrians newly absorbed and robbed of any meaningful agency will suffer the hardest, being as we are captives under a flag that is not ours.