Supporting Kurdish independence
For those of you who have been keeping up with this blog, you know I’ve been on a bit of a “self-determination” kick this year. It was also the subject of a nice discussion I had this week in DC with the good folks who belong to the Truman National Security Project. At that talk, the subject of the Kurds came up several times. In my mind, there’s no group more deserving of self-determination than the Kurds, a group that has been described as the largest nation-without-a-state.
The Kurds have never gotten much of a say in their own destiny. The Treaty of Sevres of 1920 and the Treaty of Lausanne of 1923 that replaced it largely ignored Kurdish aspirations — dividing the people up mainly among the countries that became Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. After that – well, it hasn’t been an easy century for the 25 or so million people who identify culturally and linguistically with the Kurdish nation. Without getting into the details, here is a timeline that pretty much captures the near-constant state of conflict the Kurds have been in ever since.
Understanding international affairs requires an understanding of motivations and opportunities. The Kurds have been motivated to have their own state for generations, but the opportunities to actualize those dreams have been few and far between. Windows-of-opportunity for decisive actions are rare – but they do occur as they did recently as the Russians and the pro-Russian groups of the Crimea took advantage of the breakdown of authority in the Ukraine.
Similarly, a breakdown in central authority has occurred in Iraq as ISIS militants have seized control over the northern parts of the country. There has been no time in Kurdish history when the opportunity has presented itself in such a way that independence is a real possibility. The Kurds of Iraq should seize the chance while it exists.
A Kurdish declaration of independence is risky, of course. Just as the US founding fathers realized that they would be hung, or worse, Kurdish leaders would be putting themselves and their people at grave risk if they took radical action.
The main obstacle to Kurdish independence at this point is no longer the central government in Iraq – it’s the Turkish government. Turkish officials, who once refused to even acknowledge the existence of Kurds, have moved in recent years to a greater acceptance of Kurdish self-determination – but not independence. The Turkish government fears (in fairness, probably rightly so) that an independent Kurdistan would serve as a base for stirring up dissent among the larger population of Kurds living in Southeastern Turkey.
The Turkish government, however, has shown restraint, some might even say tentativeness, in dealing with the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts to their south. It does not seem likely that the Turks would be willing to risk forcibly intervening in Iraq and risk becoming embroiled in a protracted conflict with the well-disciplined Kurdish peshmerga militias. It also doesn’t seem likely (although not impossible) that the Shiite-led Maliki government would invite Sunni Turks to invade their country either. In any case, it’s a reasonable risk for Kurdish officials to take in pressing forward.
Of course, ideally, the Kurds might prevail on the Turkish government to recognize a Kurdish state as a helpful ally in the region. With Turkish support, an independent Kurdistan would have a much easier time obtaining recognition at the United Nations – the ultimate stamp of approval for a country.
President Obama has claimed many times to have a close relationship with top Turkish leaders. He should use these ties to help the Kurds push their claims. The alternative is to support the status quo, with the Kurds being perpetually tethered, however loosely, to a sham Iraqi state with which fewer and fewer Kurds identify.