Yuri Nabiyev: Prospects of Kurdish Statehood
The first Russian to set his foot in Kurdistan in the 40s of XIX was the professor of St. Petersburg University Wilhelm Dittel, who said that while being Russia’s immediate and quite important neighbor, that country was still a real terra incognita. Though much time has passed since then, this remark is still true. Kurdistan is an unknown country; the Kurds are an unknown nation; Kurdish cause is an unknown cause – a problem mostly known as existing and threatening the world stability. But if in the times of Dittel and, partly, in XX, the knowledge of the Kurds was mostly of academic nature and its lack was no obstacle to the real policy making, today the Kurds and the Kurdish cause are coming into the foreground in the Middle East, and this is becoming politically intolerant.
That’s why, in order to give you a clear picture of how the Kurdish cause and the Kurdish national movement developed, I will have to detail the key historical facts that few in Russia, unfortunately, know. As you may know, XIX was a century of nationalism; by XX this concept had reached the East to replace the local traditional ideologies. Meanwhile, for the reasons I’d rather avoid dwelling on here, the Kurds came to this point with a society that was far from the standards of those times. They had a mostly tribal social structure, almost no urban class or no high society. Politically, Kurdistan was divided between the retrograde Turkish and Iranian empires (who later proved ability to upgrade).
In presenting the Kurdish nationalism, I’d rather omit its background, i.e. the XIX movements to create a Kurdish state, i.e. the attempts to gain independence from Turkey by Emir Bedir Xan Bey (1840s), and his nephew Yazdanshir (1855) or, finally, the campaign of Sheik Obeidullah against Iran (1880), which was almost the first time the Kurds openly spoke about creating their own state.
I’d rather start from the Young Turk Revolution, i.e. from 1908, when the first Kurdish clubs and societies began an active campaign for independence. But because of the archaism of the Kurdish society they failed to form a strong political movement, like the Turks’ Unity and Progress or the Armenians’ Dashnaktsoutyun – a force that, with popular support, could consistently and consciously champion the national interests of the Kurds. This all proved fatal for the Kurds during the WWI, when the Turks – first Young Turks then Kemalists – carried them away with Panislamist slogans and used them for their own purposes.
The collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 was a unique chance for the Kurds to create their own state, at least, under the protectorate of the League of Nations, or, why not, the Entente. As you may know, articles 62 and 65 of the Treaty of Sevres provided for Kurdistan’s independence. But they missed that chance because of the selfsame archaism of their society.
I can’t say the Kurds did not fight for independence. The ideas of a nation’s self-determination right, officially proclaimed and partly realized by the Entente, and the Russian revolution, taken in Kurdistan as an attempt to create a new fair world system – had impressed the Kurds a lot. In 1920 the Mosul villayet, i.e. the present-day Iraqi Kurdistan, was in the flame of never-ending revolts: Sheik Mahmud Barzanji proclaimed himself as the King of Kurdistan in Sulaymaniya. He did it twice and once (1921) was even half-recognized by the British government. A similar attempt was made by the leader of the Iranian Kurds Ismail Aga Simko. But their tribal movements were doomed to failure.
The fate of Kurdistan was to be decided in Turkey, which was home to most Kurdish tribes. But lacking modern political consciousness, they easily fell pray to the Kemalists, who led them under the Islamic and anti-imperial slogans against their natural allies – the Greeks and the Entente. A peace treaty was finally concluded in Lausanne in 1923 to set the present-day state borders in the Middle East. Right afterwards the Turkish nationalists threw off their masks and fell on the Kurds with the whole weight of their renewed state machinery. Only then did the Kurds understand what mistake they had made. But their following rebels (1925, 1927-1930, 1937) made things even worse for them and better for the Kemalists, who used every riot as a pretext for a new repression, barbarian assimilation – in fact, a genocide. The Kurds missed their chance in Lausanne — a post-war status quo was set that nobody wanted to break.
In the new post-war states Iraq and Syria and in the quickly modernized Pahlevi Iran and Kemalist Turkey the Kurds went through all the pains an ethnic minority can go through in an ultranationalist centralized state. But they too got modernized between the wars. Their society was quickly developing, their intelligentsia and urban class were growing, this providing a natural basis for nationalist organizations: Khoybun (Independence) in Turkey, Life of Kurdistan in Iran, Khiva (Hope) in Iraq. At the time the WWII began, the Kurds were already a well-organized and politically conscious society. But their trouble was that the war affected them only indirectly.
The key result of the war for the Kurds was Mehabad – a short-lived republic proclaimed over an area of Northern Iran occupied by the Soviet Union. In Iraq Mustafa Barzani stirred the Barzan tribe to a rebellion that finally forced Baghdad into big concessions. The Barzan rebellion was never followed by an all Kurdish movement even though it was much better organized than any previous tribal action: it was backed by Khiva, offered a clear program of autonomy and even had its political representatives abroad. But Mehabad was an upper-class project with no popular support. That’s why it was so short-lived: the Barzan uprising was put down after the war, when Great Britain helped Iraq. The Mehabard Republic fell down not long after, when the Soviet troops left Iran. The key legacy of the Mehabard Republic and the Barzan rebellion was Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan and Democratic Party of Kurdistan (Iraq) – two driving national forces for the Iranian and Iraq Kurds.
Until then, as we can see, the Kurdish society was too weak internally to capitalize on a favorable international situation. But after the war things turned around. Now the Kurds were internally ready to get what they need: the uprising of Mustafa Barzani in Iraqki Kurdistan in 1961-1975 quickly grew into a pan-national liberation movement. But the international situation was not favorable. There was again a status quo, and again nobody wanted to break it. The system of Yalta was apparently tougher than that of Versailles. The supper powers played each their game in the Middle East, but none of them wanted unpredictable changes that could spoil their games. The Kurdish movement could spoil the games of both blocs: the West was afraid of destabilization of allied Turkey and Iran, the Soviet Union – of Arab regimes.
That’s why in 1975 both sides allowed Saddam to crush the de facto existing rebel state in Iraqi Kurdistan and then had been cold-bloodedly watching for 15 years how the Kurds went through genocide, mass deportation and gas attacks – a suffering that lasted till 1990, when the breakdown of the whole post-war global system, on the one hand, and Saddam’s Kuwaiti adventure, on the other, spoiled the Middle East game once again.
There is one interesting paradox: in XX almost all the events and processes that benefited other nations, harmed the Kurds. This is equally true for the triumph of the principle of national self-determination after 1918 and the triumph of the principle of decolonization after 1945. 1918 made the Kurds a part to a number of national states with nationalist governments, while 1945 made those governments uncontrolled to commit such actions in Syria and especially Iraq that nobody would ever imagine in the mandate epoch.
The new tectonic shift of the 90s has brought about a drastically new situation. On the one hand, the Kurds were politically ready for changes, but, on the other, Kurdistan and the Middle East, in general, were no longer a periphery but the epicenter of the new world re-division. This brought on stage a force that was extremely interested in the Kurds and, luckily for them, the only super power on the globe. That’s why now the Kurds are facing a mirror situation: whatever is happening is good for them, and even their own mistakes — sometimes quite big – can’t make things worse.
The downfall of the Yalta system caused by the Gorbachev perestroika implied inevitable global changes. But nothing special happened in the Middle East and would probably not were it not for Saddam’s Kuwaiti adventure. Kuwait pushed America into action; and once it began to act it couldn’t stop halfway.
Let’s briefly remember the crucial events of 1991: the defeat of Saddam, the national revolt in Kurdistan, its suppression, the mass flee of Kurds to Turkey and Iran and the consequent Northern Watch operation to expel Iraqi troops from part of Kurdistan and to establish a de facto independent Kurdish state there. Luckily for the Kurds, there was already no Soviet threat at that time, and Turkey was no longer a key player in the US’ geo-political games; Iran was no longer the US’ friend and Syria was outside its concerns at all. And so, the US could well afford supporting the Iraqi Kurds, at least, within the boundaries set by its still important alliance with Turkey. But the Turks blundered themselves, when in Mar 2003 they refused to provide their territory for the US attack on Iraq. This, naturally, freed the Americans from a number of commitments to Turkey. The shares of Turkey dropped in price, while those of the Kurds, on the contrary, rose. Ever since, the US – sometimes even demonstratively – has ignored Turkey’s interests in Iraqi Kurdistan.
So, as a result of the events of 1991-2003 we have a de facto half-independent and de jure legal Kurdish state, which, in fact, is the US’ strongest geo-political base in the region. Like it or not, but the last point is a fact. Indisputably, the US’ interest in Kurdish statehood in Iraq makes Iraqi Kurdistan an almost invulnerable real political and economic force for friends, enemies and any partners in general. So, the national core is already existent, and what will happen with it depends on both national Kurdish and regional politics. Given the national rise in Kurdistan and the political downfall and the growing US pressure in Syria and Iran, the Kurds are facing quite good prospects.
This is the general outline of the present political situation around Kurdistan. But to see it more clearly, we should remember that Kurdistan is by no means an isolated independent system, but just a sub-system of the Middle East and, more widely, of the world. So, we should understand what an impact the general regional and global processes are having on Kurdistan.
We should not forget that the social-political systems formed in the Middle East in XX were, in fact, traditional societies transformed into industrial ones. All the processes in the region — from the Young Turk Revolution and the Iranian Revolution of 1905 till our days – have, in fact, been attempts to modernize and industrialize traditional society – attempts of catch-up development – and, on the other hand, protective reaction of traditionalism to modernization. The state authority is as always the driving force – the demiurge that reforms old and weak society. The ideology of this authority is Progressive Nationalism; while Socialism was the society’s reaction to the difficulties of modernization against the old system. But having won, Socialism has turned into bitter Etatism itself.
By the mid 1970 the process of industrialization and modernization reached its climax to later go into crisis. The first sign of the crisis was emerging Islamism. Islamism is an ideology of crisis; it is absolutely negative and has nothing positive in it even compared with Socialism. It can’t reform society. The only positive thing Khomeini did was liberalizing the private economy sector choked by the Shah Socialism. But this has nothing to do with Islamism as such. Hence, we can say that the present-day Islamic Republic of Iran is not a new stage of development of the Iranian society and state, but the old, industrial Shah Iran in crisis and agony.
Now we are living in a period of post-industrial society, post-modernist society, society of high technologies. Globalization is quickly developing: national states are losing their self-sufficiency, sovereignty is losing its clear definition. Against this background, the Socialist and Nationalist Etatism looks just a museum anachronism. Today, there is no alternative to western democratic society, as 100 years ago there was no alternative to European government forms. True, Islamism is trying to be an alternative, but, as we have already said, it can’t be one as it has no positive content.
These changes gave new life to the Kurdish cause, which had been dead since 1975. It was almost impracticable in the former system of national sovereignties. The Kurds’ own sovereignty would do bad to many and good to nobody. Their real autonomy was also impossible because of the abovementioned Etatism and Centralism of the eastern states, who would not tolerate any self-government. But having no institutions that could protect their interests, the Kurds could not get elementary equality from their nationalist military-bureaucratic rulers.
The first sign of global changes for the Kurds was the events of 1991. The Kurds had noticed nothing like that before: for example, while expressing deep concern for the human rights situation in the USSR and the fate of each Soviet dissident, the US strangely passed by the annihilation of 200,000 Kurds in Iraq and even the gas attack Halabji, which, unlike Anfal, resounded all over the world due to Iran’s active propaganda. The Kuwaiti crisis was also a traditional collective repression against an aggressor-state encroaching on a sovereignty. As soon as Kuwait’s sovereignty was restored, the military campaign was stopped to leave the Iraqi rebels face to face with dictatorship.
As a result, two millions Kurds rushed to the Turkish border. In the previous years the Turks (like any other sovereign country) would have closed the border and, if need be, used machine-guns. But not then: not that Ankara thought it impossible, it just feared possible international reaction. Meanwhile, the Western countries had to do something, at least, to prevent the transit of Kurdish refugees via Turkey to Europe. It was exactly then that the term humanitarian intervention first appeared.
It was then that it was finally and formally proclaimed that human rights violations cannot be an internal affair of a state or a matter of national sovereignty. A Northern Watch operation was launched, and Turkey was forced to do exactly what it had always feared more than death – to create Kurdistan. Since then we have seen more or less successful attempts of humanitarian intervention in Somalia and former Yugoslavia; and finally, a new Gulf War. We see that in just a decade after the first Gulf War, the true and key reason for Bush Senior to attack Iraq. — i.e. the threat it posed to the sovereignty of other states – turned into an open cover for Bush Junior – a traditional, formally legal pretext nobody believed.
Saddam’s imaginary heroic love of freedom was not the true reason either: Saddam was a pragmatic and, no doubt, America would get from him whatever it might want. The true reason for the war 2003 was the understanding that the Saddam regime could no longer be endured in the modern world system. The fall of the Saddam regime was the beginning of the end for the ruling regimes in Syria and Iran, and neither the Syrian Baasists nor the Iranian Islamists will stay in power for long – they are historically doomed. But the tragic problem here is that the Damascus and Tehran regimes (as earlier the regime in Baghdad) are too closely tied with their national statehoods and their fall would bring ruin and chaos in Syria and Iran. Still, there is no alternative to the Syrian and Iranian statehoods. The question is what forms they will take. But whatever it might be – peaceful democratization or terrible devastation, the Kurds will be at profit.
Finally, Turkey. It too can’t stay away from the global processes. Luckily, the Turkish social-political system is more flexible and, mostly importantly, is strongly bound up with the West and oriented towards Europe. This forces Turkey to comply with the Western criteria: to give up the ideas of Kemalism and to gradually liberalize its Kurdish policy. They do it not as quickly as the Kurds would want them to – for they are strongly opposed by many influential Turkish forces, who believe that this will ruin Kemalist Turkey as a unitary national state.
They may have reason, but this process is inevitable, and the only thing they can do is just to delay it – just a bit. Hence, the general vector of the political developments in the region is good for the Kurds. Turkey’s accession into the EU is certainly good for them: in some ten years the biggest part of Kurdistan may become Europe and the Kurds — Europeans. The whole process of globalization is good for the Kurds. Just a generation before most Kurds knew nothing outside their own village and could well ask foreign journalists what powers agas (landlords) and sheiks have over their peasants, say, in France.
Now they have five satellite channels in Kurdish; internet, linking them with their compatriots worldwide; mobile phones, allowing wide communication all over Kurdistan and the Diaspora. Today we can speak about general Kurdish information and political space, existing beyond state borders, while the developing Diaspora is actively integrating Kurdish elites into the Western society.
Nobody can put a ban on the Kurdish language any longer – can’t do it even technically. We can say that virtually and informationally the Kurds are already forming a united national society, which their relevant sovereign states can in no way control. Whatever happens in any part of Kurdistan today gets known by all Kurds in a moment to get their reaction the next moment. One example is the Mar 12 2004 events in Kamishli (Syria), when millions of Kurds rallied all over Kurdistan in support of their compatriots.
And finally, we can’t disregard the factor of demography. Kurdistan is a kind of demographic bomb for the whole Middle East. The birth rate among the title nationalities of the countries sharing Kurdistan is steadily declining, while among the Kurds it is still high. As a result, the share of Kurds in the countries’ ethnic balance is steadily growing. Some 15 years ago Urmia in Iran was a half-Kurdish, half-Azeri town. Now it is almost totally Kurdish. An anecdote says that Istanbul is the biggest Kurdish city in the world: it is a home to millions of Kurds and a man speaking only Kurdish can easily live there without any interpreter. Strongly worried about this is the National Security Council of Turkey, who has met several times this year to consider this impending disaster for the Turkish nationalists.
Certainly, the key proof that the Kurds are inevitably heading for own statehood is the existence and growth of Iraqi Kurdistan. The very fact that national state institutions are efficiently functioning there is a great stimulus for the Kurds in the neighboring states. In Iran, Syria and Turkey the Kurds are actively consolidating and are showing high political activity. Following the example of their Iraqi compatriots, they are also beginning to push the idea of federalization.
Iraqi Kurdistan is actively building its state institutions. It has an almost fully-fledged national army (Peshmarga) – the key defender of the Kurdish statehood in Iraq. If anybody tries to take away the Kurds’ achievements in Iraq, he will face not just guerrillas but a strong army – and not only them, but also millions of Kurds in Iraq and elsewhere in the world.
Vital for the general Kurdish cause is economy. That’s why today the economically efficient Iraqi Kurdistan is actively helping the neighboring Kurds by commodity turnover and jobs. Some 20,000 workers from Turkey (naturally, mostly Kurds) are presently employed in Iraqi Kurdistan. Kurdish specialists from Syria, Iran, Europe and Northern America are coming back to work in Iraqi Kurdistan. There are all prerequisites for an economic boom in the region – unless some big instability shocks the whole Middle East.
Iraqi Kurdistan has laid the foundations of the national education. Its universities are a real alma mater for Kurdish youths from all over Kurdistan. The local authorities actively encourage inflow of students from the neighboring countries. The Kurdish culture and literature are on the rise. Iraqi Kurdistan is a venue of numerous conferences and symposiums for Kurdish scientists and artists from all over the world. The key task now is to create a standard united Kurdish language as a stimulus for quicker unification of the Kurdish nation. In his Mar 27 interview to Khabat Kurdish President Masud Barzani said that this is the most urgent issue. We can say that Iraqi Kurdistan has become a center of culture and national consciousness for Kurds from all over the world.
Strongly represented in the Iraqi central authorities – with many in top positions – the Kurds are acquiring experience in the world politics. The new Iraqi constitution allows them to legitimate their status in the world and to develop relations with many countries and regions. This all will promote their problems on the international arena.
Meanwhile, the prospects of the Kurds strongly depend on the US policy in the region and on their relations with the US. The Kurds are facing a whole number of questions that their sad experience is urging them to answer. It would be a big illusion for them to believe that the US has exactly the same interests as they have. In fact, the US has its own strategic interests in the region, it is heavily pressured by the Arab countries and its NATO ally Turkey over many problems and in the problem of Kurds in Iraq, in particular. The situation in the Middle East is very dynamic.
This region is a knot of world problems: the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Iranian nuclear program, terrorism. One can hardly say how things will develop and how the US will behave if it has to haggle with the local countries. Won’t the Kurds be again a small change in their big political game? They may well be. But this will lead to a large-scale destabilization – something this region hardly needs. The Kurdish leaders perfectly understand what is going on.
In a late Mar interview to Khabat the Kurdish president said that the US is clearly for the territorial integrity of Iraq – but democratic and federal Iraq. Despite 100% popular will to proclaim independent Iraqi Kurdistan, the political leaders of the Kurds are lingering to do it — also because they fear the US’ disapproval. If the US faces a bad scenario — like a large-scale civil war in Iraq — Kurdistan may become the most reliable base for the US army. Such presence in Kurdistan would be good for the Kurds as it would give them a sure guarantee of security and long-term positive consequences.
Here the Kurds are healthily pragmatic – their stay within Iraq is safe and economically good for them for the time being. By proclaiming independence now the Kurds would give a free hand to their neighbors, who would certainly start their economic blockade, while Turkey and Iran might even launch a military campaign against the new state. That’s why for the time being the Kurds are trying to strengthen their positions in Iraq – to develop central authorities and economy, to form state institutions. Their priority is to reinforce their Peshmarga.
For the US the Kurds are the best ally in its concept to democratize the Middle East, and this regards not only Iraq, but also Iran, Syria and Turkey. So, today the US and the Kurds are building their relations on mutual benefit and, given the situation in Iran and Syria and the Kurds’ importance in Iraq, the US is strongly interested in the Kurds just as the Kurds are in the US – for they are using their relations with the US for solving their own national tasks. In any case, things will stay like that till late 2007 – for as long as the Bush Republican administration is in power. The Kurds know that, and no coincidence they insist on solving the problem of Kirkuk by the end of 2007.
These days the Kurdish cause is as acutely pressing as never before. There are many proofs of this. One proof is the news reports of just one day Apr 1 2006:
- The US administration is preparing President Bush’s meeting with representatives of the Kurdish political parties of Syria
- A national revolt is underway in Turkey. The officials of the EU, which Turkey is so much eager to join, make numerous calls for that country to solve the Kurdish problem
- Two satellite TV programs launched for Iranian Kurds
One thing is clear that if the US gets into conflict with Syria or Iran, the local millions of Kurds will not support the local regimes, at least, and, at most, in case of a large-scale destabilization following a US military campaign against Iran or Syria, they may revolt and join Iraqi Kurdistan.
To understand the West’s policy you should know that the territory of Big Kurdistan is really abundant in hydrocarbon and is a key transit area for its transportation. The last reports say that Southern Kurdistan alone has 45 bln barrels of oil and 100 trl c m of gas – quite impressive figures. Also huge are Kurdistan’s water resources.
In conclusion, I can say that the world is quickly changing today: a new global order is taking shape, and the Kurds are facing one more historic chance to make true the dream of many generations of their ancestors to have their own state. Whether they can do it depends on the world politics, on the policies of the great powers, on the processes in the countries sharing Kurdistan and, most importantly, on the unity of the Kurds themselves. One thing is clear – in analyzing the current developments in the Middle East and, especially, in making decisions in the region, the concerned countries can no longer neglect the Kurdish factor.
Yuri Nabiyev – Chief Editor of www.kurdistan.ru
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