The case to deny Kurdish independence despite aspirations

Although Reuters news agency reported that Israeli officials may well have told the United States that Kurdish independence in northern Iraq was a “foregone conclusion,” and while Massoud Barzani, the president of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan Region indicated that Kurds were ready to seek independence, several major regional and international actors were dead set to deny what millions of Kurds aspired to achieve ever since the 1920 Sèvres Treaty.

A few days ago, the U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry, reiterated his government’s opposition to the very idea of an independent Kurdish state during a stop in Irbil. Instead, Kerry pressed on Barzani to support a united Iraq that, in his view, was a stronger country. He emphasized how Washington supported Iraq’s territorial integrity as a whole and did not wish to see it dismembered. This was, to be sure, a standing U.S. foreign policy goal that was backed by most Western powers even if strong pro-Kurdish sentiments existed among leading Western powers like France and Germany.

See also - Counterpoint article: The case for Kurdish independence amid ISIS gains

Of course, the country most wary of a potential Kurdish neighbor was Turkey, where an estimate 15 to 20 million Kurds displayed strong irredentist sentiments. For nearly a century, Ankara used force to suppress a Kurdish independence movement in the southeast, led by the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan or PKK) during much of the 1990s, and which demanded full independence from the central government.

Redrawing Turkey’s borders

Naturally, Turks were particularly concerned that the eventual Iraqi Kurdish neighbor, which enjoyed significant financial prospects on account of its oil resources, would quickly expand to include parts of Turkey that, without a doubt, would mean redrawing Turkey’s borders. Few Turkish leaders, if any, were willing to surrender large portions of territory to a people they denied even existed until a few years ago, since Kurds were simply known as “Mountain Turks.”

The Kurds have a de facto state in Iraq, of course, but they are a long way off to persuade their natural neighbors to accept their presence.

Joseph A. Kéchichian

According to Cenap Çakmak, an international relations expert at Eskisehir Osmangazi University, “Turkey would be strongly opposed to an Iraqi Kurdistan,” a sentiment that was echoed throughout the establishment. Simply stated, the vast majority of Turks perceived the Kurdish Question as a direct and major national security threat that, even worse, endangered the country’s identity. In addition to the three-decades-old PKK activities, which were often violent, Ankara faced a slew of internal problems and did not wish to add to the chaos that an independent Iraqi Kurdistan would bring to Turkish society. Thousands have already died over the years and it was difficult to see how Turkish leaders could entertain any notion of Kurdish autonomy, even next door.


Iran opposed to Kurdish independence

Similarly, successive Iranian governments were implacably opposed to any Kurdish independence movement, chiefly because of very strong and quite dangerous ethno-linguistic and cultural relationships within the country that, for lack of a better term, was dominated by Persians.

Ties between Persians and Kurds were subjected to irredentist forces, except perhaps among the tiny Shiite Kurdish minority population (perhaps less than 5 percent), even if Tehran successfully tamed autonomy-loving Kurds. In fact, tribal revolts in Western Azerbaijan started under the Pahlavi dynasty between 1920 and 1940, and were at first initiated by an organized Kurdish political-nationalist separatist movement that came to the forefront in 1943.

When the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI) organized its political activities, its ultimate goal was to gain complete self-rule, which did not endear them to xenophobic Persians.

At the height of World War II, the KDPI joined forces with Soviet elements to establish the Republic of Mahabad in 1946, and while Moscow’s efforts to establish a Kurdish state in Western Iran failed, Tehran proved merciless. In the 1960s and again during the 1979 rebellion and subsequent KDPI insurgency, Iran hunted down Kurdish tribal units, and literally wiped out entire villages from the map.

In 1979 alone, an estimated 30,000 Kurds were killed, as the Islamic Republic consolidated its hold over the entire country. Tehran formally abolished the KDPI in 1996, though another Kurdish organization emerged by early 2004, the Party of Free Life of Kurdistan (Partiya Jiyana Azad a Kurdistanê or PJAK).

Nearly four decades ago, and as a young graduate student sharing a meal with President Ronald Reagan’s Special Envoy to the Middle East, Ambassador Philip Habib, I was shocked to hear the diplomat declare that there would never be an independent Kurdistan. Secretary Kerry may share that view as well although the vetoes that mattered were those of Turkey and Iran, two major regional actors that will need to concede territory to any independent Kurdistan. The Kurds have a de facto state in Iraq, of course, but they are a long way off to persuade their natural neighbors to accept their presence.
 

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Dr. Joseph A. Kéchichian is an American scholar, historian and political scientist specializing on the Persian Gulf region, focusing in the domestic and regional concerns of Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. He was previously a senior researcher at the RAND Corporation and is now a Senior Fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research & Islamic Studies in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and an author specializing in the Arabian/Persian Gulf region. His latest book is Legal and Political Reforms in Sa‘udi Arabia, published by Routledge (2013).

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