1 Jul 2014

The time has come for a Kurdish state

It was surely no coincidence that the failure of Kurdish representatives to turn up at Iraq’s new parliament today happened just as the president of Kurdistan announced he was holding a referendum on Kurdish independence.

The Iraqi Kurdish President Massoud Barzani had been pressured by the Americans and British to participate in the formation of a new coalition government in Baghdad, but that pressure has clearly not worked.

Members of the Kurdish Peshmerga celebrate in the city of KirkukAnglo-American diplomatic influence in Iraq – bought with the blood of thousands of dead American and British troops – has worn off within the space of a few years, with the visits of John Kerry and William Hague to Mr Barzani’s office in Kurdistan last week apparently achieving little.

‘Safe haven’

The irony is that the British and Americans, nominally opposed to Kurdish independence, are the ones who made it possible.

The British are often held responsible for drawing up the borders of Iraq which the Kurds have long chafed against. But it was also the British and Americans, with Turkish backing, who created a Kurdish “safe haven” in 1991 after Saddam Hussein seemed poised to perpetrate another massacre there.

It is that safe haven which has morphed into a fledgling state with its own parliament and its own flag – and just as the British, Americans and Turks made that possible, they should now embrace Kurdish independence.

The Kurds know that with Baghdad now fighting a jihadist insurgency and invasion, the Iraqi capital is at its weakest in decades – a weakness which gives the Kurds the opportunity to break away at last.

‘A matter of months’

Expecting them to fight Isis on Baghdad’s behalf, beyond territory claimed by Kurdistan, is wishful thinking. Expecting them to act as some sort of referee in the age old dispute between Iraq’s Sunni Arab and Shia communities is naïve.

“From now on, we won’t hide that that’s our goal,” Mr Barzani told the BBC of his plans for independence. “Iraq is effectively partitioned now… We’ll hold a referendum and it’s a matter of months.”

Joe Biden, now the US vice-president, argued in 2006 for a federal Iraq with powers significantly devolved away from Baghdad. His essay on the subject is here.

And though such devolution is once again the goal of US policy, the Kurds have given up on the Iraq project in what I think is a fundamental and probably irreversible policy shift.

Turkey and Iraq

Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a bold Turkish leader – the boldest since President Turgut Ozal overcame Turkey’s longstanding Kurdophobia and helped Iraqi Kurds fleeing Saddam in 1991.

Today Mr Erdogan’s own candidacy for the Turkish presidency was announced. He has already gone further than any of his predecessors in trying to achieve a peace deal with Turkish Kurds, fighting for the PKK.

Now he should go further still and recognise a Kurdish state in Iraq, provided it comes with guarantees that Iraqi Kurds hold no territorial claims beyond Iraq’s borders – guarantees which Mr Barzani has been giving the Turks for many years.

The risk, of course, is that such a move inflames Kurdish separatism in Turkey itself. But Turkish Kurds will not migrate en masse to a  new Kurdish state. The vast majority, for a host of historical, cultural and linguistic reasons, will stay put in Turkey itself.

The PKK’s fighters, already based in northern Iraq, could stay there. Mr Barzani, still very much a tribal chief, once told me he loathed the Marxist-Leninist Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK’s  jailed leader; but the PKK would have to be given the opportunity to disarm and participate in the politics of a new Kurdish state.

The Turks are already Iraqi Kurdistan’s biggest trading partner. The Turkish government has direct stakes in Kurdish oil and gas fields and therefore has every interest in making Kurdistan a success. Kurdish control of the oilfields of Kirkuk would come with security guarantees for the large Turkish-speaking Turkoman population living there.

What they want

And after all, it is not Kurdish fighters who are holding more than 80 Turks hostage – but jihadists from Isis, with Kurdistan serving as a reasonably reliable buffer zone against  the chaos further south.

The early signs are that Turkey, albeit reluctantly, sees the logic of an independent Kurdish state – one which would in all likelihood answer more happily to Ankara than it does to Baghdad.

All this is, of course, truly historic. A redrawing of the map of the Middle East, with Turkey regaining some of its Ottoman influence. It was the British spy Gertrude Bell, one of Iraq’s creators, who once remarked that “no-one knows exactly what they do want, least of all themselves, except that they don’t want us.”

To which I would make this riposte: the Kurds do know what they want, and always have, and their time has come at last.

Follow @ jrug, author of Ataturk’s Children: Turkey and the Kurds, on Twitter.

Tweets by @jrug