By Samson Yuchi Mai
The chaos resulting from the 2003 US invasion of Iraq paved the way for a new chapter in the recognition of the Kurdish people when an opportunity for unprecedented international and domestic legitimation presented itself to the Kurdish people. When put in the context of Kurdish history, the fear of retaliation from a national government has been reduced to a marginal level. In fact, a Kurd, Jalal Talabani, has been elected President of Iraq. More importantly, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has asserted itself as the regional government of Northern Iraq where the Kurdish people have a political and demographical stronghold. While this area is still under the authority of the Iraqi federal government, it represents the first time that the Kurds are legitimately represented at the state level as a unified ethnic group (Katzman). Indeed, the Kurdish people have come a long way in achieving such political acknowledgement, and their plight as a fractionalized population in the Middle East speaks volumes about the whole of Iraq’s future.
The history of the Kurdish people illuminates the curious relationship between ethnography and statehood as the Kurds are the largest ethnic group in the world without their own state. There are approximately 25 to 30 million Kurds worldwide, and constitute the fourth largest ethnic group in the Middle East with the vast majority residing in Syria, Iran, Iraq or Turkey (Katzman). The majority of them are Sunni Muslims, yet their culture and language are more closely related to Persia and Farsi (Harris 113). The obstacles to political recognition are both internal and external as well as both contemporary and historic. To grasp this issue with a greater degree of analytic veracity, the Kurdish plight should be put into socio-political context.
The Kurds in Context
The Kurds trace their lineage to medieval times. Although their heritage and language are unifying factors, because there are three major dialects, they act as double edged swords and divide the Kurdish people. The dialects are divided geographically, making it harder for Kurds across regions to communicate with one another and carry out collective action. According to Middle East scholar George Harris, “dialectical differences militate against a common sense of identity.”
Although most Kurds are Sunnis of the Safii rite, religion does a play a divisive role. Various forms of Safiism are practiced in different regions because many Kurds are associated with divergent brotherhoods. This combination of splintering cultural norms and a religious power structure based hereditary leadership generated a system of tribalism. Needless to say, quite a bit of internal strife between different Kurdish factions has come to light. For example, the regime of Saddam Hussein used this infighting to field several loyal Kurdish units against the Barzani clan in northern Iraq (Harris 113-114).
After the conclusion of World War I, the Allied Powers promised a Kurdish state in the Treaty of Sevres. It would have used land from the collapsed Ottoman Empire, however, the Allied Powers reneged on the promise because of political emergence of The Young Turks. Consequently, the borders of the modern Middle East were drawn – without the Kurds in mind and their pre-existing residences were now in four different nations. Ensuing revolts by the Kurds were crushed and their nationalist movement remained dormant for years until the start of the Cold War (Fuller 109).
The United States realized that it could use Kurdish nationalism to limit the growing influence of the Soviets in Arab and Middle East states like in Iran and Iraq. The Kurds want of legitimized political recognition was of no real consequence to The United States. The US was concerned about having a short term advantage against the Soviets as opposed to having a long-term trust in a regional ally. According to both sources in the US government and the Kurdish leadership, the United States abandoned the Kurds on at least three occasions. Although the United States is credited with helping reignite the movement for Kurdish political acknowledgment in the region, the US government is guilty of letting down the movement on key occasions (Little 64).
What do the Kurds Want?
With so much divisiveness, how can any Kurdish collective aspirations become reality? The answer to this question varies from one sect to another. However, suffice to say, most want some permutation of an independent Kurdish state – Kurdistan. This viewpoint was expressed in a recent interview by Massoud Barzani, leader of the KRG. When asked “…do you fell now that you will go [to the] Kurdish people in September and ask them in a referendum on whether they want independence?” He answered, “Our people cannot tolerate [the situation] and I’m sure the Iraqi people will not accept that. But certainly when it reaches that stage, I will go back to the people.”
Within all independence movements, the social movement’s desires must be reconciled in the greater context of geopolitics. Barham Salih has held several ministerial positions in the Iraqi government including Deputy Prime Minister. When asked in an Al-Jazeera interview if Kurds in Iraq want independence, he qualified his answer: “Yes. Every Kurd dreams of independence. But life is not about what you want: it’s about doing what you can do with what you have. I believe we made the right choice to work for a democratic and federal Iraq – one that guarantees Kurdish identity.” He also refers to “tangible gains” when the goal is working for a federal Iraq. Although many Kurds hold an independent Kurdistan as their ultimate goal, the consensus is that this is an unachievable goal. The political consensus is to work for greater recognition. This translates to more rights regarding education, language, economics and greater representation in the national government. However, questions regarding the means to this end remain clouded.
The Kurds have historically expressed resistance through revolts. However, in modern times, these responses have ranged from military resistance, to political bargaining, to attempts at economic independence. They have favored more violent forms of resistance as opposed to passive protest because the Kurdish people have consistently faced a legitimated government – to whom the monopoly on the “legitimate” use of force is allocated.
By and large, this resistance arises from cultural conflicts which actually spur greater Kurdish cohesiveness. The Kurds hold a great mistrust of Turks, Arabs and other groups who have historically opposed an independent Kurdish state. The politically dominant ethnic groups have always opposed Kurdish nationalism and a Kurdish state because it threatens the sovereignty and established power structure. Yet, the more groups like the Baathists, the Turkish military and others have tried to attack Kurdish moves for independence, the more united the Kurds become(Little 63).
The Kurds As Contemporary Political Players – and Victims
In the case of Iraq, the United States, as part of their alliance with the Kurds during the 1991 Gulf War, incorporated a promise of military assistance in times of revolt. However, the US’s record of consistency has been less than stellar on this issue. One of the most poignant examples illustrating this assertion occurred after troops withdrew from Operation Desert Storm War. The US encouraged Shias in the South and Kurds in the North to rise up against a weakened Saddam regime. The US promised air support, yet it never came. Saddam sent his elite units, including the Republican Guard armed with helicopter gunships, to slaughter the Kurds. Although the US is considered a major ally of the Kurds, they are reluctant and cautious to work with the American Defense Department (Little 92).
However, in post-Saddam Iraq, the Kurds have played a prominent role in Iraqi national politics. Due to their military capacity and economic wealth, they have asserted themselves as key architects of the Iraqi federalist constitution. By participating in political processes with US backing, they were able to make the most tangible gains in political rights and power in their history. Northern Iraq has essentially evolved into a largely autonomous region under the control of Kurdish parties. Moreover, the Kurds also played the role of kingmakers in the selection of the Prime Minister. Indeed, the other parts of Iraqi society can no longer brush off the Kurdish people as marginal political actors. While an internationally recognized Kurdistan may still be a nebulous notion, without a doubt, the regional power struggle has swayed in favor of these once-nationless people (Barkey and Laipson 66-76).
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Photo by Kurdistan Photo