How Screwed Are the Kurds?

Anatomy of a sellout.

For Kurds, getting screwed is a tradition. Great Britain, France, and Italy screwed the Kurds in 1920 when the Treaty of Sèvres divvied up the Ottoman Empire without making a firm commitment to create a Kurdish state. Modern Turkey screwed the Kurds in 1923 by ignoring what faint assurances had been made at Sèvres and putting down a Kurdish rebellion and, subsequently, by suppressing Kurdish language and culture. (Kurdish rebellions were also put down by Iraq in 1923 and 1932.) Iran screwed the Kurds in 1947 by wiping out the nascent Soviet-backed Kurdish republic of Mahabad; screwed them again in 1975 when it ended a brief alliance with the Kurds against their common enemy, Iraq; and screwed them a third time in 1979 when the newly installed Ayatollah Khomeini cracked down on an autonomous Kurdish enclave in Iran. Iraq screwed the Kurds by failing to abide by a 1970 agreement to grant them autonomy; screwed them again by driving Kurds across the border into Iran in 1974 and 1991; and screwed them a third time—actually “screwed” doesn’t really cover it—by gassing the town of Halabja in 1988. This last is the incident President Bush frequently refers to when he says, in justifying war with Iraq, that Saddam Hussein “gassed his own people.”

Now the United States is poised to screw the Kurds one more time.

In securing agreement to move U.S. troops through Turkey for an Iraqi invasion, the U.S. government has agreed to pay a bribe of up to $30 billion and has also made certain bargains that it isn’t eager to spell out. (“I don’t have the details of the agreement,” a State Department spokesman told the press on Feb. 25.) The bargains affect vital security concerns for the Kurds in Iraq, who since the establishment of the post-Gulf War no-fly zone have enjoyed autonomy from Saddam Hussein and have nurtured precisely the sort of democratic institutions that the United States wants to introduce throughout the Arab world. This Kurdish enclave lies in northern Iraq, bordering Turkey. The Turkish government fears that Kurds who live on Turkey’s southern border, who are already in rebellion, will want to join it.

The U.S.-Turkish bargains are on hold for the moment, because the Turkish parliament failed to ratify the U.S. agreement. But the cash register is still open, and there’s talk about taking a second vote. Before any such vote occurs, let’s consider how thoroughly the U.S. government plans to sell out the Kurds.

In the Feb. 27 Washington Post, Philip P. Pan and Daniel Williams report that the United States has agreed to let up to 40,000 Turkish troops into northern Iraq (this according to a Turkish government official). According to Owen Matthews and Babak Dehghanpishehin Newsweek, that’s a low-ball. They put the number of troops the United States will allow into northern Iraq at 80,000 and say that the Turks may be allowed to proceed as many as 270 kilometers into Iraq, which is “nearly the whole of Iraqi Kurdistan.” Reportedly, another part of the U.S. agreement with Turkey is to disarm Kurdish troops when the war against Iraq is over.

The Turks say their only interest is to secure a buffer zone to control the flow of refugees and protect the area’s Turkmen minority. Nobody believes this, least of all the Kurds, who are convinced the move would block formal establishment of an autonomous Kurdistan state within the newly liberated Iraq (by agreement with the United States, the Kurds have renounced any claim to full independence from Iraq). The end result of a war fought partly to avenge Saddam’s gassing of the Kurds would be to rob the Kurds of what little autonomy they enjoy today. They’d be worse off than they are now.

In screwing the Kurds, the U.S. government would also be screwing itself. That’s because a Turkish occupation of northern Iraq will likely prompt Iran to send in troops to defend its own interests. (Indeed, Borzou Daragahi of the Associated Press reports that some Iranian troops are there already.) Even assuming, then, that the war against Iraq goes entirely smoothly, the United States could easily become embroiled in a second war between the Kurds, the Turks, and the Iranians.

Add it all up, and Turkey’s refusal to admit U.S. troops onto its soil starts to look like a very lucky break. The Pentagon says it can fight Iraq without going through Turkey, but that it will be more difficult. But selling out the Kurds would not only be immoral, but dangerous for the United States. If this war can’t be fought another way, it isn’t worth fighting at all.