Towards Kurdistan independence
This piece comes to peacefare.net from Matthew Parish, identified in full at the end.
The Kurds are an atypical people. The geographical area they populate is essentially contiguous, but they have not enjoyed their own state in modern times. Since the early sixteenth century their territory and population has been divided between the Safavid (Persian) and Ottoman Empires. They stayed much that way until the Treaty of Sèvres, a European plan for dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire that anticipated a Kurdish nation amongst several new emergent states at the end of World War I. The existence of such a state was a corollary of Woodrow Wilson’s theme of self-determination for previously colonized peoples. Sèvres anticipated that a Kurdish state would emerge under joint Anglo-French suzerainty, but Ataturk buried the abortive treaty through success in the Turkish War of Independence.
The Kurds remained without autonomy, divided between Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran, for some decades afterwards. In the 1950s and 1960, the Kurds took advantage of the chaos surrounding Sunni minority rule in Iraq, and in particular the military coup of And al-Karim Qasim against the Iraqi monarchy in 1958 and his subsequent execution in a Ba’ath party coup in 1963. The First Iraqi-Kurdish war reached a conclusion after nine years in 1970, with establishment of a federal Kurdish entity within Iraqi borders.
The Kurds’ luck ran out with the seizure of absolute power in Iraq by Saddam Hussein in 1979.The humiliation of the Iraqi central authorities by the Kurds would not be forgotten during his totalitarian reign. De jure Kurdish autonomy would be progressively eroded until Iraqi Kurdistan fell entirely under the writ of Baghdad. This course culminated in the 1988-89 Al-Anfal military campaign to defeat the Kurdish Peshmerga (the region’s autonomous military), which involved the widespread massacre of civilians including use of poisonous gas attacks.
Intriguingly, Saddam Hussein was not executed for the Al-Anfal massacres, although they were by far the worst atrocities of his period of government. Instead he was tried for complicity in the murder of Shia, the majority ethnic group in Iraq that came to power after the US-led invasion of 2003. Nevertheless the two Judges presiding over the trial were Kurds. The trial of Saddam for participation in Al-Anfal never took place.
The Kurds were not permanently bowed after Al-Anfal. When a US-led coalition expelled Iraq from Kuwait in 1991, the Kurds were quick to seize the opportunity. Amidst the chaos of the Iraqi army’s decimation by Western forces, the Peshmerga reformed and initiated an insurgency in Iraqi Kurdistan against Iraqi central government rule. This was successful, and Kurdish political leaders persuaded the US to create a no-fly zone over northern Iraq that cemented Kurdish control. From mid-1991 Kurdistan attained near complete de facto autonomy from Baghdad under cover of Western air support. The “green line” was established, a military border Iraqi security forces could not transgress with impunity.
Ever politically vigilant, the Kurds welcomed the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the US coalition and supported its goals with their own military resources. The American government reciprocated by entrenching their autonomy in the new Iraqi constitution. By convention the Iraqi President is a Kurd, and the Kurdish region enjoys unparalleled freedom from the Iraqi central government. It remains the only safe region of Iraq, from the US invasion to the present day.
When the Islamic State seized substantial parts of northern Iraq in 2014, the Kurds reciprocated by extending their borders from the “green line” to the “trigger line” (a de facto line of Kurdish control) and beyond, most notably to the contested city of Kirkuk, beneath which the plurality of Iraq’s oil reserves lie. This was achieved in the name of preserving Iraqi integrity against the ravages of the Islamic State in the face of Shia-dominated Iraqi central government impotence. Thus the history of gradual development of Iraqi Kurdistan’s autonomy and territory has, by and large, been successful.
The development of Iraqi Kurdistan cannot be considered in isolation, however. A series of Kurdish uprisings wracked southeastern Turkey in the aftermath of Ataturk’s repudiation of Sèvres, driven by Kurdish disappointment. The first of these began in 1923, soon after Ataturk’s rejection of the treaty. Problems continued for many decades.
A political party and paramilitary movement, the PKK, initiated a determined guerrilla war against the Turkish state in 1984, which led to Turkish policies of forced assimilation of Kurds and a security crackdown. In response the PKK based its operations in northern Iraq, in particular after the military autonomy of Iraqi Kurdistan in 1991. The PKK became so significant a force that the Turkish government threatened the Syrian government, which was harbouring the PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, with military action if they did not expel him. Fearing a far superior Turkish army Syria duly complied, and Öcalan was arrested by Turkey in 1999.
More an intellectual than an extremist in personality, he refused martyrdom and instead sued for peace from within a Turkish prison. The accession to power in Turkey in 2003 of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, a moderate Sunni leader who eschewed the dominance of the armed forces in Turkey’s politics and promoted reconciliation with Turkey’s Kurdish minority, likewise assisted Kurdish-Turkish reconciliation. Nevertheless there is almost a century of animosity to overcome, in which the Turks have feared the Kurds as an existential threat to the integrity of the Turkish state if the Kurds obtained their desired autonomy in the southeast.
The rise of the Islamic State may turn out to be a sufficiently dramatic change to the geopolitics of the region that this structural acrimony is overcome. While Turkey has no desire to be associated with the contemporary malevolencies of the Islamic State, the emergence of a neighbouring Sunni power inevitably dependent upon Turkey, by reason of the Islamic State’s encirclement by hostile Shia and Kurdish neighbours, is surely attractive to Ankara. Damascus is dominated by Alawites, a Shia sect despised by many Sunnis; Baghdad is now as Shia as Tehran, by reason of an ill-conceived US intervention in the region.
A Sunni neighbour to these states may live or die through presence or absence of Turkish support, and hence be subservient to it. Peace with the Kurds becomes imaginable without loss of Turkish territory secured by Ataturk: the Kurds can have an expanded Iraqi Kurdistan and swathes of Sunni Syria. The city of Kobane on the Iraqi-Syria border, not historically a Kurdish-majority town, is an example of this kind of negotiating chip. The Turks have permitted the Peshmerga to enter Kobane from Turkey. This remarkable concession, in which Kurdish paramilitaries – traditionally implacable foes of the Turkish armed forces – are now suffered to engage in military operations from Turkish soil – shows how dramatically the geopolitical alliances of interests in the region have changed.
The prospect of a grand bargain between Turks and Kurds is now realistic. A possible deal might be as follows. The Kurds relinquish any claim to Turkish territory, satisfying themselves instead with minority ethno-linguistic rights in the southeast of the country. Iraqi Kurdish military forces shore up the borders of the Islamic State through capture of Kobane and Sinjar, a mountain region in northern Iraq populated by minority Yazidis, persecuted by the Islamic State. Turkey acquiesces in the de facto independence of an enlarged Iraqi Kurdistan, and in exchange the Kurds subsequently accept the emergence of a duly moderated and tamed Islamic State. The Kurds may engage in revanchism in Kurdish-minority contiguous territories and exclaves; but that will be the limit of their western territorial ambitions. Turkey is off-limits. Thus emerges, for the first time in half a millenium, a modern Kurdish state.
The only potential obstacle to this rosy scenario is the perspective of the Shias. What will the Iranians do? Iran’s Kurdish-majority region, centred around the city of Mahabad, has been quiet since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. The Republic of Mahabad, the Soviet-supported post World War-II autonomous state within Iran from 1946 to 1947, is a long-forgotten memory. Yet the Iranians might fear a conspiracy of Sunni Kurds and Turks as a threat to their rising political fortunes in the Middle East. What might they do in response to this attempt to redraw the Middle Eastern political boundaries against their interests? Align themselves with their hitherto despised enemies, the Americans, with a view to shifting the balance of power? Or will they forge an alliance with the Kurds and Kurdistan will become a Sunni-Shia buffer state? Only time can tell.
Matthew Parish is an international lawyer based in Geneva, Switzerland and the Managing Partner of the Gentium Law Group (www.gentiumlaw.com). He was formerly the Chief Legal Advisor to the International Supervisor of Brčko in Bosnia and Herzegovina and has published widely on topics in the fields of international law and international relations. In 2013 he was elected as a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum and was named as one of the three hundred most influential people in Switzerland by Bilan magazine.