by Bernard-Henri Lévy
The timidity of the international community in the face of the September 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 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 ancient Mesopotamia in 2014 and the Iraqi army took flight, was the first to organize a counteroffensive: since then, over a front a thousand kilometers 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 Plain 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, instead of thanking the Kurds, the world—and the United States in particular—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 that 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, were not dangers far greater than little Kurdistan, a secular and democratic friend of the West with an elected parliament and free press!
Independence, insist the talking heads, would threaten the territorial integrity of the four nations—Iraq, Iran, Syria, Turkey—across which the Kurd nation is spread: as if those doing the insisting were unaware that the present referendum concerns only the Kurds of Iraq, who have no ambition to form a greater Kurdistan with their “brothers” 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 Mr. Erdogan’s reported threat to cut the pipelines that connect the KRG to the rest of the world? With respect to that, 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 Teheran 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. That the Kurds organized themselves into an autonomous island of democracy and peace after the Peshmerga had not been paid by Baghdad for three years? That should be enough for them, claim the experts at the U.S. State Department and the other western embassies, who cannot seem to grasp why the Kurds should want to take the last step from autonomy to independence. That the Kurds control oil in the Kirkuk region? Instead of seeing this as a good thing that 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, those led by Barzani and Talabani, 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!
Here we are dealing with the old colonialist drivel about people who are never quite ready to govern themselves, not yet grown up, not adult enough.
It is the familiar tragedy that befalls nations that, as General 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 …”
I witnessed a similar situation at the end of the Bosnian war some twenty years ago. The Seventh 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 of Karadzic and Milosevic, and bringing about peace and justice. But the United States applied the brakes. Under the leadership of Ambassador Richard Holbrooke at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, the United States convened the aggressor (Serbia), the arbiter (Croatia), and the victim (Bosnia, which was threatened, if it did not comply, with being left to its fate). And thus, with a gun to the head of President Alija Izetbegovic, 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, once again, General 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 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, in the Middle East and around the world, to the curse of radical Islam. It is time for the world to honor the Kurdish people as they have honored us.