Kurdish Independence

By: Demiran Asim


Kurdistan is a rough geographic region located within the internationally recognized borders of Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria. Out of all four regions, Iraqi Kurdistan is the most autonomous of all and is home to its own regional government, judicial system, police force and military.

Kurds have their own cultural and linguistic traditions, which combined with a history abundant with struggles provides the driving force of their national movement aiming to the creation of a sovereign Kurdish state.

It is commonly agreed among historians that Kurds belong to the Iranian branch of the Indo-Europeans. Kurds consider 612 BCE, the starting date of the Med Empire, as the first year of the Kurd nation's history.

However, one may argue that Kurdistan was established in the prehistoric times 4000 years ago by Indo-European tribes who were settled in the mountainous Zagros area.

Historically, Kurdistan experienced different cross-border flows endangering its territorial integrity. During the pre-modern history, the region encompassing Kurdistan was occupied by empires succeeding one another: Arab Caliphate, Mongol and Seljuk Turkish.

However, the region having a Kurdish majority remained self-governed under the Ottomans and Safavids (Persia) centralized rule.

According to Sheyholislami, 40 Kurdish principalities ruled the Kurdish dynasty by the end of the seventeenth century. Two major historic events affected Kurdistan's territorial integrity during the Medieval and Modern Periods.

In 1639, Kurdistan lost its local self-ruling authority as a result of the increasing centralized power of the Ottoman and Safavid empires. Another historical landmark came about with the amendment of the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923.

The adjustment of the treaty gave way for the Republic of Turkey to become an independent state and its borders to be defined. This caused the idea of an independent Kurdistan to be abandoned and the Kurd territories divided among Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran.

Today, approximately 30 million Kurds inhabit the historic land of Kurdistan. Despite their land being divided, Kurds form a collective group unified by language, culture, history, and a common will to establish an independent Kurdish state within the borders of Kurdistan.

Nationalism and national identity have been essential subjects in the Kurdish public discourse and national movement. Kurdish nationalism can be characterised as a reaction to the denial of the Kurdish national identity’s very existence and prohibition of its practise.

The geographic distance among Kurds living in the four occupying states and the introduction of the restriction policies of the Kurdish culture has lead to a slightly different definition of the Kurdish identity among these communities.

Although most of the Kurdish attempts for cultural and political freedom were unsuccessful, the establishment of the Kurdish political parties such as the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) the Kurdish identity strengthened in the mid-1990s, leading to the creation of the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan.

Iraqi Kurdistan

Iraqi Kurdistan or Southern Kurdistan, has been an autonomous region since 1970. This area is located in the mountainous northern region of Iraq where about 15 to 20% of the population are Kurds.

Today, this is the only autonomous region where the Kurds enjoy national rights represented by having their own flag, army and border controls - it is however still under the general authority of the central authority in Baghdad.

The proclamation of Iraqi Kurdistan was not an agreement for an independent Kurdistan but the beginning of a totally ineffective political discourse leading to future conflict.

Imposing trade limitations and applying ethnic discrimination towards the Kurdish population, the Iraqi government's political agenda significantly hampered the economic development and increased the isolation of the Kurdish region.

The destructive policies also further fuelled the Kurdish national movement in Iraq fighting for their human rights.

The formation of the Kurdistan political parties and their involvement in negotiations with the Iraqi leaders had a significant role in the creation of the autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan.

The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) was formed in 1946 and led by the Mullah Mustafa Barzani aiming establish an independent Kurdish state.

However, the violent actions of the Iraqi army in 1961 triggered the First Iraqi War (1961-1970). The long but inefficient negotiations attempts between Saddam Hussein and Mustafa Barzani, as well as the Iraqi government’s embargo on the mostly Kurdish populated and oil rich Kirkuk just further postponed the end of the war.

The end of the conflict came about as a result of the international pressure mainly from the Soviet Union.

The war was concluded in 1970 with the Iraqi-Kurdish Autonomy Agreement naming Iraqi Kurdistan as an autonomous territory within Iraq. The national identity of the Kurds was further challenged however, in the 1970s when the Iraq government's action to replace Kirkuk's Kurdish population with with Iraqi Arabs - known as the 'Arabisation' process.

In addition, the Saddam Hussein regime commanded the Halabja gas attack against the Kurds in 1988 killing thousands of people .

It was not until 1992, when the Kurdish parliament was formed and two major parties Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) were created in the 1990s, Kurdistan could commence its democratic evolution.

Having more than one party helped the establishment of democratic traditions in the Kurdish political environment.

After the end of the Saddam Hussein’s regime, the coalition Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) was formed and controlled the Dohuk, Erbil and Sulaimaniya governates.

Although the referendum in September 2017 for the independent Kurdistan and its secession from Iraq was supported by 90% of the vote, the Iraqi government annulled the elections by proclaiming them illegal and took Kirkuk under its control.

The new Kurdish president Nechirvan Idris Barzani, attempted to resolve these disputes by promoting stability of the region and by asking the Iraq government to respect the Kurds` rights.

Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan are interdependent and their economic health depends on the stability of the region. The geopolitical significance of the autonomous region is associated with its oil and natural resources.

During the Saddam regime between 1996 and 2003, Iraq's capacity to market oil was conditioned by the United Nations Security Council resolution (986) requiring the Iraqi government to provide humanitarian aid from its oil revenue to Iraqi Kurdistan.

However, after the US invaded Iraq and the fall of Saddam's regime took place, a new Iraqi government was elected and the UN sanctions towards Iraq were lifted.

Kurdistan's international recognition has impacted economic development and stability in the region. Kurdistan has built international ties with Turkey and Iran when exporting its natural resources and increased trade as a result.

Turkey invested in building pipelines in the Kurdistan region in order to secure transit of the Iraqi oil and energy towards the international market.

In addition, Iran had an important role in securing the region while fighting against nationalists and other paramilitary groups disrupting the export of oil from the region.

The war with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) left Iraqi Kurdistan in economic catastrophe. In addition, its aspirations for independence caused it to lose its oil rich region - Kirkuk.

Turkish Kurdistan

The Kurdish identity in Turkey was not represented at the same level as in Iraq. While in Iraq the Kurdish language is recognized as an official language and the Kurds have their autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, in Turkey, they live assimilated into the mainstream culture.

The Turkish government prohibited the usage of Kurdish language in public and in the media. Teaching Kurdish in schools is also considered to be illegal. The government aimed to eliminate the term “Kurdistan” because of its association with “terrorism”.

The most common Kurdish dialect in Turkey is Kurmanji, estimated to be spoken by 60-65% of the Turkish Kurds.

The formation of a political party, Partî Kirêkaranî Kurdistan- PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) did not help to resolve the issue of Kurdish identity recognition and language freedom in Turkey, instead it lead to greater military conflicts, instability and serious collateral damage on both sides.

The PKK's media advocated for secession from Turkey and for a sovereign Kurdistan - goals which were against the Turkish interest and internationally condemned. The Turkish government viewed PKK as an organization which is linked to Kurdish terrorists fighting in northeast Syria.

Turkey's main concern was the status of Kirkuk, which was out of the KRG authority but still claimed to belong to the Kurds by the PKK. Another problem was that the PKK could advocate the creation of an autonomous Kurdish region in Turkey similar to Iraqi Kurdistan.

Iranian Kurdistan

The situation of the Iranian Kurds is quite similar to their Turkish counterparts. The Iranian government disempowered their self-organization initiatives by blocking the publication of any academic or media products concerning the Kurdish issue.

Also, the Kurdish language can be taught only in costly private schools without having rights to speak it in public.

However, the Kurdish language in Iran is spoken in various dialects. The majority of the Iranian Kurds speaks Kirmashani (southern part of Iranian Kurdistan), for instance, while another group in the same area speaks Gorani.

In the northern Urumiye city, the Kurmanji and Sorani dialects are spoken by 25 to 30% of the Kurds. The development of various dialects is a result of the rare interaction with other regions. The lack of a standardised Kurdish school system has further complicated this issue.

The Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI) and Komala, have failed to build a solid political position in Iran because of the internal political disorder and the fight among the parties.

During the Iraq – Iran War (1980-1988), the KDPI was supported by Iraq and the party attempted to create a collation with Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in Iraq.

However, due to the different jurisdictions, it is very difficult for these parties to cooperate over borders.

Syrian Kurdistan (Rojava)

The Kurds in Syria were also facing with restrictions to express their identity and culture. The Kurds did not gain recognition as one of Syria's official languages and it was not allowed to be used in schools as a language of instruction.

Besides facing restrictions in expressing their culture, the Syrian Kurds were also treated as stateless individuals in Syria.

Some political parties intended to accomplish Kurdish recognition and autonomy by maintaining relationships with Kurdish parties in Iraq and Turkey, while others wanted to achieve change through conflict.

Eventually, the Kurdish National Council (KNC) was created to unite the Kurdish political parties. This organization aimed to accomplish the Kurdish identity recognition through the abolishment of discriminatory policies towards Kurds such as restricted language practise.

Despite the declaration attempts of the Kurdish political parties to establish self-ruling provinces in Afrin, Kobane and Jazira, after the Syrian government`s troops withdrew from there in 2014, the Syrian, Turkish and the American administrations refused to recognize the Kurdish authority in these regions in 2016.

The recent and unexpected loss of the American military support had another deteriorating effect on the Kurdish situation in Syria. In October 2019 the anti-Kurdish Turkish government lunched an operation threatening the Kurds living across the Syrian-Turkish border.

As a response, the Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish paramilitary group, sought assistance from the Syrian government, completely dampening their dreams of an autonomous Kurdish region in Syria.

An Independent Kurdish State?

Kurdistan is a geographic region, primarily composed of Kurdish populated regions in internationally recognized Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria.

The level of recognition, freedom of expressing their culture, identity, and enjoying their rights depends on which state jurisdictions the region is located.

They have successfully created the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan where the official language is Kurdish and security maintained by the Peshmerga - the Kurdish military.

In other countries, the Kurdish autonomy movements have not been as successful as in Iraq. In Iran, Turkey and Syria for example, legal restrictions limit the usage of Kurdish language and have left the population without an adequate schooling system.

The issue of a sovereign Kurdistan is highly controversial in the region and because of various internal and external influenced, it remains a question if it is even possible. As a domestic issue, national governments refer to the Kurdish autonomy movement as an existential threat.

For instance, Turkey enforces a strict policy against the very use of the name “Kurdistan,” as the government declared the Kurdish national movement as an “act of terrorism” associated with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).

In addition, the never-ending international and regional disagreements over Kurdistan represents a significant external external barrier to the Kurdish national movement.

The recent and abrupt change in the American political agenda towards Syrian Kurds perfectly exemplified the Kurdish autonomy movement's vulnerability when interacting with regional and global powers.


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