DIYARBAKIR, Turkey — Iraqi Kurds' failed bid for independence — and their subsequent loss of Kirkuk city and other lands in that province that they had controlled for several years — left many Kurds in Turkey feeling crushed as well.
A man in the streets of predominately Kurdish Diyarbakir asked Al-Monitor recently what was happening in Kirkuk. “Last night when I saw the Hashid Shaabi [Popular Mobilization Units (PMU)] lowering the Kurdish flag [on the news], I cried until morning. Where are America and Europe, which were supposed to be supporting the Kurds?” he asked.
The Sept. 25 independence referendum, spearheaded by Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Massoud Barzani, passed overwhelmingly. However, not only was the result nonbinding, it inflamed the central government in Baghdad, which this month stormed Kirkuk province and quickly reclaimed about 40% of the areas the KRG had held since 2014, including oil wells, the airport and a military base.
Since then, Diyarbakir's attention has been focused almost exclusively on Kirkuk. Kurds of Diyarbakir who were galvanized by the September independence referendum process cannot understand how Kirkuk fell so easily under the central government’s authority and were shocked by reports of the PMU's swift advances.
Some reports say the KRG was betrayed by leaders of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) political party. Pavel Talabani, the son of recently deceased PUK chief Jalal Talabani, allegedly went behind Barzani's back and made a deal with the Baghdad government. Public anger instantly peaked. Many Kurds said they were sold out by their brethren and pointed to the PUK as the culprit. But there was also some anger directed against Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) by those who said, “OK, so the PUK ran away. Why didn’t you fight?”
The Kurds of Turkey are angry with the KDP, the PUK, the United States and Europe — with everyone involved in the developments in Iraq.
Historian and author Kadir Karagoz, who lives in Diyarbakir and follows Kurdish issues closely, is leveling his criticism at Kurdish politics in Turkey. “Kurds have lost most of their faith in Islamic brotherhood. Most of the northern Kurds [in Turkey] are upset, suspicious of and surprised by the HDP [pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party] and PKK [Kurdistan Workers Party] politics in Turkey. Northern Kurds were all for [Barzani's control of] Kirkuk, but now they are totally confused,” he told Al-Monitor.
Diyarbakir citizen Baki Karaman was also angry, mostly with Kurdish political parties. “The KRG referendum was a glimmer of hope for Kurdistan. We were told that everything was ready for the defense of Kurdistan, and that they [Kurdish leaders] would never give any concessions. But the ensuing bickering and arguments [among the Kurds] over narrow interests quickly led to disappointments among people who thought the land had been lost without any fighting. How can we expect support from America and Russia while we are so divided ourselves? We are in the Middle East, where everything can change with little warning,” he told Al-Monitor.
Before the vote, Kurdish parties established the Initiative for Support of the Independence Referendum to influence perceptions in Turkey. One of the prominent members of the initiative is Sidki Zilan, the official in charge of political affairs of the independence movement. Zilan said Kurds learned lessons from what happened. “We thus learned about the countries around us. The terror in this region is imported from Iran and Syria. … We have to get ready for tomorrow. We can’t simply fold our arms and wait,” he told Al-Monitor.
Bayram Bozyel, the deputy chair of the Kurdistan Socialist Party and a member of the initiative, is among those who are gravely disappointed. He told Al-Monitor, “We are sad, demoralized. We know Kurdish people are justified in the Kirkuk issue. On Sept. 25, the people of Kurdistan voted affirmatively for the referendum. No political power, no official opinion can override the will of the people. We will overcome our weaknesses soon."
Bozyel added, "The occupation of Kirkuk is not the work of Baghdad, but of Iran. America sees Iran as a threat in Iraq. Until [recently], Turkey felt the same. Unfortunately neither the United States nor other international powers adopted the right position against the Kirkuk attack. Their silence is also against their own interests. [The Iran-backed PMU] used the weapons the United States had given it [to fight the Islamic State] against the people of Kirkuk. Weakening Kurdistan means strengthening Iran, which is certainly a threat to the United States and Europe. The Kurds were much shaken by the loss of Kirkuk. But we should not give up. Let’s give our criticism, express our anger, but not give up hope."
Kurds living in Turkey, especially in Diyarbakir, are still trying to understand what really transpired. Some compare the events of today with what they lived through in 1966, when PUK leader Jalal Talabani abandoned the KDP and joined the ranks of the Iraqi state. Baghdad used Talabani against the KDP to deliver heavy blows to the Kurds. Other Kurds feel they are living through a repetition of the 1975 Algiers Agreement. In 1970, Kurds were fighting against Iraq with the support of the United States, which was then allied with Iran. But when Iran and Iraq made a deal in Algeria, Iran withdrew its support from the Kurds. The Kurds have always held Iran and the United States responsible for their losses.
Naturally, everyone has a different view, but one point they all agree on is that the Kurds' biggest weakness is their own disunity. For various reasons, the Kurds have never been able to raise their voices against their political parties. But today, those parties and their leaders cannot avoid charges of betrayal. Somebody will have to assume responsibility for the Kurds' monumental loss.
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