On par with the shock value of racism, one of the most immediately apparent public faux pas today is an expressed retroactive support for the 2003 Iraq war. With all that hindsight offers, such a position appears thoroughly incomprehensible to the point that it appears to indicate a moral failing on behalf of the individual expressing it. However, the most understated news story coming out of the Middle-East in the past few months illustrates just how misguided this pervasive sentiment is – that is, the steps taken toward Kurdish statehood.
4,000 years of Kurdish national self-determination was first broken by the Ottoman Empire, and sustained upon its collapse, by the rise of arbitrary, modern state divisions in the aftermath of the First World War.
From the idealism of Woodrow Wilson, and the emerging international norm of the national self-determination as a model for global structuring, the Kurds were axiomatically promised a state to encompass their long-standing nation. However, betrayed implicitly in the lead up to the Treaty of Versailles, and later explicitly at Lerves 1920 and Lausanne 1923, the Kurds found themselves denied access to the singular modern expression of national legitimacy, and with it the full protection of international law. The realpolitik considerations of geopolitical stability, regional alliances, and international commodity access outweighed the empirical, and indeed, moral right of Kurdish self-determination. The Kurds came to represent the world’s largest nation without a corresponding state.
To make this injustice all the more intolerable, the four predominant states in which Kurdistan found itself sub-divided, Syria, Turkey, Iran, and Iraq, developed national identities of a self-promoting and deeply expansionist nature, resulting in unimaginable and unrelenting human suffering for the Kurdish people.
The predominant intention of much of this suffering amounted to cultural suppression and violent assimilation. While not seeking to diminish the harm such policies caused, nor their long-term criminal intent, they did intrinsically did have an attenuated focus on international law and basic human rights, insofar as they sought to degrade Kurdish nationalism without unnecessarily (where possible) violating such principles. The Iraqi Kurds were at no point afforded such minimal grace – the Iraqi state under Saddam Hussein sought nothing less than the complete extermination or expulsion of Kurdish ethnicity from Iraq.
Kanan Makiya’s ground breaking account of Saddam’s Iraq aptly referred to Iraq as “the Republic of Fear”, as a virtual slave-state whereby each individual citizen existed as the private property of the Ba’athist leadership. Yet, even within this environment, the Kurds found themselves uniquely targeted.
Seen from Baghdad as an intolerable risk to the territorial integrity of the Iraqi state, the Kurds found themselves under immediate and sustained existential threat from their own state. From the onset of Ba’athists rule, yet appreciably more so following an assassination attempt on Saddam in Dujail, Kurdish support for Iran in the Iran-Iraq war, and support for the international coalition after Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, the Kurds were subject to systematic and genocidal operations from the Iraqi state – amounting to an attempt to kill or expel almost a quarter of the entire Iraqi population.
The Dujail incident resulted in a retributive series of massacres of the local population. In 1983, the Barzani Abductions saw the disappearance of 5,000 men and boys. Yet, it was the Anfal Campaign in 1988 that came to define the true horror and pathological intent of Saddam’s regime. This highly coordinated campaign razed 4000 villages and killed 180,000 Kurds. Such figures would have been considerably higher, were it not for a mass exodus of refugees into neighbouring countries.
The horror of the Anfal Campaign was punctuated by the tactical deployment of chemical weapons. In Halabja, a single attack resulted in the 5,000 deaths and 10,000 injuries categorised as ‘lifelong disabilities’, and where the chemical residue is still present today. It was from this moment in history that Ali Hassan Abd al-Majid earned the ignominious synonym ‘Chemical Ali’.
From these campaigns, mass graves of abducted Kurds are continuously being discovered and excavated across Iraq today – the Iraqi desert is literally littered with Kurdish bodies.
As a result, the Kurds of Iraq have survived the last two decades only due to, though belated in its application, western intervention and sustained protection. Despite the relative security this has provided, for the Kurds this has been two decades of perpetual fear concerning the continuing longevity of that protection. Their very existence balanced upon the collective conscience of international actors – a collective conscience that historically has proven capricious and short-lived.
Considering this, following the 2003 invasion and subsequent fall of Saddam and the Ba’athist party, one would have forgiven the Kurds for immediately abandoning the then crippled Iraqi state. Rather, the Kurdish nation bought into the formation of a new democratic Iraq. Operating from within an implicit framework protecting the Iraqi Presidency for ethnic Kurds, Fouad Massoum recently replaced Jalal Talabani, both members of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party, in the first democratic and peaceful transition of executive power in Iraqi history.
This regional attachment to the greater Iraqi state was, at least in part, due to economic considerations. Colloquially known as the ‘Kurdish Jerusalem’, the town of Kirkuk and its two oil fields have long been seen as part the Kurdish nation. However, after it was seized during Saddam’s era, its status in the new Iraq has been open to debate. With ownership status of this asset left intentionally ‘undecided’, Kurdistan reintegrated within the new Iraqi state due to economic necessity.
It is here that the recent rise of the terrorist organisation ‘Islamic State’ and the subsequent collapse of the Iraqi army, has offered Kurdistan an unlikely opportunity for national realisation.
The failure of the Iraqi state to maintain its borders, and provide human security within them, legitimised the humanitarian seizure of Kirkuk by Kurdish forces. By exposing the institutional failures of the new Iraqi state, and by setting the Kurds up as the prime recipients of foreign military armaments, Islamic State has provided the conditions for the reincorporation of Kirkuk into Kurdistan, and as such have supplied the impetus for Kurdish independence.
Now economically independent, the President of the Kurdistan Regional Government, Massoud Barzani, declared the overcoming of the last remaining hurdle to Kurdish statehood, “We waited for 10 years for Baghdad to solve Article 140 [referring to Kirkuk]….”now it’s accomplished because the Iraqi army pulled out and our Peshmerga forces had to step in. So now the problem is solved. There will be more no more conversation about it”.
Importantly, Turkey who had long opposed Kurdish independence in Iraq, (previously threatening invasion if referendums on independence were to be held, for fear of its impact upon its own Kurdish population), indicated a change of policy in a message delivered through a government spokesman, “The Kurds of Iraq can decide for themselves the name and type of the entity they are living in,”… “The Kurds, like any other nation, will have the right to decide their fate”.
Indeed, based on past hostilities it unlikely that an independent Iraqi-Kurdistan would form any sort of meaningful alliance with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey, nor forge any national yearning where there might previously have been an absence.
In response, Barzani later declared “We are no longer capable of doing anything. We offered everything we could for the sake of Iraq, but we should not keep waiting for an unknown fate”; and instructed the Kurdish parliament to prepare for a referendum on Kurdish independence, in the process dismissing calls from US secretary of state John Kerry to remain within Iraq.
The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has long been a beacon for moderation and tolerance within the Middle-East. Kurdistan has consistently operated as a willing conduit for international diplomacy, and have proven to be reliable participants in humanitarian operations such as that against Islamic State. Furthermore, its Shia, Christian and Jewish minorities exist communally integrated and largely undisturbed, the Kurdish parliament allocates a quarter of its seats for women and, within a region beset by international travel warnings, has managed to develop a viable, though embryonic, tourist industry.
Explained by Harvard professor Michael Ignatieff in his seminal analysis of nationalism ‘Blood and Belonging’, “statelessness is a state of mind, and it is akin to homelessness”. Statelessness for Kurdistan has meant an existence denied of self-identity, and a life devoid of security. It is ahistorical to imagine that Kurdish national belonging can in any way be satisfied without a corresponding, and internationally, recognised state. Despite the coming the events, what is guaranteed is that Kurdish nationalism will not diminish, and sooner or later will need to be fulfilled by statehood – the rise of Islamic State, and the associated confluence of events seems to be just the moment for that fulfilment.