Before ISIS launched a gruesome attack on the Yazidis in Iraq in 2014, few people around the world knew about the people, their history, or about their faith. The atrocity received widespread international media coverage and led to an outpouring of support for the beleaguered minority.
But years before the Yazidis were known on the international stage, Idan Barir made them the focus of his work. While studying for a Master’s degree in Middle Eastern History at Tel Aviv University, Barir began to look at the Yazidis because, he said, “almost no else had studied them.” His 2009 dissertation looked at the Yazidi cultural movement and the concept of a collective identity. He made many contacts with Yazidis in Iraqi Kurdistan and the diaspora over the course of his work, and as a result discovered much about them, most of it completely unknown around the world. And while the ISIS attacks were widely reported, few knew that Muslim clerics employed by the supposedly secular Kurdish Regional Government also went on anti-Yazidi rants and openly called for their murder on television.
Barir’s constant connection with Yazidis has led many to dub him “Israel’s ambassador to the Yazidis,” — a name that has stuck. He has recently expanded his research to look at the history of Kirkuk in the late Ottoman period and is approaching the final stages of his doctoral studies at Tel Aviv University.
IranWire spoke to Idan Barir about Kurds, Yazidis and Israel’s stance on the referendum.
Iraqi Kurdistan will soon hold a referendum on independence. Can this lead to a positive outcome, and a democratic Kurdistan? Do you think it should be held?
I believe that in order to give a serious and thorough answer, I should first note the difference between the legal discourse and the discourse about vested rights. According to the Iraqi law and constitution, the Kurds have a right to run their “Iqleem” (autonomous region) but they cannot break into independence unilaterally and at a time of their choosing. On the other hand, one can only identify with this people’s battle for independence and with their sense of deprivation and determination to recover what had been stolen from them.
Having said that, I believe that the current referendum poses a tri-fold problem to the Kurds in general and to those in Iraq in particular. First, based on the present image of the Kurdish authorities running the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), it is fair to assume that the regime's plan to administrate the future Kurdish state in Northern Iraq is far from the democracy Kurdish officials have been talking about in their official statements over the passing months.
Second, the referendum is a dramatic, high-risk unilateral step taken by the Kurdish authorities in spite of regional and international disapproval and dismay, from both allies and opponents. This step may fortify president Barzani’s image as a Kurdish national hero, at least in Başur (Iraqi Kurdistan — literally, “Southern Kurdistan”), but it also might prove to be a poisoned chalice, and what seems now as a prospect for independence will end up in ruining the Iraqi Kurds’ diplomatic and economic relations with most or all of their allies, relations that had been wisely woven and maintained for many years.
Third, the referendum, it is crucial to remember, is set to take place only in Iraqi Kurdistan and as such it has the potential to lead to independence only for the limited borders of the current Kurdish autonomous region in Northern Iraq. Thus, we cannot speak of a Kurdish referendum, for the referendum is relevant for roughly a seventh of the Kurdish People. This notion is not mere pedantry, as it also has the potential to bury the dream of a larger Kurdistan as an independent state for all Kurds. This is the reason many Kurds outside Iraqi Kurdistan find Barzani’s referendum initiative as more potentially destructive than productive.
For all the aforementioned, I believe that while Barzani and the Kurdish authorities will seek to move forward with the referendum, they will not be able to implement its expected positive result. It is of no surprise, then, that Kurdish officials, including President Barzani himself, have made official statements in recent months saying that the referendum is a mere declarative step aiming to prove the Kurds’ unswerving aspiration for independence. As such, they insinuate a [move] to hedge and soften previous statements that were far more firm and determined.
You have done a lot to advocate for the rights of Yazidis and Yazidi refugees. Can an independent Kurdistan lead to securing their rights and ending the genocide against them?
The Yazidis, as well as the Nineveh Plains Christians, are still licking the wounds of the Kurdish Peshmerga retreat from Sinjar, and the Yazidi and Christian villages of the Mosul area. This retreat, which is seen by these minorities as a Kurdish betrayal, left them an easy prey to the IS invasion in the bloody summer of 2014, culminating in the almost full displacement of these communities and the irreversible crushing of their delicate communal fabric. Following the displacement, these communities, along with the Turkmen communities of Kirkuk, Tal Afar and other disputed areas (the sovereignty over which is disputed between Baghdad and Erbil), historically hostile to the Kurdish authorities, are now feeling a strong sense of alienation and loss of trust towards these authorities.
To their misfortune, most of these communities found themselves forced to take refuge within the KRG, among the very people they feel have betrayed and abandoned them, and at their mercy. All three minority communities, except for a group of politicians and members of Kurdish parties who are close to the authorities in Erbil, strongly oppose the referendum and see no prospect of security, protection of their rights, or safe return to their homelands. This is not expected to change until the referendum is held, but on the other hand, their electoral power within the KRG is limited and they will not be able to significantly influence the results of the referendum, besides some marginal effect on its results.
Why does Israel give so much support to the referendum? As someone who has worked hard to attract interest to the plight of Kurds in Israel, are you happy with Tel Aviv’s position on this issue?
Israel, as with many other countries in the west, has held extremely positive, sometimes romantic, views of the Kurds in general, and particularly the Iraqi Kurds. These views were molded in many years of secret cooperation between the Israeli military and intelligence communities and the Kurdish Peshmerga during the 1960s and 1970s, while still a militia led by Malla Mustafa Barzani, President Masoud Barzani’s father. This is why many Israelis share a positive sentiment towards the Kurds and why many Israeli politicians express support for the Iraqi Kurds’ referendum and independence initiative. Having said that, recent statements by Israeli politicians, most importantly last week’s statement by Prime Minister Netanyahu during his visit to Argentina, are far more polemic and defiant toward some of Israel’s most prominent opponents in the region, namely Turkey. If you check PM Netanyahu’s statement (“Israel opposes the PKK and sees it as terror group, as opposed to Turkey, which supports the terror organization Hamas; while Israel opposes terrorism as a whole, it supports the legitimate efforts of the Kurdish people to achieve their own state"), you will see that he stresses the Turkish rivalry with the PKK and its support to Hamas to a far larger extent than Israel’s support to the “Kurdish people.” Netanyahu and Israeli officials do not understand internal Kurdish politics and rivalries between competing factions in the various regions of Kurdistan. From this statement it seems that they don’t really care as well, and they use the Israeli sentimental support of the Kurdish issue as lip service disguising their real aim, of hurting Turkey right in its Kurdish “soft belly.”
Can Kurds trust Israel given the complicated history of their triangular relations with Baghdad, Tehran and Tel Aviv?
As I mentioned, the Iraqi Kurds have maintained a long secret relationship with Israel, enjoying Israel’s military expertise and economic force and as of recent years, according to some European sources, exporting three-fourths of Israel oil consumption. All that without ever having to publicize the relations between the countries, thus refraining from spiting its neighbors – Turkey, Iran, Syria, and mainly the Iraqi state. However, the nature of these relations between the Iraqi Kurds and Israel is not expected to change regardless of the results of the referendum, for many strategic, economic, and diplomatic reasons. Even if the close relations continue uninterruptedly, I find it extremely difficult to imagine a scenario in which Israel becomes a major direct supporter of the Kurdish state, so the question of trust seems irrelevant here – the trust obviously exists and supports the secret relations but it will not be brought to a test in the open diplomatic arena and thus will not have to face any substantial challenges. PM Netanyahu’s support for Kurdish independence was more than a sufficient price for the Kurds to maintain the level of trust between the countries.
You have done much work on the history of Kirkuk. What do you make of the Kurdish claim to the city as an integral part of a Kurdish homeland?
The history of Kirkuk tell us nothing about the current political situation in the city. A hundred years ago, the city was an Ottoman city and its residents were largely Turkish- speaking. This situation changed time and again since the British mandate over Iraq and throughout the periods of the changing Iraqi regimes that understood Kirkuk’s strategic and economic importance in the construction and integration of the Iraqi state, and for that purpose manipulated the local population and its identities. The Baath regime filled Kirkuk and its surroundings with Arab tribesmen in order to tip the ethnic balance in the city, as part of its Arabization campaign. In the decade and a half since the American invasion of Iraq, the Kurdish authorities have engaged in a much similar endeavor, of balancing the former Arabization and filling the city with Kurds, under the pretext of preparing for a referendum on the future of the city, as stipulated in Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution. The city's positioning in the Kurdish national narrative as “the historic capital of the Kurdish people” or the “Jerusalem of the Kurds” was molded largely against the backdrop of the political circumstances of modern Iraq, and not necessarily because the city was traditionally a "Kurdish city".
What will be the future of states in the region in the event of Kurdish independence? Could the whole map be redrawn?
The prospect for such a scenario seems quite far fetched [given] the current state of affairs. I also do not subscribe to the narrative of “breaking the Sykes-Picot” lines in the Middle East, as they had little effect on the region’s borders to begin with. However, as I mentioned before, in the case that Iraqi Kurds do break into independence, chances rise dramatically for a wide regional war, to which the Kurdish independence might serve as a trigger and a catalyst, but not necessarily be its sole reason.
Read the other interviews in the series:
The Timing of the Kurdish Referendum is Bad for the Kurds and the US (Interview with Professor Daniel Serwer)
You Can’t Put the Genie Back into the Bottle in Kurdistan (Interview with US diplomat Peter Galbraith)
"Israel has a Moral Commitment to the Kurds” (Interview with Colonel Dr. Jacques Neriah)
What Can Israel do for the Kurds? (Interview with Professor Ofra Bengio)