Globe: The Future of Kurdistan

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The Kurds have long been the subject to tragedy: some of the more recent examples include former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons on the Iraqi Kurdish population, Turkish President Recep Erdogan’s attacks on Kurdish areas in Turkey to boost his electoral outlook, and the Islamic State’s ruthless besieging of Kurdish towns in its genocidal conquests in Iraq and Syria.

Throughout all this terror, the Kurds have been a strong ally to the United States in the Middle East – a rare commodity in the region. The Kurds supported the United States during the Iraq war, and now, in the US-led war on the Islamic State, the Kurds have used their military force, the Peshmerga, as a ground force against the Islamic State fighters. For this, the United States has been able to keep military casualties to a minimum while the Peshmerga has suffered tremendously.

The Kurds are a stateless people that mainly inhabit Kurdistan; a semi-autonomous and multinational region that exists in parts of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. The Kurds have been subject to suppression in each of these countries, though the repression is particularly intense in Turkey and Iraq.

In Turkey, massacres of the Kurdish population dot Anatolia’s history. Until 1991, Kurdish cultural expression such as the Kurdish language and traditional dress have been banned. Political parties representing Kurdish interests were also banned until the conclusion of the 20th century.  The ban of the Kurdish language still exists in Turkish public schools. At times, even mentioning Kurds or Kurdistan was illegal in Turkey. The Turkish government instead labeled Kurds as “Mountain Arabs.” The Kurds are now used as a political tool by Turkish President Recep Erdogan to surge popular feelings of nationalism.

In Iraq, the Kurdish population endured numerous atrocities under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. Between 1987-1989, in the finial stages of the Iran-Iraq war, and estimated 50,000 to 182,000 Kurds were killed by the Iraqi government in a campaign designated as genocide by the United Kingdom, Norway, and Sweden. During a series of uprisings in 1991, and estimated 25,000 to 100,000 Kurds were killed by the Iraqi government

However, after decades of struggle and suffering, a region of Kurdistan is holding an independence referendum – to the disdain of Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and the United States. Iraqi Kurdistan, the most autonomous of greater Kurdistan, is voting in a referendum that in theory will decide the future of Iraqi Kurdistan. This referendum is seen as a threat in Iran, Syria, and Turkey. Each of these regions has dealt with Kurdish insurgent groups seeking independence and other political ends.

Turkey is particularly concerned, and is conducting military exercises and threatening to cut off the oil flow from the region. Iran has closed the border with Iraqi Kurdistan and has, along with Turkey, closed airspace from Iraq. The Iraqi government has vehemently opposed the referendum, and aside from fears of losing territorial integrity, views the vote as an attempt to annex the region’s oil supply from Iraq. The United States and the West also oppose the referendum, much to many Iraqi Kurds disdain.

Concerns in the US revolve around the repercussions the vote van has in the war against ISIS, other Western nations have threatened to cut off aid into Iraqi Kurdistan should the region go through with the referendum.

The concern and fears are not without merit; The timing for the referendum is could not be less desirable for independence. Iraq is still facing the threat of the Islamic State, and Iraqi Kurdistan is the most independent it has ever been. The warning the United States issued of “increased instability” following the independence refutandum could be very true. There is no reason to hold the election now for numerous reasons. One concern for opponents of the referendum is the question of leadership.

Spearheading the referendum is the President of Iraqi Kurdistan, Masoud Barzani. Mr. Barzani has all the characteristics of a potential dictator; he has extended his rule twice, in 2015 in shut the Kurdish parliament down after it attempted to limits Mr. Barzani’s powers following the parliament’s questioning of how he spends revenues from oil.

Instead of allocating political capital and resources towards improving Kurdish society, infrastructure, and quality of life, Mr. Barzani is focusing his time on rousing nationalist sentiments for an otherwise fruitless referendum that will only increase his power and popularity. His actions are like that of another semi-autonomous region in the Middle East. His nationalist political maneuvering has had effect in Iraqi Kurdistan; otherwise moderate politicians are willing to go to war to secure independence.

 The concerns for the survival of an independent Kurdish state exceed that of leadership concerns; the Kurdish government in Iraq is in a deplorable state. He government is steeped in debt and lacks a unified, sturdy political system. The Peshmerga, the force that has fought the Islamic State on America’s behalf, does not have a united command. Rather, the Peshmerga is divided between family factions. Those are the prospects of an Independent Iraqi Kurdistan: become subject to dictatorship, or enter a phase of faction-driven civil war.

There is a naïve, if not almost Rousseauean concept that independence will somehow liberate a prospective new country from turmoil and lead to an era of tranquility regions like Kurdistan and Catalonia suffer from this. Sometimes this is true, most of the time it isn’t. the 20th century is riddled with examples of nations striving for independence just to destroy themselves because they lacked a strong enough civil society and mature political system required for independence. South Sudan is the most recent example of this. Kurdistan has potential to be successful – in time.

 As of now, Kurdistan is under the rule of a potential aerotrain and is divided by family factions. Such an outlook will spell disaster for Kurdistan.  In a word, Kurdistan could become just another Middle Eastern country.