Nationalism and imperial power

The Kurdish independence referendum is not a welcome development, writes Yassamine Mather

Masoud Barzani: narrow vision

The Kurdish regional government (KRG) in Iraq will be holding a referendum on the issue of independence on September 25. There have been appeals for it to be delayed and the date has changed a number of times, but at the moment it looks like the vote will go ahead.

In 2014, at the time when Islamic State was gaining ground in northern Kurdistan, Kurds accused the Iraqi army of abandoning the territory lost to the jihadists. Ironically it is the ‘liberation’ of Erbil, Mosul and other northern cities that has precipitated the referendum. Last week in an interview with BBC Persian, Masoud Barzani, the president of the KRG, indicated that it will draw up the borders of a future Kurdish state if Baghdad does not accept a vote in favour of independence. However, what was significant in the BBC interview was Barzani’s insistence that the vote will also take place in “areas of Kurdistan outside the region’s administration”, including Kirkuk, Makhmour, Khanaqin and Sinjar. The oil-rich Kirkuk has large Arab and Turkmen populations, which prompted Barzani to add:

We don’t say that Kirkuk only belongs to Kurds. Kirkuk should be a symbol of coexistence for all ethnicities. If the people of Kirkuk vote ‘no’ in this referendum we will respect their vote, but we don’t accept that anyone can prevent us from holding a referendum there. If any group wants to change the reality of Kirkuk using force, they should expect that every single Kurd will be ready to fight over it.

It is not difficult to envisage a future where Barzani’s threats would lead to yet another bloody civil war in Iraq.

Of course, Kurdish leaders claim the vote will not necessarily lead to independence - their aim is to strengthen their hand in future negotiations with Baghdad. But the Iraqi government response came on September 12, when parliament voted to reject the referendum as “unconstitutional” and authorised the prime minister to “take all measures” to preserve Iraq’s unity.

The official US and UK position is a recommendation that the vote for Kurdish independence should be delayed in view of the ‘dangerous situation’ so soon after the defeat of IS. The US secretary of state Rex Tillerson made that point on a visit to the KRG in August, but more hard-line neoconservatives in the US and their allies in Israel believe that any referendum would be the first step in a much wider scheme: one that would go beyond Iraq and encompass all Kurdish areas in Syria, Iran and Turkey.

As far the Zionist regime and sections of the Trump administration are concerned, an independent Kurdish state would accelerate the disintegration of Iraq, paving the way for more independence movements: Sunnis in Iraq and Syria; Arabs, Baluchis and maybe Azeris in Iran. They hope this would result in a complete neo-imperial remapping of the region, replacing the borders drawn up in the early part of the 20th century.

So why would anyone want to destroy current states and in the process create further devastation and chaos? Because the new imperial order is interested not only in ‘regime change from above’, but would actually prefer chaos and anarchy to ‘rogue states’ capable of challenging US hegemony in areas where the majority of the population (ironically with the exception of Iran) are no longer the superexploited masses of the global ‘market’ economy.

Of course, we all know that since the US invasion, Iraq is a much weaker power in the region. But the proposed referendum will pave the way for the kind of civil wars that will make the current situation in Libya or Afghanistan look like a tea party. For Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his advisors such a plan would enable Israel to become a regional superpower - no wonder the KRG is ‘benefiting’ from Israel’s continuous advice.

No-one in their right mind can imagine that the ‘greater Kurdistan’ promised by Kurdish nationalists will happen peacefully - the existing brutal regimes will fight to the bitter end to stop it and prevent their own demise. And in reality the creation of such a state would produce further inter-Kurdish battles.

Narrow-minded

A long time ago, in very difficult circumstances in Iranian Kurdistan, I was witness to a bitter conflict between supporters of northern Kurdistan and of southern Kurdistan. On a snowy night, at a time when I had been given temporary responsibility as political leader in the camp where we were staying, I was woken up by a comrade asking me to return to the base (as the only female member of the peshmergeh group, I was staying outside the base in a peasant’s house - part of our organisation’s attempt to respect Kurdish sensitivities regarding gender segregation).

Two groups - both ‘Marxist’ Kurdish peshmergehs - had got into a bitter argument over whether northern Kurdistan (capital: Mahabad) was more radical and revolutionary than southern Kurdistan (capital: Sanandaj) and the two groups seemed ready to open fire on each other. The old comrade who came to wake me up, Kak Omar, was a wise old man who could see where all this could lead. I put on my uniform, went to the base and attempted to fulfil my duty as a political leader by giving a talk on ‘internal contradictions’, based on a booklet issued by a small group called the Union des Communistes de France Marxiste-Léniniste, written by a then much less famous Alain Badiou, whose Théorie de la contradiction was an attempt to understand and come to terms with the many “linear”, “circular”, “antagonistic” and “non-antagonistic” contradictions.

I think I managed to bore the comrades sufficiently and by the time I had finished very few felt like entering into a midnight shooting match. Yet the incident demonstrated to me how narrow-minded nationalism can be, how easily it can turn to regionalism. And, once you go down that route, there is no end to the divisions that can be exploited by the enemies of the working class. After all, the civil wars of the Middle East have not harmed US or Israeli interests in the region and no doubt the destruction of the current state of Iran would also serve them well. Anything that can pave the way for such a scenario is a bonus for them.

Even if we imagine the establishment of a unified Kurdish state, how would its economy work? As KRG leaders know, without Kirkuk such a state would not be viable, but even with Kirkuk it is difficult to foresee a prosperous future in the current world capitalist order for a country composed of the least developed regions of four underdeveloped countries ... and with no access to the sea. Of course, the blame for such underdevelopment lies squarely with the current and past rulers of the respective countries and no doubt it is this, combined with the constant suppression of national rights in Kurdish areas, that has led to the current wave of nationalism. Both the right and the left should take note of the dangers such a new state would face.

Let me add a few comments about the current Kurdish regional government in Iraq. Those of us who are familiar with its current leaders find it difficult to take them seriously. There was nothing positive in their foreign policy - from when Mustafa Barzani (the father of the current president) became an ally of the shah of Iran, to their support for the Islamic Republic (all because Iran was opposed to Iraq’s Ba’athist regime), to their current mesmerisation by US and Israeli ‘advisors’. This is a government based on tribalist politics. For all its claims about ‘women’s rights’, the organisations leading the KRG, as well as their allies in Iran, are mainly corrupt, misogynist forces, whose power and wealth often relies on extortion and corruption.

If you are in the west, at a time when fundamentalists still force women to wear the burqa or hijab, it is easy to be impressed by female peshmergehs filmed in Kurdish areas, brandishing guns. However, you will forgive me for being cynical about such images. All too often both in Kurdistan and abroad I have had to deal with women peshmergehs whose bruises and battered bodies tell the story of domestic abuse.

The proposed Kurdish referendum has initiated a number of debates amongst the Iranian left about the implications of the right to self-determination at a time of aggressive, destructive imperialist policy in the region. No-one can deny the fact that the Kurds have been victims of discrimination, repression and military aggression in Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria. In this respect the call for independence is very attractive.

However, the question is, ‘After independence what next?’ We know how the current regional powers will react, and how the already weakened working class movement will further be divided along nationalist lines.

Some time ago, Robert Fisk wrote a book on Lebanon entitled Pity the nation. Unfortunately in the current situation this is the phrase that keeps coming to mind when I think of Kurdistan.

yassamine.mather@weeklyworker.co.uk