“No Friends But The Mountains”: The Future of Iraq’s Kurdish Minority

On the 20th of August, 1920, the landmark Treaty of Sevres was ratified by major powers to mark an end to the more than six-century-old Ottoman Empire. The provisions of the Treaty are significant in understanding modern geopolitical conflicts in the Middle East: amongst them, the creation of French-mandated Syria, and British-mandated Palestine. But owing to the failure of the Treaty’s signatories to act in this direction, a watershed provision of the Treaty was utterly and tragically neglected: the creation of an independent Kurdistan, to provide a home to the world’s now 25 million scattered Kurdish population.

The Kurds, an ethnically Iranian group which have historically inhabited mountainous regions near the Caucasus, have long struggled to gain a secure place in the world. Since the ratification of the Treaty of Sevres, Kurdish nationalist movements have gained increasing impetus and support. But rather than provoking a response from Western powers, these movements have largely been met by violent crackdowns and repression from countries with large Kurdish minorities. Guilty of demanding political autonomy and threatening uprising, a brutal crackdown on Iraq’s Kurdish minority began in 1987. Saddam Hussein had begun a policy of compulsorily uprooting Kurdish communities in 1975, after an offer of the creation of a semi-autonomous Kurdistan region was rejected by leaders- the land offered covered only half of the territory that Kurds considered theirs, and excluded several oil-rich regions on which the Kurdish economy would likely have been dependent. Saddam’s orders were carried out swiftly and brutally: in just two months, approximately 200,000 Kurds were expelled from their homes, according to Al-Thawra newspaper.

The campaign for the destruction of Kurdish life was on full course. Between 1987 and 1988, Saddam Hussein’s forces not only destroyed several thousand Kurdish villages, but also killed over 100,000 Kurdish men, women and children. Nearly all the victims were unarmed.

As Iraq approached the new millennium, the prospects for its Kurdish minority seemed to improve. A ceasefire was brokered, and autonomous Kurdistani regions were established, controlled by the PUK (the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan) and the KDP (Kurdistan Democratic Party). The two Kurdish regions, controlled by the rival factions, were unified into one large, autonomous region in early 2006.

A period of largely peaceful, but tense, political dynamics characterized the relationship between Iraqi Kurdistan and the Iraqi government for many years. Kurdistan functioned as a parliamentary democracy, with an economy growing at a faster rate than that of the rest of Iraq and a stabilizing middle class. But all that was to change this summer.

On the 5th of June, armed insurgents from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) began a bloody offensive on Northern Iraq, moving into the previously autonomous Kurdish regions, as well as the neighbouring city of Mosul. As ISIS forces began to progress through the country, a national state of emergency was declared by the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri Al-Maliki. Resistance attempts by both Kurdish and Iraqi forces had little success, and in August, ISIS attacked the largely Yazidi city of Sinjar, which prompted tens of thousands of Yazidis (members of a Kurdish ethno-religious community) to take refuge on Mount Sinjar.

The events that took place on Mount Sinjar will mark a watershed moment in the Kurdish people’s history: one which is already stained by episodes of brutality. Held on the mountains for one week and four days, the Kurdish civilians were uprooted from their destroyed villages, starved of food and water and tortured. According to a Yazidi MP, an estimated 500 Kurds were massacred in those eleven days, and several more died of starvation whilst trying to flee their captors. Now, experts claim that some 4,500 individuals – including about 3,000 women and children – remain in ISIS hands.

Horror stories of the persecution of Iraqi Kurds are arriving thick and fast in Western media. Militants have been treating young Yazidi women as the spoils of war, targeting them with sexual violence, as well as emotional and physical torture. Owing to their ancient beliefs, ethnic minority status and gender, these Kurdish women have been utterly stripped of their rights, possessions, dignity, and in many cases, lives.

The tragedy of the most recent plight of Iraq’s Kurdish population lies not only in their massacring, uprooting, torturing and abusing: what resonates most tragically is that history almost repeats itself. Whilst in 1987 it was the Iraqi government that carried out the atrocities against their own people, it is now the Iraqi government who turns its back to them: perhaps because it cannot help them, or perhaps because it will not. And equally, the international community today, as it did 27 years ago, struggles to formulate a response. Calls for help beyond sparse provisions of humanitarian aid have been ringing out from Kurdish leaders and civilians alike. Iraq’s only Yazidi parliamentarian, Vian Dakheel, has begged Western leaders to turn their attention to the plight of her people.

“We’re a minority here,” she said in a recent interview, “and there’s no strong lobby to support us. We ask for support from those governments that care about human rights and humanity.”

Just like how they were disappointed by Western leaders after the Treaty of Sevres failed to create them a home, Kurds are once again being let down by the West for failing to take positive measures towards preservation of their security and humanity. Now, this is but a distant prospect for the residents of Iraqi Kurdistan, who, for the third time in less than century, cry out to a world where no-one will listen.

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