Humanitarian Crisis: Iraq and the Region

Humanitarian Crisis: Iraq and the Region: A Brief Look at the Kurds

UNA-USA 2014 Human Rights Day Town Hall Forum
Sarasota, Florida, December, 2014.

There are many ways to approach the region of the Middle East and today I will be focusing on the Kurds –which has been my area of expertise and concern for many years. I will be speaking about the facts of the Kurdish dilemma and history. My talk will include the Kurds’ heroic persistence despite the historical struggles and persecution under the regimes and nations where they live. I will also highlight the more recent developments regarding these people toward a longed for cohesion and autonomy.   

I have been fortunate, in the past 30 years to be closely connected with the Kurds, both professionally as a journalist and personally as a great admirer of this historically diverse and important culture – and a friend of its people and leaders. One of those leaders was Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou, a far-sighted Iranian Kurd I had the honor of meeting and later writing about. His determined and progressive wish for Kurdish autonomy led to his untimely assassination by Iranians in 1989. 

Kurdish history is deeply embedded in the wider more violent and ever-changing events of the Middle East, and by necessity I shall use pieces of this history as a container for the Kurdish story I am telling.

As you all know, the Kurds have been in the headlines for several months due to the escalating conflict in Iraq and Syria. Not a day goes by without hearing more news about the valorous Kurds. Suddenly these people, who have been mostly invisible throughout Middle Eastern events in the 20th century, are being held in the awareness of millions of people – some of whom are knowledgeable about the Kurds and their history –but many of whom are not.  

This is not the first time Kurdish culture and history has been marked by conflict and tragedy. These proud people, who have been victims of war and peace, have also been manipulated and abandoned by the world powers. They were martyrs in 20th century history – and they are still now, in the 21st. 

Who are the Kurds?

Simply put, the Kurds are the largest ethnic group in the world without an independent political state. There is not an official census – but they are estimated to be 30 million in number. They are not Arabs, who are Semitic, nor Turks who came from Central Asia. They are Indo-European – ethnically closer to Iranians and to us. 

The Kurds have lived in their land, Kurdistan, for centuries. Their ‘territory’, about 500,000 square kilometers, is located in the rugged mountainous borders where Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria converge. 

The Kurds trace their origins to ancient Mesopotamia, where they were actually the guardians of the sacred fire that burned in the Temple of Zoroaster. When the Arabs invaded the region, the Kurds were the last to be converted to Islam. One famous Kurd is Salahadin, who fought against the Crusaders. They have been valorous fighters, known for their persistent and indomitable courage. 

They are mainly Sunni Muslims, with some pockets of Shiites, Sufis, Zoroastrians and Yazidis, (a mixture of Islam, Zoroastrian and Sufi), and there are also Jewish Kurds, mainly in Israel. When I have asked Kurds if they are Muslim, they respond, “I am first a Kurd, then a Muslim.” 

They form a distinctive community today, united through race, history, culture and language, even though they have no standard dialect.

Since the partition of their land, the Kurds have been the target of both ruling regimes in the region and major world powers. Why? OIL. Because of this black gold, no one has been ready or willing to concede nationhood to the Kurds –or give them the right to take advantage of their own natural resources. Also in Kurdistan, as well as oil and natural gas, there exist enormous reserves of water beneath the mountains that, in the near future, will surely prove to be of even greater value than oil.

But the Kurds are not only victims of rich natural resources, colonial powers and dictatorial regimes; their own sectarian divisions have proven to be an insurmountable obstacle to their unification as a people. Internēcine feuds and conflicts have been their Achilles heel, rendering the Kurds vulnerable to the endless manipulations of diverse regimes.

The creation of the modern Middle East states was a result of the partition of the Ottoman Empire by the colonial powers, British and French, after WW1. Iraq, placed under British mandate, was an unstable amalgam of three former provinces of the Ottoman Empire: predominantly Shiite in the south, Sunni-dominated one in the center, and Kurdish in the north, including the largely Kurdish province of Mosul where vast oil resources were discovered. Turkey and Syria were also created at the same time.

These borders were drawn irrespective of ethnic, religious or demographic differences and this created tension and conflicts that have continued to the present day. The main group to be affected by this division was the Kurds –whose land was divided among the newly-created states and Iran. Villages were divided by what seemed an arbitrary border that left some Kurds in Iraq and others in Turkey or Syria. 

Kurds in Iran 

In 1985, I visited Kurdistan for the first time to film a documentary on the Kurdish struggle against IRI. We entered through Baghdad and crossed on unending dilapidated roads. Even with tanks and soldiers stopping us at every corner, the moment we crossed into Kurdistan, the strength and resilience of the Kurdish people were evident. The Kurds are a life-giving people; they wear bright colors and are very spirited. At the border with Iran, we saw destroyed villages, evidence of Hussein’s scorched-earth military policies against the Kurds. 

We crossed the Kurdish Iraqi border into Iran with the peshmerga, Kurdish fighters, which means ‘those who walk in front of death’. I saw the plight of the Iranian Kurds firsthand. Many were living in tents at the Iranian-Iraqi border without basic needs such as clean water or food as they fled Iran. Some showed me photo albums depicting a happier life in their now destroyed homes. 

In Iran, 6.5 million Kurds make up 11% of the population. They have the right to use their language, despite being socially and economically depressed by the Shah and the Islamic Republic. In 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini declared a jihad, a holy war against the Kurds, and bombed their villages forcing thousands to seek refuge in the mountains. The Kurds had dared to demand autonomy and cultural rights – and taken up arms to defend themselves. Also we must not forget that the Kurds are Sunni Muslims and the new Shiite Islamic Republic was discriminating against all ethnic and religious minorities. 

In recent years, as the US and the international community have been consumed with the nuclear deal of the Iranian regime, the subject of human rights has fallen to the wayside. At least once a week, Iranians have publically hung Kurds and other Iranians, for any reputed political offense.

Kurds in Turkey 

Since 1923, when modern Turkey was born, successive regimes have denied the existence of the Kurds and militarily crushed any pro-Kurdish opposition. As part of this Kurds were forcibly deported and assimilated. All this despite the fact that the Kurds are the largest ethnic group in Turkey, —about 15 million or 20% of the population. Banned from using their language, they used to be called “Mountain Turks who forgot their language”. 

For 49 years, the Kurds lived under one military boot or another in a poor and underdeveloped Turkish Kurdistan. When I visited Diyarbakir, the capital of Kurdistan in 2010, I was surprised at the lack of investment and infrastructure development in contrast with Istanbul and other smaller cities in Turkey. 

Since 1984, the PKK (party of the workers of Kurdistan) led an armed Kurdish insurgency. This conflict caused the death of 40,000 people and thousands of refugees. It was only in 2003 that martial law and restrictions on the use of the Kurdish language were lifted. In 2010, the PKK agreed to a ceasefire. In 2012 they began a peace process–ending 30 years of insurgency. 

As you have heard in the news, Turkey not only turned a blind eye, but did not allow Turkey’s Kurds to help their brethren in Syria. Turkey is playing a balancing act aimed at preventing the de-facto independence of Syrian Kurds –and at the same time placating criticism from the West and Turkish Kurds. This position has stalled the peace process with the PKK —and the PKK fighters are critical in the fight against ISIS. 

Today the Kurds in Turkey would like to have the same kind of autonomy as the Iraqi Kurds. On a hopeful note this past August, a Turkish Kurd candidate nearly won 10 per cent of the overall presidential vote in Turkey. 

It was the Kurds from PKK that helped the Iraqi Kurds rescue, protect and transport thousands of stranded Yazidis (of Kurdish origin) in northern Iraq and strike back against ISIS. In a rarely seen moment of Kurdish solidarity, Turkish Kurd fighters joined the front lines of both Iraqi and Syrian Kurd peshmerga. 

Kurds in Syria 

In Syria, 2 million Kurds form 10% of the population. They have also long been suppressed and deprived of basic rights, including the use of their language. Some 300,000 were denied citizenship in the 1960’s, meaning they were stateless. Their land was confiscated and redistributed to the Arabs in an attempt to “Arabize” Kurdish regions. 

In July 2012 the army pulled out of Kurdish areas in northern Syria. At that time, the Kurdish militia carved out three relatively autonomous areas (Qamishli, Kobani and Afrin) which they’ve been actively defending against ISIS. America has not chosen to get involved with the Syrian Kurds, until recently, when ISIS took over Kobane. 

Through this turn of events, the Syrian Kurds are now important players in the Syrian civil war. Once Isis attacked the Iraqi Kurds in August, the Kurds from Syria began to play a central role in the US-led campaign against ISIS. 

Kurds in Iraq 

In Iraq the Kurdish people faced the most brutal repression of all. They have also enjoyed more national rights than any other Kurdish group. The 5 million Kurds in Iraq, 20% of the population, led an armed struggle that lasted decades.  

In 1988 Saddam Hussein unleashed a ruthless attack on the Kurds which included chemical attacks and the killing, between 4000 and 5000, of mostly women, children and older people. His end game was to destroy and eradicate the Kurds in Iraq. 

This cold-blooded operation, called the Anfal campaign, also destroyed 4,000 Kurdish villages and slaughtered as many as 180,000 people with chemical-weapons. It was an unrelenting attack that touched nearly every Kurdish family. 

The photos of bodies and animals strewn on the streets; a father with a child in his arms, and mothers with their children lying on the ground, photos frozen in a time of horror, shook the world. Yet NO action was taken against Saddam Hussein at the time. 

No international condemnation was levied for Saddam, who was seen as a Western ally fighting the dangerous Islamic Republic of Iran. 77% of oil revenues from Kurdistan continued to be used by Saddam to buy weapons and aircrafts from the Soviets and the European military industry. THIS is why no Western State condemned Saddam when he used chemical weapons. Nor did they demand that the UN send a mission to Iraq to investigate. 

Ex-President George H. Bush called Saddam’s crackdown an “internal affair”. His administration even prevented the implementation of a Senate resolution demanding sanctions against Baghdad. In 1989, France convened an international conference on chemical weapons, but the Kurds, the main victims of this atrocity, did not participate, and Iraq was not condemned. 

When Iraq was defeated in the 1991 Gulf War, American officials encouraged the Iraqi population to rise against the dictator. Saddam responded with violence, killing more than 150,000 Shiites. 2 million Kurds, fearing gas attacks, fled for Iran and Turkey. Thousands died from hardship or military attacks as they tried to escape. Again, there were dreadful images in the international press of collapsing, exhausted, and starving Kurds on snow-covered mountains. 

This tragedy provoked outrage from the public, the media and NGO’s. Public pressure prompted the US and its allies to put in place Operation Provide Comfort, protecting the Kurds by imposing a no-fly zone in the north and supporting humanitarian aid that allowed people to return to their homes.  

Former US senator Peter Galbraith later said, “The no-fly zone was one of the most efficient and humane uses of power in the history of American foreign policy. It allowed the Kurds to develop their institutions and begin their road to self-rule.” 

The Kurds cooperated with the US-led invasion that finally toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime. In 2005 the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) was created to administer the three provinces of Dohuk, Erbil and Sulemaniya. Their legendary leader Mulla Mustafa Barzani was the father of Massud, the current President of the Kurdish region. 

Let me share more about modern Kurdistan and a bit of my personal experience. I returned to Kurdistan in 2009 and 2012. Two decades after my first trip to the region, I was able to fly directly from Vienna to a beautiful modern airport in Erbil, capital of the KR. I was very moved to be greeted by Kurds at customs and to see them proudly in charge of their homeland. 

The Kurdistan Region has proven to be the most stable, prosperous, peaceful and democratic part of Iraq. Landlocked and surrounded by threatening neighboring countries, the KRG established excellent diplomatic ties and a vital commercial relationship with Turkey. Turkey has become the KRG’s most important trading partner —buying its oil and gas and investing heavily in its all-out construction boom. 


As I traveled in Iraqi Kurdistan, I witnessed parks, universities and malls in the city. There were cell phone towers, new roads, dams and bridges alongside the twisting roads zig-zagging the mountains. Between long stretches of empty mountains, there are still storks on the electricity pylons and great herds of sheep and goats occupying the roads. Modernization coexists with an ancient way of life. 

The Kurdish Region also became a safe haven for half a million Iraqis fleeing from the sectarian violence in the rest of Iraq and later Syria, including the persecuted Iraqi Christians. Their numbers have dwindled from 1 million in 2003 to about 250,000 today. 

In fact, when I was there in 2009, I met with Christian refuges who told me stories of fear and loss. I also attended a service of Assyrian Christians who have always lived in peace with their Sunni Kurdish neighbors. I was heartened by their devotion and their haunting chants in Aramaic. 

The Kurds developed their own democratic institutions, preserved their army, and prepared for America’s eventual departure. When American forces left in 2011, not a single U.S. soldier had lost his/her life in Kurdish territory. As the rest of Iraq imploded, only the Kurdish region was pro-Western, largely democratic, largely secular, and economically very prosperous. 

Oil has been the main point of contention between Baghdad and the Kurdish authorities. This dispute reached boiling point earlier this year when the Kurds completed a pipeline to Ceyhan, in Turkey (left on map), that allowed them to bypass the central government and export their oil. In January, Baghdad cut Kurdistan’s share of the country’s federal budget, starving it of cash. Payments only resumed after the threat of ISIS forced cooperation. Notably, just this last week, Baghdad and the KRG finally signed an agreement for the Kurds to send oil from Kirkuk through Ceyhan. This has ended the Iraqi government’s economic blockade. 

The relative success of the Iraqi Kurds’ is also part of a broader new Kurdish ambition for recognition. Even though the US goal was to build a unified and democratic Iraq, the Kurds have continuously expressed that if the newly Shiite-led central government failed to treat them [the Kurds] as equal partners of the Iraqi state, they would then opt for complete independence. 

Recently Falah Bakir, KRG’s foreign minister, said, “We have been trying to build a democracy. If we are not able to coexist together, if we are not able to find a formula or a model that ensures our rights, then we have to think about another solution to ensure stability and peaceful coexistence.” 

I want to stress this point: from all that I am sharing here today, you can see that I believe the Kurds remain a hopeful light in a region filled with conflict, violence and sectarian division. 

Ironically, the advent of ISIS, despite its inhumane violence and methods, may actually be favorable for the Kurds, because it has brought the subject of Kurdish independence to the forefront of the world: When ISIS took Mosul, the message sent to the Kurds by Iran, Turkey and also by the US, was that none of them were ready for a Kurdish republic. The priority was to defeat ISIS and, therefore the territorial integrity of Iraq had to be preserved.
As the advancement of ISIS slowed, three zones of control were established: ISIS in the west, the Kurds in the north, and Iran-backed Baghdad in the south. 

ISIS, which the West has been watching in utter horror, began in 2004 as an offshoot of Al Qaeda before rebranding itself ISIS two years later. It is a Sunni radical militant group whose ideology is based on Wahhabism (Salafism), the official creed of Saudi Arabia. They want to seize territory with the goal of reshaping the Middle East into a single state under a so-called Caliphate, based on puritanical Islam of 7th century Arabia.  

Their war is primarily within Islam: a conflict of Sunni vs. Shia, but they are also against moderate Muslims. They consider all Muslims who do not follow their form of Islam to be unbelievers and therefore worthy of having their throats slit. In Mosul alone, they executed 600 Shia. 

They seek to eliminate all Muslim and non-Muslim minorities, not only erasing the borders and states imposed by colonial powers, but changing the entire ethnic, tribal and religious composition of the region. 

In Syria and parts of Iraq, ISIS currently controls oil fields –making them one of the world’s richest terrorist groups raising up to $1 million per day. Their success in capturing cities, weapons, financial resources and marketing themselves through sophisticated infomercials throughout social media has attracted many followers from around the world. 

Their ethnic and religious genocide campaign has created a grave international humanitarian crisis. When ISIS militants overtook the cities of Mosul and Qaraqosh this past summer, many Iraqi Christians, Yazidis and other Iraqi minority groups were forced to flee their homes. They either converted or faced death. Thousands sought refuge in the Kurdish region of Iraq. ISIS crucified and killed Christians, burned churches and their ancient sacred books, and converted their churches into mosques. 

The whole world is focused on this tragedy right now. An estimated 1.8 million Iraqis have been displaced since the beginning of the year. Of that number, since January, there have been 850,000 displaced people in Kurdistan alone. Many live in makeshift shelters, tents or abandoned buildings without running water and electricity. As bitter cold winter approaches, the situation threatens to worsen. 

ISIS even came close to the capitals’ doors, once again mobilizing the Kurds to defend themselves. The Kurds called for help and the Americans responded with air strikes; the Iranians with military advisers and artillery; and the Turks with loans. Violence has brought international attention and support as the Kurds continue to valiantly fight ISIS. You have no doubt read in the news that the courage of the Kurdish fighters, including their women, has been exemplary. The present conflict has opened international doors, with U.S. and European allies committing to helping them. 

The Kurds are working with the new government in Baghdad that the US helped engineer, and leaders say they are willing to give Iraq one last chance. With the instability in Iraq, it is difficult to forecast the Islamic State’s evolution and how in the end, this will impact Kurdistan. 

Kurdish and Iraqi forces are slowly gaining ground in Iraq as they force ISIS out of villages and towns. But it is an ongoing and daily conflict. 

For the Kurds, the town of Kobane, which has been in the headlines in the last weeks, has become the symbol of a new sense of nationalism, uniting Kurds from Syria, Turkey and Iraq. There, Kurdish fighters, backed by small numbers of Iraqi peshmerga forces and Syrian rebels, are locked in what they see as a battle for their survival against the militants.

 While international attention has been focused on the fate of Kobane, the Yazidis remain trapped by ISIS on Mount Sinjar. The jihadists have once more cut all roads leading to their mountain. There are 10,000 people on the mountain who are still in need of food and medical care. As we speak, the Yazidis are armed and defending themselves against renewed attacks by ISIS.

 What is apparent is that American military support for Kurds battling ISIS in Syria has revived a modest dream of pan-Kurdish unity: at least this horrendous conflict is regenerating that conversation for the Kurds, including greater cooperation among the region’s rival Kurdish movements and perhaps the eventual dawn of a Greater Kurdistan. 

 In closing this talk, I would like to share that it is my fervent wish that that history will unfold in this hopeful direction—to yield a unified and peaceful existence for millions of Kurds, spread over so much territory. May it take hold in the months and years to come bringing lasting peace to a people who have long held national unification and democracy as their primary goal. One that will ensure the future for the Kurds in the world.

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