Does an Independent Kurdistan make Sense?

By Mohammed Shareef and Janroj Yilmaz Keles

By invading Iraq and mismanaging the aftermath, the United States precipitated Iraq’s collapse as a unified state, but it did not cause it.

Erbil aims at becoming the Arab Capital of Tourism The castle in the city of Erbil. Demotix/Yildiz Celik. All rights reserved.With the radical Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) taking over huge swathes of Iraq’s northern and western territory from the Shi’a dominated government of Nouri al-Maliki, the territorial integrity of Iraq is in question. These recent developments in Iraq are a clear sign of a failed state on the brink of total collapse and a reality that many in the west are still denying.

Partition works as a political solution for Kurdistan, the Shiite south, and the Sunni Arab centre because it formalises what has already taken place. Partition is the major reason Kurdistan is stable.Throughout Iraq’s tumultuous history the sectarian and ethnic mentality in Baghdad has far superseded a common Iraqi national identity.

Therefore the US and other western nations’ insistence on maintaining the status quo is no more than a fantasy. The reality for Kurds and Shia/Sunni Arabs could be better described as a ‘forced marriage’. International forces’ objection to the division of Iraq into three states (Shia Arab, Sunni Arab and Kurdish states), is a futile attempt at squaring a circle.

An independent Kurdish state is nothing new, the Kurdistan region of Iraq has practiced de facto independence since 1991 when Saddam Hussein’s army was ejected from Kuwait. Kurdistan is already self-sufficient with its own military (Peshmerga) and is developing its own oil resources, these are all helpful factors towards its formal declaration of independence.

Internally, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has pursued relatively ‘good governance’ and economically sound policies, demonstrating that an independent Kurdistan will be a viable entity. The Kurds to a large extent, although not flawless, have established a democratic government of institutions. In addition to this, the Kurdish government’s well-trained Peshmerga forces have demonstrated commitment and competence at protecting the security and stability of Kurdistan against any outside radical Islamist onslaught.

Besides this, there is also a political, cultural and emotional gulf between the Kurdish and Arab populations in Iraq. The decline of the Arabic language among the post-1991 Kurdish generation shows that Kurds have neither a sense of belonging to Iraq, nor a future vision within the Iraqi state. In 2005 an unofficial referendum was held, asking the people of Iraqi Kurdistan whether they favour remaining part of Iraq or an independent Kurdistan. The result was an overwhelming majority of 98.8% favouring independence.

At the regional level, the KRG has demonstrated friendly relations and good neighbourliness, mutual respect and cooperation. It has proven that regional stability will be maintained and that an independent entity would not upset regional states and threaten their territorial integrity. To reassure them further, however, mutual interest treaties and the establishment of excellent trade and diplomatic relations with regional states must be given greater attention by the KRG. Regional stability and in particular the stability of America’s NATO ally Turkey are major considerations in Washington when it comes to the Kurdish issue. The KRG has already contributed positively and encouraged the decline of conflict between the Turkish government and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

Moreover, the Kurdish political parties in Turkey and Syria have long declared that they do not demand an independent Kurdish state in Syria and Turkey and merely seek a peaceful solution for the Kurdish question within their current national borders. Therefore, the concern that the independence of the Kurdish region in Iraq will destabilise the region is largely unfounded.

Iran is already the KRG’s second largest trade partner after Turkey. The trade turnover between the two governments exceeded 4 billion USD in 2013. As for Turkey, more than 70% of the overall Iraqi-Turkish annual trade exchange of about 12 billion USD is between Turkey and the Kurdistan Region. This exchange is anticipated to grow to 25 billion USD within the next few years. There are currently about one thousand five hundred Turkish companies active in the Kurdistan region. The relationship between the Turkish government and KRG reached its peak when Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan invited the president of the Kurdistan Region to the Kurdish populated Diyarbakir in November 2013 where both leaders emphasised the relevance of peace and economic development to the region. In an interview with the Kurdish Rudaw newspaper on 14 June 2014, the vice-president of the AKP, Hüseyin Çelik stated that “if Iraq splits up, the Kurds have the right to self-determination” and added that “Turkey has supported Iraqi Kurdish government until now and will continue to do so.”

Considering that in a few years’ time with Turkey’s EU accession, Kurdistan will represent the eastern border of the European Union, it would simply make sense from a realist point of view that Kurdistan provides a buffer to the EU from an emerging radical Sunni entity to the south of Kurdistan’s borders. Secondly, Kurdistan with its huge oil reserves, ranked sixth at the global level, would be another major oil exporter to western markets.

To sum up, conventional wisdom holds that Iraq’s breakup would be destabalising and therefore should be avoided at all costs. Looking at Iraq’s dismal history, it should be apparent that it is the very effort to hold Iraq together that has been destabalising. Pursuit of coerced unity has led to continuous violence, repression, dictatorship and genocide. It is not possible over the long run to force people living in a geographically defined area to remain part of a state against their will. Iraq’s Kurds will never reconcile to being part of Iraq. Under these circumstances, a managed amicable divorce is in the best interests of Iraq, and will contribute to greater stability in the region.

Iraq’s current civil war is the messy end of a country that never worked as a voluntary union and that brought misery to most of its people most of the time. By invading Iraq and mismanaging the aftermath, the United States precipitated Iraq’s collapse as a unified state but did not cause it. Partition – the Iraqi solution – has produced stability in most of the country and for this reason should be accepted.

An independent Kurdistan should be achieved through some sort of Velvet Divorce between Arab Iraq and the Kurdistan Region, akin to the dissolution of the former Czechoslovakia in 1993. The UN, the EU, the US and the Arab League should play a role in negotiating this secession. The best way for that to happen is to have an agreement with the Iraqi government. To achieve this, the issue of the disputed Kurdish territories should be resolved because it is very difficult to achieve independence if you do not know which territory you are going to control.

About the authors

Janroj Yilmaz Keles is a research fellow at Middlesex University (London). He completed his PhD in Sociology and Communications at Brunel University and has worked as a lecturer at London Metropolitan University and Birkbeck, University of London and conducted with his colleagues several EU and ESRC funded research on ethnicity, migration and diaspora.. His forthcoming book entitled Media, Diaspora and Conflict: Nationalism and Identity amongst Turkish and Kurdish Migrants in Europe will be released on 1 September 2014.

Mohammed Shareef is a fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society (London). He has worked for the UN and is a lecturer in International Relations at the University of Sulaimani in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. He completed his PhD in International Relations at the University of Durham and has an MSc in International Relations from the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom. He is the author of the book The United States, Iraq and the Kurds: Shock, Awe and Aftermath published by Routledge on 12 March 2014.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 licence.

Mirrored from Open Democracy

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Related video added by Juan Cole:

AFP from Tuesday: “US John Kerry visist Iraqi Kurdistan, meets leader”

6 Responses

  1. Can an independent Kurdistan be viable without including sizable Kurdish lands in S.E. Turkey and N.W. Iran? The Kurds have clearly waited in line long enough for statehood, but I can’t see either Ankara or Tehran making the territorial concessions necessary to insure stability.

  2. “Considering that in a few years’ time with Turkey’s EU accession…”

    At this point, it looks like Turkey has abandoned all hope of joining the EU, thanks to Erdogan riding roughshod over the rule of law and getting away with it. I’m glad to see the Kurds moving up in the world (both in Iraq and in Turkey), but it’s too bad that it is apparently impossible to have a Kurdish opening and an Alevi opening at the same time.

  3. I have long believed that Kurds deserved their own nation, if they will be good neighbors. I hope this much can work out, but of course it is sadly fraught with danger and resentment under the circumstances.

  4. If Turkey and Iran have co-opted Kurdistan, then the question is, will they force it to keep its hands off of Syrian Kurdistan? A joint understanding between Turkey and Iran on that matter may signal a line being drawn against the ugly jihadi empire that Saudi Arabia seems to be spawning in the desert. Too bad the line cuts through Iraq, but it leaves the Shia and the Kurds with all the oil and sponsors willing to help defend it.

    Hooray for old-fashioned balance of power, at least for the next five minutes.

  5. I think that your arguments for an independent Kurdish state in the North are excellent. How will this possibility be affected by Isis’ announcement of the success in establishing a caliphate affect Kurds?

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