The Kurdish Question Part One: Idealism versus Pragmatism


The Kurd’s were early victims of the Anglo-French carve up of the Middle East into mandates, which segued into sponsored nations, then independent nations with flags and borders and a jumble of nationalities and ethnicities sprawled across and within them. When all is well and there is prosperity and security, and most importantly, recognition and representation, different ethnic groups will coexist and even work together as a nation-state. The modern leaders of the hastily constructed nation-states did not do this, however, and settled for oppression and brutal repression whenever separatism or discontent emerged, and in a manner that would make even their former colonial masters blanch and balk. Nor has the inconsistent approach and interventions of the global powers helped, or for that matter, regional rivalries that fuel local violence. The latter has manifested itself in Yemen, but both regional and global concerns loom over Syria and Iraq, and it is here that the Kurdish quest for independence is making clear and definable progress. There are some 30 million Kurds living in a near contiguous region that covers parts of Syria, Turkey, Iraq, and Iran, and when referendums are held there is an overwhelming desire for autonomy or independence, the future Kurdish state would be viable, and the collective identity of the Kurds is undeniable. The case for independence, which should never simply be an automatic right, is strong and compelling, but unheeded.

So, why is the resistance to an independent Kurdish state so strong? This is understandable in the four countries that the Kurds inhabit. Turkey and Iran are strong nation-states, while Syria and Iraq are bordering on outright failure, but few nations in history have voluntarily given up territory or control over it. To do so makes the central state less powerful and decreases the resources available to it, and brings with it further cries for independence. In national and international politics cold pragmatism will trump passionate idealism easily as the leaders of nations have the responsibility to all their people, not only the ones that want to break away. It is less understandable further afield where the consequences of independence are not so keenly felt. The US exists because of a battle for independence and slowly forced the European colonialists to embrace self-determination, beginning at Versailles. The British have come to embrace self-determination as a doctrine in their national politics, applying it to the Falklands and Northern Ireland and along with the French, learned the value of self-determination the hard way. The EU has enabled the spread of autonomy within Europe and has accepted newly independent countries into its ranks. For their part, Russia has experienced the dismantling of the Soviet Union and formed new relationships with the former Soviet states, while struggling with calls for independence within its own borders. Less this be seen as a rosy review of the US, UK, France and Russia, their conduct in international affairs is a mixed bag of good and harm, but the point remains: the principle of self-determination, also embraced by the UN, is an accepted part of international relations.

Yet the resistance to Kurdish independence remains, despite the strong claim, and the precedents already seen regarding autonomy and independence, the US, UK, France, Russia and the EU, are all decidedly lukewarm towards the idea of Kurdish independence. They have resisted the call for decades, overlooked Saddam’s atrocities until it became pertinent to do so, and now that the Kurd’s have contributed in blood to the demise of ISIS, and are holding referendums in Syria and Iraq, seem to be secretly wishing that it wasn’t happening.

This is a poor reward given the sacrifices made towards the stopping of the ISIS advances in Syria and Iraq and indicates international concern over the future of the two countries as cohesive nation-states and the implications of Kurdish independence in either state for Turkey and Iran. The pragmatists are winning the idealists losing due to the fear that the unfinished wars in Iraq and Syria will have wider implications than has so far been the case. The question they are asking is not over the Kurdish right to independence, it is about what might happen if an independent Kurdistan emerges from the within either Iraq or Syria and what the countries in the region will do about it.

Next week: Regional relationships and implications.

For more information regarding this week’s blog see:!/?cid=soc-at-the_time_of_the_kurds-infoguide–haass-2017-09

Dr Carl Turner, Site Coordinator

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