The Case for an Independent Kurdistan
By: Atira Naik
There are few things that can leave a person feeling as destitute as being homeless; and if that is a way of life, that destitution eventually leads to an identity conflict, or worse, a lacking sense of identity. Alternatively, the frustration that comes with being unable to keep in touch with one’s roots can induce a sense of hopelessness that becomes a state of mind. The desperation to keep that part alive may well lead to drastic actions undertaken that then disrupt society around such individuals.
This is the case in Kurdistan right now. Kurdistan is a broadly-defined mountainous region that shares borders with south-eastern Turkey, north-western Iran, northern Iraq and north-eastern Syria. Its inhabitants are mainly called the Kurds, which is one of the fourth-largest ethnic groups in the Middle East. They have retained their own language and distinctive cultural identity since before the eleventh century. Despite this, they do not have a country, and are not yet recognized as a sovereign state.
From the sixteenth century, the Kurds were largely ruled by the Ottoman empire; however, after its fall, largely fuelled by the aftermath of World War I, and the affirmative statements of U.S President Woodrow Wilson – who detailed that non-Turkish nationalities of the Ottoman Empire could be ‘assured of an absolute unmolested opportunity of autonomous development’, the Kurds were hopeful of an endemic state. (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2019)
This ultimately did not take place after all, since the Treaty of Lausanne (intended to settle the conflict between the Ottoman Empire and the Allies, signed in 1923) redefined the borders of modern Turkey, without clearly stating an actionable plan for the Kurds. Thus began the Kurds' fight for a sovereign state.
Rough Edges of Establishing a Sovereign Statehood
As of now, there are 203 established and recognized countries in the world – however, almost none of them have had their origin be from a well-lit path to forming a country, and this is simply because there is no such path. Despite this, one would not be wrong in stating that it is usually the United Nations (UN) that would be the deciding factor in determining the status of a country – this is simply a result of the fact that the UN is the largest band of countries working together, and is the most inclusive – and though this is debatable – the most democratic multi-national organization that has the ability to take some degree of political action in international affairs.
International law preaches self-determinism – that is, people have the right to form their own destiny (Richards, 2019). This should, of course, include the right to sovereign statehood, but this is too often brushed over and replaced by the more immediate, and perhaps less self-determining aspect of being able to make decisions regarding their political systems and leaders in an already well-established state.
Moreover, in order for a particular region to become a new country, the country that particular region is in needs to give up some of its territory (Richards, 2019), a move looked upon rather unfavorably by most countries. And no international organization – not even the UN - can legally reassign a particular region in one country as another.
Finally, if one traces back to the origins of a country, perhaps the most prominent feature that one observes is that most countries were borne out of violent conflict – that is, they were the result of the fall of an empire, for example, the collapse of the Soviet Union, or splitting apart due to severe civil unrest, such as East Timor and South Sudan. In these cases, the formation of a new territory was the consequence of peace negotiations between these regions (Richards, 2019).
Kurdistan’s Tumultuous Road to Independence
Today, the Kurds have established autonomous rule in northern Iraq, where they have elected their own government (called the Kurdish Regional Government), speak their own language, and have even created their own flag. While in northern Iran there is a province named Kurdistan, it is not self-ruled, and has not gained autonomous reign. In Syria, Kurdish forces helped greatly in toppling the Islamic State (IS), and thus have taken control of a great deal of land that borders Turkey, where, arguably, the Kurds have it the worst, as they are regularly ostracized and demeaned, to the extent that the word ‘Kurd’ and the language were banned in Turkey till as recent as 1991.
Gaining International Support
In the early 2010s, a weak Iraq (due to sectarian wars) and an equally weak Syria (due to civil war) were unable to ward off the growing presence of IS in Syria and Levant , so that the Kurds had to step in to fight that battle for them. In mid-2013, IS began repeatedly attacking northern Syria that was then intercepted by the People’s Protection Units (YPG), that is, the military group stemming from the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Party (PYD).
In 2014, IS attempted to take over the north-Syrian town of Kobane, that forced thousands of its residents to flee over the nearby Turkish border; however, Turkey refused to give refuge to these residents, or attack the IS themselves. In January of 2015, after a long and bloody battle that left at least 1,600 dead, Kurdish forces managed to regain control of Kobane. (Siobhán O'Grady, 2019)
The Kurds, forming an alliance with other Arab militias and naming themselves the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and also taking help from US-backed military force, then toppled IS’s rule over large areas of territory in north-eastern Syria bordering Turkey. In October of 2017, SDF fighters were able to take control not only of Raqqa, but also the neighboring province of Deir al-Zour, the jihadist’s last major foothold in Syria.
In June 2014, IS also advanced in northern Iraq, so that once more the Kurds were drawn into conflict. The government of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan Region sent its Peshmerga forces to areas abandoned by the Iraqi army. Along with the help of the US-led multinational coalition and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – a militant and political organization in Turkey fighting for the Kurds’ independence – and YPG, the Peshmerga forces were able to recapture Sinjar, and other towns of religious minorities.
Due to these actions of the Kurds in helping battle IS, they won a great deal of international sympathy. This by itself, of course, does not warrant sovereignty, but it meant that the UN, or at least a large majority of countries in the UN, was on the Kurds’ side. And as discussed before, the United Nations Organization, by virtue of being the most inclusive and democratic international organization to exist, does have the power to recognize a particular region as a state, and can allow it to vote on international matters and debates - roles that are only enjoyed by regions that have their own established government. Thus, these actions of the Kurds have taken them one step closer to gaining – and deserving – sovereignty.
Building a Nation-State
A country is much more than its laws and its government – true nationalistic sentiment comes about when a country’s residents can share aspects about themselves that are as fundamental about them as their own being; in this way, a nation state is much more than the political power that is ruling it.
This was proven none more so than when the Kurds in Iraqi Kurdistan decided to hold a referendum for independence in September of 2017, and it passed with an overwhelming majority. After their victory over IS, and the support they were now enjoying from the Washington government, Kurdish leader Masour Barzani was confident that their steps to a nation would finally bear fruit. However, there were a great deal of protests to this decision, including from their foreign allies.
The referendum backfired, due to the Iraqi government deeming it unconstitutional, and other regions of Syria, Turkey and Iran getting worried that this might bolster the rebellious action of the Kurds in their countries. While this was a major setback for Iraqi Kurdistan’s independence (as they lost a great deal of territory that they had taken over during their battle with ISIS), the referendum passed with an overwhelming majority of Kurds voting in favor of independence – that is 92% of 3.3 million Kurds supported secession.
In Turkey, the Kurds were not allowed to acknowledge their ethnicity; all words associated with Kurdistan and its culture were banned – until 1991, the Kurdish language was banned as well. Even today, Turkey invokes Article 141 and 142 of a constitution that formed its base on nationalistic sentiments, and thus gives the government the right to ‘protect the economic institutions and social foundations of the nation’ or in other words, punish people at even the slightest hint of separatism.
While the UN have pointed out that Turkey is in violation of international law, Turkey justifies it as a restoration of democracy, or a battle against terrorism, which was an activity associated with The Kurdistan Workers Party, a political and nationalistic movement whose primary goal was to establish an independent Kurdistan. However, it engaged in a great deal of violence, so much that it was labelled a terrorist outfit internationally. Moreover, it incurred casualties of 50,000 in conflicts between it and the Turkish Army (Callimanopulos & Dominique, 1982).
The idea these countries are trying to impose on the Kurds – that of the ideal nation-state, of homogenous culture and a pure national identity, is as outdated as it is cumbersome, specifically in the face of globalization. Moreover, by the same argument, that of building a common national identity, the Kurds deserve their own country more than ever, since they already share a homogenous culture, their own language, rituals, and traditions – essentially, a common national identity.
These countries wish to develop nationalistic sentiment in people that do not harbor such sentiments towards these nations – a circumstance brought about simply by virtue of not belonging to a particular place (Anderson, 2007).
Perhaps the case of Kurdistan is more complex than others – it is, after all, an ethnic identity split between four countries that are not even on particularly friendly terms with each other (for example, the Iran-Iraq war that lasted from 1980 to 1988) – but that does not take away from the immense amount of suffering and damage it has inflicted on the populations in these countries, or the human losses it has incurred. If anything, it adds on to it.
In Iran, the conflict between the Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK) and the Iranian government has given rise to a death toll of around 37,000. In February 2006, ten Kurdish demonstrators were killed by Iranian revolutionary guards, and this led to a gradually escalating spiral of violence that ultimately resulted in Iran employing some of the same policies as Turkey – that of creating dissent among ethnic Kurds.
In Syria too, the government shut down the slightest whisper of Kurdish identity with an iron fist. In March 2004, three Kurdish schoolboys were killed after a football match, and this lead to violent attacks on government offices in the northern regions of Hasaka. Another serious case was in 2005, when violent protests came about again due to the discovery of the tortured body of a respected Kurdish cleric (Frahm, 2007).
In Turkey too, between 1984 to 1990 37,000 people were killed, and tens of thousands of Kurds migrated to the main regional cities. The PKK, now labelled as a terrorist organization, resumed violence in 2004 – in the first ten months of 2006, the government recorded 250 attacks.
Besides this, there exists another group: the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK), who have launched deadly attacks against foreign tourists and Turkish civilians since 2005, and have issued extremely radical statements yet appear to lack popular support. Overall, according to government sources, 2,583 Kurdish insurgents have been killed in Turkey while 2,366 in northern Iraq (Callimanopulos & Dominique, 1982).
Mustafa Barzani, the late leader of the KDP in Iraq, led Iraq’s Kurds in an uprising against Baghdad (though this ended in definitive defeat). Besides this, they were also victims of Saddam Hussein’s (who ruled Iraq from 1979 to 2003) Anfal genocide in 1988, wherein Kurdish villagers were attacked with chemical weapons with the sole purpose of exterminating the Kurdish identity, killing between 50,000 to 182,000 and disfiguring many more.
It was only after an armed conflict in 1994 that the United States negotiated a peace deal between the two parties resulting in the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan that exists even today. Even though the recent referendum caused economic and military retaliation from Baghdad, overall it was not as brutal as previous interactions, so that now ties have still improved (Frahm, 2007).
Ultimately, it seems that the way to resolve the violence, and cut back on the number of casualties – both on the Kurdish and the countries’ side would be to broker a peace deal that, if not grants the Kurds their very own country, at least makes a coherent and sincere attempt at giving them independence and a region to call their own.
This is clear from the example of Iraq – the establishment of autonomy appeased some of the violence in that region. Moreover, mediating a deal would also lead to these countries being free from international war crimes, as they are all doing now.
While the definition of a country is itself incredibly blurry, Kurdistan still falls within these blurry outlines, wherein one can see the shadow of a state that yearns to be born. It has put up a strong fight against its rulers, despite being completely divided up. It has also managed to gain international sympathy, proving its value at a world stage, with its significant contributions in the struggle against the terrorist organization, ISIS. Moreover, it has a nationalistic spirit that cannot be crushed, and if sovereignty must at all depend on culture, then it is almost their right to create, and be a part of something that allows them to share and grow that culture.
On the same grounds that Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria use to subjugate the Kurds and overlay their identity onto them, the Kurds should be able to demand for their own expression of culture. Finally, the brutality experienced by these regions is slowly becoming both insurmountable and unnecessary. And it seems the only fair way to resolve this violence is to come up with peace deals that at the very least hold compromises for both parties. Not only is this the solution to the bloodshed, it is also, quite simply, the right thing to do.
Coming back full circle, the purpose of this article, as much as it is to present an argument for an independent Kurdistan, is also for readers to reflect on the roles their country of origin and country of residence have played in shaping their personality, or whatever they deem to be intrinsic to their being.
It can be noted that one’s culture and origin play a crucial role in bringing about their sense of identity; indeed, it is a fundamental part of the self, and it seems incredibly unfair to strip someone of that right, deny them access to that part of themselves; but this is how Kurdistan exists today - enshrined in the hopes and spirits of people, but not in reality.
Richards, R. (2019, November 19). How does a country become a country? . Retrieved from http://theconversation.com/how-does-a-country-become-a-country-an-expert-explains-81962
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2019, October 14). Kurdistan. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/place/Kurdistan
Who are the Kurds? (2019, October 15). Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-29702440
Siobhán O'Grady, M. B. (2019, October 14). Who are the Kurds, and why is Turkey attacking them? Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2019/10/11/who-are-kurds-why-is-turkey-attacking-them/
Iraqi Kurds decisively back independence in referendum. (2017, September 27). Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-41419633
Callimanopulos, & Dominique. (1982, June 1). Kurdish Repression in Turkey. Retrieved from https://www.culturalsurvival.org/publications/cultural-survival-quarterly/kurdish-repression-turkey
Frahm, O. (2007). Northern Iraq and Its Neighbors: The Regional Dimension of the Kurdish Question, 96–115. Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/26330773.pdf
Anderson, G. (2006). THE IDEA OF THE NATION-STATE IS AN OBSTACLE TO PEACE. International Journal on World Peace,23(1), 75-85. Retrieved February 6, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/20753518