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The Foreign Policy Essay: The Kurdish Right to Self-Governance

Michael Eppel
Sunday, January 25, 2015, 10:00 AM
Editor’s Note: The question of the Kurds is one of the knottiest in the Middle East—and that is saying something. Kurdish rebellions have led to tens of thousands of deaths in Iran, Iraq, and Turkey, and now the Kurds in Syria are at the heart of that country’s civil war.

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Editor’s Note: The question of the Kurds is one of the knottiest in the Middle East—and that is saying something. Kurdish rebellions have led to tens of thousands of deaths in Iran, Iraq, and Turkey, and now the Kurds in Syria are at the heart of that country’s civil war. Michael Eppel of the University of Haifa argues that the current upheaval in the region may be creating a historic opportunity for the Kurds in their quest for independence and notes that important countries like Turkey are slowly accepting that the Kurds should have more mastery of their own fate.


The Kurds, numbering 25 to 35 million, are the world’s largest population group with a developed, modern national movement but without a state. Although Kurdish distinctiveness and the signifiers kurd and akrad have existed in the discourse of the Kurds and among their neighbors since ancient times and certainly since the beginnings of Islam and the Arab conquest, there has never been an independent Kurdish state in Kurdistan. Throughout most of its history, the mountainous and landlocked Kurdistan region was divided among strong neighbor states that arose in the plateau of Iran; the kingdoms and empires of Mesopotamia; and the states that developed in Anatolia: Byzantium in the Middle Ages, the Ottoman Empire since the sixteenth century, and Turkey in the twentieth century. Until the end of World War I, Kurdistan was divided between the Ottoman and Iranian empires, and since then has been divided among Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. Eppel photo with borderThe direct reasons for the non-establishment of a Kurdish state after WWI were the British decision to include southern Kurdistan within the Iraqi state and the weakness of the Kurdish national movement and Kurdish political forces. The development of modern Kurdish nationalism was accelerated after the end of WWI with the demise of the Ottoman Empire and the ascendancy of Turkish nationalism and Kemal Ataturk’s authoritarian nationalist ideology; however, tribal, clannish, and local solidarities remained dominant in Kurdish society. With the foundation of the Kurdish Democratic Party in Iraq in 1946 (later renamed Kurdistani Democratic Party, or KDP), the modern nationalist movement became a central Kurdish force, and the mainstream of the political forces of the Kurdish national movement became one of the most progressive nationalist movements in the Middle East. Since WWI, the possibility of an independent Kurdish state has been a nightmare for Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria. Creation of a Kurdish state would tear wide territories from those states, and their leaders fear it would encourage other minorities to demand independence or autonomy. The threat of Kurdish nationalism has been used by regimes in Turkey, Iraq, and Iran as a pretext to build forceful militaries and to preserve the dictatorial, autocratic characteristics of the regimes. The danger of Kurdish separation was used by the Kemalists in Turkey to forge Turkish nationalism and as the justification for building and preserving the authoritarian regime and its complex military establishment. The Kurdish insurrections in Turkey in the 1920s and 1930s were suppressed brutally by the Turkish army, which killed thousands of Kurds and annihilated the Kurdish population of the Dersim region in 1937. The Turkish insistence on denying Kurdish demands for autonomy and cultural rights led to an insurrection led since the 1970s by the PKK (leftist nationalist Kurdish organization in Turkey). Between 30,000 and 50,000 people were killed in the prolonged, bloody struggle. The Iranian regime destroyed the Kurdish republic that existed for a few months in 1946. After the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979, the Iranian forces suppressed the Kurdish nationalist forces and executed Kurdish nationalists. The persecution of Kurdish nationalists and Kurdish political forces by the Iranian authorities continues today. In Iraq, Kurdish demands for autonomy and the efforts of the Iraqi regimes to suppress the Kurdish national movement formed the background of a long chain of Kurdish rebellions and destruction of Kurdistan by the Iraqi army from 1961 to 1991. The traditional tribal fragmentation and class tensions in Kurdish society and the bloody struggles among the Kurds were used and encouraged by the regimes of Iraq, Iran, and Turkey to weaken the Kurdish national movement. The ultimate vision of the Kurdish national movements in these countries is the creation of a large, independent, unified state. However, most of the Kurdish political forces are aware that Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria perceive the establishment of an independent Kurdish state as a grave strategic threat. The definitive position adopted by Turkey and Iran and their threats of military intervention in order to prevent the establishment of a Kurdish state, as well as the lack of international support for such a state, have forced the Kurds to adopt a pragmatic approach that aims for autonomy within the framework of the Iraqi state. The Kurdish leadership’s policy of accepting autonomous status for the Kurdistan region while preserving the option of seceding from Iraq and building an independent state has helped the Kurds to maneuver and bolster their status. The leaders of the main Kurdish political forces in Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and Iran have repeatedly declared that their objective is the establishment of autonomous Kurdish regions within existing countries and have disavowed any intention of seceding from the existing states. In Iraq, where the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) rules the autonomous region that has existed since 1991, Kurdish leaders profess their loyalty to Baghdad while at the same time making that loyalty contingent on the preservation of broad autonomy. Since 2003, their strategy has been aimed at fortifying a de facto “state within a state.” In early 2014, in the face of the prolonged struggle of the Syrian opposition forces against the Asad regime, the main Kurdish force (the Democratic Union Party, or PYD) declared three autonomous cantons in Syrian Kurdistan. Whatever the outcome of the present turmoil in Syria, Syrian Kurds are striving for wide autonomy within Syria. In Iran, splits among the Kurdish forces have weakened their position versus the Iranian government, which insists on its inflexible attitude toward Kurdish demands for autonomy. However, it appears that the developing conditions in the region are creating an opportunity for historic change in the Kurds’ political and diplomatic situation. The importance of the Kurds as a political and military force grew in the face of the offensive launched by Islamic State forces in 2014. The Peshmerga, the army of the autonomous Kurdistan Region in Iraq, and the Kurdish armed units in Syria (the military wing of the PYD, known as the YPG) are the most effective forces confronting the Islamic State and have been able to stop and even reverse its advancement in Iraq. The prolonged instability and violence or collapse of the state in Syria and Iraq as well as a major change in Turkish attitudes may create the right conditions for the establishment of a Kurdish state. In the present situation, the Kurds in Iraq are using the opportunity to strengthen their position within that country and gain wide international recognition of their “almost independent” status while preserving the option to declare a fully independent state if and when favorable conditions arise in the international arena. Although the development of the Kurdish national movement in the modern era was slow and late, Kurdish distinctiveness and Kurdish identity appeared earlier than most of the nations that achieved independent states in the twentieth century; and though the Kurds suffer from internal differences and splits and are in a complicated process of nation-building, the Kurdish national consciousness and self-definition are much more advanced than many of the national groups that have obtained independent states. The Kurds’ striving for an independent state is no less legitimate than that of the Zionist movement prior to 1948 for the establishment of the State of Israel or of present-day Palestinians for a state alongside Israel. The Kurds have as much right to an independent state as the other national groups that have established states since the end of WWI and especially since the end of the Cold War. The establishment of an independent Kurdish state will have implications for the international situation in the Middle East and will influence the political characteristics of the states in the region. The possible disintegration of Syria and Iraq will create conditions for an independent Kurdish state. If Iraq and Syria survive, and if their regimes embrace federalism, the Kurds will likely continue to build their autonomous regions. However, the inflexible attitudes of Turkey and Iran toward the autonomist demands of the Kurds endanger the chances of a peaceful solution that will satisfy Kurdish nationalist demands. A political solution for Kurdish national aspirations—a fully independent Kurdish state or Kurdish regions that enjoy wide autonomy in the framework of existing states—is necessary for the stabilization, peace, and successful development of the Middle East.


Michael Eppel is an associate professor at the University of Haifa and Oranim Academic College of Education, specializing in the history and current affairs of Iraq, Syria, Kurdistan, and the Israeli-Arab conflict. He is the author of The Palestine Conflict in the History of Modern Iraq: The Dynamics of Involvement 1928-1948 (Routledge, 1994) and Iraq from Monarchy to Tyranny: From the Hashemites to the Rise of Saddam (University Press of Florida, 2004).

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