Opinion

The West Must Not Abandon the Kurds Again

The West must repay their moral debt to the Kurdish forces' fearless war on ISIS, and champion the cultural tolerance, so rare in the Middle East, that Kurds have established

Iraqi Kurds fly Kurdish flags during an event to urge people to vote in the upcoming independence referendum in Arbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq, on September 16, 2017.
SAFIN HAMED/AFP

No serious researcher or politician questions the fact that the Kurds are a people indigenous to the Middle East, living on their ancestral lands from well before the creation of the UN-recognised nation states in the region.

The referendum that the Iraqi Kurdish Authorities have planned for September 25 has incited hostility from many of the countries in the region. Only Israel’s leaders have openly expressed their support for the referendum and the creation of a Kurdish state.

This referendum forces all of us, peoples and states in the region, to face up to the real test. We’re not just talking about the separation and the creation of a new state entity here, but the essential challenge of creating co-existence in this region.

The hostile reaction of Iran and Turkey were to be expected. These two states fear the establishment of a future Kurdish state and the repercussions on "their" own Kurdish populations. Syria, the fourth country where the Kurds are the second largest ethnic group, is obviously out of the picture for the moment.

Equally shocking are the other Arab states that quote UN resolutions, texts or international treaties in their demands for the creation of a Palestinian state. And then forget these same principles and are stunningly silent when it comes to the Kurdish aspiration for independence.

And what of the silence from the West and, when vocal, its advice to postpone the referendum? And this, at a time with the same West depends on these same Kurds in the war against terrorism, to eradicate the threat of ISIS across the region and the world at large.

Iraq's Kurdistan region president Massud Barzani shakes hands with US Defence Secretary James Mattis, August 22, 2017 in Arbil, the capital of the Kurdish autonomous region
SAFIN HAMED/AFP

ISIS is considered the worst terrorist threat the Middle East and the West have lived through in recent years. The Kurds have not only been the one line of defense against this barbarity. They have also welcomed thousands of Christians and hundreds of thousands of Arabs fleeing terror and persecution. This example of tolerance in a region plagued by religious fanaticism must be preserved.

Many Middle Eastern states have cynically used and exploited ISIS’ presence.

They have succeeded in profiting strategically from the related power struggle between the West, on one side, and the Syrian regime, with Russia and Iran as its allies, on the other. The Syrian regime didn’t hesitate to use chemical weapons and aerial bombardments on nearly all the rebel-held cities -  with the exception of Raqqa, the ISIS capital.

This cynical strategy in targeting selective ISIS locations and allowing its militants to change position in areas under their control has paid off today. The recent deal between ISIS and Hizbollah was flagrantly enabled by the Assad regime: ISIS fighters were openly escorted from the Lebanese border across regime-controlled territory to safety at the Iraqi border.

U.S. President Donald Trump greets Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's president, at the White House. May 16, 2017
Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Other states acting with the same cynicism have also benefitted. Turkey’s multi-billion euro refugee deal with the EU is just one example. Needless to add that Iran has strengthened its control over Syria and Lebanon.

This is a dark geopolitical game where each state is trying to out-manoeuvre the other and no one, in the region or out, feels it's any longer in their interest to call for regime-change and Assad’s departure.

Do the Kurds really deserve being abandoned once more time to their fate now the dirty work is nearly over just, because they have refused to take part in this cynical game, and have fought fearlessly alongside the Western coalition, defending our shared values? That would be a nave calculation and impaired short-term logic by the West.

Iraqi Kurds fly an Israeli flag and Kurdish flags during a pro-referendum rally in Erbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq. September 16, 2017
SAFIN HAMED/AFP

The West’s moral debt to the Kurds must be repaid. Protecting this culture of tolerance and vision of harmonious co-existence that the Kurds have established requires careful protection and encouragement. The West’s support to the Kurdish aspiration will certainly lead to more stability in the region and strengthen this culture of peaceful co-existence. The very antidote to ISIS, Al-Qaeda and their offspring.

Kurdish leaders are fully aware that the road to self-determination and the creation of a state has and will always be a great challenge.

Israel is the best example of this in the region. Back then, too, not one single neighboring state supported its creation.

Akil Marceau graduated in history and humanitarian law and has worked for French media outlets and the Japanese NHK television network. He is a researcher and former director of the Representation of the Regional Government of Iraqi Kurdistan in Paris.