The Kurds may be getting closer to achieving their century-old quest for independence. With a population estimated at thirty million, the Kurds are the fourth-largest ethnic group in the Middle East and one of the world’s largest groups without a nation-state. Sharing a common language and a distinct culture, the predominately Sunni Muslim Kurds live in the mountainous region of present-day Iran, Syria, Iraq, and Turkey. These are countries in which they represent sizable ethnic minorities but have been marginalized and persecuted. Sunni Muslim Kurds’ efforts to set up an independent state have historically been suppressed.
Amid the current instability in the Middle East, however, the Iraqi Kurds may be making significant headway toward their goal. In September 2017, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) held an historic referendum in which more than ninety percent of voters endorsed a proposal to declare independence from Iraq. The Iraqi federal court voided the referendum, ruling that no region could secede under its constitution. Baghdad followed up by closing the airspace of land-locked, oil-rich Kurdistan and conducting military exercises along its borders. The Kurds contend that Kurdistan’s legal status is enshrined in the 2005 Iraqi constitution, that the referendum was legitimate under that constitution, and Iraq’s efforts to cancel the vote violate their civil rights. Indeed, since Kurdistan was established, the Kurds have been a bastion of stability and economic prosperity, tolerant of religious diversity, and protective of minority and women’s rights, which Iraq finds threatening. The UN Charter recognizes the right to self-determination, and the KRG is calling on the international community to intercede on its behalf and hold Iraq accountable.
Historically, however, the Kurds have suffered betrayals and manipulation by external powers. The Ottoman Empire was dissolved at the end of World War I in 1918, but the Allies reneged on their promise for a separate state for the Kurds and parceled them out to Turkey, Syria and Iraq. The Kurds have harbored resentment for a century, and various Kurdish political parties in these countries have formed to continue the battle for independence. In Turkey, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) has been an active adversary of the government for many years. Turkey prohibits the expression of divergent identities and Kurds have held fast to their language and culture. Truces between the Kurds and the Turkish state have been short lived, and Turkey scapegoated the Kurds for a failed coup in 2016. In Syria, the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) has taken control of territory, exploiting political disorder under Assad. In Iraq, when NATO imposed a no-fly zone against Saddam Hussein in the 1990s, Kurds grabbed the land and established Kurdistan, creating a separate flag and army. The Kurdistan Peshmerga military forces have been very effective against ISIS, and activists in Iraq and Syria are considering joint military actions, as are the PYD and PKK.
This coalescing of Kurdish political efforts poses a dilemma for international powers, forced to choose sides against Turkey and Iraq if they support Kurdistan. Having armed Kurdish forces to fight ISIS in Iraq and Syria, the US alarmed Turkey and Iraq who view the Kurds as enemies. Indeed, Turkey views Kurdistan’s self-determination as an existential threat and has repeatedly attacked the Kurdish forces the US has supplied. A long-standing NATO ally, Turkey has recently deepened its ties to Russia. This geopolitical dance is a repetition of the Kurdish past. However, the Kurds may now have significant leverage to pursue statehood given their success in repelling ISIS offensives.
Kurdistan seems to have satisfied the prerequisites for statehood established under international law by the 1933 Montevideo Convention: a defined territory, a permanent population, an effective government, and the capacity to engage in international relations. While Article 1.2 of the UN Charter recognizes the principle of self-determination, Kurdistan needs supporters for its statehood argument, and the US is critical to that support. The US State Department avoids having a clear doctrine on self-determination to stay out of civil conflicts. The US, however, is already involved in the conflict, and a compelling argument can be made that an independent Kurdistan would be beneficial to the US fight against terrorism given the success of the Peshmerga forces. An independent Kurdistan would permit less involvement by the US. The time is right for the US to lead the way at the UN to make Kurdistan an independent state.