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An Independent Kurdistan To Bring Both Promise And More Instability To Middle East

The dream of an independent Kurdistan, began in the modern era during World War I. The Allies were fighting the Central Powers. In an effort to destabilize this increasingly unsteady military pact, the decision was made by France and the United Kingdom, to hasten the breakup of the more than 600 year old Ottoman Empire.

Following the defeat of the three main Empires of the Central Powers, which included Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire, it was decided that the political borders of the Middle East would be redrawn.

Mehmed VI, the last Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, leaving the country after the abolition of the Ottoman sultanate, November 17, 1922.

The treaty of Sevres, marked the beginning of the partitioning of Ottoman Empire, and would lead to its ultimate destruction. Part of the agreement, was the renunciation of all territory, not inhabited by Turks. These regions were to be turned over, to the victorious Allied powers of France and the United Kingdom.

The hostility that this cessation of almost all territory controlled by the Ottoman Empire, resulted in the Turkish War of Independence. Turkish nationalists were subsequently able to defeat, the combined armies of the signatories of the now invalidated Sevres Treaty.

What followed was the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923. This accord would firmly establish the borders of modern Turkey. These new Turkish frontiers include the south and southeastern area of Anatolia, where Kurds form the predominate ethnic group.

Borders of Turkey set by the Treaty of Lausanne, signed in 1923.

This new reality caused France and the United Kingdom to abandon the idea of an independent Kurdistan. It must be noted that the European powers were not in support of a Greater Kurdistan, that would encompass all Kurdish peoples, but only that one should exist. They were both in favor of a smaller option.

The remaining Kurdish areas, were now instead assigned to the newly created mandates of Syria and Iraq, controlled respectively by the France and the United Kingdom.

The only other sizable population of Kurds remaining, was to be found in Persia, which became known as Iran in 1935.

Kurdish-inhabited areas in northern Middle East.

Since Turkey remained neutral for most of World War II, and only entered on the side of the Allies in 1945, there were no territorial changes on their part. The idea of a Kurdish homeland at the end of the Second World War, was again not a priority.

At the San Francisco Peace Conference in 1945, the Kurdish delegation pressed again for a homeland.

It was based on claims of territory from the Mediterranean shores in Turkey, to the shores of the Persian Gulf.

To the east, the area included the Lur inhabited regions of the southern Zagros Mountains in Iran. The representatives once again, totally failed in their quest for nationhood.

Fast forward and the Middle East, as before, is politically in a state of disarray. Two countries in the region, may no longer be viable in their present configuration. These are of the states of Iraq and Syria.

Kurdish demonstration against ISIS in Vienna, Austria, October 10, 2014.

The arrival of ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) has broken central control over the periphery areas of both Iraq and Syria. The liberated Kurdish areas, are all but independent.

Greater Kurdistan in the 21st century exists over four different countries. Northern Kurdistan, is found in southeast Turkey and Western Kurdistan (Rojava) is located in northern Syria.

The remaining two are in northwestern Iran, known as Eastern Kurdistan and the area of northern Iraq, identified as Southern Kurdistan.

Apart from the virulent opposition of all four national governments to the creation of a Kurdistan, one can clearly see that the four territorial parts of the prospective country, could easily be united into one contiguous nation-state.

Area of Kurdish YPG control in northern Syria.

Kurdish nationalist groups remain divided, whether to seek greater autonomy within existing political boundaries, or to push for a nation-state, consisting of some or all of these areas that have a Kurdish majority.

Each part of a Greater Kurdistan, is in a different stage in the path towards statehood.

Iraqis Kurdistan first gained autonomous status in a 1970 agreement, with the central government in Baghdad. This special relationship was reconfirmed, following the overthrow of the dictator Saddam Hussein and the installation of a new regime in 2005.

Young Kurdish YPG fighters in Syria.

There are now between five and six million Kurds, living in the northeastern part of Iraq.

In Syria, the 2 million Kurds have been able to capture and maintain control over large sections of northern portions of the country. This occurred because government forces still loyal to the dictator Bashar al-Assad were withdrawn, to fight in areas further to the south and west.

As the Syrian Civil War winds down, the Kurds have already established their own government. There is a division within this new authority, whether to be satisfied with autonomy within Syria, or push for more unity with Kurdistan in Iraq.

The Bashar al-Assad government in Damascus, may acquiesce to some form of autonomy, but will oppose outright independence for the region.

Bashar al-Assad
President of Syria

The drive for freedom of northern Syria will also be opposed by Turkey, which will do its best to prevent a union between the Kurds of Syria and Iraq. It it is allowed to occur, there is a fear that the 14 million Kurds living in southeastern Turkey, will also clamor for independence and the right to join the growing nation state of a Greater Kurdistan.

Russia which is in the process of making Syria a client state, will also oppose any political action towards Kurdish statehood because it will only weaken their ally Bashar al-Assad. The strategic Syrian territory of the Mediterranean coast, is important to the projection of Russian power, in this vital area of the world.

The Russian government has been leasing a naval facility in Tartus on the coast since 1971. In January of this year, an agreement was signed to extend Russia’s control of the military facility for 49 years. The deal totally surrenders sovereignty to Russia, during this time period.

The port in Tartus

A second military installation was set up in September 2015. The air base of Khmeimim, is also under a 49 year lease. It will allow a far larger role for the Russian air force, in the eastern Mediterranean.

The construction of a third military base outside of Damascus, will allow greater Russian influence in the crucial Syrian-Jordanian border, just 60 miles (96 kilometers) away. Even more important, it is a mere 68 miles from the Golan heights, the contentious border region between Syria and Israel.

Collectively, these military assets will allow Russia to challenge Western supremacy of the Mediterranean Sea, which has been headed by the United States since the end of World War II. It will definitely bring into question, the moniker of referring to it, as an American lake.

General view of Damascus, capital of Syria.

The United States for its part, is also looking for areas to set up military operations. It involves the final effort to destroy ISIS and to support the Free Syria army, which is in opposition to the government of Bashar al-Assad.

More troubling is the role Iran, is now playing in Syria. The Iranian government in Teheran, has provided significant military and financial support of Bashar al-Assad.

In addition to training Syrian government troops, they have provided actual combat forces. There is no doubt that they will have a major say, in any major foreign policy decisions of Syria.

The Iranian government obviously opposes further self determination of the Kurds in northern Syria. Such a political entity would automatically be in resistance, to further Iranian influence in the region. The Teheran government is also fearful of any trouble of their own area of Kurdistan. Some 6 million Kurds presently live, in northwestern Iran.

A view of Sanandaj, the second-largest city in Iranian Kurdistan.

Although there is an Iranian province identified as Kurdistan in the region, it is not permitted to have any political autonomy. There would be severe military repression, if the Kurds living there, would make any moves in support of their brethren, across the border in Iraq.

Living in contiguous territory across 4 countries, two of which have a far weaker central authority, it is no wonder that Kurdish nationalists are becoming progressively positive, on the future of statehood.

With a total of 28 million Kurds, it would seem that the optimism among advocates for an independent Kurdistan, would seem justified.

The reality is quite different. As aforementioned, the Kurds are spread out among four countries, that have governments that will be determined to circumvent, the movement towards separation and independence.

Kurdistan in Iraq

Even within each part of Kurdistan, there are countervailing forces that are struggling for political and economic power.

Iraqis Kurdistan has been relatively autonomous since 1991. It has come the farthest in creating the institutions necessary for statehood. It already has its own legislature and most importantly, an army totally detached from the national one.

The Kurdish Regional Government known as the KRG, moved towards greater economic independence already in 2014. When the central government in Baghdad, decided to withhold payments to the region, it forced the KRG to begin to sell crude oil from its own territory.

The drive for Kurdish economic sustainability, was soon given a further boost. The federal army of Iraq would melt in the face of the ISIS onslaught.

It left the strategic oil region of Kirkuk, rather exposed to invasion. Instead, Kurdish forces known as peshmerga, were subsequently able to gain control over these oil resources.

The KRG has taken the further step in preparing a referendum, for total independence to be held on September 25th.

The Iraqis Parliament in response voted on September 12th, to reject the validity of a referendum. They further authorized Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, to take all necessary steps to preserve the unity of the country.

For their part, Kurdish representatives walked out of the session ahead of the vote in protest. They later issued statements, that denied the authority of the central legislature, to disallow the legitimacy of the referendum.

Erbil, capital of Iraqi Kurdistan.

A number of European nations and the United States, are concerned that the planned plebiscite on independence, may well result in armed conflict, with the Iraqis central government. This is all the more likely, now that the war with ISIS, is finally winding down.

There is a further worry that it may encourage, an attack from beyond the borders of Iraq. The nations of Iran and Turkey in particular, will oppose an independent Kurdistan, being created from Iraqis territory.

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan
The President of Turkey

Turkey has curtailed many previous freedoms enjoyed by its Kurdish population, in recent years. Political suppression has only intensified under President Erdogan.

The Turkish air force has even conducted strikes, on Kurdish militias in Syria. The government of Turkey has made its opposition, to an independent Kurdistan carved from any territory, quite evident.

There are some political leaders even inside this part of Kurdistan, that are apprehensive about the upcoming referendum. A number of them have expressed their opinion, that the vote for independence may indeed, be premature.

The Kurdish legislature has not been in session since 2015, and Kurdish president Masoud Barzani has extended his term in office, for a second time. These realities have brought on violent protests and political gridlock inside Iraqis Kurdistan.

Masoud Barzani
President of Iraqis Kurdistan since 2005.

A further hindrance to independence for the region is economic. Near 60% of the Kurdish population in Iraq, is dependent on jobs provided by the government. This stifles private sector development.

International investors who came in part, to exploit the oil wealth of this part of Kurdistan, have found their interests becoming entangled, in the political uncertainty of the region.

It has resulted in the departure of a number of foreign investors and firms. These will be difficult to replace, in the present state of affairs.

Although the region is indeed, selling crude on the international market, the global price is far lower, than it was, just a few years ago.

The present revenue generated from these oil sales, remains below the previous payments from Baghdad. Before the rupture in 2014, the KRG was entitled to 17% of total government budget. This payment comprised 95% of the KRG budget.

Nechervan Barzani
Prime Minster of Iraqi Kurdistan since 2012.

The ongoing cost of containing ISIS and other terrorist groups, is an additional drain on resources.

Iraqis Kurdistan is also having to provide support, for the more than 1.8 million refugees who have arrived, as a result of war and economic dislocation elsewhere.

A further concern remains the usual governmental corruption and inexperience of regional politicians. Many local Kurds responsible for managing the territory, have proved to be incompetent, for the tasks assigned to them.

It must be said, that many countries have faced some of these same constraints, on their path towards independence. Although complicated, a solution is politically possible for the Kurds, if they collectively can present a united front. For many Kurds, it seems the numerous hurdles for self-determination, are just too expansive to overcome.

Yet, a centuries old dream of statehood remains alive. Circumvented in the 20th century, present political disorder in the Middle East, has again allowed further gains towards the ultimate goal. In one form or another, an independent Kurdistan is increasingly likely in the 21st century. The question remains what form will it take and how far will its boundaries extend?

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