Time for an Independent Kurdistan

By Jay Hallen 10.05.2013 – World Watch

An independent Kurdistan is now more feasible than ever. The United States should seize this historic opportunity to support a strong ally in the Middle East – and one of the world’s most prominent stateless peoples. Recent events inside Iraq and Syria have made the moral and strategic case for an independent Kurdistan stronger than ever. Likewise, circumstances have shifted such that Turkish acceptance of a peaceful Kurdish state is increasingly evident. The United States would be wise to seize this historic opportunity and lend its diplomatic weight to the Kurdish cause.

As Iraq heads toward an uncertain future, potentially under Iranian influence, a newly independent Kurdistan would overnight become one of the better U.S. allies in the Middle East. The country would not just be a strong partner on official levels, like Jordan, but on popular levels too, not unlike the U.S. special relationship with Israel. The affection that Iraqi Kurds have for America as a liberator and friend is well documented. The United States was unable to secure a Status of Forces Agreement permitting U.S. troops to remain in Iraq after 2011, but in a quid pro quo for independence, an Iraqi-based Kurdistan would certainly welcome U.S. troops. These troops would provide a hedge against Iranian overreach, aggression from Baghdad, a resurgent al Qaeda, spillover from the Syrian civil war into Kurdistan, and any other regional threat that may arise. More recently, Iraq’s mixed record on preventing Syria-bound weapon transshipments from Tehran has forced Washington to ask an important question: what kind of ally has Iraq become, and if current experience is indicative of the future, should Washington look for more reliable allies in the region? Perhaps Iraq’s territorial integrity, which thus far the United States has advocated fiercely to preserve, is not so sacrosanct.

Not only is there a strategic imperative behind Kurdish independence, but there are moral arguments to be made too. From cultural repression to a chemical weapons campaign in the 1980s, Iraqi Kurds have long suffered as unwanted outcasts at the hands of the Baghdad elite. When the United States established a protective no-fly zone in 1991, Kurds elected a national assembly, which has since paved the way for one of the few democracies (however flawed – corruption abounds) in the Muslim Middle East. The Kurds remained among America’s greatest supporters during the overthrow of Saddam and the ensuing occupation and reconstruction.

    In a quid pro quo for independence, an Iraqi-based Kurdistan would certainly welcome U.S. troops.

Today, Iraqi Kurds have an autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), a military with a civilian commander-in-chief, and modern state institutions. Kurdistan has attracted billions in foreign investment, and is the only place in Iraq where Westerners truly feel safe.

Critics argue that creating a Kurdish state would destabilize Iraq. Not to be cynical, but Iraq is already unstable. Most of the instability is from al Qaeda elements and Arab Sunni and Shiite extremists engaged in sectarian strife. Critics also point to the disputed status of the oil-rich Kirkuk region as a thorn that would complicate Erbil’s breakaway from Baghdad. However, the two sides are capable of settling this peacefully. A referendum on Kirkuk’s status, mandated by Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution, was scheduled for 2007, postponed to 2009, and then postponed again indefinitely. The referendum’s prerequisites include population “normalization,” i.e. the repatriation of those who were expelled from their land by Saddam, as well as a census. Out of fears of land grabs by the repatriated and an unfavorable result of the census (to either side), enough politicians in Baghdad and Erbil have been motivated to delay the referendum. Fulfillment of the referendum is an obvious prerequisite for Kurdish independence. Kurdish leaders should instead push for it, as true independence (regardless of the referendum’s outcome) depends on it. If Baghdad does not cooperate, the Kurds could lay out an ultimatum. Georgetown University’s Center for Kirkuk Referendum Operations has tracked this issue through the years, and if and when the referendum is rescheduled, will lead an international monitoring effort.

The case for including Syrian Kurdistan in a new Kurdish state is somewhat less compelling. On one hand, the Syrian civil war has allowed Kurds, occupying the far northeast of the country, to carve out a relatively autonomous and stable region, free of government and rebel control. This shows a promising ability to self-govern. Joining this area to Iraqi Kurdistan would also remove one additional ethnic group vying for retribution in the chaos that will ensue when Syrian President Bashar al Assad falls. However, as the Atlantic’s Jonathan Spyer recently reported, Kurds in Syria and Iraq have a complex relationship and make uneasy bedfellows. The political party controlling Syrian Kurdistan is a leftist group allied with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) guerilla organization that operates in Turkey. Syrian Kurds accuse Turkey of supporting jihadist rebels’ efforts to destabilize the Syrian Kurdish region. In contrast, the Kurdistan Regional Government is a Western- and business-friendly government on good terms with Turkey. Whether Syrian Kurdistan would be willing, as a condition of independence, to be absorbed politically by the KRG – clearly the most desirable outcome for regional stability and U.S. strategic interests – is uncertain. The best outcomes include Syrian Kurdish parties gaining representation in Erbil’s National Assembly, or Syrian Kurdistan’s admission as an autonomous entity in a broader federation.

    When the United States established a protective no-fly zone in 1991, Kurds elected a national assembly, which has since paved the way for one of the few democracies in the Muslim Middle East.

Historically, Turkey has vociferously opposed the idea of an independent Kurdistan because of the troubled relationship it has with its own Kurdish minority – about 20 percent of the population, concentrated on territory contiguous with Kurdish regions of Syria, Iraq, and Iran. For this reason, the Western foreign policy community has viewed Kurdish independence as a non-starter, and mere discussion of it as taboo. Turkey is a NATO ally (albeit a less reliable one in recent years), and it would be unwise to risk the Turkish alliance over Kurdish independence. However, conditions have changed such that Turkey appears ready to accept an independent Kurdish state carved out of Iraqi, and possibly Syrian, territory.

Firstly, Turkey has gradually normalized its relations with the KRG. While business and educational links have existed for decades, a major milestone came in 2008 with the opening of a Turkish university in Erbil; its inauguration was attended by high-ranking members of the Turkish government. Ankara is currently in negotiations with the KRG on an energy partnership that would supply Turkey with one-fifth of its natural gas and enable the construction of a new pipeline. It is unlikely that a country that opposes Kurdish independence would bypass Baghdad and negotiate directly with, and thereby legitimize, the leadership in Erbil. The United States has continuously warned Ankara against this: “Economic success can help pull Iraq together,” asserted U.S. Ambassador Francis Riccardone, “but if Turkey and Iraq fail to optimize their economic relations … the forces of disintegration within Iraq could be emboldened.” Turkey does not seem to mind, and may even view Erbil as an ally against Baghdad, with which it has more strained relations. U.S. interests would be far better served sharing Ankara’s position.

Secondly, Turkey’s decades-long struggle with its Kurdish population may finally be abating. In March 2013, Ankara reached a ceasefire with PKK guerillas and its jailed leader Abdullah Ocalan, who urged peace talks. This week, PKK militants began to withdraw from Turkey to their stronghold in northern Iraq. Many obstacles remain – such as negotiating a final laying down of arms, and persuading ethnic Turks to accept concessions in the way of lenient punishment for accused terrorists – but it’s the brightest sign between the two sides since the insurgency began in 1984. The PKK’s primary goal was an independent Turkish Kurdistan, so their willingness to end hostilities is a sign of their acceptance of living within a unified, or at least federated, Turkey. The outcome of peace talks between Turkey and the PKK will directly impact the feasibility of incorporating Syrian Kurdistan into a core Iraqi Kurdistan.

    Kurdistan has attracted billions in foreign investment, and is the only place in Iraq where Westerners truly feel safe.

While it would be a heavy burden for the United States alone to advocate for an independent Kurdistan, a strategic public relations campaign could emphasize the moral case for statehood and enlist the passions of the international community. The Palestinian question has long been a cause celebre in Europe, and among liberal and “revolutionary” activists everywhere. Kurdistan’s situation is extremely similar. Though not formally recognized as an occupied territory, its de facto occupation by Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran has resulted in decades of political, cultural, and physical repression in all four countries. Kurds and Palestinians were both on the losing end of the 1922 agreements in which Britain and France artificially carved out modern states from the defeated Ottoman Empire. In the Kurds’ case, lack of statehood appears almost arbitrary. According to David Fromkin’s seminal book on the era, A Peace to End All Peace, “Independence or autonomy for the Kurds, which had been on the agenda in 1921, somehow disappeared from the agenda in 1922, so there was to be no Kurdistan: it was a nondecision of 1922, that was, in effect, a decision.”

A public relations campaign could highlight the latent hypocrisy of the world’s intense focus on one Middle Eastern territorial struggle, and willful ignorance of the other. It is ironic, for example, how Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan can so loudly decry Israeli occupation of Palestine while serving at the helm of an ethno-nationalist state that engages in similar behavior within its own borders.  In November 2012, the member states of the United Nations voted overwhelmingly to elevate Palestine to “non-voter observer state” status.  A comparable measure would begin to bring Kurdistan the recognition it deserves.

Kurds have occupied the same mountain region of the Near East for a millennium, and are one of the world’s most prominent stateless peoples. The fact that a Kurdish state does not exist is an accident of modern history, less than 100 years in the making. Independence would correct the 1922 oversight. Now that circumstances have appropriately evolved, America should take the lead. This is a rare diplomatic moment when action is not only strategically advantageous, but the right thing to do.

Jay Hallen, CFA is a New York-based writer and financial consultant. He helped establish the Iraq Stock Exchange in Baghdad in 2003-04.