Is Obama less supportive of Kurdish rights?

One of the common failings among honourable people is a failure to appreciate how thoroughly dishonourable some other people can be, and how dangerous it is to trust them.
~Thomas Sowell

In Baqi Barzani’s most recent column on KurdNet (25 July 2010), Obama’s administration less supportive of Kurdish rights, I believe he mistakenly portrays what is happening today with Washington’s foreign policy vis-à-vis the Kurds in northern Iraq. I’ll get to that in a minute, but first I want to put this discussion into some context.

In 1973 Mullah Mustafa Barzani said to Jim Hoagland of the Washington Post: ‘I trust America. America is too great a power to betray a small people like the Kurds.’ But betray the Kurds it did. And did it again. And again.

The relationship between Washington and the Kurds has been an abusive and duplicitous one in which the Kurds are kept at bay and become ‘friends’ only when Washington wants to destabilise the government in Baghdad.

Remember the plan cooked up by Henry Kissinger and the Shah of Iran in 1972? Their view was that the Kurds were ‘a card to play’ against Iraq and ‘a uniquely useful tool.’ The Kurds were no longer a useful tool after 1975.

What happened in 1991 after the Persian Gulf War? The US urged the Kurds to rise up against Saddam. And then left them to defend against themselves. The creation of the ‘safe haven’ thereafter was the result of worldwide media pressure on the US and Europe. Not as a result of Washington’s interest in protecting the Kurds.

This is a reflection of long-standing US policy in the region and part of global US policy, which looks out for US interests and US interests only. Washington is in the habit of making promises that it does not keep. Why anyone continues to believe them is beyond comprehension.

So Baqi Barzani begins his column by saying that ‘foreign policies and relations can shift with the rise of new administrations to power.’ This is true to some extent, but I believe that with regards to the Middle East, Israel, oil, and the Kurds there is really no change from one administration to the next. There are shifts in nuances to the policies, but forces in place in Washington do an astounding job at keeping the status quo. If they want you to think the policy has changed, they just lie about it.

AP photo by Kevin Frayer, April 2003

Barzani says that George W. Bush ‘will be extolled for generations to come’ and that Bush’s ‘unrelenting support for Kurdish rights in Iraq’ has put him forever into ‘the hearts and minds of myriad Kurds all over the world.’ Please find me something that truly supports the notion of George W. Bush’s ‘unrelenting support’ of the Kurds in Iraq.

Bush and his administration did not invade Iraq because of any love for the Kurds. The plan to remove Saddam was in place before Bush took office. The attacks of 11 September then provided the perfect cover to go ahead with the invasion. Bush has become an accidental hero.

As Quill Lawrence writes, Bush ‘was hoping to send his troops through Turkey and was willing to make a deal with the Turkish government by which they would be able to send up to 60,000 troops of their own into northern Iraq with the invading force. The Kurds were pretty sure that these troops were not going to be friendly to them.’

Does that sound like the plan of someone with Kurdish rights in mind? Thankfully, on 01 March 2003 the Turkish parliament voted to reject the US plan and did not allow US troops through Turkey.

The Kurds then, whose aspirations of greater autonomy were encouraged by Washington, helped US troops gain control of the northern Kurdish regions, fighting side-by-side with coalition forces.

Less than a year later, Paul Bremer, head of the coalition government in Iraq, ‘told Kurdish leaders brusquely…to forget the past US autonomy policy and get with the unity program.’ The need for Kurdish assistance had ended and the US began pushing Kurdish forces back from Mosul and Kirkuk, focusing on the bigger Iraq picture.

Baqi Barzani refers to as the Obama administration being ‘less supportive of Kurdish rights’ than the Bush administration. While I do not appreciate Obama’s relative silence on the issue of the Kurds, I do not see what is happening now as an intentional decrease in support. It is merely an outcome, albeit a disappointing one, of Washington’s policy of Iraqi unity. Just as what happened with the 2003 invasion was an outcome of policy under Bush.

Obama met with Mesoud Barzani (KRG President) in January of this year in Washington, after which the White House released a rather bland statement: ‘the President extended the US’ good offices to help Iraqis move forward in forging a broad political consensus to resolve outstanding disagreements between the Kurdistan Regional Government and the Government of Iraq, in accordance with the Iraqi constitution and working closely with the UN in these efforts.’

As Marina Ottaway, the Director of the Middle East Programme at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told Deutsche Welle earlier this month: ‘From the point of view of Washington, the Kurds were useful to the US in the days of Saddam Hussein, but now they make things more complicated with the issue of the contentious region of Kirkuk and indeed tensions along the entire order between Kurdistan and Iraq.’  Hence the meaningless statement from the White House.

The KRG has an impressive lobbying machine in Washington. In fact, it has been placed in the ‘top ten’ in terms of money spent on lobbying firms. Is all that spending getting them anywhere? No amount of money is strong enough to sway US decision-making policy in Iraq on any policy of strategic US national importance. Rather, money spent is to build a ‘special relationship’ between Washington and Hewlêr (Erbil).

To increase their lobbying potential, Baqi Barzani suggests the KRG in DC become friendlier with the ‘neoconservative party, republicans and leaders of Jewish and Zionist Christian communities.’ What?!?! Who are the ones now benefitting from the lucrative oil deals? All the neocons from the former Bush administration. Be careful what you wish for, Baqi. Their track record in the Middle East is dark and dubious.

Barzani continues in his column saying that ‘[m]ost Americans commiserate with the Kurdish national struggle.’ I say that most Americans do not even know who the Kurds are, so how can they ‘commiserate’ with the national struggle? Perhaps of the handful of enlightened Americans who know about the situation, most of them empathise with the Kurds. However, if we are to talk about the US government, I do not feel much empathy emanating from Washington.

Obama is pedalling more of the same old, tired policy. It’s not ‘less supportive’, but rather, just packaged a bit differently.

No harmonica lessons for the PKK

Back in February Kurdistan Commentary reported on a US Supreme Court case that involved the PKK. The case went to court later that month and today the Supreme Court upheld a US federal law that bars ‘material support’ to foreign terrorist organisations.

The thrust of the argument was freedom of speech vs. anti-terrorism laws. Free speech lost as the court ruled 6-3 that the government may prohibit all forms of aid to designated terrorist groups, even if the support consists of training and advice about entirely peaceful and legal activities. During arguments in February, Justice Sotomayor wondered whether the material support statute was so vague that ‘teaching these members to play the harmonica would be unlawful.’ Justice Scalia quickly responded that a group of terrorists in a ‘harmonica quartet might tour the [U.S.] and make a lot of money.’ And that was the core of the debate.  And now, it seems, there will be no harmonica lessons for members of the PKK.

Under current U.S. law there is no legal way to aid terrorist organisations, even if the aid is intended to convince the terrorist organisations not to be terrorist organisations anymore, because what if that aid somehow winds up helping them continue to be terrorist organisations? To wit, as Scalia argued, if you teach them to play the harmonica, they will quickly form a quartet, raise money, and fund their terrorist activities.

Kimberly Curtis of the FPA Human Rights blog wrote:

If it is the methods of terrorism that we are so against, then efforts to get terrorist organisations to disarm and pursue their agendas politically should be encouraged. If the pen is to be mightier than the sword, then we must preserve a place for people to talk.

Well, the court has now gone so far in its criminalisation of speech activity that those places for people to talk are quickly evaporating. ‘Aid and assistance’ to terrorist organisations can also be in the form of an op-ed essay written on behalf of a designated terrorist group. What might this mean for bloggers? What happens if you suggest that the PKK has the right to armed struggle against Turkish oppressors? What if you re-publish an interview with Murat Karayilan? Is this ‘material support’?

Three of the Court’s liberal-leaning Justices (Breyer, Ginsburg, Sotomayor) filed a strongly worded dissent, and Justice Stephen Breyer took the somewhat unusual step of reading aloud the dissent from the bench.

Speaking of the aid groups that filed the motion, Breyer said their mission is ‘entirely peaceful and consists only of political speech, including how to petition the U.N.’

‘Not even the serious and deadly problem of international terrorism can require automatic forfeiture of First Amendment rights,’ he added.

Of note is that Elena Kagan, who argued on behalf of the government back in February, is now Obama’s nominee for Supreme Court Justice.


Grace, Rob. Teaching Terrorists to Play the Harmonica. Foreign Policy Blogs, 26 February 2010.

Center for Constitutional Rights, Arguments on Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project.

Denniston, Lyle. Analysis: Partial U.S. victory on terrorism, 21 June 2010.

The PKK, US Supreme Court, and freedom of speech. Kurdistan Commentary, 19 February 2010.

The PKK, US Supreme Court, and freedom of speech

US Supreme Court

In a case to be heard next week by the US Supreme Court, freedom of speech will be pitted against US anti-terrorism laws. What is unusual about this particular case is that it involves a 79-year-old US human rights activist who is advocating on behalf of the Kurds in Turkey and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan). The PKK has been branded a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the EU, and the US.

PKK flag

This will be the court’s first encounter with the free speech and association rights of US citizens in the context of terrorism since the September 11 attacks — and its first chance to test the constitutionality of a provision of the USA Patriot Act. Specifically, it will test whether speaking out on behalf of an oppressed foreign minority (the Kurds)—argued to be represented by a group that’s been deemed a terrorist organisation (the PKK)—can result in a long prison term.

Ralph Fertig, soon to turn 80, is the plaintiff in the case called Holder vs. Humanitarian Law Project, which will be heard by the high court on 23 February 2010.

Fertig is retired judge and professor of social work at the University of Southern California who believes the 1st Amendment protects his right to counsel Kurdish leaders to steer away from violence and to take their cause to the United Nations. He is troubled that Kurds can be punished for speaking their own language or displaying their national colours.

Says US Solicitor General, Elena Kagan, ‘Congress has banned a broad range of material support [to terrorists], regardless of whether the support is ostensibly given to assist supposedly lawful activities.’ However, she said that Fertig may ‘act independently to advocate’ for the Kurds, so long as he does not work with Kurdish leaders. It is unclear to which leaders she was referring—political leaders or leaders of the PKK. It is quite possible that Washington views them as one.

Ralph Fertig: 'Fear is manipulated and the tools of the penal system are applied to inhibit people from speaking out.'

What Fertig is challenging in particular is a 1996 ‘material support’ provision in the USA Patriot Act that allows long prison terms for anyone for helps or advocates for terrorist groups in any way. According to US government lawyers, the law not only prevents ‘training’ or ‘assistance’ to terrorists, but also the filing of a legal brief or writing an op-ed essay on behalf of a designated terrorist group.

Since the addition of that provision, Fertig and the Humanitarian Law Project have won a series of rulings that have shielded its members from prosecution. Last year, the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals declared that the bans on training, service and some kinds of expert advice were unconstitutionally vague. But it upheld the bans on personnel and expert advice derived from scientific or technical knowledge.

Fertig said he could understand an argument against donating money, given the difficulty of controlling its use. But the sweep of the material-support law goes too far, he said.

Georgetown University law professor David Cole, who represents Fertig, says that ‘the court has never upheld a law that criminalises pure speech advocating only lawful, peaceable activity.’ He told the court that the case concerned speech protected by the First Amendment ‘promoting lawful, nonviolent activities,’ including ‘human rights advocacy and peacemaking.’

The Obama administration appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that recent lower court rulings undercut 'a vital part of the nation's effort to fight international terrorism.' Photo of Elena Kagan.

A friend-of-the-court brief — prepared by Edwin Meese III, the former United States attorney general; John C. Yoo, a former Bush administration lawyer; and others — called the civil liberties critique of the material-support law naïve.

Allowing any sort of contributions to terrorist organisations ‘simply because the donor intends that they be used for ‘peaceful’ purposes directly conflicts with Congress’s determination that no quarantine can effectively isolate ‘good’ activities from the evil of terrorism.’

Given the recent events at Ft. Hood and in the skies over Detroit, and with the current configuration of the Supreme Court, free speech will most likely take a back seat to ‘combating terrorism.’

Asked by The Los Angeles Times what he would do if he lost the Supreme Court case Tuesday, Fertig said this: ‘I would continue to speak for the rights of the Kurds. And if I’m arrested, it would not be the first time.’

Fertig says all he wants to do is teach Kurds the philosophies of non-violent protest he practised as a civil rights activist in the ’60s.

UPDATE: 21 June 2010Supreme Court votes 6-3 to uphold ban on material support.


Savage, David G. Activist’s case will test U.S. anti-terrorism law. Los Angeles Times, 18 February 2010.

Civil rights activist seeks to prove anti-terrorism law a violation of free speech. Raw Story, 17 February 2010.

Liptak, Adam. Right to Free Speech Collides With Fight Against Terror. New York Times, 10 February 2010.

Holder vs. Humanitarian Law Project. Center for Constitutional Rights.

Obama and Erdoğan in Washington

PM Erdoğan and President Obama at the White House

US President Obama and Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan spoke briefly yesterday after their private meeting at the White House in Washington, DC.  They made comments and took questions from the press.  The only mention of the Kurds came in the final question to Mr Obama.  Here’s the question and his response:

QUESTION: Mr. President, is there any new and concrete U.S. action plan for disarmament and the elimination of the PKK terror organization in northern Iraq? Thank you, sir.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, what the Prime Minister and I have discussed is coordinating closely in dealing with the problem of the PKK. We have stated before and I have reaffirmed since I came into office that the United States considers PKK a terrorist organization, and that the threat that it poses not only in Turkey but also in Iraq is one that is of deep concern. And as NATO allies, we are bound to help each other defend our territories. More broadly, I think that it is important for us to have a consistent position with respect to terrorism wherever it takes place.

So we discussed how we can coordinate militarily. I will tell you that with respect to the issue of the PKK, I think that the steps that the Prime Minister has taken in being inclusive towards the Kurdish community in Turkey is very helpful, because one of the things we understand is, is that terrorism cannot just be dealt with militarily; there is also social and political components to it that have to be recognized.

With respect to Iraq, I think the degree to which the Kurdish population within Iraq feels effectively represented within the central government in Baghdad, to the extent that we can resolve some long-term pressing issues like Kirkuk, the more I think that Kurds will recognize that their interests are not in supporting any kind of military activity but rather in working through conflicts politically, in a way that allows everybody to be prosperous. And that’s the kind of process that we would encourage.

Okay? Thank you very much, everybody. Happy holidays.


On Sunday on his way to Washington Erdoğan told reporters that he was going to ‘follow up on’ US promises to fight their ‘common enemy’, the PKK.  It seems Mr Obama is keen to cooperate; Washington will continue its same stale policies in the region.

Views on new HRW report

Human Rights Watch released a 63-page report today outlining in detail the persecution of Kurds in Syria.  It is a comprehensive account of harassment, arrests, and oppression of the Kurdish population in Syria.  It provides an excellent historical overview as well.

However, for those of us who follow events there, this report ‘Group Denial’ does not provide anything new.  In fact, I’ve written about much of this on my blog…most recently (just ten days ago) with a post about Kurdish politics in Syria.  So we know of the abuses.  We know what the international standards are that Syria ignores.  We hear the silence in the media.

Yes, the report is well-written, revealing, and insightful.  Yes, it is important to keep focusing attention on issues of human rights abuses.  But I am sceptical.  I am cynical.  Do these reports really accomplish anything?

What I find terribly frustrating about reports such as this one is that they make recommendations to the offending government about redressing the wrongs they have committed.  Is Damascus going to actually sit down and ponder HRW’s recommendations?  Absolutely not.

Bashar al-Assad

And I also seriously doubt that Washington will take any recommendations to heart.  The report says that there has been international silence on the Kurdish issue in Syria because other governments are more focused on regional politics.  And I believe that’s the way it will continue.  Washington will look the other way on the Kurdish issues in favour of deals with Damascus over the war on terror, negotiations with Israel, and Syria’s relationship with Iran, just to name a few.  Washington will not press Damascus on the Kurds if it means forfeiting gains on the various geopolitical fronts.

Obama publicly broached the subject of human rights on his recent visit to China.  Will he ever fly Air Force One to Damascus and do the same thing there?  Last August Bashar al-Assad invited Obama to Syria.  Obama had promised a meeting with the Syrian leader in his first year in office.  Is there a US-Syrian summit in the offing that would have the Kurdish issue on the agenda?  Highly doubtful.  Will US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton make a surprise trip to Damascus to rebuke the Syrians for their treatment of the Kurds?  Probably not.

What about Europe?  Well, let’s look at one example.  Back in 2004 Damascus and the EU drew up a partnership agreement.  Many countries in the EU were against signing the agreement at that time citing human rights concerns in Syria.  Between 2004 and 2009 human rights abuses have intensified and Kurds in Syria are worse off than they were before.  So why then did the EU announce last month that it was ready to sign the Syrian-European Partnership Agreement?  What changed?

Al-Assad had said about the agreement, ‘No interference in Syria’s internal affairs will be accepted under any name.’  So it seems the EU has backed off.  But now it is Syria’s turn to snub the Europeans saying it needs more time to consider the agreement’s impact on the Syrian economy.

I want to thank HRW for putting this report together.  It’s not that I don’t appreciate efforts to bring these issues to the table.  No, just the opposite is true.  We need to keep working and do whatever we can to bring attention to the situation there.  So read the report.  Educate yourself.  Tell others about it. Re-tweet it if you see it.  Post it on your blog.  Write an op-ed piece in your local newspaper. Don’t be silent.

Download the full report here from the HRW website.

Obama, Turkey, and the PKK

In less than one month, US President Barack Obama will make an official visit to Turkey.  The visit, arranged during Hillary Clinton’s trip there, is designed to “strengthen and deepen” the ties between the two countries while working together “on behalf of peace, prosperity, and progress.”  As part of his visit, Obama will also address the Turkish parliament in Ankara.

During the previous US administration, US-Turkey relations dipped to low, low levels.  Even in the general public US approval ratings were at 12%. Ankara saw the US as preventing them from “chasing down the PKK.”  Relations, however, improved tremendously in 2007 when the Bush administration began to share intelligence with Ankara on PKK movements in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq.  Turkey has been bombing the area since December of 2007.

In the last 72 hours alone, four Kurds with the PKK have been killed by Turkish shelling in the area.  The Turkish government says under international law, Turkey enjoys a right to pursue the PKK into northern Iraq to protect its citizens and sovereignty, a right indistinguishable from the United States claim of authority to invade any country that harbours terrorists.  The “if you can do it, then we can do it” argument.

In November 2008 the US, Turkey, and Iraq set up a joint committee to monitor the PKK. The central command centre, established in the Kurdish city of Hewler (Arbil), is designated to eradicate the PKK in northern Iraq.

There are a number of PKK-related initiatives on Obama’s Turkish agenda.  One is designed to get the group “to lay down arms”, reported by Sabah.  Prior to Clinton’s visit to Turkey, US diplomats had meetings with Kurdish politician from different political parties to discuss possible solutions to the Kurdish question.

While Turkey now seems overly enthusiastic with Obama’s prospective visit, the country was downright apathetic over Obama’s election last November.  In fact, the only message sent from Erdoğan noted that “the election result shows there is no longer a black-white problem in the United States.”  This stems partially from Obama’s strong support for recognition of the Armenian massacres of 1915-1917 as a genocide.  Obama has said repeatedly that the Armenian genocide is a “widely documented fact supported by an overwhelming body of historical evidence.”

Erdoğan referred to Obama at that point (early 2008) as “an amateur of politics” and said that Obama may one day have to “choose between 70 million Turks and two million Armenians.”

So fast-forward twelve months or so and Turkey’s Foreign Minister Ali Babacan is saying that he thinks “the new American administration understands Turkey’s sensibilities better today” and strongly suggested the US not interfere.  He also described the US as a “friend and ally.”

What does all the diplomatic double-speak actually mean?  And what is the bottom line for the region’s Kurds?

Photo taken from the now defunct blog Zanetî

Photo taken from the now defunct blog Zanetî

The US needs its airbase at Incirlik (located near Adana).  The military will apply its pressure on the US administration to maintain good relations with the Turks.  More pressure will come from the Turkish lobbying group, the Turkish Coalition of America.  In the end Turkey will continue to have the green light to pursue the PKK in Iraqi Kurdistan.  Obama will embrace Turkey to help him succeed in Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan.  Clinton will seek Turkey’s support in negotiating peace deals between Israel and its Arab neighbours.

In short, the US administration will turn a blind eye to the plight of the Kurds in favour of its regional agenda of reconciliation.  So no help for the Kurds, and if Obama wants Turkish assistance in the region, no mention of the “genocide” either.


Butler, D.  Turkish trip intensifies dilemma for Obama.  14 March 2009.  AP

Obama to visit Turkey, says Clinton on damage control visit.  08 March 2009, Brisbane Times.

Obama’s PKK plan. 13 March 2009.  Sabah.

Obama’s Tepid Turkish Welcome.  09 November 2008. Untold Stories: Dispatches from the Pulitzer Cener on Crisis Reporting.

Sassounian, H. Erdogan’s Insulting Words about Obama May Haunt Turkey after the Elections. 31 January 2008.  The California Courier (found at

Turkish Minister warns Obama against ‘genocide’ recognition.  09 March 2009. The Daily Star.

Obama praises TRT6?

From PUKMedia:

Close sources to the American President Barack Obama mentioned that he considered opening the Kurdish language TRT6 TV channel in Turkey as a positive move towards democracy.   The sources added that the American-Turkish joint cooperation regarding PKK will continue.

At the same time, Obama will discuss making democratic and cultural moves towards the Kurds in Turkey with the Turkish officials. Obama will also protect the democratic increasing and developing and the continuity of the reforms in Turkey, and will watch the democracy, human rights and minorities rights as well.

Here’s a clip (from گــه‌لی کوردســـتان) that mentions it.

Many thanks to Zinar Ala for bringing this to my attention.  He put it up on Avesta.

But I’m wondering who the “sources” are and if this is a plant in the Turkish press to ramp up the accolades on the AKP before the elections.  The PUKMedia site picked up the story from Hürriyet.  I can find no other references to this story anywhere.