The ongoing ethnic and religious strife in Iraq creates an opportunity for Kurdish nationalists to realize their aspirations and declare independence. Although the Kurds are a nation with a common culture, a shared identity, and have civic organizations that pursue nationalistic-type goals, they still do not have an internationally recognized state. And as we shall see, while the Kurds have been seeking independence on the international stage for a while, this is extremely unlikely to materialize for a number of reasons.
In the last 90 years, the history of Kurdish political progression demonstrates that their aspirations towards statehood are moving forward. Yet, if we scrutinize this period we can detect a number of factors that undermined efforts towards independence.
The territories of the Kurds stand at a strategic crossroads in the Middle East. They occupy regions of Iran, northeastern Iraq, southeast Turkey, and north Syria. Thus, nearly any Middle Eastern country that wishes war on another must pass through Kurdistan. (What is now called Kurdistan denotes the predominantly Kurdish-inhabited region at the intersection of the four aforementioned countries.)
Kurds are not Arabs and would be much offended if called so. Kurdish culture is mostly a mixture of ancient Iranian with some Hurrian and Islamic roots. Kurdish women, unlike in many other Muslim cultures, do not cover their faces, and men and women participate in mixed-gender activities.
The Kurdish society is primarily based on a clan structure. As a result, to this day, there is still almost no unity between Kurds from Iraq and Kurds from Turkey. Different Kurdish groups have different cultures (languaculture), dialects, religions, and writing systems. This explains why they are still profoundly divided even within a single country.
The majority of Kurds practice Sufism, a moderate version of Islam. Sufism is also far more reasonable and is pro-western. It could prove an excellent role model for other Muslims. Kurds are friends of Germany, the U.S., and a few other countries. Additionally, they have a superior fighting force. Having personally worked as an operator with the Kurds of Khanaqin SWAT in the past, I can attest to the fact that they are competent fighters, possess a great love for their country, and would prove very valuable partners to the U.S.
Language and religion are not the only factors creating dividing lines within the Kurdish nation. Kurdish politics is even more diverse. In Turkey, there are more than 25 recognized Kurdish political parties. During the December 2005 Iraqi elections, 37 Kurdish parties existed. Of them 7 were officially recognized Kurdish parties and represented on the ballot.
The distribution of Kurds among the Middle Eastern states contributes to the disagreements of their political organizations. Additionally, Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria have contrasting state systems that deprive the Kurds of the opportunity to develop a single political culture or structure.
Kurdistan has a history of standing by the U.S. As Gary Bauer (currently a member of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom) states concerning the Syrian Kurds:
“Even with outdated equipment and limited help, the Syrian Kurds have redefined the battlefield. They have also advanced the idea of the founding of an autonomous region in Northern Syria. This is an idea that the U.S. should support because the Kurds’ national interests, governmental objectives, and democratic principles are pro-America and pro-West.”
Despite being surrounded by hostile neighbors, outmanned by terrorist forces, and having little military experience, the Syrian Kurds have organized into a formidable fighting force capable of challenging and even repelling ISIS forces.
Throughout the 20th century, the Kurds lacked strong and united leadership. This is not to say that the Kurds completely lacked leadership; they did not. Yet, it never proved to be a unifying force for all the Kurdish tribes; it, therefore, inhibited state formation. Especially critical was the period following WWI. The period brought to the forefront the concept of national determination. Thus, it was a particularly auspicious time for the Kurds to forcefully, or otherwise, advance claims of statehood. Unfortunately, they did not have an energetic leader who could ride on the international climate.
On September 25, 2017, an independence referendum in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq was held. According to the results, over 90 percent of voters were in favor of independence. Obviously, the referendum’s legality was rejected by the federal government of Iraq.
Should the Kurds of Iraq declare independence, U.S. policymakers would inevitably have to consider the impact of recognizing or not such a state, and how that decision could affect American long-time strategic ties with Turkey. By recognizing a Kurdish state, the U.S. risks alienating Turkey, thus potentially causing the Turkish-American alliance to collapse. Although I can’t entirely agree that losing the alliance with Turkey would be devastating to U.S. foreign policy and strategic goals in Europe and the Middle East, a large part of the U.S. establishment thinks so.
In conclusion, despite the continuous Kurdish struggle for independence, I believe that the U.S. will never fully back a Kurdish state. And without U.S. support a Kurdish state will never be recognized on the international stage. But why not support them if their cause is righteous in American eyes?