Swans Commentary » swans.com Special Issue on Iraq - February 2, 2004  







The Kurdish Pawn

Louis Proyect




(Swans - February 2, 2004)   In a November 25, 2003 New York Times Op-Ed piece, Leslie Gelb proposed that Iraq be divided into three distinct states, with the Kurds being awarded the oil-rich north. With his background as a Times editor and president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, we must assume that this proposal has some backing in the foreign policy establishment.

What should the attitude of radicals be toward an independent Kurdish state? For over twenty years, this cause has been embraced by many on the left. For Christopher Hitchens, who began lurching rightward during wars with Iraq and Yugoslavia, the Kurdish and Kosovar causes became litmus tests for radicals. When successive US administrations appeared to him more zealous in taking up their cause, he switched horses.

On the other hand, Noam Chomsky has been able to remain a principled and effective opponent of US imperialism while maintaining a commitment to Kurdish rights, including self-determination.

Unfortunately, much of the discourse around this beleaguered people has tended to remain within the framework of human rights and has lacked a class analysis. The purpose of this article is to take a hard look at the Kurdish national struggle and place it into the larger context of the overall struggle against imperialism. For activists who are facing maneuvers of the kind put forward by the Leslie Gelbs of the world, getting up to speed on these questions is an urgent task.

Although this article will be focused on the Kurdish movement in Iraq, it will be necessary to touch on matters in Turkey and Iran as well. Although facing stumbling blocks created by the parochial Kurdish leaderships in Turkey, Iraq and Iran, many Kurdish intellectuals and activists hold out hopes that a united Kurdistan can be carved out of the three states that have been hostile to their interests historically. In the final analysis, it is only a reawakened socialist movement that can satisfy their hopes.

The Kurds are ethnically related to the ancient Medes, but only came into their own with the rise of Islamic power. A Kurd by the name Salah-ud-Din reconquered Jerusalem from Richard the Lionhearted in the 12th century. Better known as Saladin, he established the Ayyubid dynasty which ruled over much of the Middle East until the rise of the Ottomans.

Columbus's "discovery" of the New World had an enormous impact on commerce in the Middle East, which would no longer serve as a lucrative link between Europe and East Asia. Among the casualties were Kurdish merchants and toll-collectors. So devastating was the decline after 1492 that brigandage became one of the chief economic activities of the Kurds.

In addition to being economically marginalized, the Kurds were isolated geographically as well. Preferring to dwell in the mountains or rocky hills, they subsisted on sheep-herding and small-scale farming. In the strict Marxist sense, class formation of modern capitalist society never took place until late in the 20th century.

After the Ottomans created a new regional economic system based on trade between North Africa and Central Asia, they were not sure how the Kurds fit into the big picture. They finally decided to co-opt them into the Hamidiye, a warrior caste functioning more or less like the Janissaries -- slaves of Christian origin enjoying privilege and political power in spite of their subject status. Despite the high ideals of their nationalist leaders, Kurdish soldiers joined with the Turks in slaughtering other subject peoples like the Armenians.

This kind of behavior was not limited to Turkey. The British used the Assyrian Christian minority to police the Iraqi Kurds. In 1959, when the Iraqi leader Abd al-Karim Qasim was confronted by an Assyrian uprising, he turned the Kurds loose on them. Later Qasim admitted that the atrocities exceeded those visited on the Palestinians by Zionist troops, a startling admission from an Arab nationalist.

While this behavior violates socialist or progressive standards, it is consistent with the treatment Kurds have meted out to each other. The bulk of the 22 million Kurds is divided between Turkey, Iraq and Iran. For decades their leaderships have subordinated the needs of the Kurdish nation as a whole for their own narrowly self-defined political goals within each state. Backstabbing, backroom deals and suppression of more radical trends within the Kurdish struggle have been the norm rather than the exception.

Distinguished Kurdish scholar Amir Hassanpour described the problem in the following terms:

The Kurdish movement, in contrast to many other national liberation movements, has experienced a persistent contradiction between its traditional leadership and the relatively developed society it seeks to liberate. Only to the extent that this may be changing does the future hold some promise for Kurdish aspirations. Today, about half the population lives in urban centers, and feudal relations of production in rural areas have almost disappeared. Yet the politics and ideology of much of the leadership can hardly be distinguished from the worldview of landed notables of the past. (1)

While in broad sympathy with Hassanpour's description of the problem, one should add that the problem is particularly acute in Iraq, where tribalism characterizes the Kurdish elites. Although the names Barzani and Talabani have become familiar through their participation in the quisling Iraqi Governing Council, it is crucial to understand how they arrived at such positions of authority. Put briefly, democracy had little to do with it.

Mahmoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani are leaders of the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and Kurdish Patriotic Union (PUK), respectively. The Barzanis are a traditional Kurdish clan, who were clustered geographically around the city of Barzan and led by 'aghas' or chiefs. According to James Ciment, a scholar who is generally sympathetic to the Kurdish cause:

Traditionally, Kurdish aghas ruled through a combination of deference, custom and raw power. The source of deference was both personal and familial. Aghas with a reputation for wisdom or courage commanded their tribesmen with a sure hand. Depending on the principal economic activity of the tribe, this could mean such peaceful and administrative duties as maintaining terraces and irrigation systems, or running smuggling operations or conducting raids against other tribes, state forces, towns, and trading caravans. (2)

Not only would fellow tribesmen fall under this kind of paternalistic control, those Kurds who were not part of the tribal structure fared even more poorly. Tribal Kurds would lord it over them, extracting tribute and forced labor. If a chief had a large peshmerga (militia) at his disposal, he could control even larger territories. These social structures are at odds with the tasks of national liberation, no matter the lip-service paid to them by leaders like Barzani.

Tribal rivalries are one of the main explanations for the ongoing rivalry between the KDP and the PUK, who seem to differ little ideologically. The KDP is considered to be more of a bourgeois nationalist formation, while the PUK pays lip-service to socialism.

Rivalries between the KDP and PUK during the 1992 elections in Kurdish territory turned violent with over 3,000 casualties. Long-time Kurdish activist and journalist Vera Saeedpour wrote:

The Iraqi Kurds, long accustomed to suffering in wars between guerrillas and governments, found themselves again beleaguered, this time not by Baghdad but by Kurds. Their new lament came to be, "Even Saddam Hussein didn't do this." But no one wants to hear, much less publicize, their plight. Only Amnesty International would produce a belated report in 1995 on human rights abuses of Kurds under Kurdish administration. Human Rights Watch has yet to bring out a word on the topic. In their zeal to provide documentation in support of the State Department's case against Saddam Hussein for his abuses of Kurds in the 1980s -- for which they have received considerable funding -- they deliberately ignored abuses of Kurds by Kurds in the 1990s. (3)

Despite their fratricidal enmities, the two groups have managed to unite against Turkish Kurds struggling against their oppressors. The August 14, 1991 Guardian reported:

In an outright demonstration of political expediency, an Iraqi Kurdish leader has announced that the peshmerga guerrillas of northern Iraq are to help Turkish forces combat the cross-border activities of the separatist Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK).

As he was leaving Turkey yesterday the Kurdish Democratic Party representative, Mohsen Dizai, said that if the PKK insisted on fighting Turkey from bases in Iraq, 'then we will push them out'.

As one Iraqi peshmerga noted, "they [the Iraqi Kurds] gave the army the coordinates of the PKK camps. How else could the planes have distinguished PKK camps...which are just 500 meters from peshmerga camps? Why do they never miss their aims?" (4)

When Turkish Kurds protested this betrayal, Talabani blithely assured them that with a victory over Saddam Hussein, "Democracy would spread in Turkey and everyone, including the Kurds, would have the right to form parties." (5)

Blind faith in imperialism is not a new thing in Kurdish politics. Mullah Barzani, the late father of Mahmoud and long-time leader of the Kurds until his death in 1979, groveled before the United States. During the 1960s, when US prestige was at an all-time low because of its criminal suppression of the national aspirations of the Vietnamese people, Barzani often stated that Iraqi Kurdistan should become the 51st state. Ironically, his wish seems to have been fulfilled recently.

The most striking example of Kurdish fecklessness, however, occurred in the 1960s and '70s when they aligned themselves with Zionism, the Shah of Iran, and US imperialism against Arab nationalism in general and Iraq particularly.

Jonathan C. Randal, a veteran Washington Post reporter strongly committed to the Kurdish struggle, quotes a Mossad veteran: "Put a Kurd atop a mountain with a rifle, pita bread, and onions and he'll stop a whole column of troops for you." (6) The support that Kurdish fighters received from Israel paled in comparison from that originating from Tehran. Using bases in Iran, Barzani's fighters launched bloody attacks on northern Iraqi cities.

But ultimately it was the United States that played the Kurdish card. During the course of Pike Committee investigations into covert spying, it was revealed that the Kurds received funding and logistical support from the CIA between 1972 and 1975. Notwithstanding Barzani's foolish illusions in the United States, a 1974 CIA memo revealed his benefactor's true intentions: "Iran, like ourselves, has seen benefit in a stalemate situation, in which Iraq is intrinsically weakened by the Kurds' refusal to relinquish semi-autonomy. Neither Iran nor ourselves wish to see the matter resolved one way or the other." (7)

Unfortunately, the Kurds failed to anticipate the Shah's openness to diplomatic maneuvers that would leave them out in the cold. In 1976 the Shah and Saddam Hussein cut a deal in Algiers that would throw the Kurds to the wolves. The March 15, 1975 Economist reported:

Within 24 hours of the Algiers ceremonies, Iraqi tanks and infantry launched an offensive from the west that soon had the Kurds in retreat from the strategic mountain barriers beyond Rawandiz that they have held since the early autumn in the face of successive Iraqi attacks. By the time the ceasefire came into effect on Thursday the Iraqis commanded the Kurds' main supply route, and Choman itself, the official Kurdish headquarters, was exposed to direct artillery fire by the fall of Mount Zuzak. Iraqi troops had also made substantial gains in thrusts into Kurdistan from the south and the north. The explanation of their sudden success is that, on the morning when the Iraqis began their offensive, the Iranians pulled out their heavy artillery and anti-tank weapons. They also closed the border to all fresh supplies of ammunition to the Kurds, who were running badly short by midweek.

If the Iraqi Kurds were not above receiving aid from Saddam's enemies in Iran, the Iranian Kurds could be relied upon to make the same kinds of unprincipled alliances with Saddam Hussein against their own local adversary. During the long Iran-Iraq war, the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI) received arms and funding from Iraq. For its part, the Turkish government has chosen to place bets on the Iranian Kurds, who are seen as a destabilizing element in the Islamic Republic -- its main ideological and strategic rival in the post-Soviet epoch.

All this horse-trading has led James Ciment to comment:

Regionally, the Kurds have had a history of alliances based on a combination of wishfulness, naïveté and ruthless power politics. But given the protean nature of the region's alliances and politics, these have necessarily been convoluted and temporary. Every regional power with a Kurdish minority -- and even a few without, like Israel, Libya and Egypt -- has tried to use the Kurds for its own ends, sometimes for the purposes of keeping rival states off-balance and sometimes, much to the chagrin of pan-Kurdish idealists, for the purposes of pitting one Kurdish national group against another.

Turkey, according to the British, financed Iraqi Kurds during the mandate. The Turks were trying to disrupt the establishment of a viable Iraqi state that incorporated Kurdish Mosul, the highly coveted northern province of Iraq. And again in the period of the safe haven, say some experts, the Turks continue to work with Iraqi Kurds in a quid pro quo arrangement: Turkish support for the safe haven in exchange for Iraqi Kurd support in flushing out PKK bases in northern Iraq. As one Kurdish expert who subscribes to this theory noted, "who better than a Kurd to fight the Kurds?" (8)

Unfortunately, this tendency to forge unprincipled alliances with the "enemies of their enemies" has not been treated critically by some of their friends, including Noam Chomsky. A ZNet interview asks him "As an expert in American history and policy is it suitable for Kurds to put their hope and trust completely in American project in Iraq?"

To which he replies, "For the weak to put their trust in systems of power is simply to ask for catastrophe. They may choose to cooperate with powerful states, but if so, they should do so without illusions." (9)

With all due respect to Noam Chomsky, it would seem that another road is required altogether. Rather than defining themselves vis-à-vis powerful states, the Kurdish people must find ways to link up with those resisting imperialism. This is an imperative that was at the heart of the world socialist movement of the early 1920s when the Kurdish nation was first seeking ways to define itself politically and culturally. As an oppressed nation, they certainly deserve the right to self-determination. This task is complicated by the failure of socialism to reach a critical mass in the Middle East and by the collapse of the USSR, which once provided aid to progressive movements even if in a compromised manner. A new and possibly epochal struggle against imperialism in the Middle East is taking shape and it would be a tragedy for the Kurdish people to once again choose the wrong side.

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© Louis Proyect 2004. All rights reserved. Please DO NOT steal, scavenge or repost this work on the Web. See our reprint policy.

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Or jump to any one author (in alphabetical order): Tanweer Akram || Justin Alexander || Anthony Arnove || Naseer Aruri || Jan Baughman || George Capaccio || Milo Clark || Gregory Elich || Sara Flounders & John Catalinotto || Manuel García || Denis J. Halliday || Edward S. Herman || Rania Masri || Thomas J. Nagy, et al. || Michael Parenti || Louis Proyect || John Sloboda || Gerard Donnelly Smith || Michael W. Stowell



Iraq on Swans (all articles regarding Iraq published on Swans)

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Additional Resources (compiled by Tanweer Akram)

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1.  "The Kurdish Experience," Middle East Report, July-August 1994.  (back)

2.  Ciment, James; The Kurds: State and Minority in Turkey, Iraq and Iran, Facts On File Books, 1996, p. 81.  (back)

3.  Reckless Disregard, Peacework, November 1999,
http://www.afsc.org/pwork/119 9/119914.htm (last visited: January 6, 2004).  (back)

4.  Ciment, p. 164.  (back)

5.  Ciment, p. 182.  (back)

6.  After Such Knowledge, What Forgiveness, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999, p. 185.  (back)

7.  http://www.boycott-the-usa.uklinux.net/editorial/24oct02kurds.htm (last visited: January 6, 2004).  (back)

8.  Ciment, p. 128-129.  (back)

9.  http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?SectionID=36&ItemID=4780 (last visited: January 6, 2004).  (back)

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Published February 2, 2004