The leadership of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) of Iraq, which has all the trappings of an independent state even though a leader of one of its two major clans is nominally president of the Republic of Iraq, has set out on the risky road to full independence. KRG leaders in the capital city of Erbil are gambling on the fact that the West is so alarmed by the rapid seizure of territory by the Islamic State, formerly the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, in northern and western Iraq, as well as eastern Syria, they would welcome a strong anti-Islamist Kurdistan exercising sovereign control over territory also claimed by the Islamic State. In fact, well-trained Kurdish Peshmerga paramilitary forces have successfully prevented the Islamic State forces led by self-proclaimed Islamic State Caliph Ibrabim ibn Awwad – real name Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – from sweeping north from Kirkuk and seizing Kurdish territory.
KRG President Massoud Barzani recently asked the Kurdish parliament in Erbil to set a date for an independence referendum. The Iraqi government rejected Barzani’s proposal by claiming it was inconsistent with the Iraqi Constitution. The Kurds believe that it has powerful allies in the West who can shepherd Kurdistan into full independence. However, the Kurds have a long history of relying on Western leaders who held out the hope for independence only to see their hopes dashed by backroom deals by Western politicians from British diplomat Mark Sykes and French diplomat Francois-Georges Picot to U.S. president Woodrow Wilson and U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
The World War I era Sykes-Picot agreement between Britain, France, and Russia secretly carved up the soon-to-be-vanquished Ottoman Empire into British and French spheres of influence with the Arabs promised independence in Arabia and the Zionists given the green light for a Jewish state in a British-controlled mandate in Palestine. Syria and Lebanon would fall under French suzerainty while Mesopotamia, the present Iraq, would come under British control. The present-day borders of Syria and Iraq, without a country for the Kurds, was drawn up by Sykes and Picot and confirmed in the post-war Versailles conference. U.S. President Wilson, while embracing independence for the peoples of Eastern Europe, rejected it for the Kurds.
In 1972, Kissinger, who was then President Richard Nixon’s national security adviser, decided to secretly help the Kurds, who were then under the control of General Mustafa Barzani, the Soviet-trained father of the present KRG president Massoud Barzani. The elder Barzani was known as «Red Barzani» because of his old ties to the Soviets in his campaign to win independence for Kurdistan in the post-World War II years as a client-state of the USSR. In the 1960s, Barzani established close relations with the Israelis, having visited Israel on a number of occasions and in 1968 he was received in Jerusalem by Israeli President Zalman Shazar.
In 1966, Rehavam Zeevi, the Israeli right-wing Zionist leader and founder of the Sayeret Kharuv Israeli special operations force, visited Barzani in his mountain headquarters in Iraqi Kurdistan. Zeevi was a strong ally of the Kurds until his 2001 assassination in the Jerusalem Hyatt Hotel by Palestinian insurgents. It was known that Zeevi favored establishing a Gaza-style gulag in the West Bank called the «Republic of Ishmael.» Conditions would be made so poor in Ishmael that its inhabitants would have no other choice but to leave for nearby Arab countries. One area was Arab-populated lands to the south of Iraqi Kurdistan. The Palestinians would serve as a buffer, in actuality, «cannon fodder,» between Baghdad and the Kurds.
Kissinger would, it was assumed by the Kurds, help the Kurds win their independence against the military dictatorship effectively led by Saddam Hussein that was governing Baghdad. In 1970, Barzani signed a peace treaty with Baghdad that promised Kurdistan autonomy within four years. However, Baghdad began waffling on the deal and Barzani turned to the Iranians, then under the Shah, a bitter enemy of the Baghdad government, for assistance. In 1972, the Shah asked Kissinger and Nixon to send arms to the Kurds. The CIA, in the next few years, supplied the Kurds with $16 million in weapons and finances, all of the aid laundered through Tehran, with, of course, the Shah’s military and SAVAK intelligence service receiving handsome percentages. Barzani also held out another prize for the Americans. After he won independence for Kurdistan, he would turn over the rich oil fields of Kirkuk to U.S. oil companies.
Kissinger began to double cross the Kurds during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War when Barzani wanted to take advantage of Baghdad’s preoccupation with Israel to launch an attack on Iraq from the north while Israel would hit the Iraqis from the west. Kissinger ordered Barzani to keep his troops in their camps. However, in 1975, Kissinger, who was then President Gerald Ford’s Secretary of State, decided, along with the Shah of Iran, to betray the Kurds. The Shah feared that an independent Kurdistan in Iraq would soon pry away Kurdish-populated regions of Iran. And Kissinger was leaned on by Turkey, America’s crucial ally in the Middle East, to do nothing that could bring about a Kurdish state in the Kurdish-majority areas of eastern Turkey.
The Shah signed a border treaty with Saddam Hussein, this ending Iran’s support for the Iraqi Kurds. Kissinger decided to help Iraq against the more troublesome Hafez al Assad, the leader of the Ba’ath Party in Syria who was a traditional rival of Saddam’s Ba’ath Party in Baghdad. The Kurds were demoralized and humiliated by the double-cross hatched by Kissinger, the Shah, and Saddam Hussein.
Although U.S. Vice President Joe Biden has given his support to an independent Kurdistan by publicly advancing the concept of three independent states in Iraq, one Shi’a, one Sunni, and one Kurdish, Biden is about as reliable a patron as Kissinger. And on a recent visit to Erbil, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who is an energetic champion for the international status quo of nation-states and borders, told the Kurds their future was in a more-inclusive Iraqi government.
KRG officials claim they have received private words of support for their independence cause by Western leaders. However, support for the Kurds is a well-known trap to gain the temporary assistance of the Kurds in fighting against mutual enemies, which, at the present time, is the Islamic State. Although Turkey, under the Islamist government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has engaged in low-level negotiations with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and Turkish businessmen are making money in transferring Kurdish oil through Turkey to Israel, the rift between Ankara and the Turkish Kurds run deep.
PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan remains the sole prisoner in the Turkish Imrali island prison in the Sea of Marmara, serving a life sentence for terrorism. Although Ocalan ordered a cease fire between the PKK and Turkey in 2013, Erdogan has been slow to talk about freeing Ocalan as part of a rapprochement with the Kurds. And as long as Ocalan rots away in a Turkish prison, his kinsmen in Erbil will be suspicious of any deals with the Turks. In fact, Turkey, which has much influence over northern Iraq’s Turkoman population, has used the Turkoman to challenge the Kurds right to independence without provisions for the Turkoman. Syrian Kurds, who have been battling Islamic State forces sweeping northward from their stronghold of Deir el-Zour in eastern Syria into the Syrian Kurdish state in the northeast of the country, have reported that the Islamic State fighters have been receiving military support from Turkey.
The only country that has outwardly championed Kurdistan’s independence is Israel. The Israeli Mossad has long-standing ties with Kurdistan, having trained many of its Peshmerga forces. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres have both called for Kurdish independence. A number of Israeli businessmen are active in Erbil and Israelis have reportedly been buying up property near the tombs of Old Testament prophets in Mosul, Kirkuk, and other cities in Kurdistan and claiming the territory as distant parts of Greater Israel. Qubad Talabani, the son of Iraq’s nominal president and Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani, serves as the KRG’s representative in Washington, where he lives with his wife Sherri Gabrielle Kraham, who is Jewish and is linked to Israel’s powerful Israel Lobby in Washington. In addition, one of Massoud Barzani’s sons, Binjirfan Barzani, is reportedly heavily involved with the Israelis. Israel has established a de facto «embassy» in Erbil and its influence agents are strong among sectors of Kurdish society, especially among students at the University of Kurdistan.
But Israel has one major problem in exercising domination over an independent or semi-independent Kurdistan. Iran, which Israelis officials theatrically re-state is an «existential» threat to the Jewish state, continues to have greater influence in Kurdistan than do any other regional player… As long as Kurdistan remains a prized region in the chess game of the Middle East, any hopes for independence will remain contingent on a surprise Kissinger-style double-cross by the Americans, Turks, Israelis, or Saudi and Gulf Arabs.