Kurdish Statehood: A Distant Dream?

Jack Mountford

A Kurdish Peshmerga on guard in Northern Iraq. (Photo: Reuters)

There are many groups throughout the world, be they ethnic or national minorities, who do not possess a nation; that is, a sovereign state in which most of citizens are united by factors including language or common descent. Such groups have no representation in international bodies such as the United Nations, and are prevented, amongst other things, from participating in international sporting events including the Olympics. There are various examples of these “stateless nations” throughout the world: the Tamil people of Sri Lanka and India; the Rohingya people of Myanmar; and the Uyghur people of China. There is one prominent group, however, whom arguably are historically deserving of independent statehood: the Kurdish peoples of the Middle East.

The Kurds are an ethnic group spread across a number of Middle Eastern nations, with significant populations existing in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey — home to the largest Kurdish population of approximately 12 to 20 million people. The total Kurdish population worldwide is estimated at 30–32 million, with recent diaspora communities developing internationally, particularly in Germany. The Kurds have their own distinct language (Kurdish) and culture; most subscribe to the Islamic faith. Christian Caryl, of Foreign Policy magazine, reports that the Kurdish regional capital of Erbil in Iraq has all the trappings of an “up-and-coming” nation state. And yet a sovereign Kurdish state does not, and has never, existed.

The Kurds have historically been denied statehood for various reasons. In the aftermath of the First World War — a period of supposed “self-determination” — the Kurds were refused independence as a result of the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923. Efforts by the British and French governments to make peace with revolutionary Turkish forces led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk — considered the founder of the modern Turkish nation — ensured that efforts to secure Kurdish independence remained subordinate. The subsequent treaty made no mention of the Kurds, and the Kurdish state instead became part of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. The significance of this event from the Kurdish perspective is best summarised by Professor Dawn Chatty (Shifting Sands, 2015):

“Never before had a nation in modern history been so blatantly dissected, and this in the era of self-determination of peoples.”

Later in the 20TH century, in the final stages of the Iran-Iraq War, Iraq’s Kurdish population was subjected to a genocidal campaign by the Ba’athist government of Saddam Hussein. This forced programme of “Arabisation” amounted to the forced displacement and cultural Arabisation of various minority groups in Iraq; primarily the Kurds, but also Yazidis, Assyrians, Armenians and Turkmen amongst others. The Kurds were hit particularly hard. A 1993 report by Human Rights Watch estimates civilian casualties between 50,000–182,000, with some 4,000 villages destroyed. The Al-Anfal campaign also included the infamous Halabja gas attack, during which Iraqi government jets bombed the Kurdish city with various chemical agents, including mustard gas and nerve agents. Over 3,000 Iraqi Kurds were killed in the attack. In March 2013, the British Parliament officially recognised the Kurdish genocide, in a motion proposed by then-back-bench MP Jeremy Corbyn.

For many Kurds, independence is “the dream”. (Photo: New Yorker)

Clearly, the Kurds are a people with a traumatic history. All things considered, the prospect of an independent Kurdish state does not seem entirely reasonable. The right to self-determination of nations is a cardinal principle of modern law, and whilst there are many conflicting definitions of the legal criteria, many argue that the Kurds fulfil these requirements. The Kurds have occupied the same territory for thousands of years, retaining their distinct regional culture. Hence, they maintain a legitimate claim to the territory. Furthermore, the Kurdistan Autonomous Region in Iraq already possesses much of the necessary infrastructure for a nation state: an elected parliament (the Kurdistan Parliament); a source of revenue in the form of oil exports; and a military force in the form of the Peshmerga (literally, “one who faces death”).

The Kurds, particularly through the Peshmerga, have played a crucial role in the fight against so-called Islamic State. When Iraqi Army units essentially disintegrated after IS militants seized Mosul in June 2014, Kurdish troops were left to defend their territory single-handedly. It is fair to say that they have more than accomplished that goal. After securing the regional capital of Erbil, Kurdish units have been instrumental in the pushback against the militants. Peshmerga forces have secured oil infrastructure against Islamic State fighters, as well as having cut vital IS supply lines surrounding Mosul. Now, the Kurds are a major part of the coalition fighting to retake Iraq’s second city. Given the extent of their efforts to liberate Iraq’s territory, many would argue that they have earned their sovereignty by now.

The Kurds have played a significant role in pushing back IS. (Photo: PA)

Doubtless there are many obstacles to Kurdish independence. Many argue that secession in the current circumstances could compromise Iraqi sovereignty to the point that the state collapses completely. Moreover, many world leaders fear that creating a new player in an already volatile region could further destabilise the area. Indeed, Kurdish forces in Syria are currently engaged in a bitter and prolonged dispute with Turkey, the latter having attacked Kurdish forces close to its border. Due to the historical conflict between Turkey and Kurdish organisations in the region, the Turkish government is deeply hostile to any Kurdish state, and would likely attempt to impede any plans for independence.

There are many in the world today who champion the principle of self-determination. Groups in countries and regions including Scotland and Catalonia advocate for independence, and voters in Britain have demonstrated their desire for “sovereignty” and “control” with the EU Referendum result. The ability of a group to determine their own future has become a central principle of international law, and it seems justified, therefore, that the Kurdish people are equally entitled to decide their own course. In light of this principle, as well as the historic crimes committed against the Kurds and the sheer length of time that they have remained disenfranchised, the argument in favour of an independent Kurdish state seems to outweigh the drawbacks. I would argue therefore, that in this epoch of self-determination, we should champion the right of the Kurdish people to their own sovereign state.