Who wants another Israel?
Arabs act as if the partitioning of Iraq is a new idea, writes Ayman El-Amir*
Participants in the recently concluded Iraq Neighbours Conference in Istanbul breathed a sigh of relief as they temporarily defused what seemed to be an imminent large-scale Turkish military incursion into northern Iraq to crush Kurdish rebels who carried out lethal cross-border attacks on Turkish troops. The United States, through its participating Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, assured Turkey that the culprit, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), was a common threat. Iraqi and Turkish officials agreed to suppress the PKK's activities and close down some of its affiliated offices. And the final communiqué of the conference endorsed the principle that Iraq's neighbours should not allow the use of their territories as staging grounds for terrorist activities -- a covert US reference to Iran as well. But this is only part of the story.
The conference, and the subsequent meeting between US President George W Bush and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Washington may well put an end to this mini-crisis, if only to avoid direct confrontation between the Turkish army, a NATO member, and US occupation force commanders, which are the real decision-makers in Iraq. Iraqi Kurdish leaders, both in the north and in the central government, led by President Jalal Talabani, will go along. First, they do not want to rock the fragile boat that is Iraq. Second, they do not want to compromise the objective of moving the north from the status of regional government to semi-independence in the larger scheme of things.
The fundamental issue in abeyance is the decades-long aspiration for the creation of a state of Kurdistan. At issue is whether in the imperfect world of geopolitics, the creation of such a state would be a fulfilment of the post-World War I Woodrow Wilson principle of self-determination or a violation of the recognised sovereignty and territorial integrity of four states of the region -- namely, Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey. Is a state of Kurdistan a World War I historical remiss that should now be rectified by redrawing maps and territorial borders? Are the Kurds creating the case of another Kosovo, or could the contiguous Kurdish tribal settlements in four sovereign states follow the example of Jewish settlements in Palestine under the British mandate and stake a claim to a national home for the Kurds with international assistance? Was the US Senate's non-binding resolution calling for the partition of Iraq along ethnic and religious lines a misguided step or the work of pro-Kurdish lobbyists, particularly from Israel?
Israel has a strategic interest in breaking up Iraq, the only Arab country that once had serious ambitions of acquiring nuclear technology under Saddam Hussein. Israel bombed out the nascent Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak in 1981 and is agitating to have the US do the same in Iran. A divided Iraq would stoke Shia-Sunni rivalry that could easily slide into a low-intensity civil conflict by proxy that would pit Shia Iran and its Arab supporters against US-allied Sunni Muslim states. In the meantime, Israel would build a political-military- economic alliance with a semi-independent Kurdistan Regional Government, with oil wealth that would be considerably enhanced by the prospect of taking over Arab Kirkuk and Mosul. This would allow Israel to break out of its isolation as a non- Arab pariah in the Middle East and join hands with another non-Arab entity in a mutually reinforcing alliance. The new Kurdish stronghold would benefit from Israel's military power and technology, and Washington-backed policies, to build and strengthen other Kurdish minorities in Iran, Syria and Turkey for the ultimate objective of building the independent state of Kurdistan on territories sliced off these countries. Israel would benefit from extended Kurdish family alliances to destabilise its opponents, dominate the Middle East and reshape it in its own interests. That would be the new Middle East the US is hoping for, with Israel hovering over the oil and gas riches of the region.
Israeli-Kurdish clandestine partnership gained momentum following the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, with the blessings of the neo-conservative architects of the war. It is an open secret that Dick Cheney's Israeli-backed strategists planned the partition of Iraq. The US invasion's first civil administrator L Paul Bremer demarcated the map, dividing the country along religious and ethnic lines. Israeli penetration of Kurdish ranks involved funding, arms supplies, training in information gathering and sabotage and commando operations. The northern Iraqi Kurds benefited from Israeli expertise and training in building up their informal armed forces, the peshmerga, which some estimate are 70,000 strong.
The extent to which the PKK participated and benefited from the Israeli-Kurdish partnership is uncertain, but the Turkish government of Erdogan seems to be extremely worried about its implications. Additionally, Israeli violations of Turkish airspace in carrying out its secret air raid into Syria last month further strained the intelligence-sharing, military and economic cooperation arrangements that Washington had cultivated for years between the two countries. Turkey has had a long history of struggle with the PKK and its sympathisers in northern Iraq. However, Erdogan's government now regards the PKK's activities as a national security threat as the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq gains more strength and independence under the authority of the US occupation and the new Iraqi constitution.
As much as the Iraqi Kurds benefited from autonomy arrangements under the regime of Saddam Hussein they equally suffered the cruelty of his vengeance. The mass murders of Kurds in Halabja and Anfal bear a devastating witness to that criminality for which Saddam and his top aides were tried and executed. This also provided an advantageous opportunity for Israeli agents to persuade their Kurdish partners that their problem is not very much different from the Jewish problem in Europe -- a minority with its distinct cultural heritage dispersed and persecuted in different parts of Europe. The Jewish problem, which was epitomised by genocide during the Nazi era, was only resolved through the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Thus, the Kurdish problem presents a similar analogy and can only be resolved by a similar solution: an independent state of Kurdistan. It is a misleading, self-serving argument.
Empires and states rise and fall in times of historical upheaval. World War I brought to an end the Hapsburg and the Turkish empires while the Bolshevik revolution terminated the rule of the Romanov dynasty. The former Yugoslavia was cobbled together after the defeat of Nazism in World War II -- a patchwork of ethnic, cultural, religious and political incongruities. It lasted for less than five decades under the iron-fist rule of Josip Broz Tito before it began to disintegrate in 1990 with bloody consequences in the vengeful Balkan tradition. However, when the former Soviet Union crashed less than two decades ago its 12 republics did not disintegrate. They simply turned independent.
This is the age of separatism following upon the heels of the national liberation era. Ethnic minorities in several parts of the world are posting their claims for independence based on ethnic distinction or discrimination, persecution or alienation. This, to varying degrees, is the case in Abkhazia, Chechnya, Ossetia, southern Sudan, and Kosovo where, in reality, the Serb minority is the one facing ethnic intimidation by the ethnic Albanian majority that is pressing for independence.
The US invasion and destruction of Iraq has left one-fifth of its population dead or displaced but helped further the cause of an independent Kurdistan. The new Iraqi permanent constitution, negotiated and then adopted by referendum in October 2005 under the influence of the US occupation, moved autonomous Kurdistan as close as it can get to independence under a system of quasi- federalism. Under Article 53 of the constitution, Kurdistan has its own regional government, national assembly, constitution, security forces and Kurdish as official language. The Kurdistan Regional Government's authorities often find occasion to unfurl the flag of Kurdistan alongside the Iraqi national flag. It prints its own stamps and issues its own currency. It is now staking a claim to oil-rich Kirkuk and to Mosul as part of the region -- a claim that is disputable and strongly resisted by the two cities' Arab, Turkomen and Assyrian populations.
If claims to independence can be justified under circumstances of persecution, genocide or ethnic distinctiveness, why could not the Tutsis in Rwanda or the Muslim minority in Srebrenica claim independence? In terms of numbers and atrocities, they certainly suffered more than the Kurds suffered under Saddam. International law does not prescribe secession as a solution for ethnic cleansing.
Turkey's strong apprehension of a stronger regional government in Iraqi Kurdistan is understandable and justified. What is not understandable is the Arabs' squeamish reaction to the ongoing partitioning of Iraq, beyond rhetorical statements about preserving the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Iraq. Israel has been working hard on cloning itself in Kurdistan, and the Arabs are watching, leaving it to Turkey to protect their interests.
* The writer is a former correspondent for Al-Ahram in Washington, DC. He also served as director of UN Radio and Television in New York.