On Monday of this week, what had been feared transpired: Paramilitary units supported by elements of the Iraqi army attacked in the vicinity of Kirkuk.
Baghdad’s putatively federal army put into action the threats of the country’s leaders and, at the risk of ruining any chance of future coexistence with the Kurds, responded to the peaceful referendum of Sept. 25 with a dumbfounding and vengeful act of force.
Not long ago, it was Saddam Hussein operating with gas and deportations. And then on Monday Saddam’s Shiite successors, answering to Tehran, sent tanks, artillery, and Katyusha rockets into the oil fields that are the lifeblood of Kurdistan. Today they are doing the same in the Sinjar mountains, in the southern city of Jalawla, and in the Bashiqa area on the Plain of Nineveh, which the Kurds only just reclaimed from ISIS.
Of course, this disaster would not have occurred had the Kurds not been tragically divided. We know today that Baghdad’s quick victory is largely due to what President Masoud Barzani, in a statement released Oct. 17, called the “treason” of several commanders loyal to the PUK, the party founded by Barzani’s old rival, former President Talabani. The Iraqi-Iranian coalition was able to take advantage of these dissensions, using the commanders close to Talabani as Trojan horses to gain entry to Kirkuk and other targets. Be that as it may, the main issue—and the real scandal—lies in the fact that the central government of the pseudo-state of Iraq, whose sovereignty consists of little more than vague and hollow rhetoric, have used force to crush the country’s Kurdish citizens.
And now, scandal mounts around the fact that Kurdistan’s “friends,” the countries that for two years running relied on it to keep the Islamic State at bay and then to defeat it, the people who swore by the Peshmerga, by its heroes and by its dead, have, as I write these lines, responded with nothing more than deafening silence, appearing willing to abandon to their fate the men and women who fought so valiantly for them.
Whether one agreed or disagreed with the referendum that President Barzani consistently described as a democratic prelude to negotiation with Baghdad, it is completely unacceptable that the response to that referendum should be an act of force piled onto the blockade of Irbil’s skies and borders, the relentless economic and political pressure, and the transformation of Kurdish territory into an open-air prison over the past three weeks.
Whether one is for or against the independence of Kurdistan; whether one favors total independence or limited autonomy; whether one has in mind a clean break from Iraq or one of several federal arrangements preferred by some leaders in Irbil and Sulaimaniyah, one thing is beyond comprehension: that the world should watch while an entire nation is seized peremptorily by the throat, attacked on all fronts, dismembered, devastated, and humiliated.
In the face of this unprecedented act of punishment, the international community should have immediately sounded a solemn warning to Iraq (and to its Iranian masters and their ally of convenience, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan): Cease the aggression. Pull back the militias and the regular forces supporting them to the lines that existed on Oct. 15.
In response to an advance aimed at choking Kurdistan’s second-largest city and at breaking through the Peshmerga’s lines with support from Iraq’s 9th Armored Division, the federal police, and counterterrorism units, the West—notably the United States and France—should have called immediately for a ceasefire and denounced this replay of Danzig in the Middle East.
And, seeing that the Iraqi forces and the militants of Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq did not stand down, the international forces that were deployed in the area as part of the battle against the Islamic State should have been positioned to help our oldest and bravest ally in the region. For two years now, the Kurds have stood against the Islamic State almost alone along a thousand-kilometer front line, serving as the West’s rampart against barbarism.
One thing is beyond comprehension: that the world should watch while an entire nation is seized peremptorily by the throat, attacked on all fronts, dismembered, devastated, and humiliated.
When the Iraqi army fled before the Caliphate’s troops in the summer of 2014, it was the Kurds who held on and retook the territory.
And if they were in Kirkuk on Monday it is, first of all, because they had been a majority there until the Arabization imposed by Saddam Hussein, but also because it is owing to the Kurds—and the Kurds alone—that the city did not become a fiefdom of the Islamists like Mosul and Raqqa.
In other words, coming to their rescue was a matter of honor and justice.
On one side we had the sinister new Gang of Four (Iran, Turkey, Syria, and Iraq), who are bound together by their hatred of democracy and human rights; on the other, we have a small but great people who aspire only to liberty, ours as well as their own, and who harbor no aim to divide neighboring empires. What form of blindness—or what base calculations—could have caused us to hesitate for a second between the two?
I repeat: On one side, a clutch of dictatorships with which we, the United States and Europe, are engaged in a delicate balance of power that permits no lowering of our guard and no concession on matters of principle; on the other, a proud people who for a century have resisted successive attempts at subjugation and whose crime today is to have voiced a desire to live in a society guided by the very same principles that we in the West embrace. Who in Washington, Paris, or London could have had any doubt? Who would have dared oppose calling the Security Council into emergency session for a resolution to halt a war launched by Baghdad while the corpse of the Islamic State was still twitching?
We should not have abandoned Kurdistan, the only real pole of stability in the region.
We should not have allowed its population—nor the million and a half Christian, Yazidi, and Arab refugees who have sought asylum among them—to be taken hostage.
This advance of Iraqi forces, and of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard that supports them, in a part of the world where no troop movement, however infinitesimal, escapes the eye of American satellites, would not have been possible without the prior agreement of the U.S. State Department. And there—in serving up Kurdistan on a silver platter to a state, Iran, that is otherwise considered an adversary—lies an astonishing political miscalculation as well as a glaring and appalling moral failure.
Before it is too late, let us extend a fraternal hand to this exemplary people who, after a century of struggle, believed that they had finally glimpsed light at the end of the tunnel.
When I say fraternal, I am thinking particularly of the United States, a nation historically so close to Kurdistan in its struggle and whose image still burns brightly in the hearts of Kurds of all faiths and persuasions.
Translated from the French by Steven B. Kennedy.
Bernard-Henri Lévy is a philosopher, activist, filmmaker, and author of more than 30 books including The Genius of Judaism, American Vertigo, Barbarism with a Human Face, Who Killed Daniel Pearl?, and The Empire and the Five Kings. His most recent film, Slava Ukraini, will premiere nationwide on May 5, 2023.