With the support of not only Turkey, but also Israel and the U.S., the time is right for the establishment of a Kurdish state in the despotic Middle East.
In the modern Middle East there are two stateless peoples that have been oppressed and terrorized by an occupying power, risen up in failed rebellions, and generally been the subject of intrigue and geopolitical manipulation by outside powers. The first is the Palestinians, whose struggles against the Israeli state are well known. The second is the Kurds — a group of Sunni Muslims, ethnically distant from Arabs, found in communities strung out in a territory running along the mutual borders of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran.
While the Palestinians’ dispossession began in 1948 with the creation of the Israeli state, the Kurds’ voyage through the valley of tears of stateless nationhood dates back to the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire after the end of the First World War. Then, nationalist revolutions by subject Arab populations within the empire — aided and abetted by Western imperial powers — rose up to establish independent states as Ottoman power began to collapse. In the post-war game of thrones that took place after the Ottoman retreat, pliant Arab rulers were installed in Damascus, Baghdad and Amman, but the Kurds — right in the thick of former Ottoman territories — found themselves as powerless minorities on their own land.
Only, unlike the future Palestinians, the Kurds were divided between multiple states and thus subject to multiple governments. While these divisions had their uses, in that Kurdish nationalists could flee across borders into the arms of compatriots relatively easily, they also greatly complicated efforts to put forth a common front that would work to establish a pan-Kurdish state encompassing all the Kurds in the region. Instead, what developed were separate, though linked, Kurdish nationalist groups in Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran that all competed to be the leading organization of the pan-Kurdish people and the first to establish a Kurdish nation on the territory of the state that presently held them.
This almost inevitably set the stage for failure. Groups vied for resources even as regional states used the Kurds as stalking horses for their own interests. Baghdad, for instance, would support Kurds in Iran in order to destabilize areas controlled by Tehran, while Tehran would do the same vis-à-vis Kurds in Iraq. Likewise with other states in the region and even outsiders who would use Kurdish national aspirations as a cudgel to be used against their enemies in the region.
So long as the states containing the Kurds remained strong and at odds with both each other and the Kurds’ national aspirations there was no possibility of an actual Kurdish state being established through the efforts of the Kurdish people. However, the crumbling of state authority across wide swathes of both Syria and Iraq, coupled with political and economic changes in Turkey, mean that now, 104 years after the establishment of the region’s modern state system, the creation of an independent Kurdish nation-state is possible.
Put simply, the Kurds in northern Iraq have effectively operated as an independent nation since the end of the First Iraq War in 1991, when the Iraqi Kurds’ Peshmerga militia kicked out Baghdad’s troops under the watchful eyes of a U.S.-imposed “no-fly” zone. Despite efforts by Saddam Hussein to put pressure on this breakaway region of Iraq via the imposition of an embargo, the Kurds held elections, organized a government, and began ruling themselves as an independent state in all but name.
This state of quasi-independence continued until 2003, when the Iraq War led to the fall of Iraq’s Baathist government and saw the subsequent fracturing of Iraq into separate ethnic and sectarian enclaves. The fall of Saddam initially provided an impetus for Iraq’s Kurds to re-enter Iraqi national politics by forming a loose governing coalition with the newly freed Shiites to the south. Caught in the middle and turned out from power were Iraq’s Sunnis, who found themselves not only out of power but stuck in a region with little in the way of oil resources or revenues.
For a time this inherently terrible situation for the Sunni Arab Iraqis was kept under wraps by a U.S. military occupation that skillfully, if bloodily, pit jihadist fighters against more nationalist and moderate elements in Iraq’s Sunni-majority communities. This “enemy-of-my-enemy” tactic, though, necessarily weakened the grip of the Shiite-dominated Baghdad government over Iraq’s restive Sunni areas, as it made the U.S. Army a go-between for Iraqi Sunnistan and Baghdad. When the U.S. left Iraq in 2011, the position of the Shiite-dominated central government hardened against what it saw as intransigence by Iraq’s Sunni, and the kindling was prepared for another Sunni rebellion.
This kindling was in turn set aflame by the civil war in next-door Syria. There, an al-Qaida-inspired extremist organization linked to the Sunni-Arab Gulf states — which see a Baghdad allied with Tehran as an existential threat — stepped into the gap left by the Americans. Little surprise then when said group discovered that they would be welcome across the border in Iraq and would face little in the way of resistance once they struck. Indeed, they took over northern Iraq so quickly precisely because Iraq’s Sunnis were eager to see them there.
As they swept across northern Iraq, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, avoided Iraqi Kurdistan, setting up the Kurdish government there to take steps to not only protect themselves but also to win their independence if they chose to take it. The Peshmerga, for instance, were called in to take over the disputed city of Kirkuk and the fabulously rich oil fields surrounding the city. Baghdad ostensibly gave its permission for the Kurds to do this so as to avoid it falling into the hands of ISIS fighters, as happened in neighboring Mosul, but the truth is that seizing Kirkuk — which the Kurds see as part of their nationalist patrimony — was something long desired by the Kurdish Regional Government and there was very little Baghdad could do to stop it.
Now it even seems that Turkey might be coming around to the idea of Kurdish independence in northern Iraq. Ankara, of course, had fought a long war against the Marxist-nationalist guerrillas of the Kurdish Workers Party, or PKK, but PKK resistance diminished dramatically after the capture of its leader, Abdullah Öcalan, in 1999 and, despite sporadic fighting between 2004 and 2010, the 30-year Kurdish fight to establish a state on Turkish soil has now largely wound down as Kurdish attention on the growing possibilities for independence in northern Iraq sucked the wind out of the PKK’s sails. Indeed, last year the organization and Turkey announced a ceasefire that seems to be holding.
What’s more, Turkey itself has changed. The nationalist generals that led the Turks to clamp down on the Kurds through blood and iron have been relegated to the barracks by the wily Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Though no friend of the Kurds and known as a bit of an authoritarian to his opponents, Erdoğan has made peace with the PKK and an amicable settlement of Turkey’s Kurdish problem part of a larger strategy aimed at securing and enlarging his electoral base and political legitimacy after riots in Istanbul and other western cities last year tarnished both his and Turkey’s democratic bona fides.
Turkey is also extraordinarily well placed to economically benefit from Kurdish independence in northern Iraq. Turkey’s pipeline network has been hooked up to oil fields controlled by the Kurds and the first shipment of Kurdish crude has flowed through it and onto the global marketplace. Though Baghdad raised objections and promised to pursue legal action against any who would purchase Kurdistan’s oil, seeing an opportunity to buy cheap and make a friend in the process, Israel promptly bought what the Kurds were offering.
Combined with Turkey’s overland shipping routes that allow for Western trade to reach Kurdistan, mutually-beneficial cooperation between Turkey and oil-rich Iraqi Kurdistan seems inevitable. Indeed, given that anywhere from 10 to 25 percent of Turkey’s population is Kurdish — the exact number isn’t known due to the politically-delicate nature of Turkish censuses, the emergence of an entente if not an outright alliance between Ankara and Erbil — Iraqi Kurdistan’s capital — is a strong possibility. Even now some politicians in the ruling party in Turkey are openly suggesting that perhaps Iraq’s Kurds deserve the opportunity to be independent after all, representing a veritable revolution in Turkish thinking. Though these Turkish signals have been walked back somewhat, it’s clear which way the issue is blowing in Turkey.
So, it would seem that all the external obstacles to an independent Kurdistan have been removed. The question then comes down to whether independence would be a good thing for Iraq’s Kurds and whether Iraqi Kurdistan itself would make a viable state. This can only be determined by the Kurds themselves, but the tea leaves — or at least those readily observable by outsiders — auger well for the Kurds. But why this is so boils down to three interlocking regions.
First, the Kurds have been effectively independent for nearly a quarter of a century and the post-independence growing pains that most countries go through have largely been gone through. After kicking out the Baathists in 1991 the Kurds, like so many other newly-independent societies, saw a struggle for power between rival factions that led to a civil war and a division of the country into two parts. This has now been resolved by the unification of the country’s two main political parties — the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) — into one party, the Democratic Patriotic Alliance of Kurdistan (DPAK).
The benefit of this coalition is that in dividing up the spoils of rule the PUK and KDP have learned to set aside their guns and rule via bargaining, negotiation and electioneering — absolutely critical for any new democracy. Elections in 2005, 2009 and 2013 saw the DPAK sweep offices and monopolize power for themselves, but with each new election the norms of democratic governance grows stronger and the ways of ethnic freedom fighters recede into the background, making Kurdistan less like an ad hoc warlord state and more like real governments found elsewhere. Thus, a key component of every successful transition to post-independence democracy — political liberalization — has been met.
Second, with internal politics mostly settled and democratic norms advancing with each new election, the twin ruling parties can concentrate on the hard work of governance and growth — both of which are funded by massive amounts of oil. While oil wealth has traditionally been an impediment to liberal democracy, the settlement of political conflict between Kurdistan’s political groupings means that for the time being money can be spread. So long as the demands from the parties and the populations they represent — Iraqi Kurdistan has maybe 5 million residents — remains small relative to its resource base, there are no reasons all can’t benefit from the petroleum gravy train. Indeed, if the wealth is responsibly managed and democracy holds out, it is possible that Kurdistan could eventually resemble another oil-rich democracy — Norway.
Finally, the last reason the Kurds are well-positioned for independence is the unstinting support the U.S. has given them since the 1990s. While the U.S. pays lip service to a unified Iraq, the reality is that many in the U.S. government may finally be realizing that keeping such a broken country together is simply too expensive a proposition. Far better, Washington might calculate, to retrench in Kurdistan, where the 2003 invasion of Iraq actually was greeted with dancing in the streets, and use it as a base to influence elsewhere in the country and the broader region. The Kurds certainly have no reason to betray Washington, and if Turkey is to become a patron of a newly independent Iraqi Kurdistan, who better to balance Ankara than America?
So, the stars are aligned for Kurdistan. Those states that oppose their independence have either collapsed into civil war and anarchy or have otherwise accommodated themselves to the idea of Kurdish independence. Kurdistan’s people have created — though not without setbacks and hardship — a relatively democratic society right in the heartland of the despotic Middle East. They are rich, have no inkling of Islamist sentiment, and have the backing of not just a powerful neighbor — Turkey — but Israel and America, too. Independence seems theirs for the taking if they just reach out to grasp it.