With the military campaign against the Islamic State winding down, the diplomatic focus is turning to the future of Syria with talks at the United Nations in Geneva, in Russia, and probably in less public locations elsewhere. The future structure of the government in Iraq is closely related to conditions in Syria, in particular the position of the Kurds in the two States. The crucial issue is how can there be creative cooperation among Kurds living in Syria, Iraq, Turkey and Iran without dividing these countries as they now stand.
The 25 September 2017 referendum in the area under the control of the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government, in which 92 per cent of those voting voted for independence, created a crisis situation. The Iraqi government sent troops to the frontier of the Kurdish area; Turkey mobilized its troops. Many feared new armed conflicts in an area already well supplied with fighting and deep ethnic and religious divisions.
Much hope rests in mediation and “good offices” by the United Nations or concerned governments. Thus all eyes were turned to Paris on 2 December 2017 where French President Emmanuel Macron had invited the Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani and his Deputy Prime Minister Qubad Talabani for discussions to promote negotiations between the Kurdish Regional Government and the central government in Baghdad. All three men are young, and there is some hope that there could be some fresh ideas and a sense of renewal in Kurdish politics, though the Barzani and Talabani clans have been key actors in Kurdish politics for generations.
There is always a feeling of “been there, done that” when considering efforts for an independent Kurdistan. In 1880-1881, there was a revolt led by Shaikh Ubaidullah al-Nahir who claimed that the Kurds were a nation separate from the Ottoman and Persian empires in which they found themselves. From 1908, until the start of the First World War, there was Kurdish cultural and political agitation. The term Kurdistan started to be used widely, taken from a newspaper by that name.
The breakup of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War was a defining moment for many Kurds who thought that they had been promised a separate state. In practice, they were shut out of the post-war structures—an agreement between the English and the French, the key “outside” powers at the time.
During the Second World War, Iran was occupied by English and Soviet troops. In part of the area under Soviet control, a Kurdish-led Republic of Mahabad was created, only to be destroyed when the Soviets withdrew in 1946-1947, considering it too early to confront Western military strength which desired a unified Iran.
More recent Kurdish history in Turkey with Abdullah Ocalan and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) has been violent and complicated. Repression and fear of any form of Kurdish political and cultural activity remains the order of the day of the Turkish government, increasingly so as there is a growth of an authoritarian Turkish government.
The Kurds in Iraq under Saddam Hussein were as violent and complicated as in Turkey. However, two Gulf Wars and US intervention led to the creation of an autonomous area under President Masoud Barzani.[$1]
The civil war conditions in Syria have also led to efforts to create Kurdish autonomy, if not a separate start, called Rajava.[$1]
The 25 September 2017 vote in the Kurdish Autonomous Region was carried out despite warnings from the Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi that it was unconstitutional, warnings from Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that if the vote were held he would shut the oil pipeline going to Turkey which provides the bulk of the Iraqi Kurdish zone’s revenues. Iran agreed for once with the USA that “now is certainly not the moment given the armed conflict in Syria and Iraq.”
Turkey, Iran and Syria all fear that moves for an independent Kurdish state in Iraq will lead to demands within their state for greater Kurdish autonomy or demands for a unified Kurdistan. The USA can hardly cope with the issues of the wider Middle East as now structured, and certainly does not want to deal with new demands, especially at a time when Iraqi Kurdish fighters, the Peshmerga, are useful allies in the battles against the Islamic State (ISIS).
Creative thinking on confederal forms of government are in short supply in the current “fog of war and repression “ in the wider Middle East. There could be autonomy for the majority Kurdish areas while protecting the rights of the ethnic/national minorities who also live in the Kurdish areas. There have always been other ethnic or religious groups living in areas considered as Kurdistan. More recently, Saddam Hussein had carried out an “Arabization policy” by moving Arabs into Kurdish-majority areas.
There should also be ways of cooperation among Kurds living in Iraq, Syria, Iran and Armenia. There are Kurds living in Lebanon, and a number of Turkish Kurds have moved to Germany and other West European countries. There is much talent within the now-divided Kurdish populations. Forms of cooperation within the wider Kurdish community could have a positive impact.
An unlikely source of creative thinking among some of the Kurdish leadership comes from a US radical writer and teacher, Murray Bookchin (1921-2006).[$1] Bookchin, who in the 1940s-1950s was active in trade union organizing and Trotskyite factions, later developed what he termed “Social Ecology” with an emphasis on bottom-up development largely based on villages, towns, and cities as the core units for decision-making. He called this “confederal participatory democracy.”
Bookchin’s ideas have been taken up by the Turkish Kurd leader Abdullah Ocalan on his prison island and by some of the leadership in the Syrian Kurdish movement. His approach may be of use in finding ways of developing autonomy, participation in decision-making, and trans-frontier cooperation without creating new “Nation-States.” Sometimes, creative thinking can occur in the midst of armed conflict, as was the case of some resistance movements in Europe during the Second World War.
The September vote was said by the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government to be a prelude to negotiations with the Iraqi government and not a “Declaration of Independence”. However, most voters saw it as a vote for independence. There is a real danger of violence on the part of the governments of Iraq and Turkey. There have been some calls for calm but usually in terms of safeguarding the status quo. The Secretary General of the League of Arab States, Ahmed Aboul-Gheit wrote “It is still possible to contain the repercussions of this step if all concerned parties exercise wisdom and responsibility and conduct themselves inside the parameters of the Iraqi state.”
The Paris meeting ended with a call for a “national dialogue to begin at the earliest time” which is certainly necessary. However, a dialogue within Iraq can not overlook the fact that a Kurdistan, culturally renewed and with a vigorous economy, is a transnational issue and cannot be limited to one State.
René Wadlow is the President of the Association of World Citizens, an international peace organization with consultative status with ECOSOC, the United Nations organ facilitating international cooperation on and problem-solving in economic and social issues.
1 See Keri Yildiz. The Kurds in Iraq: The Past, Present, and Future (London: Pluto Press, 2004)
2 See Michael Gunter. %(=italic)Our of Nowhere. The Kurds of Syria in Peace and Wa%r (London: Hurst and Co. 2014)
3 See Janet Biehl. Ecology or Catastrophe. The Life of Murry Bookchin (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015)