Somewhere in the afterlife, Mullah Mustafa Barzani, the eagle of the Zagros Mountains, is smiling. His pleas for the United States to provide arms directly to his Kurdish warriors to repel Arab invaders are finally being answered.
The arms deliveries are late – Barzani first made his appeals in the The Post four decades ago – and they are minimal, considering the Kurds’ needs. But they mark a change for the Middle East that may be more significant than realized even by the Obama administration and its European allies.
In 1972, Barzani, as gruff and commanding a tribal chieftan as Hollywood could have ever created, foresaw the genocidal assaults by Saddam Hussein’s forces soon to come on the Kurds’ mountain redoubt in northern Iraq. But Washington did not respond to his pleas for direct arms shipments. Saddam’s troops smashed the Kurds’ defenses in 1975, Barzani fled into bitter and lonely exile in a CIA-monitored safe house in Northern Virginia (where he died in 1979), and Iraq’s long night of terror under Saddam began in earnest.
Much has changed since then. Indirectly empowered by the U.S. military interventions of 1991 and 2003, the Kurds regained control of their homeland. Barzani’s son, Massoud, led Kurdistan into an era of relative prosperity and stability by pursuing solid economic cooperation with Turkey to the west while deftly handling Iran to the east.
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But this has not changed: The Kurds are still a non-Arab minority who refuse to be absorbed culturally and politically into an Arab-dominated society. They are relatively tolerant Sunni Muslims who speak an Indo-European language and protect their heritage with a fierce pride.
Their resistance to assimilation and rule by Baghdad helped spark Saddam’s ethnic cleansing and resettlement of large Arab populations into Kurdish areas. Today, the Kurds’ continuing yearning for self-determination helps drive a hatred of them by the Sunni extremists and chauvinists of the Islamic State movement who have seized Mosul and surrounding areas.
The Islamic State’s barbaric advance has undermined an unavowed but strong tenet of Western policy in the Middle East. Until now, the United States and Europe have been extremely reluctant – fearful may not be too strong a word – to be seen to support minority ethnic and religious groups in any Arab state. That could provoke the wrath of all of the Arab states, including important (Sunni-run) oil producers.
Such timidity played a role over the past half-century in the suffocation or dislocation of vibrant populations of religious and ethnic minorities that once made the Middle East a fascinating mosaic of Greeks in Egypt, Armenians in Lebanon, Circassians in Jordan and many others.
Even more important to the societal pressures that have squeezed the freedoms and space of minorities in national life throughout the region has been the Sunni-Shiite civil war that has raged in various forms within Islam since the founding of Iran’s Islamic Republic in 1979. The Islamic State and other armed factions wage war to achieve a social monolith of Arabness, as well as a monotheistic caliphate. The demand by Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi that the Yazidi sect and Christians of Iraq convert to his brand of Islam or die is a particularly brutal example of coercive conformism. But it differs in degree rather than kind from Salafist and Wahhabist intolerance toward other religions and cultures.
By promising to protect the Yazidi sect from “genocide” and providing the Kurds with arms and ammunition previously denied them by Baghdad, President Obama has – knowingly or otherwise – stepped away from traditional U.S. caution about openly siding with such non-Arab minorities. (The Kurds’ recent successes are welcome but unintended side effects of U.S. actions in Iraq.)
The president is right to have done this and should persist. But U.S. policymakers also need to evaluate the deep, civilizational roots of the conflicts in Iraq and elsewhere. Conservative, male-dominated societies in the region feel they are under mortal attack by the intrusion of the outside world and particularly by outside views on gender equality and the nature of their religion. They lash back.
What is at stake here is not simply whether Nouri al-Maliki or Haider al-Abadi should be prime minister of Iraq. It is even larger than the hopes of freedom that my friends the Kurds harbor. This is a struggle to fit the modern world into Arab society, and vice versa. A success in that undertaking would be the best protection minorities there could have – and a fit monument to the tribal leader I remember fondly as the eagle he was in Kurdistan, not the caged bird Washington let him become.
Hoagland is a contributing editor to The Post.