They have earned their independence, and the West must get out of the way.
- By Bernard-Henri LévyBernard-Henri Lévy is a philosopher, activist, and filmmaker. His film Peshmerga, a special selection at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, portrayed the struggle along the thousand-mile front line separating the Kurds from the Islamic State. His subsequent film La Bataille de Mossoul explored the fight to retake the city. His most recent book is The Genius of Judaism, and his New York Times best-sellers include American Vertigo, Barbarism With a Human Face, and Who Killed Daniel Pearl?
The timidity of the international community in the face of the Sept. 25 referendum on an independent Kurdistan is a trifecta of shame, absurdity, and historic miscalculation.
We are talking about a people who have been deported, Arabized by force, gassed, and pushed into the mountains where, for a century, they have mounted an exemplary resistance to the tyranny their Baghdad masters successively imposed on them in defiance of geography and of the Kurds’ thousand years of history.
Theirs is a region that finally gained autonomy with the fall of Saddam Hussein — a region that, when the tsunami of the Islamic State crashed over Mesopotamia in 2014 and the Iraqi Army took flight, was the first to organize a counteroffensive. Since then, over a front 600 miles long, the Iraqi Kurds held off the barbarians and thus saved Kurdistan, Iraq, and our shared civilization.
And it is the Kurds again who, in the run-up to the battle of Mosul, went on the offensive on the Plains of Nineveh, opened the gates to the city, and, through their courage, enabled the coalition to strike at the heart of the Islamic State.
But now that the time has come to settle up, the United States remains stubbornly opposed to the referendum, urging the Kurds to put off their aspirations for independence to an indeterminate date in the future. Instead of thanking the Kurds, the world is telling them, with thinly veiled cynicism, “Sorry, Kurdish friends, you were so useful in confronting Islamic terror, but, uh, your timing is not so good. We don’t need you anymore, so why don’t you just go on home? Thanks, again — see you next time.”
It is said the referendum will distract attention from the common fight against the Islamic State and interfere with the Iraqi elections scheduled for next year. But everyone knows, except when they choose not to admit it, that the military part of the battle ended with the fall of Mosul, thanks largely to the Kurds themselves. Moreover, who can guarantee that the Iraqi national elections will take place as scheduled rather than being adjourned, just as we are asking the Kurds to adjourn theirs?
An independent Kurdistan, the commentators continue, would imperil regional stability. As if Syria, mired in war; Iran, with its revived imperial ambitions; and decomposing Iraq, that artificial creation of the British, are not dangers far greater than little Kurdistan, a secular and democratic friend of the West with an elected parliament and free press!
Independence, the talking heads insist, would threaten the territorial integrity of the four nations — Iraq, Iran, Syria, Turkey — across which the Kurdish nation is spread. It is as if these voices are unaware that the present referendum concerns only the Kurds of Iraq, who have no ambition to form a greater Kurdistan with their “brothers” and “sisters” in Turkey and Syria, whose crypto-Marxist leadership is ideologically incompatible with that of the Iraqi Kurds.
But what about the reaction of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, one asks? What about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s reported threat to cut the pipelines that connect Iraqi Kurdistan to the rest of the world? I do not believe that it is the role of the West to act as a press agent for two dictatorships that detest us, nor do I see why the blackmailing of one’s neighbors should be condemned when practiced by Pyongyang but facilitated when it comes to Tehran or Ankara.
Sadly, however, no argument is too feeble to be used to justify our request to “delay.” It feels like an Orwellian nightmare, or a festival of bad faith, in which all arguments are turned into their opposites.
What of the Kurds’ organizing themselves into an autonomous island of democracy and peace, even after the Peshmerga had not been paid by Baghdad for three years? That should be enough for them, claim U.S. State Department experts who cannot seem to grasp why the Kurds should want to take the last step from autonomy to independence. What of the Kurds’ controlling oil in the Kirkuk region? Instead of seeing this as a boon, which should provide immediate assurance of their ability to finance the development of their new country, observers seem to think only of the covetousness that these riches might stimulate.
And when the two major parties scramble for votes — which anywhere else would be seen as a sign of healthy republican civic culture — this is suddenly viewed as the seeds of divisions and disputes to come!
We are dealing with the old colonialist drivel that holds some people are never quite ready to govern themselves, not yet grown up, not adult enough.
It is the familiar tragedy that befalls nations that, as Charles de Gaulle used to say (and he knew whereof he spoke), have no friends. Yes, yes, services were rendered, vague promises were made when we needed you and when you alone stood between us and the barbarians, but now that the time has come to keep our word, the evasion begins. “Bad timing,” “not part of the plan,” “the world has an agenda, and we regret to inform you that you are not on that agenda,” and so on.
I witnessed a similar situation at the end of the Bosnian War some 20 years ago. The 7th Corps of the Army of Sarajevo was on the verge not only of liberating the besieged Bosnian towns but of reunifying the country, forcing the surrender of the Serbian goons loyal to Radovan Karadzic and Slobodan Milosevic, and bringing peace and justice. But the United States applied the brakes. Under the leadership of Ambassador Richard Holbrooke at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio, the United States convened the aggressor (Serbia), the arbiter (Croatia), and the victim (Bosnia). The victim was threatened that if it did not comply, it would be left to its fate — and thus the West’s Bosnian friend was partitioned, sacrificed on the altar of a convenient but poorly crafted peace that remains shaky to this day.
May similar sorry machinations not produce, in the case of the Kurds, the same sad effects. May the descendants of the survivors of Saddam’s chemical attack on Halabja find the strength to resist the intimidation of all their well-wishers. May they remember Gen. de Gaulle, who in the summer of 1944 overrode the plans of his American and British allies and, rather than pushing directly into Germany, insisted on liberating his capital first, thereby claiming his share of the Allied victory.
The Kurdish referendum is not an act of force. It is a right. It is a debt. It is a major landmark for a great people who have given immeasurably to the world. Yesterday, they were among those who saved Jews; in our day, they have given us the Peshmerga, who liberated and now protect the last Christian populations of the Middle East. And, for centuries, they have been one of the wellsprings of the enlightened Islam that, in the secret recesses of the soul no less than in the fury of battle, remains the best response to the curse of radical Islam. It is time for the world to honor the Kurdish people as they have honored us.
Translated from French by Steven B. Kennedy.
Photo credit:SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images