International Committee of the Fourth International
Fourth International 1991: Oppose imperialist war and colonialism!

Imperialism Inflicts New Tragedy upon Kurdish People

This “Bulletin” editorial originally appeared in the April 5, 1991 issue.

With the brutal suppression carried out by the Iraqi army in the retaking of the oil center of Kirkuk and the towns of Kohuk, Irbil and Zakhu in the north, the oppressed Kurdish people have once again been made the victims of a tragedy and betrayal at the hands of imperialism.

In the fighting in and around Kirkuk, tens of thousands appear to have been killed or wounded. Whole populations, numbering in the hundreds of thousands, have been turned into refugees, fleeing toward the mountains and the Turkish and Iranian borders. Civilian columns have been pursued, strafed and rocketed by attack helicopters.

Nothing could more clearly expose the cynicism and hypocrisy of US imperialism’s intervention in the Persian Gulf than its complicity in this genocidal massacre. With its army continuing to occupy 20 percent of Iraqi territory, Washington has clearly given the green light to the regime of Saddam Hussein to carry out the genocidal massacre of the Kurdish people.

In the midst of the Pentagon’s slaughter of more than 100,000 virtually defenseless Iraqi soldiers as they attempted to flee from Kuwait, Bush called upon the Iraqi people to revolt against Hussein. He deliberately led the Kurds to believe that the US invasion of Iraq would provide them with the opportunity to establish an autonomous region if not outright independence.

Once the uprising began and rebel forces seized control across northern Iraq, however, the Bush administration swiftly made clear its tacit support for a bloodbath at the hands of the Iraqi army. Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf made his famous statement that he had been “suckered” into allowing the use of helicopter gunships inside Iraq during cease-fire negotiations with the Iraqi commanders.

Despite the illusions in the Bush administration propagated by the Kurdish bourgeois nationalist leaderships of Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and Massoud Barazni’s Kurdish Democratic Party, US imperialism never had any interest whatsoever in playing a “liberating” role in the gulf. From the beginning it sought only the plunder of the region’s vast oil resources and the domination of its strategic position.

Washington’s silent backing for the crushing of the Kurds only serves to expose once again the fraudulent character of the pretexts advanced for US imperialism’s intervention in the Persian Gulf.

One of the main justifications for launching the war, the vastly exaggerated accounts of Iraqi atrocities in Kuwait, pale by comparison with the crimes being carried out against the Kurdish people, not to mention the equally bloody suppression of the Shi’ite rebellion in the south.

Moreover, the pretense that US imperialism was somehow acting as the guardian of self-determination by defending Kuwait is completely exploded by the open hostility of the Bush administration to the legitimate nationalist strivings of the Kurdish people.

Various supporters of US imperialism’s intervention in the Persian Gulf are now leveling criticism at the Bush administration over its attitude toward the Kurdish revolt. Cynical declarations of sympathy for the Kurds and calls for US action in their defense have been issued by such rightwing columnists as William Safire of the New York Times, who mourned “the countless innocents double-crossed by George Bush.” Then there is the wretched statement issued by Lane Kirkland of the AFL-CIO who urged the Bush administration “to protect the Kurds and other innocent civilian victims of Saddam Hussein’s barbarity” by escalating the imperialist intervention in Iraq.

What is notable about all these statements is that their authors considerately waited until after the Kurdish uprising was drowned in blood before uttering a peep. Furthermore, both the right-wing columnists and the labor lieutenants of imperialism in the AFL-CIO bureaucracy have never been known for their squeamishness when it comes to bloodbaths against oppressed peoples. Both have repeatedly supported the bloody crimes of the Zionist regime in Israel against the Palestinians, as well as the horrific destruction which US imperialism unleashed against Iraq as a whole.

Behind the crocodile tears being shed for the Kurds is really nothing more than a tactical debate within the ruling class over whether or not to exploit the issue as a subterfuge for establishing an even tighter imperialist grip over the region and seizing the rich oil fields in the north of Iraq. If such a decision is taken by Washington, and it is by no means excluded, the US intervention will simply continue the dirty work begun by the Saddam Hussein regime in suppressing the struggle of the Kurdish people for national liberation.

There is nothing new in this ruthless exploitation of the Kurdish national question or in the bloody treachery carried out by imperialism against the Kurdish people.

At the turn of the century, the Ottoman rulers sought to incite the Kurds against the Armenians as part of a policy to divide and rule. In the aftermath of World War I, as the imperialist powers sat down to carve up the carcass of the Ottoman Empire, the Kurds were promised in the Treaty of Sevres “a scheme of local autonomy” and a right to set up an independent state in the eastern portion of what later became Turkey. But the real business of this treaty was the division of the region into a series of colonially-dominated and dependent states—Iraq, Syria and Kuwait—and the Kurdish question was quickly shelved in the interests of stabilizing the nation-state system imposed by imperialism.

In the decades which followed, Kurdish uprisings have been alternately encouraged and then betrayed by imperialism or one or another of the national bourgeois regimes in pursuit of their interests in the region. In many cases, Turkey, Iraq or Syria would support Kurdish revolts in each other’s countries, while ruthlessly suppressing their “own” Kurds.

The last major US role in relation to the Kurdish people took place in 1973-74, when the US, Israel and Iran collaborated in supporting a rebellion against the Baathist regime in Baghdad. US imperialism and the Zionist regime in Israel both wanted to use the Kurdish insurgency as a means of tying down the Iraqi regime following the October 1973 Arab-Israeli war. Moreover, Washington saw support for the rebellion as a means of retaliating for the nationalization of American oil interests in Iraq in 1972. For its part, the Shah’s dictatorship in Iran sought to exploit the legitimate national aspirations of the oppressed Kurdish people in Iraq in order to further his expansionist ambitions and secure border concessions on the Shatt-al Arab.

Under the direction of then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, massive amounts of CIA funding and arms were funneled into the Kurdish Democratic Party of Mustafa Barzani and Iranian armed forces were used in direct support of the Kurdish rebels.

In the book Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East, the author Patrick Seale describes this episode:

“Kissinger’s fear was that Iraq, the one Arab state which had given Asad useful military support in the October War, might now come to Syria’s aid again, allowing it to resume hostilities or threaten to do so. Determined to prevent this from happening, Kissinger, in collusion with the Shah of Iran and the Israelis, fanned into flames in the spring of 1974 a long-smoldering conflict between the Iraqi Kurds and the Baghdad government, so pinning down the Iraqi army at home. Stirring up the Kurds was a well-rehearsed scenario as Israel had been giving the Iraqi Kurds intermittent help for two decades in the belief that destabilizing Arab states, even those a long way off, was always to its advantage. A first group of Kurds had come to an Israeli base near Ramleh in the mid-1950s for sabotage training, and Rafel Eitan, later Israel’s Chief of Staff, had himself paid a clandestine visit to Iraqi Kurdistan. By the mid-1960s Israel had become one of the Kurds’ main props.”

The book cites the 1976 Pike Report issued by a congressional committee investigating clandestine CIA operations. In this report, it states, “Kissinger was reported as explaining the arming and financing of the Kurds as a means to dissuade Iraq from any ‘international adventurism’—that is to say, coming to the aid of Syria.” The Kurds were never intended to win, merely to sap Iraq’s strength. The report continues:

“‘Our clients [the Kurds], who were encouraged to fight, were not told of this policy. It was a cynical enterprise, even in the context of a clandestine aid operation.’...

“Believing that the United States was helping him realize his national aspirations, the trusting Kurdish leader, Mullah Mustafa Barzani, sent Kissinger a present of rugs and then of a gold and pearl necklace for his bride on the occasion of his wedding in March 1974. But having served the purpose of weakening Iraq, and thereby ensuring that it could not come to Syria’s aid, the Kurds were abandoned in a trade-off between Iraq and Iran formalized in the Algiers agreement of 13 June 1975. Iran sealed its frontier to the Kurds, whereupon many were slaughtered by Iraq and tens of thousands displaced from the border areas. In exchange Iraq ceded to Iran joint control of the Shatt al-Arab waterway at the head of the gulf. By this time a thoroughly disillusioned Barzani had come to realize that he had been cruelly used.”

Yet barely a decade and a half later, Massoud Barzani has followed in his father’s footsteps, once again basing the struggle for Kurdish self-determination on the machinations of imperialism and thereby leading the Kurdish people into another bloodbath.

The working class must clearly distinguish between the unconditional right of the Kurdish people to self-determination and the completely reactionary methods employed by the bourgeois nationalist leaderships.

The historic weakness of all the bourgeois nationalist organizations, not only those of the Kurds, but also the PLO, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka and others, is that they seek independence and self-determination on the basis of an alliance with imperialism. Their continuous maneuvers with the imperialist powers compromise the democratic credentials of their own movements and serve to sabotage the struggle to mobilize the working class in support of the oppressed nationalities. In the end, their leaning on imperialism leads them into the open betrayal of the masses whom they claim to represent.

The treachery of Stalinism has also played a major role in the domination of the Kurdish struggle for self-determination by bourgeois leaderships. Historically, the most politically far-sighted and conscious sections of the Kurdish workers, intellectuals and youth found themselves in the revolutionary workers movement. But the outright subservience of the Stalinist parties in Iraq and elsewhere in the region to both imperialism and the oppressive bourgeois nationalist regimes undermined the connection between the national struggle and the working class movement.

The question of Kurdish self-determination is clearly an international one and for that very reason cannot be resolved within the framework of imperialism. The Kurdish people, numbering 20 million, are divided by the national boundaries of Iraq, Turkey, Syria and the Soviet Union. None of the imperialist powers have any interest in carrying through their cynical promises of support to Kurdish self-determination, precisely because it would undermine the reactionary nation-state system through which imperialism has dominated the region for the last 70 years.

Only the international working class can genuinely uphold the right of the Kurdish people to self-determination as part of the struggle to overthrow capitalism and tear down the reactionary borders imposed by imperialism, as part of the world socialist revolution. This is the perspective fought for by the International Committee of the Fourth International, the world Trotskyist movement.