The Kurdish Question
A critical issue that is being affected by the intention of the U.S. to withdraw from Iraq is what will happen to the Kurdish autonomous areas that are formally still under Baghdad’s control. Last week, the Saudi-owned newspaper Asharq al-Awsat published a column saying that it might come as a shock for some readers, but it is now inevitable that the Kurds of northern Iraq, who now have their own Kurdistan Regional Government, will declare their independence. There were several reasons given to substantiate this prediction. Kurdish public opinion was undoubtedly influenced by the independence of South Sudan on July 9. Both the Kurds and the South Sudanese had fought against Arab dictatorships which used genocide and ethnic cleansing against them.
There are also important external developments shaping the course of events. First, the U.S. will no longer be in Iraq in full force and thus able to serve as an intermediary between the Kurdish government and the Iraqi central government in Baghdad. U.S. assurances to each party will mean less when there is no military power to back them up.
Second, Turkey has long had the greatest reservations in the Middle East about the independence of an Iraqi Kurdish state. The CIA estimates that as many as one-fifth of Iraq’s 30 million people are Kurds – some six million people. However, in Turkey, there is a much larger Kurdish population. The CIA estimates that about 18 percent of the Turkish population, or about 14 million of its people, are Kurds. It was thought that a Kurdish state seceding from Iraq might cause the Turkish Kurds to seek independence, as well.
But in recent years, Turkey’s relations with the government of Iraqi Kurdistan have improved. Reportedly, Turkish companies have become active in Iraqi Kurdistan, even dominating its economy. Iraq’s Kurdish leaders at the same time do not seem to be enraged at Turkey’s cross-border military incursions into their territory to destroy the training camps of the Kurdish terrorist group, the PKK. Given these developments, Turkish objections to Kurdish independence are undergoing a process of change. In the meantime, in most of Iraqi Kurdistan, while the Kurdish flag is flown, the Iraqi flag is hardly raised. And the Kurdish Regional Government has begun to reach agreements with international oil companies like Exxon, circumventing the Iraqi government in Baghdad.
Iraqi Kurds have bitter memories from the period of Saddam Hussein, when they were dominated by the Arabs of Iraq. In the late 1980s, Saddam employed chemical weapons against Iraqi Kurdish villages, like Halabja, where in 1988 5,000 Iraqi Kurds were exterminated when attacked with mustard gas and nerve agents.
Kurdish politicians can also point to Kurdish rights, once recognized by the West. Under the 1920 Treaty of Sevres, the Ottoman Empire relinquished its sovereignty over non-Turkish areas in Ottoman Asia, including Kurdistan, which it described as being “east of the Euphrates and south of the southern boundary of Armenia.” The area was to be autonomous, yet there was a provision that within a year the Kurds could appeal to the League of Nations for independence.
By 1923, Turkey had recovered all its Kurdish areas from the allied powers. Two years later, the British, who became aware of the oil resources of Northern Iraq, convinced the League of Nations to alter Iraq’s northern border to incorporate Mosul and the areas in which the Kurds lived. Thus, Kurdish independence was quashed in both Turkey and in Iraq.
But the idea of Kurdish independence did not die. Masrour Barzani, the head of intelligence for the Kurdish region in Iraq and the son of its president, Masoud Barzani, has been calling for “a three-state solution” for Iraq, by which an independent Kurdish state emerges that will be linked to Sunni and Shiite states in a confederation.
What is clear is that Kurdish independence can accelerate the eventual break-up of Iraq, with the Shiite south becoming dominated by Iran and the Sunni center becoming independent or seeking unification with a post-Assad Syria, dominated by its Sunni majority, or perhaps with Sunni-dominated Jordan. Historically, the Hashemites ruled Iraq until 1958. However these scenarios develop, the whole Middle East could fundamentally change, creating many dilemmas for the Western powers, who seek to safeguard regional stability. For Europeans, the breakup of Iraq brings back memories of the collapse of Yugoslavia, which plunged Europe into a bitter ethnic war in the 1990s.
Because of these considerations, the Kurdish question places many states in the West in a hypocritical position, especially given the efforts they constantly invest in the Palestinian issue. There are close to 30 million Kurds today spread out between Turkey, Iran, Syria, and Armenia, who do not benefit from the right of self-determination, which was granted to them over 90 years ago after the First World War. The Kurds understand that there is a double standard that the international community has adopted when the issue of Kurdish independence is raised. For that reason, up until now their leaders have been careful not to seek their own state. But there are increasing signs that this is about to change.
This article was originally published in Israel Hayom