The Eight-Hundred lb. Guerrillas

In early March 2003, with tens of thousands of American soldiers drilling and hydrating in the Kuwaiti desert, I had arranged to meet with a member of the famous Barzani clan at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. In hopes of setting up a rendezvous with his contacts at the far northern juncture of Syria and Iraq, I was looking for his blessing on a coming foray I had planned into the western portion of northern Iraq controlled by the Barazani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party. The KDP and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the PUK, were and remain the two principle political parties in the three semi-autonomous provinces of northern Iraq. The two “parties”, which are essentially clan-based war fighting groups, had set up lobbying offices in Washington. Not unlike other ethnic minorities who felt marginalized and under represented within the corridors of America’s oft short sighted foreign policy establishment, the Iraqi Kurds had become adept at pursuing their own ethno-nationalist agenda.

 I had been trying to track down KDP’s primary representative in the U.S. (and grandson of the group’s founder Mullah Mustafa Barzani) Farhad Barzani for several weeks. We were to convene one cold evening in the plush lobby of the Waldorf. Upon phoning him en route to the hotel, he was “disappointed” to inform me that he had to cancel our meeting due to the fact that he had just bumped into “a very good friend” of his, Ehud Barak. Our conversation ended abruptly as he uttered “Hello Ehud” and hung up. A diplomat from an unrecognized state had just snubbed me for a former Israeli Prime Minister.

I was informed by a leading Brooklyn-based Kurdish academic expert, Dr. Vera Beaudin Saeedpour, that the Israeli intelligence community had been cultivating ties with Iraqi Kurds dating as far back as the 1960’s and liaised with the Barazani clan in particular. The Israelis believed it to be in their national interest to reach out to non-Arab groups across the Middle East be they secular, Kemalist Turks, stateless Marxist Kurds or pre-revolution era Iranian elites.  In the (now) defunct context of the cold war, the three aforementioned peoples could act as a strategic wedge against the Soviet benefactors and anti-Israel nationalists of the Arab Middle East. The Iranians the Israelis believed they could rely fell off the face of the earth with the collapse of Pahlavi monarchy and the shah’s subsequent exile. The death knell for Israeli-Iranian relations was brought on by the rise of the virulently anti-Zionist Ayatollah Khomeni. Israel’s two remaining regional allies, the rebels of Kurdistan and the Turkish Army, were blood enemies.

Subsequent to the overt Israeli support the Iraqi Kurds had been receiving since the mid sixties, the Nixon administration followed suit under the guidance of Kissinger’s realpolitik agenda by working closely with the Iranian Shah to support a Kurdish revolt against Baghdad until the Algiers Accord of 1975. During an OPEC meeting in the Algerian capital, Pahlavi cut a deal with then Iraqi Vice President Saddam Hussein to sever any form of Iranian support for the Iraqi Kurdish resistance. In exchange, Tehran was thanked by an agreement on the boundary demarcations in the Shatt al-Arab waterway. While the leader of the KDP, Mullah Mustafa Barzani, was dying in exile in Washington during the tumult that was 1979, it would have been difficult for him to imagine that in just twelve years time his Kurds would establish their own de facto state hugging the Turkish border. The quasi independence of millions of Iraqi Kurds succeeding the allied Gulf War in 1991 had helped to further ignite the sovereign territorial aspirations of the Kuridstan Workers Party in southeastern Turkey, the Party for Free Life in Kurdistan in northwestern Iran, and, to a lesser extent, Kurdish dissident groups in northeastern Syria. The Kurdish position in Iraq was further solidified once the Americans and their allies had deposed President Hussein in the spring of 2003 and American Special Forces troops were photographed working side by side with uniformed pesh merga.

All of this brings us to where we are in the region today. The PKK has been staging sizeable cross border attacks on Turkish forces in the provinces of Sirnak, Hakkari and Siirt adjacent to the Iraqi border. Meanwhile, their Iranian affiliate, the PJAK, has been simultaneously carrying out hit-and-run operations against Revolutionary Guards Corps units along the Iraq-Iran border. Both Turkey and Iran have responded in kind by shelling the Qandil mountain range (which is under the jurisdiction of the Kurdistan Regional Government) and both the Pentagon and the State Department along with their Israeli counterparts likely fear the possibility of cooperation between Turkey and Iran in coordinating their artillery barrages inside northern Iraq. While the Turks and Iranians have been decades long economic and political rivals in the Middle East, they appear to be in sync on the Kurdish issue resulting from the recurring guerilla attacks inside their respective territories. The United States so far has come across as wholly inept at tackling the exceedingly complex issues facing the stability of Iraq’s northern enclave. Reports coming out of the region in recent weeks depict a proxy conflict as bumbling as William Casey’s wildest fantasies. The alleged presence of U.S. contractors, Mossad agents, failing diplomacy and fairly obvious covert linkages are like a bad replay of 1980’s era activities along the Durand line.

The possibility of Turkish military elites gravitating toward Tehran’s orbit may result in grave consequences for America’s already embattled policies in Baghdad, Ankara and Tel Aviv. Currently Turkey is still maintaining their military alliance with the Israelis and remains a large part of the NATO vanguard led by the United States. Concomitantly, Turkey views both of these powers as agitators with respect to the tens of millions of Kurds whose desires for autonomy Turkey is intent on crushing. It is unfortunate for the American project in Iraq and, in Iraqi Kurdistan in particular, that at present Turkey’s aspirations of European Union accession seem to be drifting further out of reach while Turkey and Iran have found common cause in seeking to punish the Kurdish Marxists operating at the fringes of their national boundaries.

Pentagon planners in Virginia and at their peers Central Command have never developed a sufficient strategy to come to terms with the Kurdish question and America’s role in it. Rather than a democratic Iraqi Kurdish region and its violent regional counterparts being any kind of birth pangs for a new Middle East, they are the furtive death spasms of the Ottoman Empire. Leadership in the United States appears to be flailing wildly. Bowing to pressure from the pro-Armenian lobby, carrying out the wishes of the pro-Israel lobby, and now dealing with the nascent pro-Kurdish lobby and its Kirkuk agenda, American policy in the Middle East is literally all over the map. Regrettably, the map in they seem to be referencing is that of a disintegrated Ottoman caliphate.

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