If ever there were a people today in need of a homeland for their continued security as a people, it is probably the Palestinians. The Kurds, however, finish a close second. Life in Gaza is unquestionably intolerable in its current iteration, but life for the Kurds in Assad’s Syria and Shi’a Iran has been equally impossible. Between Saddam Hussein’s pursuit of a pure Arab ethnic identity through mass killing and the Halabja gas attacks, Iraqi Kurdistan has fared little better. The Kurds have their own language, culture and history. As a minority, they have faced sectarian oppression and have suffered in whatever country they reside. They were promised the possibility of independence in the 1920 Treaty of Sevres (which created the modern states of Iraq, Syria and Kuwait) and again in 1946, but, like most colonial promises, it was rescinded three years later. It would seem that, nearly a century after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the imposition of the colonial mandate system, the international community has yet to deal with their direct consequences. The post-colonial legal principle of uti passidetis (“as you found it”) still reigns, oblivious to the fluid nature of modern geopolitics, or waves of nationalism. That may be about to change, however, thanks in part the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The Western threat matrix aside, the current conflict has exposed the chronic regionalism and inoperable nature of the Iraqi parliament that makes US Congress look like a model of efficiency.
In total, the Kurdish people number around 30 million. Between 15 and 20 million live in Kurdistan, but the numbers are approximate: no one can define exactly where Kurdistan is, for it cannot be found on a map. What can be said with relative certainty is that it is a mountainous area straddling the borders of Armenia, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. A further 8 Kurds million live in Turkey, with small populations also found in Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. A non-Semitic, non-Turkic people, Kurdish lineage dates back as far as 2400 BC. Though the Kurds are largely followers of Sunni Islam since an Arabic invasion in the 7th century, to this day they remain culturally distinct and speak an Indo-European language different from both Turkish and Arabic. Unlike the great Islamic caliphates that rose and fell across the Middle East from the 7th to 19th centuries, decentralised feudal and tribal politics dominated Kurdish politics. Yet they too were subjugated to rule under the Ottoman Empire. First apostle of Kurdish nationalism and literary icon Ahmad-e Khani (1651-1706) once rewrote the Kurdish popular ballad “Mem u Zin” in the form of a poetic narrative romance. “Why have the Kurds been deprived, why have they all been subjugated?” he asked. He believed, correctly, that they were subordinated not because they were “ignorant” or “without perfection”, but rather because they were “orphans,” without a king to unite the discordant principalities.
Yet, the argument for an independent Kurdistan is not only moral, but also pragmatic. Fast forward to 2014. Forced out of Syria, the ease with which ISIL has acquired vast swaths of territory across northwest Iraq, including Mosul and Arbil, is rivaled only by the speed with which they destroyed the institution of ijtihad. Only an inept army and a paralysed parliament stand between ISIL and Baghdad. In contrast, Iraqi Kurdistan and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG)- already a de facto state- remain stable with flourishing capitalist economy that has rejected patronage. The Peshmerga, the Kurdish military, remains a potent force and seized the oil-rich province of Kirkuk in addition to vast territories in three provinces, nearly doubling the size of the land they have controlled in their semi-autonomous region since 1991. The seizure of two major oilfields near Kirkuk, Bai Hassan and Makhmour, has also denied a major source of revenue to ISIL. Not unaware of recent developments, Marsoud Barzani, president of the Iraqi Kurdistan region since 2005, has asked the Kurdish parliament to prepare for an independence referendum.
Although it would be both unfair and extremely unwise to assume an independent Kurdistan would escalate its conflict with ISIL to anything above the current levels of localised conflicts, for once I agree with Benjamin Netanyahu: the creation of Kurdish state would aid in the formation of an alliance of moderate powers in Middle East and constitute an island of stability in an ocean of regional conflict. There is an old Kurdish saying, “What you give away you keep.” The Kurds have not forgotten when the United States and United Kingdom imposed a no-fly zone to protect them from systematic killing orchestrated by former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. Pro-American and pro-Western sentiment pervades the region. Soon after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the KRG encouraged the US to take advantage of the stability and security of the Kurdish-populated regions; the offer was turned down for fear of alienating Turkey.
What of Turkey? “The Kurds of Iraq can decide for themselves the name and type of entity they are living in”. Those lapidary words from a spokesman for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan are indicative of what has been a slow but a historic shift in Turkish policy. As a NATO member, the government in Ankara has long been openly hostile to any manifestation of Kurdish independence in the region. For the past five years, however, Turkey has been investing in Iraq’s increasingly autonomous Kurdish region and even opened a consulate in its capital, Erbil. Only Iran’s Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami has spoken out vehemently against Kurdish independence, but again an opportunity presents itself. Because the P5+1 nuclear talks with Iran are ongoing, publicly playing up Kurdish independence, despite some regional misgivings on the subject, might represent additional leverage on Iran.
Of course, if a Kurdish bid for independence succeeds, it is difficult to see how Iraq wouldn’t be split into three countries predicated on ethno-religious majorities: Kurdish, Sunni, and Shi’a. It is unlikely the Sunnis would accept a Shi’a dominated government, and without Kurdistan retaining its role as a mediator in relations between Sunni and Shi’a factions, the bloodshed would likely continue.
Nonetheless, independence is by no means a foregone conclusion. On July 7th the European Parliament gave a tacit nod to Kurdish aspirations of independence for the first time. Its motion concerning the Iraqi conflict did not stipulate the country must stay together. Until now resolutions passed by European Union stressed that “Iraq’s unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity are essential for stability and economic development in the country and the region.” Washington still appears unconvinced. Though these are baby steps, they remain steps in the right direction. The Kurds have already experienced two failed declarations of independence, once in 1920 in Slemani and again in Mahabad in 1946. The KDP and PUK still have substantial differences to iron out. Although the new Kurdistan would be bigger than the old one, by roughly 40,000 square kilometres, only 1/6th of Kurds actually reside in Iraqi Kurdistan. Geopolitics aside for a moment, critics from afar underestimate the importance of an independent Kurdistan at the micro-level, which includes negotiating the establishment and funding of Kurdish universities, redrawing electoral districts, and implementing targeted economic development policies. A Kurdish state may also elevate the status of Kurds living in neighbouring countries from that of second-class citizens to recognised minorities. Indeed, an independent Iraqi Kurdistan will likely have an equal or greater tangible impact for Turkish Kurds than Iraqi Kurds.
For the Barzanis, the fight for Kurdish independence has been a family affair. Since the 1880s they have fought the Ottomans, the Persians, the British and Baghdad. Inside the lobby of regional government stands a large portrait of Masoud Barzani’s father, Mustafi, the father of middle class nationalism. He died in 1979. Now, it seems, his moment may have finally arrived.