The case for Kurdistan
8 Aug 2017|

The Kurds—who occupy a mountainous region that includes portions of Armenia, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey—are the largest ethnic group in the world without a state to call their own. It is time to change that.

The Kurds have been making bids for statehood—and having them brutally suppressed—since the early 20th century. But there is a strong case for the United States, in particular, to work towards securing a homeland for the Kurds—a case buttressed by Kurdish militias’ indispensable contribution to defeating the Islamic State.

To be sure, the establishment of a ‘greater Kurdistan’ that includes all areas where the Kurds comprise a majority remains impossible. If internal Kurdish politics were not enough to prevent such an outcome, geostrategic constraints certainly would be.

Kurdish independence is particularly implausible in Turkey. The Kurds’ main representative in that country, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)—which champions a distinctly secular, Marxist brand of nationalism—has been fighting the Turkish government for decades. But, the government, led by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has not wavered in its commitment to preventing the establishment of a Kurdish state, to the point that even the PKK’s founder, Abdullah Öcalan, now favors a resolution that falls short of independence.

Erdoğan’s commitment to ending the PKK’s quest is so strong that he is also working to prevent Syria’s Kurds from leveraging sovereignty from their military gains against ISIS. He fears that Kurdish success in Syria would inspire Turkey’s Kurds to revive their own fight for statehood in the country’s southeast. This fear of nationalist spillover has driven Erdoğan’s campaign to create a buffer zone along the Turkish border that extends well into the territory now controlled by Syrian Kurds.

But the Kurdish community in Iraq, represented by the Kurdish Regional Government, has a real shot at statehood. The KRG is a quasi-sovereign entity overseeing an efficient military and an independent economy. Although it is plagued by corruption and cronyism, like every other political organisation in the region, the KRG represents the only truly functional government in Iraq, presiding over the country’s most peaceful and stable areas.

The strength of the KRG’s position is not lost on its leaders. The ruling Kurdish Democratic Party plans to hold a referendum on independence this September. Yet even a resounding call for secession will not be enough to achieve success. For that, the US must throw its weight behind the pro-Western KRG and offer resolute support for the independence effort.

After 14 years of failed military intervention in Iraq, the US should recognise that ‘a unified, stable, democratic, and federal Iraq’, as a State Department spokesperson recently put it, is a chimera. Since the US-led invasion in 2003, Iraq’s political system has become highly polarised along sectarian lines, with the ruling Shia majority marginalising the Sunnis, including the Kurds. Indeed, Sunni exclusion was a key reason for the rise of ISIS.

Today, Iraq is effectively an Iranian trusteeship, not a US ally. To the dismay of the Kurds and other Sunni Iraqis, Shia militias controlled by the Iraqi and Iranian governments, such as Hashd al-Shaabi, are filling much of the void left behind by ISIS.

As the experience in Yugoslavia showed, when ethnic or religious cleavages explode, the most effective path to peace may well be separation. And a Kurdish state has a real chance of thriving: an independent Kurdistan could manage to combine natural-resource wealth with a tradition of stable and pragmatic governance, thereby creating a sustainable democracy. This would amount to a win for pro-Western forces in the Middle East.

Even Turkey may be willing to accept such an outcome. The US and Turkish governments agree on distinguishing the Kurds in Iraq from those in Turkey, for whom statehood is not an option. In fact, Turkey has strong relations with the KRG—bilateral trade has lately been expanding, and KRG oil pipelines extend into Turkish territory—because Erdoğan’s government views it as a counterweight to Turkey’s PKK.

Moreover, now that President Donald Trump, by ending US military support for Syria’s anti-government rebels, has effectively handed the country over to Russia and Iran, Sunni-led Turkey needs a strategic buffer against Shia-led Iraq and Syria more than ever.

As it stands, the Trump administration—not to mention Iraq’s national government, led by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi—claims that the Kurdish referendum, let alone secession, would destabilise Iraq. Some argue that it might even drive voters to choose a more radical Shia government in next year’s elections—one that would be far less accommodating towards the Kurds.

But, with US backing, such an outcome could be avoided. In fact, it is in America’s own interest to build a true Sunni alliance that includes an independent Kurdistan. The Palestinians, who have also spent far too long on the losing side of the Middle East’s strategic game, could enrich such an alliance further.

The Trump administration is eager to contain the influence of the Russia–Iran–Hezbollah axis in the Middle East. But it cannot achieve this objective by simply offering more arms to Saudi Arabia or its Sunni proxies. Respecting the yearning of disenfranchised and oppressed peoples—beginning with the Kurds—for freedom, democracy, and competent governance remains vital for a durable Western imprint on the region’s future.