Thirty-three years ago, Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party forces deployed chemical weapons against the people of the border city of Halabja, in southern Kurdistan (Northern Iraq), in the final days of the Iran-Iraq War.
The roughly 5000 people who perished, as a result of this crime, were considered subhuman in the eyes of the Ba’athist regime. Their Kurdish identity meant they were deemed disposable to a regime that only considered Arabs as full citizens.
A few months ago, I had the opportunity to visit Halabja, a place where peace now appears to prevail, but where the deep scars of the past are never far beneath the surface. It is the city most synonymous with Saddam’s wider campaign against the Kurdish people, codenamed the Anfal.
In this brutal war of annihilation, conducted from 1986‒88, it is widely suggested that up to 182,000 people were killed, with some estimates putting the number of dead higher. The remains of victims are still being found to this day, leaving doubt about the actual death toll, but no doubt about the magnitude of the killings.
Although the vast majority of the world refuses to label it as such, surely the only word that does justice to what took place across the region is genocide.
But, for actual justice to be served to those who perished in the Anfal, what would suffice? Recognition would certainly be a starting point. Yet, what would this recognition include and acknowledge? More importantly, would it have any effect on the policies of those responsible for the continuing Kurdish genocide of today?
Americans as friends of the Kurds?
At Halabja’s Anfal memorial, situated just outside the city, the noose that hung Saddam Hussein is on show for visitors to see. A photograph of former United States Secretary of State, Colin Powell, hangs at the entrance.
These pieces of history aim to present the US as a friend that came to the aid of the suffering Kurdish people. From the imposition of a No-Fly Zone in Northern Iraq in 1991, they say, the Americans recognised the Iraqi Kurds as their allies, and the 2003 invasion that toppled the Ba’athist regime left the Kurds as its principal beneficiaries.
Yet, however much the US would like to retrospectively claim that it is a friend of the Kurdish people, such claims are dubious.
We need only remember that former US president Ronald Reagan’s administration was a fierce supporter of Ba’athist Iraq, supplying it with billions in aid, technology, weaponry and intelligence. In fact, the Halabja chemical attack was only made possible because Iraq received intelligence from the US about Iranian troop movements there. This information directly led to the gas attack that claimed thousands of innocent lives in the blink of an eye.
Some may say that the 2003 invasion was the ultimate mea culpa on behalf of the US for its previous support of the Ba’athists. But few would make the argument today that Washington intervened in Iraq on humanitarian grounds, regardless of its pretenses and lofty rhetoric. For imperialism, there are no permanent friends, only permanent interests.
Turkey’s war of annihilation
A clear indication that this principle remains unshaken is the current conjuncture in Iraqi Kurdistan. This fragment of Kurdish territory is again under attack, this time from the occupying forces of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO’s) second largest army, Turkey. The brutal campaign that has been waged in the north of the country since February has been met with almost complete silence from fellow NATO powers, aside from lukewarm expressions of concern.
More despairingly, it has been met with almost complete silence from much of the Western left, who have largely done a tremendous job in supporting Palestinian resistance to Zionist occupation and colonialism, yet fall quiet while another colonised people in the region suffer from eerily similar circumstances.
Turkey’s campaign — like those it has launched in northern Syria — is being fought by regular Turkish armed forces and Salafist mercenaries. Their agenda is not only anti-Kurdish, but anti-women. Like in Rojava, where the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) have stood strong against ISIS and like-minded outfits, in Bashur (South Kurdistan) the Women’s Defence Units (YPJ-Star) of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) take up the task of defending Kurdish lands and women’s liberation.
As across other parts of Kurdistan, Turkish forces have shown complete disdain for civilian lives. They make the ongoing claim that their war of annihilation is really only about the PKK, not Kurds as a nation, but this is nonsense.
Perhaps the clearest example of this was the June 5 bombing of the Makhmour refugee camp, which claimed the lives of three of its residents. The camp is home to more than 12,000 people who fled the Turkish state’s dirty war within its borders, and is, ostensibly, under the supervision of the UNHCR.
The camp was targeted because Turkey claims it is under the control of the PKK. According to this logic, it makes all inhabitants fair game for slaughter. The UNHCR appears to have abdicated all responsibility for the camp, with a prolonged silence being the only message that it has sent to Turkey and the world.
The US continues its anti-PKK policies
In an #AllLivesMatter-esque moment, US president Joe Biden’s administration decided that in response to Turkey’s armed attack on the refugee camp, it made sense to appeal for calm on both sides.
In a tweet posted on the day of the attack, US ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, began by alluding to having talked tough on Turkey: “Yesterday, I made clear to Turkish officials that any attack targeting civilians at Makhmour refugee camp would be a violation of international and humanitarian law.”
Fair enough. However, she goes on to say: “I’m deeply concerned about violence near the camp today and call on all sides to respect the rights of refugees.” This wording is meant to cast blame on the PKK as a potential human rights abuser. In the battle between the coloniser and the colonised, there can be no false equivalency.
In recent months, the Biden administration decided to renew a bounty first placed on the heads of three leading figures of the PKK, first introduced during Donald Trump’s presidency.
In a tweet posted on April 14, the US embassy in Turkey’s capital, Ankara, announced the renewal, saying: "Anyone who reports the location of key PKK figure Murat Karayilan will receive a reward of up to [US]$5 million, $4 million for Cemil Bayik, and $3 million for Duran Kalkan."
On this issue, as on so many others, there has been continuity from the Biden administration regarding US policy against the Kurdish freedom movement.
A few years back I travelled with some comrades between Rojava (in Northern Syria) and Bashur (in Northern Iraq). As soon as we crossed the border we found ourselves at risk of attack from Turkey — using US intelligence. On the other side of the border, these same comrades had been given US weaponry. This illuminated to me how imperialists have no problem killing a “friend”, as soon as their interests no longer coincide.
No lessons learned from the Anfal?
Today, the same fascistic ideology that drove the Ba’athists to a “final solution” for the Kurdish people in Halabja is once more prevailing.
The US seems to have suffered historical amnesia when it comes to the events of 33 years ago. Otherwise, it would be seeking to undermine Turkey’s war, not stepping in to support it — slaps on the wrist and “harsh” words of retribution aside.
Of course, morals and humanitarian ethics do not drive imperialist policy. The Kurdish nation can be considered an ally when it suits the big powers, or completely invisible as its people are murdered with impunity, their villages destroyed, and ongoing genocide prevails. Outside forces perceive them as “good Kurds” or “bad Kurds”, depending on the context.
Days after paying my respects in Halabja, a colleague and I were invited to say a few words to those marking Anfal Memorial Day in the city of Kalar — which at one point was effectively the frontline of the Ba’athist ethnic cleansing campaign. The surrounding areas appeared eerily barren. At one point, Kurdish villages proudly stood in these desert areas.
It was impossible to speak about what happened in Kalar or elsewhere in the region without linking it to the present day. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has picked up the baton of anti-Kurdish violence from the Ba’athists, even if their politics may otherwise largely diverge.
More importantly, one can’t see Turkey’s actions of today or Iraq’s of yesteryear as independent of the machinations of imperialism. Turkey’s actions today are those of NATO, aimed at destroying a left-wing national liberation movement.
It is up to those on the left to fiercely defend Kurdistan at this critical moment. If we’re interested in seeing a liberated Palestine, we need to fight for a liberated Kurdistan — and vice versa. These two struggles are linked at the hip as movements against colonialism, denial and genocidal intentions. For peace to prevail in the region, these open wounds from the imperial carve up of the region will need to be healed.