Kurdish Regional Government

Grim News from Kurdistan

Recent news from Kurdistan – often regarded as forming the world’s largest “nation without a state” – has been bleak. Protesting Iranian Kurds have been under attack from their own government, as have many other Iranians. Iran has also launched assaults on the autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq, which it accuses of harboring Iranian Kurdish insurgents in the rugged borderlands between the two countries. The Turkish government has been attacking its own Kurdish insurgents in the same mountains. These strikes are not precisely targeted and have killed a number of civilians. Turkey (Türkiye, officially) has also been launching attacks against Kurdish forces in the Kurdish-led autonomous region of Rojava in northeastern Syria, and has been indicating for some time that an outright invasion might be forthcoming.

The situation in Rojava is becoming precarious. Rojava, an autonomous region that is nominally part of Syria, is a unique experiment in political organization. It first emerged in 2012, just after the “Arab Spring” uprisings, and gained control over substantial territories a few years later as its militias drove out the forces of ISIS (ISIL/Daesh), with help from the U.S. military. Although largely Kurdish-led, Rojava is an explicitly multi-cultural and multi-linguistic polity, with Kurmanji Kurdish, Arabic, Syriac, Turkish, and Adyghe (or West Circassian) all serving in an official capacity in all or part of the region. Rojava is highly decentralized, divided into seven semi-autonomous regions, or cantons. Its governance is based of what might be called “bottom-up libertarian socialism.” As the Wikipedia article on the region notes in one breathless sentence:

The supporters of the region’s administration state that it is an officially secular polity with direct democratic ambitions based on an anarchist, feminist, and libertarian socialist ideology promoting decentralization, gender equity, equality, environmental sustainability, social ecology and pluralistic tolerance for religious cultural and political diversity, and that these values are mirrored in its constitution, society, and politics, stating it to be a model for a federalize Syria  as a whole, rather than outright independence.

This unparalleled political system is based on the ideas of Murray Bookchin, an American environmental writer and political theorist who died in 2006. Bookchin’s theories were adopted and reinterpreted in the early 2000s by Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of the PKK (the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a militant organization of Kurds in Turkey, officially classified as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the EU, and the United States.) During the Cold War, Öcalan and his followers adhered to Marxism-Leninism and sought to create an independent Kurdish state. After abandoning authoritarian leftism, Öcalan turned instead to the equally left-wing but decidedly libertarian vision of Bookchin, melding it with several reformulated traditional Kurdish socio-cultural practices. At the same time, the PKK abandoned its goal of outright independence, seeking instead mere Kurdish political autonomy. Many experts think that it has also rejected the tactics of terrorism, and hence no longer deserves the “terrorist” designation.

Whether Rojava’s idealistic system of governance can work in practice is an open question. I was certainly skeptical when I first learned of its existence. But the leaders of Rojava have been employing it for a decade, and evidently with some success. To be sure, they have been subjected to harsh criticism, with some writers claiming that they have authoritarian tendencies of their own and favor Kurds over members of other ethnic groups. The “Libertarian Communist” website libcom.org goes so far as to condemn Rojava as a fraudulent revolutionary organization that has allied itself with the Syrian Assad regime, Russia, and the United States – viscously attacking it, in effect, for doing what has been necessary for its own survival. Overall, what I find remarkable is how little actual reporting has been done on this intriguing political experiment. Considering Rojava’s de facto alliance with the United States, the possibility of an ISIS resurgence in the region, and the existential threat to region’s autonomy posed by the Turkish military, one might expect Western journalists to be keenly interested in what is happening there. But this is not the case. The world at large seems oddly unconcerned about Rojava and its travails.

Rojava’s leaders are worried that their regional autonomy and security might be sacrificed by the United States in the interest of maintaining its own alliance with Turkey, a fellow NATO member. As they point out, Rojava already lost a large strip of land after the Trump Administration acquiesced to the Turkish military occupation of part of northeastern Syria in 2019. A weakened Rojava was also forced into a power-sharing arrangement with the official Syrian regime over most of its northern lands (see the map below). This could hardly have been an easy compromise: in earlier years, Syria’s Assad regime had denied citizenship to many if not most of the country’s Kurdish residents, based on its ideology of Arab nationalism and supremacy.

Although the United States has condemned recent Turkish incursions into Rojava, many residents of the region feel betrayed by the U.S. and the West more generally. As Nadine Maenza recently tweeted, “Turkey is targeting the very people that destroyed the ISIS caliphate, losing 11,000 lives so the United States did not have to put boots on the ground.” This sense of betrayal is a common motif in Kurdish historical thought – and for good reason. As early as 1919, U.S. diplomats offered some support for Kurdistan, including a proposal for an autonomous and eventually independent Kurdish state in what is now southeastern Turkey (see the map below), but they have never followed through. Since 1991, the Kurds of Iraq have generally upheld American political interests in the region, sacrificing many lives in the process. Although a few U.S. politicians, including New York Senator Chuck Schumer, have offered some support for Kurdish independence, the State Department remains deeply hostile to the idea, and the U.S. government more generally prioritizes its alliance with Turkey.

One of the biggest problems confronting Kurdish political aspirations has been their own lack of unity. Although the Kurds of northern Iraq have their own autonomous region that verges on independence, it remains geographically divided along the lines of political party, clan leadership, and dialect/language. In the mid 1990s, the Talabani-led, Sorani Kurdish-speaking Patriotic Union of Kurdistan fought a civil war against the Barzani-led, Kurmanji Kurdish-speaking Kurdish Democratic Party (see the maps below). Although this division was soon patched up, with U.S. help, the two sub-regions of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish polity often find themselves at loggerheads. In 2017, the Kurdish peshmerga military had to retreat from Kirkuk, a city commonly deemed the “Kurdish Jerusalem,” and allow the Baghdad government to regain control. This humiliating withdrawal reportedly occurred after the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan covertly pulled out from the operation, reportedly in connivance with Iran. In the process, the Iranian position in Iraq was strengthened, harming U.S. interests. As the Institute for the Study of War reported at the time,

The Iraqi Government and Iran likely signaled their intent to use military force to compel the Peshmerga withdrawals in those provinces, if necessary. The Kurdish retreat is a win for both the central Iraqi government and Iran, whose proxies have seized new key terrain and consolidated control over previously contested cities. Iran has downplayed the role of its proxies in order to legitimize them as instruments of the Iraqi state. Western media coverage and statements from US officials have assisted Iran with this deception by denying the role of Iran’s proxies in Kirkuk.

The deeper problems in Iraqi Kurdistan these days seem to stem more from political corruption and mismanagement than from internal conflict. A hard-hitting article from Kurdistan Source focuses on the recent surge of migrants out of Iraqi Kurdistan, blaming it largely on misgovernance. As the author writes

The new model [of governance] is premised on high taxation, aggressive privatisation, authoritarian governance, and eliminating nearly all social welfare. Since 2019, while household income and industrial output have stagnated, the government has increased taxes and service bills by 400% to over 1000%. This has led to nearly 70% of the region’s factories closing within just two years. While on paper, the new model is supposed to encourage private-sector driven growth, in reality, most entrepreneurs and private enterprises are driven out of business by the creation of hurdles. The majority of businesses I have talked to believe the government wants to drive them out of business to help certain companies monopolise each sector. These potential monopolies are often owned by members of the two ruling families* or people close to them.

The Kurdish tragedy will be explored in more detail in coming posts.


* Meaning the Barzani and Talabani clans.

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The Ignored Plight of the Yezidis

“We will always defend our Yezidis from prejudice and discrimination, whether by Kurdish Muslims or others.” —Nechirvan Barzani, former prime minister of the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government.

According to an October 24, 2010 report by al Jazeera, the worst suicide bomb attack during the seven years of the Iraq war occurred “when multiple truck bombs devastated two villages of the Yazidi minority sect.” The August 2007 blast, which killed almost 800 people, has by no means been the only attack on the Yezidis. Yezidi sources regard the assault on their community as genocidal. According to their most prominent website:

Beginning nearly twenty years ago, Saddam Hussein instigated a pogrom of Yezidi extermination by labeling them “Devil Worshippers” and thereby triggered whole scale [sic] persecution by the Iraqi Moslems. … Although this pogrom was lifted briefly following the US invasion and Saddam’s capture, the harsh conditions appear to be returning. Kurdish Moslems are currently blocking food supplies to the Yezidi villages and they continue to prevent the Yezidis from cleaning up the poisons in their water supply. … Within the mosques adjacent to the Yezidi villages mullahs continue to speak about the “Devil-worshipping Yezidis” and encourage their conversion to Islam or murder.

yez44On the rare occasion when the Yezidis are mentioned in the U.S. media, they are generally passed over as insignificant, forming as they do only a few percent of Iraq’s population. Such reporting is misleading: Yezidis number between 500,000 and 750,000 globally, with as many as 650,000 living in northern Iraq. Another 60,000 northern Iraqis follow the related Shabak faith, while as many as a million in Kurdish Iran adhere to a similar sect called Ahl-e Haqq (or Yârsân). Mehrdad Izady calls this complex of religions Yazdânism, which he regards as a survival of the pre-Islamic beliefs of the Kurdish people. He also includes the faith of the Alevis of eastern Turkey. The Alevis—heterodox Shiite Muslims who don’t worship in mosques and do drink alcohol—number some 15 million, on par with the global population of Mormons or Jews.

Regarding God as a remote figure, Yezidis worship the seven angels who they believe have dominion over the earth. Chief among them is Malek Taus, the Peacock Angel. Melek Taus is identified with Shaytan, or Satan, the rebellious angel of the Abrahamic (Judeo-Christian-Islamic) tradition, leading to the charges of “devil worship.” The Yezidi spiritual interpretation does not support the accusation. Although Yezidis do find something admirable in the Peacock Angel’s rebelliousness, especially his refusal to submit to Adam, they also believe that he repented of his mutiny against God, and was restored to his rightful place as leader of the angelic host. They certainly make no connection between Melek Taus and evil. Yezidis reject cosmic moral dualism, holding that wickedness lies in the hearts of humans, not in the spirits of heavenly beings.

The Yezidi holy scriptures make interesting reading. A sense of being under siege is clearly present: “The Jews, the Christians, the Moslems, and even the Persians, fought us; but they failed to subdue us, for in the strength of the Lord we prevailed against them.” Islam is singled out for critical commentary, but the curse leveled against its final prophet is rather mild:

This last time [an angel] dwelt among us longer than any of the other [angels] who came before him. He confirmed the saints. He spoke in the Kurdish language. He also illuminated Mohammed, the prophet of the Ishmaelites …, When [the angel] saw that Mohammed was not upright before him, he afflicted him with a headache.

Like many other religions, the Yezidi faith has its fair share of dietary and other behavioral prohibitions. Its proscriptions against certain vegetables, however, is unusual:

So hass (lettuce) is debarred. We do not eat it, for it sounds like the name of our prophetess Hassiah. Fish is prohibited, in honor of Jonah the prophet. Likewise deer, for deer are the sheep of one of our prophets. The peacock is forbidden to our Šeich and his disciples, for the sake of our Tâ’ûs. Squash also is debarred.

The current relationship between the Yezidis and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) is much like that between the Assyrian Christians and the KRG. Kurdish authorities pledge to respect and protect the Yezidis, but in return demand Yezidi support for the expansion of the autonomous region. As reflected in Barzani’s quotation above, many Kurds feel an affinity for the Kurdish-speaking followers of Malek Taus: “our Yezidis.” Many Yezidis, however, rebuff the embrace, refusing to call themselves Kurds and opposing the expansion of the autonomous zone. Yezidis have been barricading their villages to forestall attacks, trusting in the relative remoteness of their main communities. One of the principle Yezidi redoubts is the Sinjar Mountain, an isolated range rising from the semi-arid plains northern Iraq, deep within the contested zone.

The story of the Yezidis is instructive in several ways. It illustrates well the religious diversity of Southwest Asia’s “Heterodox Zone” (see Geocurrents, January 26, 2010). Such diversity is not surprising in the birthplace the Abrahamic faith-family: it is a basic principle of geography that areas of origin typically form centers of diversity. The survival of the Yezidi faith, despite periods of persecution, also speaks to the historical toleration of “Islamdom” relative to “Christendom.” It is hard to imagine the continued existence of people worshiping the rebel angel in late medieval or early modern Europe. But the current plight of the Yezidis also shows that such toleration is waning fast, especially in Iraq. Sunni extremism, feeding on geopolitical disputes of global reach, has been steadily stripping away religious diversity, a process began with the expulsion of the Jewish community of Baghdad in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Will it end with the eviction of Christians, Yezidis, Shabaks, and Mandeans* from all parts of Iraq outside of the Kurdish autonomous region?

The situation of the Yezidis also gives the lie to humanitarian claims that the global community will “never again” sit by while entire ethnic groups are targeted for removal or extermination. When it comes to such politically inconvenient examples of ethnic cleansing as that suffered by the Yezidis, the typical reaction is to look the other way, or to dismiss the community as too small to merit consideration.

The Yezidis have few champions in the wider world. They do occasionally benefit, however, from their association with the other beleaguered peoples of Iraq. On November 2, 2010, the government of the Netherlands announced that “the situation in Iraq is not so unsafe that failed asylum seekers cannot be deported back to Iraq.” But the Dutch government allowed that members of vulnerable minority groups, including “Iraqi Christians, Mandaeans, Yezidis, Palestinians, Jews and Shabaks … can more easily appeal for protection without a lot of evidence.”

*The Mandeans, or Sabians, revere John the Baptist as their main prophet, thus forming another Abrahamic faith.

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The Complex Relations Between Kurds and Christians in Northern Iraq

The relationship between the Christians of northern Iraq and the Kurdish Regional Government is complicated. Kurdish authorities portray their land as a safe haven for all minority groups – and for good reason. But local Sunni Arab politicians, and some Christians as well, have accused Kurdish militias of driving Assyrians out of their homes in the contested zone to the southwest of the Kurdish autonomous region. Christian groups are now asking for their own zone of autonomy, although their likelihood of gaining one seems slim indeed.

The Kurds and the Assyrians have a history of troubled relations. The Ottoman-sponsored massacres of Assyrians during World War I were largely carried out by Kurdish irregular forces. At the time, Kurds and Assyrians competed for lands and resources, and the empty British promises that the Assyrians would be politically rewarded if they fought the Ottoman Empire did not sit well with local Kurds. The rise to power of the Iraqi Baath party in the 1960s transformed the political situation of both Kurds and Christians. Under a hard-core Arab nationalist state, the Kurds, who had long cultivated their own national identity, found themselves under assault. But the Assyrians, whose own national aspirations had been crushed by the massacres of the early 20th century, generally acquiesced to the Baath regime and lived in relative peace.

The situation changed dramatically with decline and fall of Saddam Hussein. The Kurds were able establish “the other Iraq”: a generally secure area, marked by toleration of ethnic and religious differences. The Christian community within the Kurdish-controlled area has done relatively well, but Christians elsewhere in the country have come under attack. The situation has been especially perilous in the contested zone.

In March 2010, the elected head of Nineveh Governorate in northern Iraq, Atheel al-Nujaifi, charged Kurdish militias with forcing non-Muslims out of the contested zone so that it could be more easily annexed by the Kurdistan Regional Government. In a letter sent to the European Union and the United Nations, he demanded an international inquiry into attacks in and around the city of Mosul. Leader of a largely Sunni Arab voting block, Al-Nujaifi claimed that, “Those opposing the Kurdish agenda are persecuted, threatened, arrested and even liquidated.”

Kurdish leaders have denied the charges, claiming that al-Qaeda-aligned militias are to blame. They note al-Nujaifi’s hostility toward Kurdish interests; according to the Christian Science Monitor, even U.S. authorities described his electoral campaign as “blatantly anti-Kurdish.” Although al-Nujaifi denies accusations of anti-Kurdish bigotry, he steadfastly opposes expansion of the Kurdish autonomous region, and crows that the Kurds are bound to fail in their quest for additional territory.

In 2009, the Kurdish Regional Government’s representative in the United Kingdom released a report on the conditions of Christians in the autonomous territory, written in response to earlier allegations of anti-Christian actions by Kurdish armed forces. The report, quoting Nechirvan Barzani,* emphasized that the Kurdish cause would be undermined by the ethnic cleansing of minority groups:

The Kurds would have the most to lose politically from these incidents, since the Arab proportion of the population would rise. Those wishing to lay the blame for these incidents on our doorstep are enemies of democracy, enemies of a federal Iraq. They wish to make blatantly false claims in order to undermine the basic rights of freedom, democracy and fair representation.

The report makes interesting reading, especially for the manner in which it frames ethnic relations. Iraqi Kurdistan, the author emphasizes, is founded not on Kurdish national identity, but rather on multinational inclusion. Again quoting Barzani:

We talk of nationalities, not minorities, and we protect them all, and their rights. In our region, Turkomen, Assyrians, and Arabs have schooling and administration in their own languages. We are proud of our record of religious tolerance – toward all varieties of Muslim, Chaldean, and Assyrian Christians, and our few remaining Jews, and we will always defend our Yezidis from prejudice and discrimination, whether by Kurdish Muslims or others.

The report stresses the facts that more than 20,000 Iraqi Christian families have found refuge in the autonomous region, that several Christians have reached high positions in the Kurdish administration, and that the Kurdish government has been rebuilding churches and Christian villages. It also contends that the Kurdish government supports in principle the establishment of a Christian autonomous zone, provided that it is created through democratic means and includes areas within “the disputed territories in the Nineveh plains.” Kurdish authorities argue that any such area of Christian self-rule should fall within the territory of the Kurdish Regional Government, forming, in other words, an autonomous region within an autonomous region.

Christian organizations in Iraq have put forward their own plans for a sphere of self-government, perhaps in conjunction with other religious minorities. The focus of such efforts is the Nineveh Plains, to the northeast of Mosul. Some Christians have insisted that any such autonomous area must be independent of the Kurdish Regional Government, and have accused Kurdish authorities of “intimidating Assyrian political and religious leaders to sign a letter stating they wanted the Nineveh Plains to be annexed to the Kurdish Regional Government.”

Another proposed zone of Christian autonomy would encompass not just the Nineveh Plains, but also a large swath of mostly Kurdish-inhabited territory along the border with Turkey (see the second map posted above). The authors of this plan also appeal to the central Iraqi government, seeking it allay its concerns:

[M]any Arab political parties, MPs and government officials … harbour fears that the [Christian] people were seeking independence, an allegation that the council has categorically rejected and refuted stressing that this peaceful, defenseless and law-abiding people can never cause damage to the national unity of Iraq or seek to isolate itself from the other components of the Iraqi people, especially when everybody knows that it does not have the potential and capability to dismantle the unity of Iraq and divide it.

The internal geopolitics of Iraq is nothing if not complex, frustrating all attempts at cartographic portrayal. As long as we insist on viewing the country as a nation-state encompassing just three groups of people – the Sunni Arabs, the Shiite Arabs, and the Kurds – we will never begin to understand it. Local particularities must be examined, and in painstaking detail.

The current series on northern Iraq and environs will conclude with next Monday’s post on the Yezidis, members of a truly fascinating religious sect.

* Nechirvan Barzani was prime minister of the autonomous Kurdistan Regional from March 2006 to August 2009.

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