By Michael Rubin:
When I first visited Iraqi Kurdistan in 2000, life for Iraqi Kurds was difficult. Saddam Hussein may have been gone, at least from Dahuk, Erbil, and Sulaymani, but no one knew when and if his forces would be back. The Iraqi Kurdish economy suffered both from that uncertainty, and under a double embargo: The United Nations sanctioned Iraq, and the Baghdad government blockaded Kurdistan. “Brazilis” outnumbered land cruisers. The government provided for only a few hours of electricity per day. While pharmacies had medicines, there were shortages, and often those drugs available were past their expiration date. Turkey sometimes closed its border with Iraqi Kurdistan to truck traffic, leading to truck queues leading all the way back to Silopi. Kurdish refugees fleeing from Kirkuk and its environs squatted in tent camps near Chamchamal, and in empty buildings in Erbil and Sulaymani.
Kurds withstood the blockade, Saddam fell, and today Iraqi Kurdistan thrives, in part because of the stoic resolve of the Kurdish people, and in part because of the leadership of both the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party.
How unfortunate it is, then, that the same politicians who once complained about the blockade of Iraqi Kurdistan now engage in one of their own.
The Syrian revolution has enabled Kurdish dreams that just a short time ago might seem foolish. Just a decade ago, an anti-government protest at a football match in Qamishli sparked a Syrian crackdown that led to the deaths of dozens of Kurds, and the imprisonment of hundreds more. The Syrian government regularly revoked the citizenship of ethnic Kurds, preventing them from purchasing land and attending university. Kurds languished in towns like Dibik, Qamishli, and Amuda as first Hafez al-Assad and then his son Bashar systematically sought to undercut their development, even as he sought to finance his government and his expensive lifestyle in part upon the Hasakah province’s oil wealth.
Rojava is the most stable and secure area within Syria, though its security was hard won: each town sports dozens of fresh graves, and pictures of martyrs dot most shops, homes, and street lamps. While every Iraqi Kurdish minister boasts a large office with fancy carpets, the most recent televisions, and ornate couches, Rojava officials do their work in ordinary apartments and small rooms alongside kerosene heaters often without a carpet and sometimes without even a desk. None of their sons finds the money to purchase $10 million villas outside Washington, DC, or fancy townhouses in London. Nothing goes to waste because so much is needed by ordinary people.
While the region has fruit and vegetables, and grows wheat and so had flour for bread, there is a severe shortage of other basic foodstuffs like rice and cooking oil. Even under sanctions, Iraqi Kurds received rations, no matter how corrupt the United Nation’s oil-for-food program had become. Syrian Kurds have no such recourse: the Syrian Red Crescent reserves its aid in Qamishli and more broadly in Syrian Kurdistan for areas which remain under Assad’s control. The greatest need right now is medicine: Insulin for diabetes, blood pressure medication, and drugs for other chronic problems. Neonatal care remains tenuous.
Rojava remains stoic, even as its isolation is greater than that ever faced by Masud Barzani and Jalal Talabani. When establishing the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), both initially had the assistance of the French, British, and Americans, which created a safe-haven and operated a no-fly zone. Even at the height of Iraqi Kurdistan’s isolation, trade continued across both the Iranian and Turkish borders. Indeed, the spark for the brutal civil war fought between Barzani and Talabani’s parties was largely a dispute over the sharing of revenue from the Ibrahim Khalil border crossing.
Rojava, in contrast, neither enjoys a no-fly zone nor, indeed, any external protection. The Turkish government, fearing another successful Kurdish entity alongside its border, has imposed a blockade, and the civil war inside Syria cuts off resupply through that country. The KRG completes the blockade. Kurdish authorities inside Rojava, for example, say that the KRG has refused for more than four months to allow several tons of donated medicines warehoused at the border to cross into Rojava, and Kurdistan Democratic Party officials at the Fish Habur crossing have refused permission for prominent foreigners to cross, including an Italian senator.
The reason for the KRG position is two-fold: First, Abdullah Öcalan is by far the most popular figure in Syrian Kurdistan; locals believe Barzani has, at best, five to ten percent support, about the same as does Bashar al-Assad in the region. A recent trip to Rojava confirmed such estimates, as flags and banners in support of Barzani were few and far between. The reason for Öcalan’s popularity is multifold: He lived in Syria until 1999, and so many locals knew him. Those who did not could read his writing and philosophy. Many also eschew the Kurdistan Democratic Party’s tribal character. Barzani has done nothing to win local hearts and minds and has, instead, sought to achieve his aims through force.
The second reason is both diplomatic and financial: Barzani’s business with Turkey depends on pleasing Ankara. If he wishes to retain some of the contracts from which he and his immediate family personally benefit, he must please Turkey’s government and military. Some issues should be more important than personal profit.
Money and political competition may color Barzani’s calculations, but they should not be reason to cause innocent Kurds to suffer and die for lack of medicine. If Barzani is as much of a defender of Kurdish rights as he claims, he should not sacrifice Syrian Kurdistan for his own ambition.
Kurds have a name—Jash—for their comrades who aided Saddam against their compatriots for money or favors. Alas, when it comes to undermining the Kurds of Syria, leading officials of the KRG now act as princes of the jash. It is not too late, however, for the KRG to do the right thing. Mr. Barzani, lift the blockade.