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

8 reader comments

  1. yorick blumenfeld says:

    Jonathan’s comments on the emergence of the state of Kurdistan is
    well balanced, sensible and informative. I think both London and Washington
    want an independent country for the Kurds but do not know how to do this diplomatically for fear of breaking up the country that was Iraq. Jonathan
    has made this evident as well and the diplomats should listen!

  2. Iran says:

    There is an article in Iraqi corrupted state constitution called Article 140! which grant Kirkuk and other equipped land to Kurdistan . After all Kurdish people are the only true and democratic people who are protecting other minorities from ISIS terrorist. Plus as a result of British policy who divided Kurdistan leads to millions of death of innocent women and children plus Men. Turkey and Iran plus the whole world should support Kurdistan after all they owe their safety and security within their border to Kurdish peshmarga (Solder). Look at United Kingdom still can not manage to stop its terrorists jihadist to go to Syria and Iraq but still keep saying Kurdish force ceased Oil rich Kirkuk!!! why? cant UK realised that Kirkuk untill musil and Dealah province was part of Greater Kurdistan which the same UK divided to make Kurdish people to suffert.

  3. Iran says:

    Kirkuk was and is part of Kurdistan also from Mousil to Dyalah province is also belongs to Kurdistan according to Iraqi constitution Article 140 but corrupted Iraqi prime minster Maliki failed to implemented . We should all support Kurdistan after all they only nation who have value of democracy and peace with stability of the region, they protect other minorities plus the only force who repel the ISIS was Peshmarga other wise those people wouldnt stop until Iran and Turkey so we should all support Kurdistan after all they deserved and the world should not ignore them as the west did during the genocide by former dictator Saddam. Briton owe the kurdish people big time after all Briton divided Kurdistan

  4. Hunar says:

    This is beautifully written, especially that last line. The Kurds have been persistent in their efforts to keep our beautiful and ancient culture, and it’s time at last that people understand this. And if they do not understand the strength and passion within the Kurds they will see it at last.

  5. Robert Taggart says:

    Agreed – Kurdistan + Uyghurstan + Khalistan.
    Ancient peoples should no longer be denied the right of a land of their own.
    Oh, not forgetting – England !

  6. DU 48 says:

    Absolutely right. A federal solution to what was Iraq (and Ukraine for that matter), based on cultural and religious regional differences will offer the best hope for peace. The problem is, as always, who gets to control the oilfields?

  7. Jason says:

    Good summing up of the situation in Middle East ,however these unhappy states where created by a mr Sykes and a mosur Picot in1916 ,they were even did not speak the local languages but decided on the fate of the people without asking them , now it’s high time to ask them if they want carry on regardless, best wishes

  8. Matt says:

    Yeah a Kurdish buffer zone from Iran through Iraq and Syria. Yeah that was my idea, but you can’t trust them they cut a deal with Assad not to fight and you would not have ISIS or Nusra problem. Which why that chap got his head blow off in Paris. People see the PUK, PKK and PJAK as United but like all the Kurds they are not and they all have different agendas. The PKK have too much influence. So they double crossed us. When central government in Baghdad come to take back Kirkuk with air power don’t expect a no fly zone. Against a government we acknowledge as legitimate and sovereign. And don’t expect a seat at the table in Syria once Assad goes. Now it is our turn for a double cross.

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