Analysis

Internal, External Forces Stymie Dream of a Kurdish State

The Kurds know very well that the establishment of an independent state is not simply a domestic matter within the enclave

Kurdish parties take pictures with Kurdish flag at the Kirkuk Governorate Council in Kirkuk, Iraq, April 6, 2017.
AKO RASHEED/REUTERS

“Only Israel will recognize an independent Kurdish state,” said Ammar Hakim, whose Shi’ite National Alliance is the largest parliamentary bloc in Iraq. “The status of such a Kurdish state will be similar to Turkish Cyprus, which is only recognized by Turkey,” he added. Such warnings could have been expected after the leader of the Iraqi Kurdish region, Masoud Barzani, announced his intention to hold a referendum on the region’s independence.

Iraq is not the only state that would object to Kurdish aspirations for independence. In April, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with the prime minister of the Kurdish region, Nechirvan Barzani, to discuss closer cooperation in the war against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the PKK.

Despite public declarations, most of the discussion, according to leaks, was devoted to convincing the Kurdish side to refrain from fanning sentiments on the question of Kurdish independence.

About 10 days before this meeting, Qasem Soleimani, the Iranian commander of the Quds Force, which is affiliated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, arrived in the city of Sulaymaniyah in the eastern part of the Kurdish enclave and met there with senior members of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan to make it clear that Iran would not allow them establish an independent Kurdish state.

The official Kurdish response to the Iranian pressure was to the point: “Please don’t intervene in the internal affairs of the Kurdish region.”

But the Kurds know very well that the establishment of an independent Kurdish state is not simply a domestic matter within the enclave.

Hakim predicted that such a step would cause “a tsunami across the Middle East,” adding that it would be followed by demands from other ethnic or religious groups throughout the region for states or enclaves or cantons of their own, which would splinter the Middle East to pieces.

One entity that is not terribly concerned about the prospect of a crumbling Middle East and that the Iraqi Kurds would have their own independent state is the British House of Lords, whose International Relations Committee released an interesting report at the beginning of the month about the need for new British policy in the Middle East.

The authors of the report, called “The Middle East: Time for New Realism,” wrote that states are no longer the only key players in foreign relations. Entities including organizations and sub-states sometimes play more important roles – and it is not necessarily in Britain’s interest to have a Middle East with unitary states with central governments.

“The United Kingdom should not devote political will or resources to deliver the goal of unitary and fully-functioning states where this is unattainable, as could well prove to be the case in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen. It should, however, be prepared to live with de facto arrangements and de facto sub-state entities,” the report states.

In the Kurdish context, it would also behoove Britain to examine its policy regarding the establishment of an independent Kurdish state.

The authors of the report do in fact adopt the view that in the foreseeable future no independent state will be established that would bring together all of the Kurds living in Syria, Turkey, Iran and Iraq. This also prompts the use of convoluted language that is reminiscent of classic British diplomacy: Britain does not need to support the Kurdish efforts to achieve independence, but that doesn’t mean that Britain is against such efforts.

Apparently it will only be in June, after the British parliamentary election, that a new government will address the House of Lords’ convoluted report and perhaps even manage to develop a diplomatic position on the Kurds. Until then, a lot can happen in the Kurdish enclave.

By the way, on the Palestinian issue, the report is clear and to the point. It recommends that the British government seriously consider recognizing an independent Palestinian state, a stance that would demonstrate British support for a two-state solution to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. How such an approach squares with a readiness to accept de facto arrangements, only the God of the British knows.

Trump doesn’t have a position on the Kurds

The United States under President Donald Trump does not concern itself with nuances. The Trump administration simply does not have a position on Kurdish independence. It is of the view that the Kurdish forces are essential in the war against the Islamic State movement and sees the Kurdish leadership in Iraq and Syria as allies through which the Islamic State capital in Syria, Raqqa, can be captured. Turkey is afraid that in exchange for such cooperation, Trump will promise the Kurds American support for their independence.

The Kurds are convinced that Trump won’t forget their contribution to the war effort and that when the time comes, he will lend his support to the establishment of their state. Until that time, however, it has only been his aides who have discussed it, saying that Trump supports Kurdish independence on the condition that Iraq agrees as well. It’s as if he had told the Palestinians the he supports a Palestinian state if Israel does too.

Opposition to a Kurdish state makes one question whether the Kurds really intend to hold a referendum that would form the basis for a declaration of independence or whether it is a political maneuver designed to extract funding and support from the international community, particularly to gain international recognition for Kurdish control of areas of Iraq where they have defeated Islamic State.

The disputes between the leadership in the Kurdish region and the Iraqi government over control of the city of Mosul, over debts and over a referendum in Kirkuk, which has been waiting since 2007 for a plebiscite to determine its future, are all wonderful grounds for threatening independence.