Ross Paton interviews British YPG volunteer Josh Walker on the Kurdistan Independence Referendum. Is it too soon for statehood?
Josh Walker returned from Syria just prior to the New Year and after volunteering with the Syrian Kurdish forces of the YPG in their fight against Isis.
The following interview was conducted via email on Monday, 25 September 2017, on the morning Iraqi Kurds began to vote in the independence referendum. An acronym guide is available at the end of the interview.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Note: In light of post-referendum events, interviewee Josh Walker clarifies that he believes civil war in Iraq is less likely than at the time this interview was conducted.
Ross Paton: Hi Josh, thank you for agreeing to this. Before we talk about the referendum itself, I’d like to start off by asking why you went to Syria to join the YPG as a volunteer in their fight against Isis?
Josh Walker: There are many reasons, but I suppose the most relevant one right now is my belief that people have a right to govern themselves; the Kurds have had a very bad deal in this regard over the past century. I also believe that the system that has emerged from the Kurdish left is the best chance at true peace the Middle East has.
Ross: Why is Kurdish statehood, generally speaking, a cause worth pursuing?
Josh: Some would argue that without a nation-state of its own, any group is potentially at risk of repression by the ruling class. The transition from the Ottoman Empire, with its millet system, to the Turkish Republic is a good example of this.
Ross: Despite having fought alongside Syrian Kurds against ISIS, you seem more sceptical than most about this referendum. How would you like the vote to go, and why?
Josh: Some of my experiences have given me reason to be concerned and I am, ultimately, undecided. I do, however, have Kurdish friends and comrades who are in favour of a No vote. Whilst I am pro-statehood if there are no better alternatives, my experience in Rojava has made me even more sceptical of the Westphalian nation-state model than I previously was. The system there, Democratic Confederalism, is partly based on the idea that nation-states are exclusionary. Put simply, no Kurdistan can be drawn that does not contain Turks, Arabs, or any number of other non-Kurdish groups. A state dedicated to one ethnic group, Kurdistan will naturally prioritise Kurds over others, which could be problematic. We must also take into consideration the recent experience with genocide, which has left a lot of Kurds with scores to settle and prejudice against Arabs, some of whom turned on their own neighbours when Isis came.
Conversely, the reaction of other groups may be “Well, you have your state, go to it.” Will Kurds in troublesome areas of Turkey be deported “home”? Could we see a process similar to the partition in India, with results that are just as bloody?
A proposed solution, based on the ideas of Abdullah Ocalan, founder of the PKK, suggests a decentralised system of councils with representation from all the different sections of society so no one group can gain too much power over another. Kurdish areas would be free to have Kurdistan and border area populations would co-operate.
In this scenario, the aim is not to separate from Turkey, Iraq and so on, but instead to gain autonomy within them and bridge them together. As it is, independence for a Kurdistan in northern Iraq would result in a small state surrounded by enemies with potentially reduced legitimacy for the majority of the Kurds’ struggle for rights and autonomy. Of the four Kurdistans, the southern/Iraqi Kurdistan has the second largest population with approximately 10 million, compared to 20 million in Turkey, 4 million in Syria, and 6 million in Iran. Even if the more extreme scenarios presented above did not pan out, could these governments still not say, “But you already have Kurdistan?”
Aside from theoretical or ideological reasons, statehood is not a terrible idea for an ethnic group that has frequently been attacked by the states they inhabit. The issue here may be one of timing. Over the weekend, comrades on the front in Raqqa have been reporting that ISIS has collapsed. The capital has been recaptured and the Caliphate is, for all intents and purposes, over – at least in the Fertile Crescent.
For the KRG, now should be a time for rebuilding. Whilst supporters of a Yes vote may argue that control over their own taxation and oil supply would be useful in this regard as money from the central government in Baghdad may not be forthcoming – they did not pay wages to the KRG for many months, including the Peshmerga in the middle of the war – igniting an open conflict with the central government is likely to be far more costly.
The KRG also faces internal political tensions. President Barzani has stretched his power to remain in office (and enrich his clan); his enemies go as far as to accuse him of wanting to be King of Kurdistan. Barzani’s ruling party, the KDP, control half of the country, with the centre-left PUK controlling the other. The PKK is in the northern mountains, and the leftist protest movement, Gorran, is spreading in influence. These divisions have led to war before, in the 1990s, and they may again. Each side, after all, has its own armed forces – the KDP and PUK both have their own Peshmerga, while the PKK have “gerîla”. Any civil war would likely also draw in the YPG, who are very friendly with the PKK and other Kurdish leftists but hostile to the KDP thanks to a blockade, among other things.
Ross: Among the most contentious issues of the referendum are the disputed territories. The oil rich region of Kirkuk, as well as Sinjar, are included in the referendum vote, despite only recently coming under Kurdish control after being taken from Isis. Kirkuk is home to many Arabs and Turks, alongside Kurds. Only 24 of the 41 council members in Kirkuk voted to include Kirkuk in the referendum, with the remaining members boycotting the vote as unconstitutional. With the Prime Minister of Iraq, Haider al-Abadi, rejecting the decision to include Kirkuk, whilst threatening intervention if violence occurs, and both Barzani and Talabani (the respective heads of the first and third largest parties in Iraq) unifying around the annexation of Kirkuk, do you think the disputed territories of Kirkuk and Sinjar could sour the relationship between Bagdad and Erbil – and bring about war?
Josh: Yes, the disputed territories are a major element in all of this.
The war against Isis was a tremendous opportunity to build goodwill between the various factions in the region, both in Kurdistan and in the wider region, but these opportunities have largely been squandered by those in power. What little goodwill exists is at risk of evaporating as the victors squabble over the spoils.
One flashpoint is Şengal/Sinjar, the home of Kurdish-speaking Yazidis who are, in many ways, distinct from their notional countrymen. I read in reports at the time and personally spoke to witnesses who attested that KDP Peshmerga retreated from the area when Isis attacked, leaving the local population vulnerable to the genocide that followed. As in Mosul with the Iraqi army, they allege that first the officers – in this case, men appointed based on party or clan affiliation with little to no military experience or talent – fled, as what was expected to be a cushy paycheque turned into anything but. Then, the soldiers themselves, without leadership or coordination and perhaps under the belief that the attack was far larger than it was (and they only numbered a few hundred in any case), followed suit. Again, as in Mosul, they left decent equipment behind that Isis conveniently captured (though the locals, it must be said, also used them to resist, in those rare cases of individual heroism that always appear at these times).
According to some reports, as few as eight PKK agents defended Mt. Shengal and its refugees at one point. It is widely known that some PKK guerillas (with the help of US air strikes, Iraqi supply drops, and some aerial evacuations) were among the defenders of the mountain who held off until the YPG could establish a ‘corridor’ through the desert to the west to securely evacuate as many of the remaining civilians as possible.
Despite great examples of cooperation between the different factions, this episode and subsequent developments have resulted in a lot of bad blood. After the YPG-led operation to liberate the city, the PKK felt justified in remaining there (the YPG returning to Syria once the equivalent YBŞ [Shengal Resistance Units] were established). They believe the area should be run under the confederal system and “the Barzani clan” (i.e. the KDP) cannot be trusted to protect the area. The KDP, for its part, is concerned about PKK influence and wants a return to business as before the war. The Yazidis, from what I can gather, don’t trust the KDP and dislike the PKK’s ideology, especially with regards to feminism. I think they like the autonomy, however, as they do prefer to be left alone. This is also of course a generalisation, as Yazidis serve in the Peshmerga and there are refugees in the YPG who despise their culture’s current misogyny, which stretches to rescued sex slaves being killed for ‘honour’.
This may spill over into open conflict, as the KDP have been cutting off Sinjar (as they blockaded Rojava) while fights have been breaking out between the Yazidi (plus some western volunteers), YBŞ, or the PKK and the KDP peshmerga. This is likely to be the starting point of any potential civil war; one that, in my unprofessional opinion, the KDP would solidly lose. The PUK are more friendly to the PKK (who also fought in Kirkuk) and have their own reasons to want to take Barzani down a peg, so the conflict might likely be “the Kurdish left” vs the KDP.
PKK guerrillas are sworn soldiers who live a Spartan lifestyle in the mountains. An entirely different beast to the others, they live and fight in a different way also. They lack the modern western equipment provided to the Peshmerga, but they’d tell you that, for the most part, they don’t need it. The YPG, for their part, are a militia whose discipline and fighting abilities vary, but they share the motivation of the “cadre”, or sworn-soldier system, and revolutionary fervour of the PKK.
That said, legitimacy from being the official president of an independent Kurdistan and political capital from having finally achieved the long-held dream of a state may invite enough international and Kurdish support to swing it for the ‘founding father’ of Kurdistan.
As you say, the Kirkuk issue could be a similar flashpoint for a Kurdish conflict with Iraq. In the event of a Yes vote and the separation of the KRG, it will have to be decided whether Kirkuk is Iraqi, and therefore perhaps implicitly Arab, or Kurdish. One or the other. The question may be settled diplomatically, and then descend into violence, or be settled by force immediately. Whichever conflict ensues, it would be disastrous for an already war weary population of a war ravaged region.
Ross: For those who may not be as familiar with Kurdish affairs as yourself, would you mind detailing why you, and many of the Kurds you met, view Masoud Barzani (President of the Kurdish Region and leader of the KDP) cynically, or even as a traitor?
Josh: The previously mentioned blockade of Rojava is a major point. In the course of reaching Rojava, I had to evade KDP patrols and many friends have been arrested and imprisoned in KDP areas. Indeed, tit-for-tat arrests of YPG or KDP sympathisers take place. Supplies, including vital medicine and food are held up on the border for arbitrary (and generally long) periods of time. This has severely hampered the war effort and contributed to the suffering of the locals and refugees. I personally dislike him and the KDP for this reason, as it is one of the prime examples of an opportunity for cooperation in the face of a greater threat that was squandered – and I saw the sharp end of it. Most foreigners were interested in helping Kurds defend against a genocidal threat, not internal ideological squabbles, and mostly civilians suffered from what seemed to be an opportunistic power play designed to sabotage or starve out the revolution (and, by extension, the front against ISIS) in Rojava.
Another reason, and possibly the biggest, is cooperation with Turkey, the state that has most repressed Kurds and Kurdish rights. The Turkish military has bases in the north and bombs villages and PKK encampments in the area, allegedly with the collaboration of the KDP. To some Kurds, you can have whatever conflict over ideology you like but helping an oppressor who wishes to see all Kurds dead (as they see it) is unacceptable. I don’t personally know how many of the accusations of collaboration are true, but the Turkish bases and bombings are real enough and it may just be that there is nothing the KDP can realistically do without dragging the KRG into war with Turkey’s 1,000,000-strong military.
There are smaller points, like appearing at a diplomatic meeting with Erdogan with no Kurdish flags displayed (viewed, as it would be in most countries, as an insult). Supporters of the KDP, however, argue that gaining good relations with Turkey is necessary for successful independence, even if it may mean bearing some disrespect along the way.
In the course of the more conservative and capitalist KDP’s conflict with the left, there have been many conflicts similar to the one in Sinjar, and periods of arrests, tortures and disappearances. This embitters people, naturally. Combined with rumours of collaboration, disorganisation in the face of ISIS, corruption, nepotism, economic problems and so on, many, especially on the Kurdish left, strongly dislike Masoud Barzani and consider his presidency a disaster that has gone on far too long.
Ross: Should the international community up its pressure to delay the referendum?
Josh: Yes. Internal constitutional issues, cooperation, the economy, and building peace after the war (which, of course, could include options of Kurdish statehood) are far more important now. The volatile situation should be allowed to cool, and these questions should be settled with reasonable discussion between people who don’t want to just slaughter everyone else now that ISIS is, for the most part, subdued. Conflict might allow them to bounce back, too.
Ross: How will the prospective for greater Kurdish autonomy and statehood in other Kurdish areas of the wider region (Iran, Syria and Turkey) be affected if Iraqi Kurdistan goes independent?
Josh: As previously mentioned, it may actually be held back. On the other hand, it may inspire greater hope and resistance in the other parts of the country aiming to break off and join the south. That may result in a horrible situation reminiscent of the Balkans, though.
Ross: Presuming all of what you say is correct, who should Westerners sympathetic to the Kurdish cause be supporting and how can your average Westerner help the Kurdish cause without being duped by Barzani?
Josh: There are Kurdish solidarity campaigns in every country with a Kurdish population (Germany, Sweden, the UK and US are the major ones I know of). In general, Westerners should be supporting anyone defending the rights of Kurds to be Kurds and stay out of their internal struggles in favour of advocating reconciliation. We can pressure our political representatives to delist the PKK and recognise them as a morally grey combatant (in a brutal conflict) with whom the West can work as opposed to terrorists “we do not negotiate with.” This would allow negotiation to take place for democratic autonomy in the Kurdish regions of Turkey, their withdrawal from Iraq, and the demobilisation/disarmament of the PKK. Oppose arms sales and support to Turkey, which it uses to shell Kurdish villages. Support the release of Kurdish political prisoners (although to this point I might add that the same should be said for Turkish journalists, politicians and others who are unjustly imprisoned).
You can also donate to organisations working in Kurdistan, including the Kurdish Red Crescent (Heyva Sor Kurdistan). For those so inclined, visiting the major cities of Iraqi Kurdistan such as Erbil (the capital) or Suleymaniah for a couple of days and injecting some money directly into the local economy is actually a decent idea. They’re not that much more dangerous than a major European city and the locals will be pleased to see you as long as you’re polite, respectful, and learn some Kurdish.
Ross: As you know, the referendum comes at a serendipitous time for Iraqi Kurdistan – they reap widespread support for their efforts to be seen as the sole reliable, military force combating ISIS in Iraq and, historically speaking, enjoy relatively cordial relations (referendum opposition aside) with their neighbours and the international community. Some would say that Iraqi Kurdistan may never be in a better position for independence in our lifetime. Even presuming you are right about Barzani’s antics, wouldn’t the best move, under the circumstances, be to support statehood and worry about Barzani later?
Josh: Perhaps. As discussed, however, this move might sour those relations. It might be best to build on this strong position and improve those more cordial relations in the future, with an eye to independence. Or something other than statehood entirely.
Ross: Do you think a Kurdish Referendum could pave the way to the ‘three-state solution’ popularised by Peter Galbraith: Iraq partitioned with separate Sunni, Shia and Kurdish States to prevent further decent into sectarian violence in the aftermath of ISIS’ defeat?
Josh: This may actually exacerbate the sectarian violence by drawing distinct artificial lines between communities, comparable to India’s experience.
Ross: The Kurdish history has consistently been one of betrayal and persecution. The British and Americans have contributed to the former, while the states in which the Kurdish population is unfortunate enough to reside have all had roles in the latter. Given that the population is overwhelmingly expected to vote Yes, will Barzani’s move to the referendum break, or adhere to that trend, and would you still have reason to be hopeful about a Kurdish future?
Josh: I do worry that with ISIS gone, Western interest in the Kurdish question will dry up. It is not beyond the US to drop the YPG, leaving them to the Turkish, Russian and Syrian regimes – after all, the US hasn’t typically shown a fondness for revolutionary socialist movements. Even the KRG, nurtured somewhat by a US no-fly zone for the past 20-odd years, may find itself abandoned again to a vengeful Baghdad. This time, with confidence, training and equipment they might win, but again, is more war what is needed at this moment?
I’m ever an optimist, so I hope the constitutional questions will be resolved peacefully with some prodding from the outside, though it’s just as likely it will be external meddling that extends the conflict. Regardless, I’m confident that the future of Kurdistan is a bright one; no matter how long it takes they will win their freedom. The mountains produce many heroes.