The Syrian Kurds Are Winning! by Jonathan Steele

The Syrian Kurds Are Winning!

From New York Review of Books
December 3, 2015 Issue
Newsha Tavakolian/Magnum Photos

Kurdish fighters in the Women’s Protection Unit during their daily drills at Shilan Camp, in the border region of Andivar, Rojava, Syria, summer 2015

Anyone searching for a sliver of light in the darkness of the Syrian catastrophe has no better place to go than the country’s northeast. There some 2.2 million Kurds have created a quasi state that is astonishingly safe—and strangely unknown abroad. No barrel bombs are dropped by Bashar al-Assad’s warplanes. No ISIS executioners enforce the wearing of the niqab. No Turkish air strikes send civilians running, as Turkish attacks on Kurdish militia bases do across the border in Iraq.

Safety is of course a relative concept. Car bombs and suicide attacks by ISIS assassins regularly take lives in this predominantly Kurdish 250-mile-wide stretch of Syria between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, but by the standards of the rest of the country it is quiet.

The 2.2 million Kurds make up a tenth of the Syrian population. During the protests of 2011—the Arab Spring—they, like their Arab counterparts in other Syrian cities, publicly demonstrated for reform in Qamishli, the region’s largest city. But Assad was milder toward them than he was to other protesters elsewhere. He gave citizenship to 300,000 stateless Kurds and in July 2012 even withdrew most of his combat troops from the area on the grounds that they were needed more urgently in the Syrian heartland of Aleppo, Damascus, and the cities in between.

Kurdish militias known as the People’s Protection Units (YPG) quickly organized the support of much of the Kurdish adult population under thirty and took control of the region, which they divide into three “cantons” and which they call Rojava (i.e., West, meaning western Kurdistan, from roj, the Kurdish word for sun). The other Kurdish regions are in Turkey, Iran, and Iraq.

Over the next three years the YPG trained and built a well-disciplined, though lightly armed, military force and set up an efficient system of local government. It is a measure of the Assads’ repression that, whereas in Turkey bans on the Kurdish language were lifted in 1991, they were kept in place for another two decades in Syria. As a result most adults in Rojava speak better Arabic than Kurdish. Now in charge of their own statelet, Kurdish leaders are reviving the use of the Kurdish language in schools and on TV and radio stations.

The language, Kurmanji, belongs to the Indo-European family and is akin to Farsi but distinct from Arabic or Turkish. Unlike Arabs and Turks but like Iranians, Kurds celebrate the New Year, Newroz, on the first day of spring.

The Kurds are originally a mountain people, who emerged near Lake Van in eastern Turkey. Their most famous warrior, Saladin, who captured Jerusalem from the Crusaders, was active with his regiments along the Mediterranean in the twelfth century. Many settled in Damascus and Aleppo.

Under the Ottoman Empire Kurdish identity was not threatened, and it was natural that when the empire collapsed at the end of World War I Kurds hoped to create an independent state. In the Treaty of Sèvres in 1920 they were promised a state by the British and other Western powers but Kemal Atatürk, the Turkish leader, refused to implement the treaty and the Western powers changed their line. Kurds were marginalized in Turkey. After several failed rebellions in the 1920s thousands fled to Syria. There, under the French mandate, Kurds were privileged over the Arab majority, particularly in getting jobs in the army and police.

After Syria won its independence in 1946 the public projection of a separate Kurdish culture was repressed by the new Arab rulers, even though other minorities—Armenian, Assyrian, and Druze—were recognized. Syrian Kurds were Arabized and influenced by the modernizing ideology of urban Syria. Today they show few signs of their mountain origins or tribal affiliations. Whereas older men in Iraqi Kurdistan often wear sirwal—baggy trousers held up by a cummerbund—the costume is rarely seen in Rojava.

But the dream of having a state of their own has never faded. With around 32 million people worldwide, they are the largest ethnic group without one. Retaining this aspiration is the key factor that has kept Kurds tough and self-reliant through decades of repression in the four countries where they are numerous. After Iraq, where Kurds have enjoyed autonomy in the north since 1991, and Turkey, where the militant PKK has been fighting for Kurdish autonomy since 1984, the Kurds of Syria saw their first real opportunity for change as late as 2011. At all levels of Syrian Kurdish society there is now a strong desire to reverse the last half-century of assimilationist pressures and revive their cultural heritage, particularly the Kurdish language and literature and the celebration of Newroz with Kurdish music and dancing. Syrian Kurds put greater store on national identity than organized religion. Most Kurdish clerics are Sufis of the Sunni branch of Islam and, in contrast to the Syrian Arab opposition to Assad, none of the dozen Kurdish political parties in Syria is Islamist.

In spite of the huge attention given to Syria’s war by international media, no foreign diplomats or businesspeople and only a handful of reporters have made the trip to Rojava. The first, albeit brief, coverage came in September of last year, from across the Turkish border. That was after ISIS fighters swept north from Raqqa, the headquarters of their newly declared caliphate, and launched a surprise attack on the Kurdish canton of Kobanî. They captured dozens of Kurdish villages, executed scores of people who didn’t have time to escape, and moved toward the large town of Kobanî, which sits on Syria’s border with Turkey.

The Kurdish YPG forces resisted as best they could with the help of seasoned guerrillas from the PKK. After desperate pleas for help from the YPG as well as from Washington’s allies in the Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq, the US started bombing ISIS positions on the approaches to Kobanî. Several dozen Kurdish fighters from Iraq—called peshmerga—also joined the fighting. In spite of the US air strikes the ISIS advance continued and by October its militants were inside the town of Kobanî as they poured reinforcements from Raqqa into the battle.

This was the first sustained engagement between US airpower and ISIS, and reporters from across the world who were camped just inside Turkey filmed ISIS artillery strikes and the much larger plumes of smoke caused by US bombs and missiles. With most of Kobanî’s civilian population fleeing into Turkey, cameras also broadcast the first pictures of vast streams of Kurdish Syrian refugees escaping northward, a harbinger of the broader flight of refugees was to come a year later. Meanwhile, Turkish tanks and armored personnel carriers patrolled the Kobanî border within a few hundred yards of the battle and did nothing to help.

Gradually, the Kurdish fighters prevailed and in January of this year ISIS withdrew, though it took another three months to drive them out of the villages south of Kobanî. As many as a thousand ISIS fighters were thought to have died. The YPG had shown it was the most successful group of fighters with whom the US could ally in Syria and open cooperation now exists. There was a second crucial lesson: using airpower makes little sense without an infantry force, preferably of local people, to follow up on the bombing.

In July of this year the YPG, again with the aid of US airpower, drove ISIS out of Tal Abyad, another town on the border with Turkey. This meant ISIS had lost two of the three crossing points from Turkey through which it could bring foreign volunteers, finance, and weaponry to strengthen the jihad.

Idriss Nassan, the Kurdish spokesperson of the Kobanî canton, told me that the YPG now plans to liberate the last ISIS border-crossing point into Turkey at the town of Jarabulus. The YPG are dug in on the east bank of the Euphrates and it will be difficult to move forward. But success would be a strategic blow to ISIS, severely limiting its power. It would also upset Turkey, which fears a further strengthening of the statelet that the Kurds have set up along more than half of the Syrian–Turkish border. If the Kurds were to take control of the area from Jarabulus to Azaz, they could link the cantons of Jazira and Kobanî with Rojava’s third canton, the enclave of Afrin, which is largely populated by Kurds, creating a Kurdish zone along almost the entire length of Syria’s northern border. Since the Turks are now taking a hard line toward the Kurdish PKK within their own borders, they are anxious to prevent a strong new Kurdish entity emerging in Syria.

The Turks have said they want a no-fly zone, policed by Turkish and US warplanes, to be established in the very area from Jarabulus to Azaz that the Kurds want to take from ISIS and other jihadis. Turkish officials in Ankara claim that the no-fly scheme would block the Syrian air force and create a haven for Syrian civilians escaping Assad’s attacks. The Kurds see the scheme as a device to permit the Turks to bomb any YPG fighters who enter the area.

The US seems to have seen through Turkey’s ruse and refuses to support the no-fly zone idea. Much now depends on whether the US will back a YPG advance to Jarabulus with air strikes. Asked if the US has given the YPG a green light, Nassan, speaking for the Kobanî canton, was upbeat. “Sipan Hamo, the YPG commander, has said we’re going to liberate Jarabulus and, when he says this, he’s coordinated with the US because we’re part of its international coalition,” he said.

In mid-October, US aircraft dropped ammunition and weapons for the Kurds and their allies from local Arab and Turkmen tribes. It was a significant escalation of US military aid, and a few days later Turkey’s Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoǧlu announced that Turkey had struck the YPG twice. He was not specific but the attacks appeared to be from machine guns firing across the border. There were no reports of casualties, and the attacks seemed designed as a political message. Davutoǧlu said Turkey had told Russia and the US that YPG forces would not be permitted to proceed beyond the Euphrates. In an apparent rebuke to the Turkish prime minister, John Kerry told a Washington audience on October 28: “We’re…enhancing our air campaign in order to help drive Da’esh [ISIS], which once dominated the Syria–Turkey border, out of the last seventy-mile stretch that it controls.” Two days later, Obama announced he was ordering up to fifty US special forces into Rojava to help the YPG and allied local militias to fight ISIS.

Nassan’s office is in the western sector of Kobanî, in one of the few public buildings that remain intact. Elsewhere the streets are lined with ruins, looking like pancakes of concrete, crushed by US bombs and missiles. Civilian casualties were minimal since most people had fled as soon as ISIS appeared.

Mike King

Kobanî and the surrounding canton with its 380 villages had a pre-war population of 300,000, but by the time of the ISIS attack it had swollen to 500,000 thanks to an influx of Arabs, Armenians, Turkmen, and Kurds fleeing from other Syrian cities. Some 150,000 have already returned, according to Nassan, though it was impossible to verify his figure. The town’s bazaar is busy and the streets are full of women and children. Families are back.

The Kobanî refugees escaping ISIS included Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old toddler whose lifeless body, face-down on a Turkish beach, provoked a worldwide wave of sympathy for Syria’s refugees this summer. Few news reports mentioned that he was a Kurd and some Syrian opposition sources used his plight to claim, falsely, that his parents were taking him and his older brother to escape Assad’s barrel bombs, not ISIS.

The child’s remains, along with those of his brother and mother, are buried under gray marble slabs in Kobanî’s cemetery beside small evergreen trees planted in old tins that used to contain cooking oil. His father, Abdullah, got special permission from the Turkish authorities to bring his family’s bodies across the border, but no such allowance was given to the dozens of foreign journalists who accompanied him from Bodrum. Nor does Turkey allow international aid workers to cross into Kobanî for reconstruction and the clearing of unexploded bombs and shells. In order to circumvent this harsh embargo, they have to use the only route available for visiting the region, which goes via a flat-bottom boat or a ride on a narrow pontoon bridge across the Tigris from Iraqi Kurdistan, followed by a long day’s drive on potholed roads.

Since its withdrawal from Kobanî, ISIS has changed tactics. It uses suicide bombings and hit-and-run attacks, which are less liable to be targeted by US air strikes than large groups of fighters and armored vehicles. Shortly before dawn one night in June a group of ISIS fighters slipped into Kobanî, wearing YPG uniforms to avoid detection. They shot and killed nearly two hundred civilians before taking refuge in a city-center school. It took several days to push them out.

Syrian Kurdish militia leaders pride themselves on being not only a secular guerrilla force with no religious ideology but an army with gender equality, with women in combat on the front line. Fidan Zinar, who took command of the YPJ (Women’s Protection Units) in Kobanî a week before the ISIS raid in June, told me that she used to be a housewife in a small Syrian town. She joined the YPJ three years ago, “first of all to defend myself, then my culture, my language, my people, and our homeland.” A veteran of several clashes with ISIS, she said:

In some operations we work as a separate women’s unit, sometimes we are with male units. We can’t say we’re confident that ISIS won’t come back again. They still have agents and sleeper cells here, and there are gaps in our defenses. But they can’t make an all-out attack; [they can] only penetrate in small groups or use car bombs.

In Kobanî’s military hospital I met a young woman with her left arm in a bandage. Asmin Siterk had been wounded in a battle at the end of July to drive ISIS fighters out of Sarrin, a town on the Euphrates some fifty miles south of Kobanî. “We were in a mixed group of soldiers,” she told me. “Several men were wounded as well as me. There were six martyrs in our group, two women and four men.”

On the drive back east there was further evidence of women’s military contributions. Women in combat fatigues shared the job of examining drivers’ credentials at the numerous checkpoints. Photographs of “martyrs”—troops killed in battle—were displayed at every military post, and a good number were women. In Qamishli, Amina Ossi, the deputy minister for foreign relations in the YPG canton of Jazira, estimated the number of YPG and YPJ fighters as 50,000 and the number of martyrs in the last three years as three thousand. Half of each category were women, she said.

It was on the way to Amina’s office that I came across an initially baffling sight. A statue of Hafez al-Assad, the former Syrian president and founder of the Assad dynasty, stood unmolested at a city-center roundabout. Nearby two photographs of his son, Bashar, were on display in the front windows of Syrianair. While Kurds fly their own red, green, and yellow flag throughout the region, the Syrian national flag was hoisted above a lane of concrete blocks leading to the entrance of a small garrison.

Here is one of the complexities of the Syrian war. The regime retains control of roughly one tenth of Qamishli, plus the local airport and the connecting road as well as the Arab part of the town of Hasakah, some fifty miles to the south. This symbolic toehold allows it to claim that it still controls the capitals of all Syrian provinces except Raqqa, which is held by ISIS, and Idlib, which is held by other extreme Islamists, including Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham. In return the Kurds benefit by having Damascus continuing to pay the salaries of the Kurdish region’s teachers, hospital doctors, and other public-sector workers. Civil aircraft under control of the Assad regime still fly regularly from Qamishli to Damascus and Lattakia. For students enrolled there and for businessmen this provides a useful link, since overground travel has become too dangerous.

Rojava contains some of the most fertile land in Syria, planted with wheat, cotton, and vegetables. It also has oil, although the “nodding donkeys”—the pumps that pull it out of the ground—stand idle now for lack of investment and maintenance. But most basic goods, as well as medicines in the Kurdish region’s pharmacies, are brought from Damascus on trucks that pass through ISIS territory. This is another of Syria’s complexities. ISIS leaders prefer to tax the drivers rather than block them and put the Kurdish region under siege, which could provoke more armed conflict with the Kurds.

Some activists in anti-Assad opposition groups claim that the Assad regime’s presence in Qamishli shows that the Kurds are collaborators. The point is vigorously rejected by Kurdish officials, who say they have two enemies, ISIS and Turkey, that pose a more immediate threat than Assad. ISIS fighters continue to attack them wherever they can. Turkey is a looming presence that might send its troops or aircraft across the border at any time. “War is a matter of strategy and tactics. You can’t fight on too many fronts,” Lawand Rojava, a YPG commander in Hasakah, told me.

The [Assad] regime has aircraft and uses barrel bombs. Why should we risk our people’s lives by attacking the regime’s base here, just to prove to the world that we are not allies of the regime? We have to think about the interests of the people. The regime also thinks strategically. We have had many clashes with the regime but they’re not attacking us now.

Hasakah came under assault from ISIS as recently as June. The ISIS fighters infiltrated the Arab part of town and attacked the regime’s forces. Syrian government aircraft responded, but the YPG held back. Only when ISIS moved into the Kurdish districts did the YPG call in US air strikes. Under the combined weight of YPG ground troops and US airpower ISIS was eventually pushed back but the YPG and YPJ lost fifty people, according to Lawand Rojava. He was not complimentary about the Syrian army’s performance. “There are,” he said, “various militias fighting with the [Syrian] regime. Some are Baathist. Others are from local Arab tribes. There are also the National Defense Forces”—a volunteer militia that Assad created two years ago to supplement the dwindling supply of conscripts. Using the Arabic acronym Da’esh for ISIS, he went on: “When Da’esh came into Hasakah, many regime units switched to Da’esh’s side. There are also many Da’esh spies within the regime.”

As with the ISIS counterattack after retreating from Kobanî, ISIS showed that it still has the mobility to cause casualties and terror in Hasakah. A week before my visit to the town an ISIS team in a car full of explosives blew themselves up at a checkpoint outside the front of Lawand Rojava’s headquarters, killing three soldiers. Two days earlier a suicide bomber killed twenty civilians at another checkpoint, and in a separate incident a bomber killed forty-three civilians in a crowded shopping street. Kurdish journalists in Qamishli were unaware of the atrocities, an apparent sign that the Kurdish authorities try to restrict bad news.

In Remelan, a small Syrian town close to the border of Iraq and Turkey, I went to see Saleh Muslim, the copresident of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the largest Syrian Kurdish party, who is in effect the region’s political leader. The YPG militias are the PYD’s armed wing. As Michael Gunter describes in Out of Nowhere: The Kurds of Syria in Peace and War, the PYD began in 2003 as the Syrian branch of the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. (Though completed before ISIS’s emergence and the start of US bombing, the book is an admirably lucid survey of the Syrian Kurds’ history and prospects.) Hafez al-Assad had given the PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan sanctuary in Syria in 1979. The move was partly to have a bargaining chip in dealings with Turkey but also, in Gunter’s words, “in return for…keeping the lid on Syria’s Kurds…. Assad allowed Syrian Kurds to join the PKK in lieu of serving in the Syrian army.”

This modus vivendi lasted until 1998 when Turkey threatened to go to war unless Syria expelled the PKK. Assad gave way and sent Öcalan and his fighters out of the country. Most of Öcalan’s guerrillas moved to northern Iraq. Öcalan himself sought refuge in various countries, eventually flying to Kenya, where he was captured in 1999 in a joint US-Turkish operation. He has been in a Turkish prison ever since.

Saleh Muslim, a native of Kobanî, was in a Syrian prison for a time as an activist after the PYD took part in anti-regime demonstrations in Qamishli in 2004. On release he made his way to a PKK camp in the Qandil mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan, and returned to Syria in April 2011 just as the new wave of anti-regime protests got underway.

The United States and the European Union designate the PKK as a terrorist group but they have been careful not to do the same with the PYD. Saleh Muslim meets regularly with US diplomats and was invited to meet Turkish officials in Istanbul in July 2013, when he assured them that the PYD was not seeking independence from Syria for Rojava.

Saleh Muslim’s soft-spoken manner and modest demeanor belie the steel and determination that have helped him turn the PYD into an unexpectedly powerful political and military force. While supporting Assad’s replacement by a national unity government, he has no doubt that the immediate threat comes from ISIS, and that foreign governments need to give priority to ISIS in defining their objectives in Syria. Asked if the Assad regime was close to being toppled by ISIS, he told me: “If it collapses because of the Salafis [i.e., ISIS], it would be a disaster for everyone. If it collapses by agreement with other forces, it would be all right.”

He argued that there should be talks between the regime and the non-Islamist forces such as the Kurds with the aim of reaching a political deal, since neither side could eliminate the other, but there was no prospect of negotiating with ISIS, since they did not believe in compromise. “For Da’esh and people with their mentality you cannot think of any way of ending them except via military force…. We wouldn’t feel safe in our homes as long as there is one Da’esh person left alive. They are an enemy of humanity.”

Muslim was speaking to me when the Russian military build-up in Lattakia was underway but before the Russian air strikes started and Assad met with Vladimir Putin in Moscow. Saleh Muslim has regular contacts with Russian diplomats, as he has with Americans, and said he had been assured by senior Russian officials on a visit to Moscow in September that Russia would not bring ground troops to fight in Syria. “We and our allies among the Arabs have said many times we don’t agree to have foreign armies in Syria, or any invasion by any side. If the Russians break through on this, it means a kind of invasion and our people won’t agree to it.”

He favored coordination between the US and Russian air forces. As long as it was not designed exclusively to support the Assad regime, he saw no reason why the US should not coordinate with the Syrian army and provide air cover if it launched ground offensives against ISIS since defeating ISIS, in his view, took priority over replacing Assad’s regime.

He foresaw the day when the Syrian Kurdish militias could close the last ISIS crossing point from Turkey at Jarabulus. The YPG could then even move on ISIS’s capital in Raqqa “with the help of others.”

The PYD’s relationship with the other main Kurdish parties in the region is complicated. It denies having organic links to the PKK in Turkey, though it reveres the PKK’s imprisoned leader, Abdullah Öcalan. His picture is prominently displayed in public offices and at military checkpoints, even sometimes on badges on soldiers’ shoulders, and he is referred to as “Apo” (Uncle).

The PYD’s links to the ruling parties in Iraqi Kurdistan are polite but cool, partly for ideological reasons since the PYD is left-wing and the Iraqi parties are center-right but mainly because the PYD insists on monopolizing decision-making in their own region. A recent meeting between Saleh Muslim and the Iraqi Kurdish president, Masoud Barzani, which was organized and attended by Brett McGurk, the US special envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition, was aimed at getting Muslim to agree that a few thousand US-trained peshmerga in Iraq who owe loyalty to smaller Syrian Kurdish parties would be allowed to cross from Iraq and join the struggle. Muslim insisted that they come under YPG command and the meeting failed.

The PYD is facing criticism from some supporters. There is war weariness and anxiety over the long periods of military service for young men and women. I found people grumbling over a new decree that puts under government control properties left empty by those who have fled abroad. Officials insist that this is not expropriation but a measure designed to assess the scale of vacant buildings and rehouse people who have abandoned vulnerable villages for the safety of the main towns. If the owners return, they will get their houses back.

In his book, Gunter points out that the Assads maintained an artificial Arab Belt (al-Hizam al-Arabi) along the Turkish border by settling Arabs in new villages there with the aim of separating Syria’s Kurds from the Kurds of southern Turkey. Arab and Turkmen refugees, now in Turkey, have recently claimed that the Pyd is engaging in ethnic cleansing, forced deportation, and demolition of houses. Some of these charges have been taken up by Amnesty International. PYD officials deny that they are destroying the Arab Belt. They say that some villages had to be abandoned for security reasons because their inhabitants sympathized with ISIS fighters when they infiltrated it; when ISIS left, the Arabs and Turkmen voluntarily fled for fear of being suspected by the Kurds of having helped ISIS and harboring “sleeper cells.”

What is Rojava’s future? Militarily, it seems relatively secure. ISIS has suffered much at the YPG’s hands over the last year and is unlikely to want to repeat the experience of confronting them, although ISIS will fight to retain Jarabulus, its last crossing point to Turkey. Besides, ISIS’s long-term ambition is not focused on the Kurds but on Arab regions, whether in Syria, Iraq, or beyond those two countries, in Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

Turkey is the joker in the deck. The peace talks between Turkey and the PKK broke down this summer and Turkey resumed its air strikes on PKK bases. I asked Saleh Muslim if he was afraid of a Turkish military intervention at some point. After all, Rojava is a long and thin slice of land on Turkey’s borders that is only lightly defended by 50,000 Kurdish militia troops. “Two years ago I was most afraid of a Turkish intervention, but Turkey is not so free to do that now,” he replied, apparently confident that Washington’s alliance with the YPG in the struggle against ISIS has limited Turkey’s options.

Like most Kurds in Rojava—and I heard the same from Iraqi Kurdish officials in Erbil—Saleh Muslim believes that Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoǧan’s recent attacks on the PKK were designed to win Turkish nationalist support for his party in the parliamentary elections on November 1. If that was Erdoǧan’s strategy, it worked handsomely. The opposition Nationalist Action Party (MHP) lost forty of its eighty seats and Erdoǧan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) surged to an outright majority in parliament after a campaign in which it insisted that it alone could give Turkey stability and security. The question now is whether Erdoǧan continues his attacks on the PKK and, by extension, the Syrian Kurds, or resumes the peace process with the PKK.

Whatever Erdoǧan decides, there appears to be no chance that Rojava will ever go back under Arab control as fully as it was before 2011. Before the Geneva talks in 2014, the last occasion when the UN brokered negotiations between the Syrian government and its opponents, the Syrian Kurds insisted on coming as a separate delegation and refused to join the opposition coalition when they were told they had to join with others. After almost five years of war Syria is fragmented, and it is unclear whether Damascus will ever be restored as a powerful seat of central government. The best that can be expected is a devolved federal system, either by a formal constitutional change or merely de facto.

Rule from Damascus may be replaced by competing rulers or warlords in different cities. Whoever they are, whether Islamist or secular, no set of Arab rulers will easily be accepted again by Syria’s Kurds. Their language is being revived. They run their own education system and have an authentic local media. They have tasted the benefits of autonomy and will resist any attempt to have all this extinguished.

—November 4, 2015

John Cusack + Arundhati Roy – Conversations with each other and Snowdon and Ellsberg

Things That Can and Cannot Be Said: A Conversation Between John Cusack and Arundhati Roy
Monday, 16 November 2015 00:00
By John Cusack and Arundhati Roy, Outlook | Op-Ed – go to for original

Every nation-state tends towards the imperial – that is the point. Through banks, armies, secret police, propaganda, courts and jails, treaties, taxes, laws and orders, myths of civil obedience, assumptions of civic virtue at the top. Still it should be said of the political left, we expect something better. And correctly. We put more trust in those who show a measure of compassion, who denounce the hideous social arrangements that make war inevitable and human desire omnipresent; which fosters corporate selfishness, panders to appetites and disorder, waste the earth.”—Daniel Berrigan, poet, Jesuit priest.


John Cusack: One morning as I scanned the news – horror in the Middle East, Russia and America facing off in the Ukraine, I thought of Edward Snowden and wondered how he was holding up in Moscow. I began to imagine a conversation between him and Daniel Ellsberg (who leaked the Pentagon Papers during the Vietnam war). And then, interestingly, in my imagination a third person made her way into the room – the writer Arundhati Roy. It occurred to me that trying to get the three of them together would be a fine thing to do.

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The Revolution in Rojava – by Meredith Tax

– See more at:

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The Kurds’ Crude Making Americans Cheerful – by Dr. M. Koohzad

The Struggle for Iraq’s Oil

The Kurds’ Crude Making Americans Cheerful


Americans are very happy to see the price of fuel especially gasoline falling before the beginning of the cold season. They are smiling, happy, laughing, giggling, and even shouting at prices beyond their imagination. The price of gasoline has been deceasing since April and by now, for the first time in a long time, the price of regular gas is below $3.00 per gallon. However, Americans, being very polite people, are unaware of whom should they thank.


The explanation lies in the laws of supply and demand, which leads us to find out how much crude oil is produced where and controlled by whom. Apparently, the US itself has increased production. It is predicted that the US is on its way becoming the number one oil-producing nation in the world, a position that is held by the medieval monarchy of Saudi Arabia. In this country, oil production, distribution, and pricing are in the hands of few American oil cartels called Aramco. As a global strategic commodity, the price is also sensitive to political events.

After the US-led Invasion of Iraq in 2003, Kurdistan in Northern parts of the country became a de facto independent state but stayed in a Federal government system in Iraq. The Kurds fought side-by-side the Americans against their common enemy, Saddam Hussein. The Kurds provided the largest forces in the coalition. No Americans died as long as the Peshmerga, the Kurdish freedom fighters, accompanied them. The Kurds were the only group of people who actually came to various US cities to offer their appreciation for the help they received.

Greater Kurdistan has the second largest amount of proven oil reserves after the Persian Gulf Basin. The land and population of Kurdistan were divided into four unequal parts by the Western colonial powers by the end of WWI and are now controlled by Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. Of a total population of 40 million Kurds worldwide, 20 million of them live in Turkey, 10 million in Iran, 7 million in Iraq, 2 million in Syria, and 2 million in diaspora, mostly in Europe.

The Kurds have been able to achieve their basic human rights only in Iraq and Syria. The Iraqi Kurdistan is considered to be the bloodiest of all four parts. This was also the site of the first autonomous, and may be the place of the first independent and free, Kurdistan. It is seen as the heart of democracy in the Mideast, a region filled with brutal dictators and terrorism. In Turkey and Iran, the Kurds are seen as second-class citizens. It is important to note that all four parts of Greater Kurdistan have some amounts of proven oil reserves, with the largest being located in Kirkuk region of Northern Iraq.

Oil was discovered in the Iraqi Kurdistan near the city of Kirkuk in October, 1927. On that day, a massive fountain of oil gushed over the crown of the derrick to a height of 137.8 feet (42 meters). It took ten days from the first outburst to close the control valve and it shut off. By the time the well was capped, more than 95,000 barrels of oil a day had spilled into the ground. Thus, almost one million barrels of oil covered and polluted the region. It took 70 days to finally complete the clean up. It is believed that the natural gas discharge in the middle of Baba Gurgur oilfield was the source of a great fire, Eternal Fire that was around for thousands of years. The Eternal Fire may have been one of the reasons for the rise of Zoroastrianism in the region. The Fiery Furnace of the Book of Daniel perhaps was a reference to the natural gas reserves.

Regardless who was in power, monarchs, generals, or presidents, Baghdad was never fully able to develop the Kurdish oil in Kirkuk. It was constantly at war with the Kurds. This means most of the reserves are untapped and still available. It is believed that the Kurdistan Regional Government, KRG, alone has control over 45 billion barrels of proven oil reserves. Nearly 80 international energy companies including major ones such as ExxonMobil and Chevron are busy finding and producing more oil and natural gas under KRG’s jurisdiction. During the last decade more than 100 oil wells have been drilled here — three-times more than in the last century.

Baghdad, after 2003, agreed to pay the Kurds 17% of all of the country’s oil revenues, which is the percentage Kurds make up of the total population of Iraq. Then the Kurds needed more funds thus decided to deal with oil producing companies independently. Baghdad did not agree, and the Kurds went ahead with their proposals anyway. After repairing a pipeline of 600 miles (970 km) long from Kirkuk to the Turkish port city of Ceyhan, the Kurds believed they would be able to export up to 500,000 barrels of crude oil per day. This would be in addition to many truckloads of crude sent to Turkey and Iran daily. Actually, it is believed that, due to its location, the Kurdish natural gas will help Europeans to be less dependent on Russia.

Independent oil production by the GRG became a major bone of contention between Baghdad and Erbil (the capital of the Kurdistan region in Iraq). Baghdad stopped paying the Kurds any money. The KRG was almost bankrupted. Many of its employees were not paid for months. The Shia government of Iraqi PM al-Maliki was not in any mood to compromise, and, similar to former PM and now President Erdogan of Turkey, kept calling the Kurds “terrorists” every chance he got. Ankara and Baghdad have never had any sympathy or affinity for the Kurds. Actually, President Erdogan is busy recycling some the Cold War era’s issues such as labeling the Kurds “communists.” Since 2003 and even today, the Kurdish oil fields have provided energy starving Turkey with the largest amount of cheap oil.

Independently produced Kurdish crude oil from the pipeline found its way to the international market in May of 2014. It has been seen as contraband commodity, and only a few buyers were brave enough to buy it. Still a major proportion of the Kurdish crude was shipped to the eastern parts of Turkey, to the centers of population in and around the city of Istanbul. But outside of Turkey and Iran, Israel was the first country to pay for oil from Kurdistan. Since Baghdad has been following every single oil tanker, most buyers would like to stay anonymous. It is, however, obvious that a few American oil companies have been able to sell cheap Kurdish oil in the USA and bring down its price.

Although claimed by the Kurds, the Kirkuk oil fields were controlled by Baghdad until early June of this year. As soon as the world’s worst Jihadist terrorist, WWJT, captured Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq, on June 10, and the Iraqi Sunni armies ran away, the Kurds had no choice but to take over their own oil fields. Interestingly enough, WWJT also took over some of the oil producing areas and refineries in Syria and Iraq. This terrorist organization is making over $1 million in a day from selling oil, mainly to Turkey. In addition to taking over banks, tax collection, receiving cash from supporters, extortion, kidnapping and smuggling, oil sales have made these Sunni Jihadists the world’s richest terrorist organization.

Sales of Kurdish crude oil in large quantities will give the KRG more economic independence. Erbil was preparing for a referendum on going ahead with independence but now, similar to Washington and Baghdad, it is more concerned about protecting itself from WWJT’s attacks. Unfortunately, Washington is more worried about Iraq’s territorial integrity, a property that has never existed in the first place. Nevertheless, the world must know that the Kurds are not going to give up their right to self-determination when an ethnic group is allowed to decide its own statehood, its own allegiances, and its own government. Forcefully or peacefully, 40 million Kurds will not rest until achieve their total freedom. And the rest of the world can enjoy cheaper crude oil from an independent Kurdistan.

Dr. Koohzad is the author of a forthcoming book entitled: Kurdistan: World’s Largest International Colony.

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A Frontline Account Of The Fight Against The Islamic State – by Harry Schute

A Frontline Account Of The Fight Against The Islamic State
12:13 AM 10/24/2014
Harry Schute

ERBIL, Iraq — We are now approximately four and a half months into the Islamic State (IS) military campaign to expand their self-declared caliphate across Iraq. And it’s more than two and a half months since they moved against Iraqi Kurdistan, attacking the Kurdish Peshmerga forces who were securing the disputed territories claimed by the Kurdistan Regional Government.

Since the start of this campaign, we’ve been on a bit of an operational rollercoaster as the IS attacks have ebbed and flowed, answered by counter-attacks from the Peshmerga, the Iraqi Security Forces and the Coalition airstrikes.

After the initial push by IS into Kurdistani-controlled areas, and then the responding U.S. airstrikes which started on 8 August, the Peshmerga have been able to gradually push the IS terrorists back all across the front line. The combination of additional airstrikes, replenishment of low ammunition stocks and a fresh shot of morale were significant in allowing these gains by the Peshmerga.

However, the counter-offensive has been slow mainly for three reasons. First, IS has changed its tactics. Due to the airstrikes, they have changed their methods of moving so that they are moving in smaller, harder to detect convoys. Second, in every area that IS has planned a withdrawal, they have saturated the area with IED’s and booby-traps. Advancing Peshmerga have had to painstakingly clear these areas – sometimes with hundreds of bombs in a single village area – before proceeding to completely secure a recaptured location. Third, the Peshmerga are still lacking in the kinds of heavy weaponry and armored protection they need to conduct major offensive operations.

One might ask, “How could the Peshmerga still be short in arms and equipment after weeks of supplies going to them?” Although the Peshmerga have very gratefully received the arms and equipment that have arrived so far, most of the arms are a replenishment of the existing Warsaw Pact-era weapons they have. In fact, most of their existing weapons are older than the soldiers wielding them.

There have been some other new weapons provided — such as machine guns, mortars and a small number of anti-tank weapons — but that is all. Certainly not a sufficient or diverse assortment of equipment to conduct a significant and sustained offensive campaign, especially since IS continues to be equipped with significant amounts of American -made equipment captured from the Iraqi Army.

Certainly, the combination of U.S. – and later allied – airstrikes against IS in the north of Iraq, in combination with the invigorated fighting spirit of the Peshmerga, put IS back on their heels. We saw the recapture of Mosul Dam; of Makhmour and Gwer near Erbil City; and a variety of other places along the 1,000 kilometer long frontier.

Logically, IS redirected their major attention to other areas where they were not sustaining the same kind of pressure. In Syria, that led to their major push on the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani. In Iraq, they broadened their campaign in and around Anbar province. This did not mean IS stopped all operations against Kurdistan, as daily skirmishing and probes at various places continued along the front line, but it did mean the major sweeping operations we saw in early August were curtailed.

After a lull of several weeks from major combat along the Kurdish front line with IS, on Monday we saw a renewed push by IS all along the line with attacks occurring in multiple places from Sinjar down to areas south of Kirkuk around Qara Tapa. Again, we are likely seeing a refocus of the IS offensive operations since their attacks have been slowed against Kobani and to a lesser degree in Anbar.

Importantly, we have seen IS reverting to some of the same tactics they have used before when they have been unable to conduct the sorts of conventional attacks we saw two months ago. For example, in their assault on Monday near Mosul Dam, they used a truck bomb which exacted a heavy toll on the Peshmerga defenders with as many as 15 killed, including a brigadier general.

In the past, we have seen IS provide homemade armor to such vehicles to increase their chances of success, since the Peshmerga still lack significant numbers of anti-tank weapons. And in the IS assault around Qara Tapa, the attackers disguised themselves in Peshmerga clothing and were able to gain some initial success during the ruse before reinforcements were deployed to blunt the assault. Again, the operation did not occur without significant casualties on both sides. In other areas, IS conducted in direct fire attacks.

So what are the takeaways from this rollercoaster of operations we’ve seen from IS?

IS is still able to refocus its forces at multiple places along the front lines to choose the time and place of its attacks. They still have sufficient reserves of personnel and equipment to replenish their loses and initiate new or restored operations. They have time. As long as their bases of support and pool of resources exist, they will continue to attack everyone and everything they perceive as enemies. And for IS, it doesn’t matter if it takes two weeks, two months or two years. They have the will and commitment to conduct those operations.

Naturally, this means that if the coalition that is being assembled to face this very real threat is to have any chance of success, they must have the same determination, drive and patience to achieve victory that IS has. Otherwise, we must frankly admit we are only trying to swat vultures with a fly swatter. Not a very realistic prospect. Hopefully the allied leaders understand this reality and will ensure their people do as well.

Harry Schute is a retired US Army Reserve Colonel. He commanded an Army Civil Affairs Battalion in Kurdistan in 2003-04 and was later Chief of Staff for the Coalition Provisional Authority-North. He currently is a senior security advisor to the Kurdistan Regional Government.

The Fight of Their Lives – by Dexter Filkins

The New Yorker Magazine
A Reporter at Large September 29, 2014 Issue
The Fight of Their Lives
The White House wants the Kurds to help save Iraq from ISIS. The Kurds may be more interested in breaking away.
By Dexter Filkins


Masoud Barzani, the President of the Kurdish regional government. In July, he told the Kurdish parliament, “The time has come to decide our fate, and we should not wait for other people to decide it for us.” Masoud Barzani, the President of the Kurdish regional government. In July, he told the Kurdish parliament, “The time has come to decide our fate, and we should not wait for other people to decide it for us.” Credit Photograph by Moises Saman / Magnum

On the evening of August 8th, Najat Ali Saleh, a former commander of the Kurdish army, was summoned to a meeting with Masoud Barzani, the President of the semiautonomous Kurdish region that occupies the northern part of Iraq. Barzani, a longtime guerrilla fighter, was alarmed. Twenty-four hours before, fighters with the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) had made a huge incursion into the Kurds’ territory. They had overrun Kurdish forces in the western Iraqi towns of Sinjar and Makhmour, and had surged as far as Gwer, fifteen miles from the capital city of Erbil. At the Mosul Dam, on the Tigris River, they had seized the controls, giving them the ability to inundate Baghdad with fifteen feet of water. The Kurdish army is known throughout the region for its ferocity—its fighters are called peshmerga, or “those who face death”—and the defeat had been a humiliation. “We were totally unprepared for what happened,” Saleh told me. Kurdish leaders were so incensed that they relieved five commanders of their posts and detained them for interrogation. “It would have been better for them if they had fought to the death,” he said.

Saleh, a veteran of the Kurds’ wars against Saddam Hussein, was being called back into service. His orders were to retake Makhmour and keep going, pushing back ISIS fighters wherever he found them. Working quickly, he gathered several thousand soldiers, surrounded the city, and went in. By the next day, Makhmour was in Kurdish hands; in the following weeks, the Kurds forced ISIS fighters out of twenty surrounding villages. When I saw Saleh, on a recent visit, his men had just recaptured a village called Baqert. With mortars still thudding nearby, he exuded a heavy calm, cut by anger. I asked him if he’d taken any prisoners. “Only dead,” he said.

The fighting between ISIS and the Kurds stretches along a six-hundred-and-fifty-mile front in northeastern Iraq—a jagged line that roughly traces one border of Iraqi Kurdistan, the territory that the Kurds have been fighting for decades to establish as an independent state. With as many as thirty million people spread across the Middle East, the Kurds claim to be the world’s largest ethnic group without a country. Iraqi Kurdistan, which contains about a quarter of that population, is a landlocked region surrounded almost entirely by neighbors—Turkey, Iran, and the government in Baghdad—that oppose its bid for statehood.

The incursion of ISIS presents the Kurds with both opportunity and risk. In June, the ISIS army swept out of the Syrian desert and into Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. As the Islamist forces took control, Iraqi Army soldiers fled, setting off a military collapse through the region. The Kurds, taking advantage of the chaos, seized huge tracts of territory that had been claimed by both Kurdistan and the government in Baghdad. With the newly acquired land, the political climate for independence seemed promising. The region was also finding new economic strength; vast reserves of oil have been discovered there in the past decade. In July, President Barzani asked the Kurdish parliament to begin preparations for a vote on self-rule. “The time has come to decide our fate, and we should not wait for other people to decide it for us,” Barzani said.

Since 2003, when the U.S. destroyed the Iraqi state and began spending billions of dollars trying to build a new one, the Kurds have been their most steadfast ally. When American forces departed, in 2011, not a single U.S. soldier had lost his life in Kurdish territory. As the rest of Iraq imploded, only the Kurdish region realized the dream that President George W. Bush had set forth when he ordered the attack: it is pro-Western, largely democratic, largely secular, and economically prosperous. President Obama recently told the Times that the Kurdish government is “functional the way we would like to see.”

Still, the Administration, bound to a policy it calls One Iraq, is quietly working to thwart the Kurds’ aspirations. American officials are warning companies that buying Kurdish oil may have dire legal consequences, and the warnings have been effective: the Kurdish regional government is nearly bankrupt. And yet, as the peshmerga work to force ISIS out of Kurdish territory, they have been supported by American jets and drones, and by American Special Forces on the ground. In August, President Obama ordered covert shipments of arms to the Kurds. By the end of the month, Kurdish forces had taken back much of the territory that they had lost to ISIS, and were preparing operations to reclaim the rest.

Obama has spoken carefully in public, but it is plain that the Administration wants the Kurds to do two potentially incompatible things. The first is to serve as a crucial ally in the campaign to destroy ISIS, with all the military funding and equipment that such a role entails. The second is to resist seceding from the Iraqi state. Around Washington, the understanding is clear: if the long-sought country of Kurdistan becomes real, America’s twelve-year project of nation building in Iraq will be sundered. Kurdish leaders acknowledge that the emergence of ISIS and the implosion of Syria are changing the region in unpredictable ways. But the Kurds’ history with the state of Iraq is one of persistent enmity and bloodshed, and they see little benefit in joining up with their old antagonists. “Iraq exists only in the minds of people in the White House,” Masrour Barzani, the Kurdish intelligence chief and Masoud’s son, told me. “We need our own laws, our own rules, our own country, and we are going to get them.”
Peshmerga forces near the city of Kirkuk, on the front between Kurdish and ISIS fighters. July 13, 2014.

On March 16, 1988, Nosreen Abdul Qadeer, a sixteen-year-old newlywed in the Kurdish town of Halabja, was helping her mother prepare lunch for guests when she heard a series of explosions. This was unremarkable: the government of Saddam Hussein, then at war with Iran, had lumped the Kurds in with its foreign enemies. But the planes that day were flying unusually low, barely above the treetops. “I could see the pilots inside, taking photos of the city,” she said. The family rushed to the basement to wait out the bombardment.

A few minutes later, Qadeer noticed that her family members’ eyes were turning red. Then an eerie smell seeped under the doorway and down the stairs. One moment it reminded Qadeer of apples, the next of rotten eggs. When the shelling stopped, she and her family went outside. “Children were vomiting in the streets,” Qadeer said. “People’s noses were running with blood. Goats and chickens were on the ground choking to death.”

As people around her collapsed, Qadeer began to run, and found herself with a group of people she didn’t know. As they hustled toward the edge of town, they turned into the wind, discovering that it was easier to breathe that way. Qadeer urged strangers to keep moving, even as they passed the dead. She found many of the stragglers laughing deliriously as they expired. One was a boy, seated on the ground, who refused to budge. “Let me do my homework!” he said. “Let me do my homework!” That night, as the group prepared to sleep in an abandoned building, Qadeer began to lose her eyesight, and her memory started to fade. Her husband, Baktiar, found her, and placed tea leaves over her eyes to ease the burning. The next day, the group, with nearly everyone blind, began to move again, roping themselves together so that no one would be lost. A few days later, Qadeer awoke in an Iranian hospital, lashed to a bed. She was blind, burned, and bleeding from her vagina. But, she said, “I was not dead after all.” Twenty days later, her vision began to return. It was only then that she and the others realized that they had been attacked with chemical weapons.

I met Qadeer, who is now forty-two, at a museum in Halabja dedicated to the victims of the attack, which Saddam’s government carried out with sarin and mustard gas. As many as five thousand people died in the assault, including seventeen of Qadeer’s relatives, making it one of the most vicious acts of Saddam’s reign. An audiotape recovered after the fall of his regime recorded the raspy voice of Ali Hassan Al Majid, the dictator’s cousin and the orchestrator of the attack. “I will kill them all!” Majid says. “Fuck the international community! I will fuck the father of the international community!”

People from Halabja still suffer from respiratory illnesses caused by the chemical weapons: a resident of the town dies every four months from the residual effects. “I don’t have a normal life,” Qadeer told me. “If I go without my medicine, it is like the first day for me.” Like many women who survived the attack, Qadeer struggled to bear children; one was born with a hole in his heart and died a few weeks later. It was not until 2000, twelve years after the attack, that Qadeer was able to conceive successfully; she now has three healthy children. “All I ask for is a bright life for my children,” she said. “The person inside me died long ago.”

In the years after the attack, some of her rare moments of satisfaction came from the demise of Saddam Hussein. After his arrest, in December of 2003, Qadeer watched his trial every day on television; if she missed it, she would stay up until 2 A.M. to watch the second broadcast. Part of her wishes that he were still around: “I think the best revenge would have been for him to see what we have accomplished here in Kurdistan.”

Decades of mass trauma, mostly inflicted by the government in Baghdad, have generated a momentum toward statehood that seems nearly unstoppable. For Masoud Barzani, a lifetime of massacres and betrayals has relieved him of the obligation to help save Iraq for someone else’s benefit. “We tried our best to make a new Iraq, based on a new set of principles,” he said. “We spared no effort to help make this new Iraq work. But unfortunately it has failed. So our question to our doubters is just that: How much longer should we wait, and how much longer should we deny our destiny for some unknown future?”

Iraq was created in 1920, in the postwar settlement that established the modern Middle East. From the start, it was an unstable amalgam of three former provinces of the Ottoman Empire: a predominantly Shiite one in the south, a Sunni-dominated one in the center, and a largely Kurdish one in the north. Though many national groups in Europe and the Middle East gained statehood, the Kurds were split among the new states of Iraq, Syria, and Turkey and the ancient one of Iran.

Barzani was born in 1946 in the closest thing to an independent state that the Kurds have ever known: the Mahabad Republic, an autonomous region in northern Iran. Mahabad was supported by the Soviet Union, which was occupying large swaths of Iran. When the Red Army withdrew, under Western pressure, the republic collapsed. At the time, Mustafa Barzani, Masoud’s father, was the leader of the Kurds. He was forced to flee, leaving behind his wife and infant son, and they were not reunited for twelve years. Mustafa Barzani is still revered across Kurdistan, his portrait adorning walls in homes and teahouses. To Masoud, he was a remote figure, a man whom everyone but him seemed to know. “Masoud grew up away from his father, not knowing him, and yet his father was the most famous man among all the Kurds,” Shafiq Qazzaz, a friend of both men, said.

In the mid-nineteen-seventies, with the backing of the Shah of Iran, Israel, and the Central Intelligence Agency, Kurdish rebels secured a large self-governing area in northern Iraq. Mustafa Barzani, charismatic but unsophisticated, saw the Americans’ interest as a guarantee of victory. “My father never trusted the Shah, but he had total faith in America,” Masoud told me. Then, in 1975, the Shah made a separate peace with Saddam and cut off support to the Kurds. Mahmoud Othman, one of Mustafa’s closest advisers, recalled that the Shah announced his decision in a meeting, so dispassionately that he never raised his voice: “He said he’d made a deal and that, unfortunately, a third party had lost—and that was us, the Kurds.” When the Shah withdrew his aid, the C.I.A. and the Israelis quickly followed. The Iraqi Army surged back in, and more than a hundred thousand Kurds fled the region. A few months later, Mustafa received a diagnosis of advanced lung cancer. He spent his last years in the United States. Before he died, he wrote to President Jimmy Carter: “I could have prevented this calamity which befell my people, had I not fully believed in the promise of America.” The moment still resonates; Henry Kissinger’s name is known, and reviled, by nearly every Kurd. “It took Masoud a long time to regain his trust in the United States,” Qazzaz said. “He felt his father had died from the betrayal.”

The history of the Kurds’ relationship with the United States is a series of swings between rescue and abandonment, and, as a consequence, between gratitude and distrust. In early 1987, when Peter Galbraith was a young staffer on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he and a group of colleagues went on an official visit to Iraq. The itinerary, Galbraith recalled recently, took him to Iraq’s Kurdish region. As he and a government escort drove through the countryside of northern Iraq, Galbraith was struck by a string of empty villages, some of which were being bulldozed. Other villages, designated on American military maps, had vanished. Galbraith wasn’t allowed to get out of the car to investigate. “It was shocking,” Galbraith said. “Nobody knew what was happening.”

The following year, back in the U.S., Galbraith began to read reports of Kurdish civilians who claimed to have been attacked by poison gas. The Iran-Iraq War had recently ended, so there could be no dispute about who was using the weapon. “I said, ‘Saddam intends to commit genocide against the Kurds,’ ” Galbraith told me. When he and his colleagues visited the Turkish-Iraqi border, he quickly confirmed that some Kurdish refugees were suffering from the effects of poison gas.

What Galbraith had witnessed was the Anfal campaign, named for a chapter in the Koran that refers to the victory of a handful of the Prophet’s followers over an army of unbelievers. Saddam launched Anfal in 1987, beginning the destruction of some four thousand Kurdish villages as he tried to depopulate the countryside. Galbraith embarked on a lonely effort to publicize the Kurds’ plight; his first attempt, working with Senator Claiborne Pell to impose sanctions on Saddam’s regime, failed in Congress.

In August, 1990, the West’s view of Saddam changed abruptly, when he ordered his Army into Kuwait. Saddam’s invasion prompted an enormous international response, including an American-led military intervention. The ground campaign to throw the Iraqi Army out of Kuwait was accomplished with stunning speed—it took exactly a hundred hours—and it was followed almost immediately by an uprising among Iraq’s Kurds and its long-suppressed Shiite majority. The uprising was encouraged by American officials, who, in radio broadcasts, urged Iraqis to deal with Saddam on their own.

At negotiations for the Iraqi Army’s surrender, the American commander, General Norman Schwarzkopf, granted Iraq’s request that its pilots be allowed to fly helicopters around the country—not realizing, he said later, that they might be deployed to suppress an uprising. With the helicopters leading the way, Saddam’s Army mounted a ferocious counterattack against rebels inside the country, killing more than a hundred and fifty thousand Shiites. Almost two million Kurds, fearing gas attacks, fled for Iran and Turkey. Tens of thousands died from privation or military attacks along the way.

As a catastrophe unfolded in northern Iraq, President George H. W. Bush refused to intervene, calling Saddam’s crackdown an internal Iraqi affair. Masoud Barzani, who had taken over leadership of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (K.D.P.) after his father’s death, found himself with fewer than a hundred fighters. “We vowed to fight to the last bullet,” he said. In the Kore Valley, Barzani’s men stopped a column of Iraqi tanks; their rusting hulks remain, an essential part of the Kurdish national legend. But Saddam’s offensive continued. President Bush, confronted with a humanitarian disaster, ordered American planes to enforce “no-fly zones” in southern and northern Iraq, threatening to shoot down any Iraqi aircraft that ventured inside.

The no-fly zones proved decisive, and Saddam invited Barzani to Baghdad to arrange an accord. Barzani recalled confronting him, alone, in his office: “For five minutes, I stood there, unable to breathe, and I thought I was having a heart attack. Finally, I told Saddam, ‘I have swum through a sea of blood.’ ” Saddam, he said, was cordial, even deferential; when tea was served, he reached across the table and switched cups, assuring Barzani that his tea was not poisoned. The two men struck a deal to stop the fighting. Barzani told me that he is haunted by the memory of meeting Saddam. “He has a double personality, two paradoxical people in the same body,” he said. “He was so polite with me, in all my meetings with him. But his actions? No devil can make those actions.”

The deal with Saddam fell apart. But, under pressure from American jets and from the peshmerga, Saddam withdrew his forces from most of the Kurdish region in October, 1991. The refugees began to come home. Few people in the West realized it at the time, but the no-fly zone in northern Iraq marked the beginning of the Kurds’ road to self-rule; for twelve years, it gave them space to develop their institutions. “The no-fly zone was one of the most efficient and humane uses of power in the history of American foreign policy,” Galbraith said. The Kurds saw an opportunity early. In 1991, with the Iraqi Army gone, Barzani announced elections for a new Kurdish parliament, a prototype for the state he intended to build. Something else had changed, too: for the first time in his adult life, he stopped carrying a gun. In a speech he made at the time, he said, “We need to show the whole world that Kurds are not just brave and good at fighting but also good at respecting the law.”

When I met Barzani in his office in the town of Salahuddin, on a sweltering afternoon, he cut an almost elfin figure. At sixty-eight, he is short and squat, with a round, animated face and an easy smile that suggested the egalitarian openness of a guerrilla commander. He wore a red-and-white Kurdish turban, called a jamadani, and the traditional peshmerga outfit of baggy pants and a tunic, held tight by a corset designed to support the back on mountain treks. Barzani told me that he goes for long hikes in the Kurdish countryside, sometimes spending the night in the open air. He figures that he has spent at least half his life in the mountains, as a refugee and as a guerrilla leader. “It was a very beautiful life for me, and I don’t regret a single day,” he said. “It was very risky, very hard, but it was nice.”

Barzani has fought for the Kurdish cause for fifty years. During that time, the Kurds endured successive waves of calamity, mostly at the hands of Saddam Hussein: the genocidal onslaught of Anfal, which killed as many as a hundred and eighty thousand people; chemical-weapons attacks; and an unrelenting campaign of torture and imprisonment that touched nearly every Kurdish family. Barzani himself lost thirty-seven family members.

As the President of the Kurdish region, Barzani seems more a plainspoken populist than a deep thinker on policy. And yet his admirers say that his finest moment came in August, 2005, during negotiations over Iraq’s new constitution, when he helped to lay the groundwork for an incipient Kurdish state. The day after the constitution was completed, I talked with Barzani, who was dressed, uncharacteristically, in a Western-style suit and tie. He looked satisfied but exhausted. “Politics is much more difficult than war,” he told me. “In politics, there are so many more fronts.”

Throughout the war in Iraq, the Kurds were the Americans’ most loyal partners, offering up the peshmerga to form the nucleus of the new Iraqi Army and one of their own leaders, Jalal Talabani, to be the President of Iraq. Kurdish politicians won seats in the new parliament. But, as the U.S. tried to build a unified and democratic Iraq, the Kurds developed a parallel state, fostering separate democratic institutions, preserving their army, and preparing for the Americans’ eventual departure. If it wasn’t exactly a double game, it allowed the Kurds to be ready for the day when the Iraqi state disintegrated.

Barzani accomplished this by a kind of legal sleight of hand: early on, he insisted on provisions that would allow any three Iraqi provinces to vote down a nationwide constitutional referendum. There are three Kurdish-majority provinces, and no one doubted that Barzani could muster the necessary votes to doom the entire constitution. “Everyone was afraid that the Kurds would just walk away,” Zalmay Khalilzad, the American Ambassador to Iraq at the time, who presided over the talks, said. “This gave Barzani enormous leverage.”

For weeks, as the constitution was debated, Barzani argued each night into the early-morning hours. When the talks were over, and the constitution was ratified, the Kurdish region was still nominally part of Iraq but had most of the attributes of an independent state. The Kurds retained control of their armed forces, which the Americans had sought to disband, and acquired wide latitude to govern themselves. The most explosive subject during the talks had been the distribution of Iraq’s oil wealth, which was seen as either the glue that would hold the ravaged country together or, for the Kurds, the asset that would enable them to break away. Crucially, Barzani secured the right to oversee new discoveries of oil and gas. He fought to sharply limit the powers of the federal government, and secured a provision by which, when the laws of local and central governments came into conflict, the local law would prevail. “Masoud was tough,” Galbraith, who advised the Kurdish leaders during the talks, said. “He had mastered the issues. And he achieved almost everything he set out to achieve.” It was an adroit political balancing act: Barzani could claim that he had kept the Kurds part of a united Iraq, pleasing Baghdad and his patrons in the United States, while also laying the foundation of a separate state. “What’s been happening in Iraq, particularly with their oil, it’s not some historical accident,” Galbraith said. “All of this was planned, and it was all planned by the Kurds.”

At about nine-thirty on the night of June 9th, Kurdish officials began receiving reports that ISIS militants were pouring into the northern city of Mosul. The intelligence indicated that they were planning to free some fourteen hundred captured Sunnis from Badush Prison, inside the city. The Kurds, whose border runs through Mosul, were alarmed but not surprised. For months, ISIS fighters had been quietly infiltrating the city’s Arab neighborhoods and setting up a shadow government. Kurdish officials estimated that ISIS leaders had been collecting fifteen million dollars a month in taxes from local businesses.

Barzani had been concerned about ISIS for some time. The previous fall, he called Nuri al-Maliki, then the Iraqi Prime Minister, to warn him and to offer help. “His answer to me was ‘You just take care of Kurdistan, and the rest is under control,’ ” Barzani said. According to Fuad Hussein, Barzani’s chief of staff, Maliki was increasingly isolated, his hold on reality slipping. In meetings with Kurdish officials, Maliki boasted that the Iraqi Army was performing brilliantly against ISIS and other Sunni insurgents, when, according to Kurdish intelligence, it was falling apart. “Maliki created a fantasy world for himself and the people around him,” Hussein said. Still, as ISIS fighters spread across Mosul, it seemed that Maliki could not ignore what was happening. In the preceding days, Hussein had called Tariq Najm, Maliki’s closest confidant, to offer the Kurds’ assistance in confronting ISIS. Najm refused—worried, apparently, that if the peshmerga went into Mosul they would never leave.

At two o’clock on the morning of June 10th, Najm called back, pleading for help. By then, the Iraqi Army and the police force in Mosul—some fifty-two thousand men in all—had disintegrated. The commander of Iraqi forces in the region and the deputy chief of staff of the Army had fled, as had the leaders of six divisions. Iraqi soldiers were throwing their guns away and stripping off their uniforms—in some cases, rushing through the streets in their underwear. However limited ISIS’s plans may have been initially, they appeared to be expanding; Mosul had fallen. “It’s too late, my friend,” Hussein told Najm. “Your Army has disappeared.”

Later that morning, ISIS fighters turned south, toward the city of Kirkuk. Since Iraq’s creation, Kirkuk, a hundred and sixty miles north of Baghdad, has been an object of dispute between the Arab-dominated governments in Baghdad and the Kurdish population. Over the years, Kirkuk had been subjected to campaigns of ethnic cleansing, its Kurdish majority reduced by waves of expulsions and Arab migration from the south. To many Kurds, Kirkuk is sacred ground, a vital component of an independent state.

The city was part of the “disputed territories,” a strip of land along the border between the Iraqis and the Kurds, which was claimed by both governments. Kirkuk and the rest of the contested region contained as many as a million Kurds, as well as oil reserves thought to amount to at least ten billion barrels. For years, many Iraqis and Westerners regarded Kirkuk as the likeliest starting point for another war, and its unresolved status stood as the biggest obstacle to Kurdish independence. Since 2003, the city had been jointly overseen by the peshmerga and the Iraqi Army—and, until 2011, by American soldiers.

As ISIS closed in, the Iraqi Army around Kirkuk began to collapse. That afternoon, General Sherko Fatih, the local Kurdish commander, met with his Iraqi counterpart, General Mohammed al-Dulaimi, the head of the Iraqi 12th Division. “Dulaimi was broken,” Fatih told me. “He had lost the will to fight.” One Iraqi town after another was falling to ISIS; militants captured Abbassi, outside Kirkuk, with just a taxi and a pickup truck. Fatih handed Dulaimi civilian clothes, put him on a plane to Baghdad, and called the senior Kurdish leadership. If the Kurds did not act soon, he told them, Kirkuk would be the next city to fall.

Barzani was in a Paris hospital, accompanying his wife, who was having knee surgery. With the Iraqi Army in retreat, he was faced with an unprecedented opportunity to seize Kirkuk entirely for the Kurds. “Six Iraqi divisions melted like the snow,” Barzani told me. “I saw it in an opportunistic way.” Barzani said that he was unsentimental about the possibility that grabbing Kirkuk might contribute to the final dissolution of the Iraqi state. And, ultimately, Maliki all but gave him permission. On the evening of the tenth, Hussein told me, he received a phone call from Hamid al-Musawi, Maliki’s personal secretary, conveying a request to secure the disputed areas before ISIS could: “It would be a good thing if you moved in.”

And so Barzani gave the order: “Fill the vacuum.” The first of thirty thousand peshmerga fighters moved forward, occupying posts that the Iraqi Army had abandoned. By midnight, the Kurds had taken possession of Kirkuk, and Barzani soon made it clear that they would never give it back. He told me, “Even now, when I reflect on what happened that night, it was like a dream.”

In seizing Kirkuk, Barzani raised the crucial issue: whether to secede from Iraq and form an independent Kurdish state. In my interview with Barzani, he indicated that he was inclined to go it alone. Barzani said, “We have learned that we need to rely on ourselves.”

South of Kirkuk, the village of Rashad straddles a canal named for Saddam Hussein, which divides Kurdish territory from the land held by ISIS. From a watchtower on the Kurdish side, sentinels look out at ISIS fighters, manning their stations, moving about in taxis and trucks. In early June, when they arrived, they took control of a brick factory, and raised a large black flag above its roof. On the watchtower, I stood with Tania Arab, a twenty-four-year-old peshmerga fighter, who seemed thrilled to be part of the force that had reclaimed the Kurds’ ancestral lands. He said, “Before I came here, my father told me, ‘If you abandon your post, you are not my son.’ ”

ISIS and the peshmerga face each other in outposts like this along the six-hundred-and-fifty-mile front. (The Kurds’ border with the Iraqi Army is only ten miles long, on a stretch near the Iranian border.) In the weeks since ISIS moved in, there have been periods of both fighting and calm. A few days before I arrived, an ISIS commander sent a message across the canal, carried by a local Turkoman businessman, asking General Fatih, his counterpart, if he was willing to talk. Fatih turned the messenger away. “I don’t trust them enough,” he said of the ISIS men. Even before the second wave of attacks—when ISIS captured Sinjar, Makhmour, and the Mosul Dam—Kurdish leaders said that they harbored few illusions about the group’s intentions. A few days after General Fatih rejected ISIS’s request for talks, a suicide bomber drove a car, laden with explosives, into a peshmerga checkpoint outside his headquarters, and a roadside bomb detonated nearby. Twenty-eight people died; when I arrived, police were still picking through twisted metal and broken glass.

The ISIS that swept into northwestern Iraq this June is remarkably different from its predecessor, Al Qaeda in Iraq. The earlier organization operated mostly in secret, and its leaders were uninterested in acquiring territory, believing that a fixed location creates unacceptable risks. ISIS is led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who holds a Ph.D. in Islamic studies from Baghdad University and spent time in an American military prison in Iraq. At forty-three, he is said to be a flamboyant figure, a self-styled successor to Osama bin Laden. Baghdadi’s goal is to re-create the era of the caliphate, when an Islamic regime ruled from Constantinople to Morocco and the Arabian Peninsula.

Al Qaeda in Iraq was run largely by foreigners; ISIS is run by a council of former Iraqi generals, according to Hisham Alhashimi, an adviser to the Iraqi government and an expert on ISIS. Many are members of Saddam Hussein’s secular Baath Party who converted to radical Islam in American prisons. Baghdadi has divided his conquered Iraqi lands into seven “vilayets,” the name given to provinces in the caliphate. Each vilayet has a governor, who answers directly to Baghdadi, but who is free to launch attacks as he sees fit. “No permission is needed,” Alhashimi said.

Alhashimi estimated that Baghdadi has about ten thousand fighters under his command in Iraq and twelve thousand in Syria, with tens of thousands of active supporters in both countries. In Iraq, the advance force, called the House of Islam, is dominated by foreigners, including several hundred Europeans, Australians, and Americans. Many of them are suicide bombers. Alhashimi says that the group is increasingly well funded; he estimated that it takes in ten million dollars a month from kidnapping, and more than a hundred and fifty million dollars a month from smuggling oil into Turkey and other neighboring countries, often selling it at the bargain price of about a dollar a gallon. As of early this year, ISIS had an estimated nine hundred and fifty million dollars in cash, Alhashimi said, an amount that has grown as the group has taken more territory and imposed taxes on local Iraqis.

One of the hallmarks of ISIS’s military strategy has been to launch several attacks simultaneously, distracting opponents from its real target. The group is fighting on many fronts in Iraq and Syria, Alhashimi said, and he believes that it may be planning a major attack somewhere else—in the Gulf or in Europe. “I don’t think it’s far away,” Alhashimi said.

Although President Obama initially described ISIS as a small, unskilled force, his Administration has recently been much more concerned about the threat it poses. A U.S. official told me, “ISIS has kicked the shit out of anyone that’s got in its way, from al-Nusra, to the Islamic Front, to, you know, whatever the Free Syrian Army ever was, to Sunni tribes in Iraq who’ve tried to stand up to it. It is the most dominant force on the field.” Its military commanders have relied on a combination of conventional and guerrilla tactics—along with terrorism—to achieve their ends. Most of ISIS’s attacks against the Iraqi Army and the Kurds have followed the same pattern, the official told me. ISIS opens with a sustained artillery bombardment, which can last for days, then sends in waves of suicide bombers. When the defenses start to crack, its fighters race in on trucks, guns firing. This was how ISIS conquered the Iraqi cities of Sinjar and Al Qaim, on the Euphrates. “Without airpower, I think our guys would have a hard time holding them off,” the official said. He said that ISIS was the result of a brutal process of “combat Darwinism,” by which only the strongest, most fanatical fighters survived the American onslaught in 2006 and 2007, when Al Qaeda in Iraq was nearly destroyed. “These are the guys we didn’t kill.”

The initial air strikes ordered by President Obama—more than a hundred and fifty—were intended solely to aid the Kurdish forces and the government in Baghdad, and to rescue the Yazidis, a religious minority that fled en masse to Mt. Sinjar when ISIS’s fighters threatened a large-scale massacre. The air strikes, the U.S. official said, were coördinated by teams of American Special Forces, which conducted thermal scans to locate ISIS fighters and then targeted them with bombs.

But the next wave of strikes, which Obama outlined in a nationally broadcast speech in early September, will go much deeper. “Unless you degrade [ISIS’s] war-fighting capacity—that means its command and control, its leadership, its armored vehicles, its ability to mass and maneuver and conduct war—there is no local force on the ground in this entire swath of territory that can stand up to it right now,” he said. Obama is assembling a coalition of states that are willing to contribute training and airpower. But, as ISIS fighters integrate themselves into local populations, the coalition needs fighters who will go from door to door. In Iraq, there are only two standing fighting forces: the peshmerga and the Iraqi Army.

As part of a nascent strategy for taking on ISIS, Obama has agreed to arm the peshmerga, who, despite their reputation, have been radically underequipped. Peshmerga commanders told me that, as they rolled into abandoned Iraqi Army bases, they were stunned by the weapons that the Americans had provided. “The Iraqi Army has the best equipment—M-16s, night-vision goggles, Humvees,” Fatih told me. Masrour Barzani, the Kurdish intelligence chief, said, “We never got any of that. We’ve got Kalashnikov rifles from the nineteen-seventies. The Americans never gave us anything, and they’ve blocked us from acquiring new weapons on our own.” Desperate for an advantage over ISIS, the Kurds have recently accepted weapons and military support from Iran.

For the moment, the White House’s decision to arm the Kurds will probably inspire them to greater coöperation with the Iraqi government. But even though Kurdish leaders say that they are keen to confront the ISIS fighters on their borders, they are less keen to go beyond them. The disputed territories seized by the peshmerga in June had large Kurdish populations. Kurdish leaders told me that they have no desire to take the fight into Arab-dominated lands, where ISIS has many supporters. It seems more likely that the new military equipment will strengthen the defense of the Kurdish region—and make independence more plausible.

Still, the Kurdish army is a more promising partner than its Iraqi counterpart. To the Kurds, the hollowness of the Iraqi Army was evident for years, even as the Americans poured billions of dollars into it. “It was never a real army,” Najmuddin Karim, the governor of Kirkuk, said. “It was a checkpoint army—they manned checkpoints. It was an employment opportunity. The Americans were always telling us how good they were, but we didn’t believe them.” I asked Fatih, the Kurdish general, if the Americans stationed in Iraq were aware of the deep-seated problems. “Of course they knew,” he said. “They were just pretending to believe.”

Barham Salih, a Kurd who is a former Deputy Prime Minister of Iraq, told me that even before the ISIS offensive the Iraqi Army was useful mainly as a piggy bank for its officers. At a meeting of senior generals earlier this year, Salih told me, the commanders noted that one of the élite armored divisions, meant to comprise more than ten thousand men, had dwindled to about five hundred. The division’s remaining officers were marking the men present and pocketing their wages. “This is a corrupt system,” Salih said. “You have no division, all the units are gone, and the commanders are stealing all the money.”

A week after the Iraqi Army collapsed, I sat with Mohammed Ghafar, a twenty-eight-year-old soldier from Kirkuk. Ghafar, a Shiite Arab, told me that he had joined the Army, ten years ago, with pride. “I needed a job, but the truth is that I joined to serve my country,” he said. He was assigned to the 12th Division, which oversaw his home town. Ghafar earned a good salary, got married and had two children, and looked forward to a career as a soldier. The Army never functioned as well as he had hoped, Ghafar said, but it grew much worse in 2011, when the American military departed. Ghafar liked the Americans. He respected their professionalism and the training they offered, and, most important, he felt that they helped to keep his superiors honest. “Everything changed after the Americans left,” Ghafar said. “The commanders steal everything. They sell it in the local market—clothes, boots, our equipment.” Ghafar said that he was forced to buy boots at the local bazaar. In his unit, the absentee rate soared. Even the rations went bad, he said. “We used to have the best food,” Ghafar said. “After the Americans left, all we got was eggplant. Eggplant at every meal! Breakfast, lunch, and dinner.”

Ghafar was based in Dibis, a largely Sunni area near Kirkuk, when ISIS approached. By then, he and his men had heard what happened in Mosul: senior commanders had fled, and the soldiers had quickly followed. “The betrayal started in Mosul,” he said. “When your commanders quit, why should the soldiers fight?” It was clear, he said, that the locals sympathized with ISIS, and that his own Army was overmatched. He had no rifle; all his equipment had been stolen or was in disrepair. “ISIS was better equipped than we were!” he said. His comrades started to abandon their posts, and finally, he said, a Kurdish officer in his division told him to go home. “And so I went home,” he said, shrugging. “It was an order.”

Ghafar said that he hasn’t been paid since April. He spoke wistfully of his former career, and of his homeland. “I miss the Americans,” he said. “Iraq? Maybe Iraq is finished.”

In 2003, when the Americans came to Kurdistan, Sarmad Fadil, a young college dropout in Erbil, went into business. At the time, the Internet was barely available, and he felt sure that people would soon demand it. Fadil spoke only basic English, and had very little money, but he was able to set up a private Internet company, called Seven Net Layers. As the American Army brought stability and as foreign money poured in, the Kurdish economy began to boom. This past May, Fadil sold Seven Net Layers for some ten million dollars.

Fadil likes to go to business conferences abroad, where he buttonholes Western executives. “I’ve met a lot of C.E.O.s, and I’ve asked them a lot of questions,” he said. Earlier this year, he and two other businessmen invested sixty million dollars to open an Erbil branch of Aksa Yapi, a Turkish construction firm—part of a wave of people and money flowing from Turkey into the Kurdish region.

Historically, Turkish governments regarded Iraqi Kurds with deep suspicion, often intervening militarily to stop what they viewed as support for the bloody Kurdish insurgency in Turkey. The boom in the Kurdish economy—and the subsequent success of Turkish companies there—has transformed relations between the two former enemies. Today, according to Turkish officials, there are some twelve hundred Turkish companies operating in Kurdistan, bringing in as many as a hundred thousand Turkish workers. Fadil seems to have caught the wave just as it was building. With eighty-five employees and three hundred suppliers, Aksa Yapi oversees construction projects worth a hundred and ten million dollars. Fadil says that his company relies almost entirely on demand generated from within Kurdistan or outside the country, not in the rest of Iraq. “It is a time of great opportunity,” he said.

Like many of the newly wealthy here, Fadil is unabashed about his success: he drives a Range Rover with the plastic wrapping still on the seats, and frequents Qi 21, a Japanese restaurant where fresh fish is flown in every day. He keeps a library of thousands of movies from the West; his favorite is “The Great Gatsby.” (“It was so inspiring,” he said.) In his early thirties, he has no immediate plans to marry, which is remarkable for this part of the world. “I like to enjoy my life,” he said.

Erbil appears to have almost nothing in common with Baghdad, two hundred and fifty miles to the south. A low-slung Middle Eastern city, Baghdad looks little changed since the height of the American war. It is dirty, cacophonous, and violent—despite the wealth that accrues from a government monopoly on oil revenues, which last year approached ninety billion dollars. For the past eight years, its political system, under Prime Minister Maliki, has alternated between stalemate and outright sectarian aggression.

In Erbil, construction cranes stretch across the horizon. There’s a Jaguar dealership; luxury hotels, like the Kempinski and the Divan; and dance clubs, like Aura, which stay open till the early morning. Fadil’s main project these days is 4 Towers, a complex of four eighteen-story buildings, divided into apartments the size of suburban houses. Each apartment sells for two hundred and fifty thousand dollars; although construction is not yet complete, three-quarters of them are sold.

Fadil took me to see 4 Towers, which overlooks Ankawa, a Christian district. As we toured the grounds, I noticed the Um Alnoor Orthodox Church, across the street. It was built in 2010 to accommodate the growing number of Christians fleeing Arab parts of Iraq. Today, its basement is filled with refugees from Mosul, where ISIS fighters are menacing the Christian population. As with almost everything in Erbil, the strife of the Arab lands feels distant, until it suddenly intrudes.

To businessmen like Fadil, Baghdad is a maze of pointless demands and delays. He complained that the country’s antiquated finance laws, overseen by the central government, make it extremely difficult for Kurdish businesses to borrow money, especially for big projects like 4 Towers. Other laws, he said, restrict entire categories of imports; there is a set of laws for olive trees, and another for finished concrete. “It’s like we are living in another time,” he said.

The recent surge by ISIS and the disputes with Baghdad have taken a toll on the Kurdish economy. Many of Fadil’s contracts with the Kurdish government are frozen for lack of money; Aksa Yapi is owed more than a million dollars. But Fadil told me that such troubles will not dissuade the Kurds from pursuing the dream of a separate state: “My grandfather fought. My father fought. If you ask me, I will fight.”

Fadil keeps a small humidor in his office, stocked with Cuban cigars. As the talk turned to Kurdish independence, he offered me one. “Every time I travel abroad, and I am asked to produce my Iraqi passport, I feel shame,” Fadil said. “We are not Arab, we are not Turkish, we are not Persian. We are Kurds. We are a nation. We have our right.”

For the Kurds, the key to independence lies in exploiting their oil reserves, a battle that is just beginning. In July, a lawyer for the Iraqi government asked a federal judge in Houston to seize an oil tanker in the Gulf of Mexico. The ship, the United Kalavryta, was carrying a hundred million dollars’ worth of Kurdish oil to a refinery in Texas. The Iraqi government claimed that the Kurds had exported the oil illegally. The judge initially agreed, ordering the oil to be seized if it entered American territorial waters. In August, after hearing arguments from each side, the court ruled in favor of the Kurds, clearing the way for the oil to come ashore—but the legal dispute continues, and the United Kalavryta remains anchored in the Gulf of Mexico.

Under the Iraqi constitution, the Kurdish region is supposed to receive seventeen per cent of Iraq’s oil revenues, an amount roughly equal to its share of the population. According to Kurdish officials, Baghdad has short-changed the Kurds every year, depriving them of some twenty-five billion dollars. Until recently, the Kurds have had little leverage over Baghdad, since most Iraqi oil came from fields in southern Iraq, under the control of the central government.

Since 2003, though, Kurdish leaders have opened their oil fields to Western companies, to explore, drill, and produce. It turns out that the Kurds are sitting on as many as fifty-five billion barrels of oil—a quarter of Iraq’s total reserves. Twenty-nine companies, among them ExxonMobil and Chevron, are working in Kurdistan; the region currently maintains a relatively modest production of about two hundred thousand barrels a day.

For years, Iraqi officials accused the Kurds of preparing to unilaterally export oil, which they regarded as a prelude to independence. The dispute came to a head last October, when the Kurds, without Baghdad’s approval, opened a pipeline to pump Kurdish oil through Turkey and on to the Mediterranean. In February, Maliki stopped all payments to the Kurdish regional government, depriving it of the overwhelming majority of its revenue. The Kurds countered by signing a fifty-year agreement to sell oil to Turkey. Earlier this year, I spoke to the Iraqi oil minister, Hussein Shahristani, who insisted that the entire Kurdish oil project was illegal. “These companies have no right to work on Iraqi soil, in violation of Iraqi laws, without the agreement of the Iraqi government,” he said.

At the heart of the dispute is the ambiguous language of the Iraqi constitution. Its provisions divide oil into two classes: oil extracted before 2005, the year that the constitution was ratified, and after. The sale of pre-2005 oil—like that found in the fields in southern Iraq—is to be administered primarily by the central government. The language is vague about newly discovered oil, reflecting the sharp disagreements on the issue at the time. Although it calls on the federal and regional governments to “together formulate the necessary strategic policies” to develop the country’s oil and gas, it suggests that local governments, like the Kurds’, have final authority over extracting oil in their areas.

From the beginning, Kurdish leaders have said that the constitution gives them the right to unilaterally explore and drill for oil. That interpretation, which they have been acting on for a decade, has become a fait accompli: the Kurds now have much of the wherewithal to run an independent oil industry.

Still, Kurdish leaders did not foresee just how hard self-sufficiency would be. With no money coming from Baghdad, and little coming from the sale of oil, the government has been largely unable to pay its fifty thousand civil servants for most of this year. The local economy, which imports nearly all its consumer products, has come to a halt. At times, the lines outside gas stations have stretched for miles. The economic slowdown has reminded every Kurdish official—and every citizen—how vulnerable their landlocked state is. “We believe in our right of self-determination,” Fuad Hussein, Barzani’s chief of staff, said. “But, at the same time, politics is about reality. It’s not only about what you desire—it’s about what you can get.”

Ashti Hawrami, the minister of natural resources for the Kurdish region, told me that he hoped to increase Kurdistan’s output of oil to a half million barrels a day by the end of the year, and to a million barrels a day by the end of 2015. That, he said, would help the Kurds ride out the difficulties imposed by the central government. But his optimism has not blunted his distrust of his counterparts in Baghdad. “Why are they fighting with me?” he said. “Cutting my budget, and keeping the oil in the ground, and damaging the oil fields? Just to punish me.”

The government in Baghdad has threatened to sue anyone who buys Kurdish oil, and it has taken at least one case to the International Court of Arbitration, in Paris. More important, officials in Turkey, through which the vital pipeline flows, have indicated that they will require the Kurdish government to distribute oil revenues—which are held in a Turkish state bank—according to the provisions of the Iraqi constitution. That means that the Kurds can expect to receive only seventeen per cent of the money from the sale of their own oil.

The Obama Administration says that it is neutral in its policy toward Kurdish oil. But analysts say that the U.S. government warnings about buying Kurdish oil have chilled the market. “When the United States says don’t buy Kurdish oil, no one’s going to buy it,” Nat Kern, the editor of a newsletter on the international oil industry, told me. The Kurds say that they have dispatched sixteen tankers filled with oil from the Turkish port of Ceyhan. According to industry experts, they have delivered only two directly to buyers—one in Croatia, and one in Israel, which is a longtime supporter of the Kurds. The others have taken a circuitous route. Some have handed off their cargo to other ships in mid-passage; the rest are still at sea, sailing with their beacons turned off, so that they are difficult to track.

U.S. officials say that the Kurds would be better off staying in Iraq and making an agreement with Baghdad to get their share of the nation’s oil revenues: no amount of oil that the Kurds can ship in the next few years could equal the revenue lost by leaving Iraq. “Even if they sold as much oil as possible and everything worked like gangbusters, there would still be this huge gap,” the U.S. official told me. “Ashti will tell you something else, and he’s full of it.” But, the officials say, an oil agreement is impossible as long as the Kurds insist on pursuing independence.

Kurdish officials are not convinced; the parliament is expected to choose a date for a referendum this year or next year. But, even if the Kurds are able to sell their own oil, it will have to flow through Turkey, their only friendly neighbor with a pipeline into the Kurdish region. That leaves the Kurds vulnerable. “I don’t want to trade one kind of dependence with another,” Salih, the former Deputy Prime Minister, told me. He favors a more deliberate pace toward independence. “If we move too fast, we will become a slave to Turkey.”

Under the threat of ISIS, the Kurds appear remarkably united in their eagerness for an independent state. Still, beneath the surface is a deep current of frustration with Masoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, the leader of the other major party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (P.U.K.). The feeling runs deepest among the young, who see the region’s new oil wealth flowing to small cliques gathered around the two men.

In July, I met Shunas Hussein, a senior at the American University of Iraq, in Suleimaniya. The university, established in 2007, is modelled on élite English-language institutions in Beirut and Cairo. When Hussein’s mother was six months pregnant with him, his father, a peshmerga leader, was killed by Saddam’s forces; as the son of a martyr, he has his tuition fees paid by the Kurdish government. An international-studies major, he hopes to become a politician in a new Kurdish state.

Like almost everyone else in Kurdistan, Hussein sees independence as inevitable. But it took him only a few minutes to launch into a tirade against Barzani and Talabani. “Those two families have conquered Kurdistan—they own everything,” he said. “If you look at almost any company, you will see that it is owned either by the two families or by people very close to them. Every single person in Kurdistan knows this.” Everyone seems to have a favorite complaint: the dominant cellular-phone network, Korek, is owned by Masoud Barzani’s nephew. The Faruk Group, a sprawling holding company centered in Suleimaniya, maintains close ties to the Talabani family. (Talabani suffered a debilitating stroke in 2012, but his family’s power is undiminished.) Another Barzani nephew, Nechirvan, is not only the Prime Minister of Kurdistan but also the owner of a palatial mansion that occupies several city blocks in Erbil. “I mean, there are thousands of people in this country, they can’t even afford to rent a house,” Hussein said. Like many other people in the region, he believes that both the K.D.P. and the P.U.K. are permeated by corruption.

A wealthy Kurdish businessman with ties to both parties explained that they began as guerrilla armies and changed gradually into giant family businesses, gathering power and wealth and shunning anyone who tried to change the system. In private conversation, tales of bribery and retribution abound. “All these buildings you see around you,” the businessman told me, gesturing to the high-rises that punctuate Erbil’s skyline. “They are owned by a hundred people. Those hundred people work for ten people. The ten people work for three.”

In 2011, Shunas Hussein took part in unprecedented popular demonstrations against the Kurdish government, which sprang up in Suleimaniya’s bazaar as the Arab Spring was unfolding across the Middle East. Hussein came out every day for sixty-four days, demonstrating for a more open system. At their peak, the demonstrations attracted thousands, with their leaders presenting the government with a list of fourteen demands, including an end to corruption. After two months, security forces surrounded the demonstrators and opened fire, killing at least two of them and wounding forty-seven. The protesters’ demands were unmet, leaving Hussein and others angry but undeterred. “It’s not just the two political parties anymore,” he said. “There is a third person in this marriage, and it’s the streets.”

Like many young people, Hussein supports the Change Party, which began as a dissident faction of the P.U.K. and has become the second-largest party and a member of the coalition government. For all the recent advances, Hussein is worried that, with ISIS on the doorstep and independence in the air, there will be no appetite for reform. “Most people will be patient, even if they are not getting their salaries,” Hussein said. “But not forever. We will not wait forever.”

With so much oil still to be tapped, many Kurds fear that the country will devolve into a kleptocracy. Hiwa Osman, who owns a communications firm in Erbil, told me, “The choice is between Norway and Nigeria”—that is, between a country where the oil wealth is managed conscientiously and one where it is largely stolen or misappropriated. Osman spent five years in Baghdad during the American war, overseeing a program to train local journalists to cover the government responsibly and aggressively; many of those journalists were murdered while pursuing stories. The problem in the Kurdish region, he told me, is not just that the government is corrupt but that its operations are opaque, and that the press is mostly complacent. “The big problem with our wealth is, we don’t know what’s happening,” Osman said. “Our oil business is very secretive. No one knows where the money is going.”

Osman fears that there will always be some outside threat—if not ISIS, then a pipeline closure by Turkey, say, or a looming invasion from Baghdad—that allows Kurdish leaders to stifle public debate. Already, he says, the press is silent about many of the abuses carried out by public officials. Iraqi libel laws allow for criminal penalties against journalists, which, Osman says, act as an effective censor. “There isn’t an independent journalist in Kurdistan who hasn’t been charged with libel,” he said. “I’m just not sure how democratic Kurdistan will be.”

Indeed, as we spoke, Osman began to modify his prediction. A future as a state like either Norway or Nigeria was less likely than one as a Persian Gulf petro-state, one that made its people rich but which gave them little role in governing themselves. “In the Gulf, you have a rich and unaccountable minority that is controlling the wealth of the nation,” he said. “Everyone lives comfortably, as long as they keep their mouths shut.”

In early September, the Iraqi parliament voted to approve a new unity government, led by the veteran Shiite politician Haider al-Abadi. The coalition was intended to be more inclusive, with representatives from all of the country’s main warring factions. Barzani contributed five ministers to Abadi’s cabinet, including a Deputy Prime Minister. But, a K.D.P. leader said, “the Kurdish decision to participate in the Iraqi government was a halfhearted one.” Almost no one was convinced that the decision was permanent.

Under pressure from the U.S., representatives from the government in Baghdad and Kurdish leaders promised to resume discussions over long-withheld oil revenues, in exchange for the Kurds’ agreeing to stay in Iraq. Kurdish leaders seemed torn between their pressing need for new revenue and the emotional appeal of breaking with the Iraqi state. A deal with Baghdad would allow Barzani’s government to pay its employees and revive the local economy. And yet many Kurds I spoke to seemed unconcerned about financial hardship. They referred to the time, in the early nineties, when the fledgling Kurdish government was subject to the international sanctions imposed on Saddam, and its employees carried on without pay for nearly two years. On September 17th, the Kurdish region’s foreign minister, Falah Mustafa Bakir, delivered an ultimatum to Abadi’s government: if a deal isn’t struck within three months, the Kurds will proceed with independence. “This is the last chance,” he said.

After a lifetime of struggle, and of promises to the Kurdish people, Barzani seems determined to continue his course. He acknowledged that the prospect of statehood was less immediate than it had been in June, after the peshmerga seized Kirkuk and the other disputed territories. The presence of ISIS on the Kurdish borders and the difficulties in selling oil constituted a “setback,” he said. But, he added, “these events—economic and security developments—will not change the process. They may affect the calculations, but not the underlying principles.” He said that a referendum on independence could happen next year, or even this year: “Our priority now is to defeat ISIS and to create an environment fit to conduct a referendum.”

Peter Galbraith, the longtime diplomat and advocate of the Kurds, also served in East Timor and Croatia, regions that surmounted enormous difficulties to become separate states. He believes that once a people decide on independence almost nothing will dissuade them. “The desire to become independent is part of the consciousness of every Kurd,” Galbraith said. “They really feel like they are fighting and dying for something.”

In late July, as the Muslim month of fasting gave way to the celebration of Eid al-Fitr, Barzani travelled to the front lines to exhort his troops. In a series of stops, he told them that the peshmerga were making history, building the future for a Kurdish nation. All the money in the world was nothing compared with one drop of a peshmerga fighter’s blood, he said. But the men who sacrificed themselves would be fighting for their people’s freedom. One scorching afternoon, he addressed soldiers at a base on the eastern bank of the Tigris, where fortifications manned by ISIS militants loomed across the river. At a lectern draped with a Kurdish flag, Barzani apologized for the heat and urged the fighters to hold on a little longer. “Be patient,” he said. “Our day is near.” ♦

dexter filkins

Dexter Filkins joined The New Yorker as a staff writer in 2011.

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How the NSA Helped Turkey Kill Kurdish Rebels

How the NSA Helped Turkey Kill Kurdish Rebels
By Laura Poitras, Marcel Rosenbach, Michael Sontheimer and Holger Stark, The Intercept and Der Spiegel
31 August 14

On a December night in 2011, a terrible thing happened on Mount Cudi, near the Turkish-Iraqi border. One side described it as a massacre; the other called it an accident.

Several Turkish F-16 fighter jets bombed a caravan of villagers that night, apparently under the belief that they were guerilla fighters with the separatist Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK). The group was returning from northern Iraq and their mules were loaded down with fuel canisters and other cargo. They turned out to be smugglers, not PKK fighters. Some 34 people died in the attack.

An American Predator drone flying overhead had detected the group, prompting U.S. analysts to alert their Turkish partners.

The reconnaissance flight—which was first reported by the Wall Street Journal in 2012—and its tragic consequences provided an important insight into the very tight working relationship between American and Turkish intelligence services in the fight against Kurdish separatists. Although the PKK is still considered a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union, its image has been improved radically by its recent success in fighting ISIS in northern Iraq and Syria. PKK fighters—backed by U.S. airstrikes—are on the front lines against the jihadist movement there, and some in the West are now advocating arming the group and lifting its terrorist label.

Documents from the archive of U.S. whistleblower Edward Snowden that Der Spiegel and The Intercept have seen show just how deeply involved America has become in Turkey’s fight against the Kurds. For a time, the NSA even delivered its Turkish partners with the mobile phone location data of PKK leaders on an hourly basis. The U.S. government also provided the Turks with information about PKK money flows, and the whereabouts of some of its leaders living in exile abroad.

At the same time, the Snowden documents also show that Turkey is one of the United States’ leading targets for spying. Documents show that the political leadership in Washington, D.C., has tasked the NSA with divining Turkey’s “leadership intention,” as well as monitoring its operations in 18 other key areas. This means that Germany’s foreign intelligence service, which drew criticism in recent weeks after it was revealed it had been spying on Turkey, isn’t the only secret service interested in keeping tabs on the government in Ankara.

Turkey’s strategic location at the junction of Europe, the Soviet Union, and the Middle East made the future NATO member state an important partner to Western intelligence agencies going back to the very beginning of the Cold War. The Snowden documents show that Turkey is the NSA’s oldest partner in Asia. Even before the NSA’s founding in 1952, the CIA had established a “Sigint,” or signals intelligence, partnership with Turkey dating back to the 1940s.

During the Cold War, the U.S. used bases in Turkey primarily to conduct surveillance against the “underbelly of the Soviet beast,” as one NSA document puts it. Today, it targets Russia and Georgia from Turkish soil, collecting information in “near real time.” Since the outbreak of its civil war, Turkey’s neighbor Syria has become a central focus of NSA surveillance.

U.S. secret agents have also provided support to the Turkish government in its battle against the Kurdish separatists with the PKK for years. One top-secret NSA document from January 2007, for example, states that the agency provided Turkey with geographic data and recordings of telephone conversations of PKK members that appear to have helped Turkish agents capture or kill the targets. “Geolocations data and voice cuts from Kurdistan Worker Party communications which were passed to Turkey by NSA yielded actionable intelligence that led to the demise or capture of dozens of PKK members in the past year,” the document says.

The NSA has also infiltrated the Internet communications of PKK leaders living in Europe. Turkish intelligence helped pave the way to the success by providing the email addresses used by the targets.

The exchange of data went so far that the NSA even gave Turkey the location of the mobile phones of certain PKK leaders inside Turkey, providing updated information every six hours. During one military operation in Turkey in October 2005, the NSA delivered the location data every hour.

In May 2007, then-Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell signed a “memorandum” pledging deeper intelligence support for Turkey. A report prepared on the occasion of an April 2013 visit by a Turkish delegation to NSA headquarters at Fort Meade indicates that cooperation in targeting the PKK had “increased across the board” since then. That partnership has focused overwhelmingly on the PKK—NSA assets in Turkey collected more data on PKK last year than any other target except for Russia.

It resulted in the creation of a joint working group called the Combined Intelligence Fusion Cell, a team of American and Turkish specialists working together on projects that included finding targets for possible Turkish airstrikes against suspected PKK members. All the data for one entire wave of attacks carried out in December 2007 originated from this intelligence cell, according to a diplomatic cable from the WikiLeaks archive.

The deep working relationship has continued under Barack Obama’s presidency. In January 2012, U.S. officials proposed supporting Turkey in their fight against the PKK with diverse measures, including access to a state-of-the-art speech recognition system that enabled real-time analysis of intercepted conversations. The system can even search for keywords and identify the person speaking if a voice sample of that individual has been stored.

The NSA offered to install two such systems for Turkey’s intelligence service. In exchange, the Turks would provide voice samples for a number of Kurdish activists. Given its close and enduring relationship with the NSA, agency authorities wrote, they saw little risk in providing the technology. The only thing NSA experts didn’t feel comfortable entrusting to Turkey was the automatic keyword search function.

The partnership is managed through the NSA’s Special Liaison Activity Turkey (SUSLAT) office, which is based in Ankara. In addition to data, the Americans provide their Turkish partners with complete interception systems, decryption assistance, and training.

Using its internal “follow the money” reconnaissance unit, the NSA also tracks PKK’s cash flows in Europe. The Turks reciprocate by providing the U.S. agents with written transcripts of telephone calls made by PKK leaders, as well as intelligence insights about Russia and Ukraine.

But in true “Spy v. Spy” fashion, Turkey is itself is the target of intense surveillance even as it cooperates closely with the U.S.— one NSA document describes the country bluntly as both a “partner and target.” The very politicians, military officials, and intelligence agency officials with whom U.S. officials work closely when conducting actions against the PKK are also considered legitimate spying targets by the NSA. To that end, in addition to the official SUSLAT liaison office and the intelligence workers it has cleared with the Turkish authorities, the U.S. has two secret branch offices, operating Special Collection Service listening stations in both Istanbul and the capital city of Ankara.

The degree to which the NSA surveils its partner is made clear in the National Intelligence Priorities Framework (NIPF), a document establishing U.S. intelligence priorities. Updated and presented to the president every six months, the NIPF shows a country’s “standing” from the perspective of the U.S. In the April 2013 edition, Turkey is listed as one of the countries most frequently targeted by Washington for surveillance, with U.S. intelligence services tasked with collecting data in 19 different areas of interest.

The document places Turkey at the level of Venezuela—and even ahead of Cuba—in terms of U.S. interest in intelligence collection. Information about the “leadership intention” of the Turkish government is given the second-highest priority rating, and information about the military and its infrastructure, foreign policy goals, and energy security are given the third-highest priority rating. The same framework also lists the PKK as an intelligence target, but it is given a much lower priority ranking.

Beginning in 2006, the NSA began a broad surveillance operation–a joint effort by several NSA units—aimed at infiltrating the computers of Turkey’s top political leaders. Internally, officials called the effort the “Turkish Surge Project Plan.” It took six months for the team to achieve its goal. One document celebrates the discovery of the “winning combination” and reports that collection had begun: “They achieved their first-ever computer network exploitation success against Turkish leadership!”

It goes without saying that the U.S. intelligence services also had Turkish diplomats in their sights, particularly those stationed in the United States. A classified document from 2010 states that the NSA surveilled the Turkish embassy in Washington, D.C., under a program codenamed “Powder.” A similar project for monitoring Turkey’s representation to the United Nations operated under the codename “Blackhawk.”

Analysts had access to the telephone system in the Turkish embassy and could tap content directly from computers. In addition, they infected computer systems used by the diplomats with spyware. The NSA also installed trojan software at Turkey’s U.N. representation in New York. According to the NSA document, it even has the capability of copying entire hard drives at the U.N. mission.

The NSA shared many of its spies’ insights with its “Five Eyes” partners—the British, Canadian, Australian, and New Zealand intelligence services. Within that group, the British had already developed their own access to Turkey, with its GCHQ spy agency monitoring political targets in Turkey as well as elements in the energy sector.

One classified British document states that in October 2008, GCHQ tasked agents with improving access to the Turkish Energy Ministry, as well as enterprises including the Petroleum Pipeline Corporation, the Turkish Petroleum Corporation, and the energy company Calik Enerji. The assignment also included a list of the names of 13 targets, including then-Turkish Energy Minister Hilmi Güler.

In 2008, GCHQ analysts began reviewing satellite images of the rooftops of ministries and companies to assess what types of communications systems they were using and the possibilities for infiltrating them. The documents do not indicate whether those efforts bore fruit.

Turkish Finance Minister Mehmet Simsek is also explicitly named in documents as a GCHQ “target,” despite the fact that he is a dual Turkish-British citizen. Nevertheless, a surveillance order against him includes, among other things, two mobile phone numbers as well as his private Gmail address. When questioned by reporters for Der Spiegel, GCHQ officials said they do not comment on the details of operations.

When The Guardian newspaper ran a story last summer about a planned spying operation against the Turkish finance minister during his visit to London in the run-up to the G-20 summit in 2009, officials in Ankara were so angered that the Foreign Ministry summoned the British ambassador and criticized the “scandalous” and “unacceptable” operation. Contacted for a response to the surveillance operations conducted by the NSA and GCHQ, a spokesman for the Turkish Foreign Ministry said “such things” would only be discussed at the diplomatic level.