Self-Determination

Why It’s Time for a Free Kurdistan

It’s spread across several de facto ‘states,’ but Kurdish nationalism has become a reality as the rest of the Middle East crumbles.

11.27.15 6:00 AM ET

It’s time to stop debating whether or not the Kurds deserve an independent state. There are around 40 million Kurds across Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria—the largest ethnic group without self-determination. Kurds have long sought independence, but the states in which they live have always opposed it. The U.S. and its Western allies oppose Kurdish independence because of fears it could destabilize the already volatile Middle East.

The arguments against Kurdish independence are obsolete. It’s not a question of whether the world should allow Kurds to have independent states. It’s a matter of the international community catching up with what the Kurds have already done. In Iraq and Syria, Kurdish groups have established their own states—albeit de facto—without waiting for anyone’s permission. These are not fully fledged independent countries with diplomatic missions at the United Nations and international recognition. They don’t need to be. Kurds have shown they can manage without that. In Turkey, where close to half of all Kurds live, they are demanding self-rule but are up against a state that is unwilling to negotiate political rights.

The question now is whether the U.S. and others can accept Kurdish self-rule. That question is more urgent given the importance of the Kurds in Iraq and Syria for the fight against the so-called Islamic State widely known as ISIS. As importantly, can the Kurds learn to accept their own divisions and not constantly meddle in each other’s affairs?

In Iraq, the Kurds have governed themselves since 1991, when a U.S.-led no-fly zone was established in the country’s north to protect the Kurds from Saddam Hussein’s forces. The Kurds set up the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), their own parliament, used a different version of the Iraqi dinar than the rest of the country, and even issued their own postal stamps. Iraqi Kurdistan managed to survive isolation, international boycotts, and a civil war that divided the area between the two main Kurdish parties. After the U.S. and its allies toppled Saddam’s regime in 2003, Iraqi Kurdistan’s status as a federal region was formalized by the Iraqi state.

Since then, the Iraqi Kurds have run their own affairs with little regard to Baghdad and little concern about not being an independent state. Massoud Barzani, the president of Kurdistan (his term officially ended in August but he hasn’t stepped down), did announce in the summer of 2014 that he planned a referendum on independence when it looked like the Iraqi state was going to collapse. He postponed the vote indefinitely a few months later when it became clear that defending Kurdistan against ISIS was the priority.

In fact, the KRG doesn’t need to formally declare independence. It already acts as if were. The Iraqi Kurds have taken advantage of their control over oil reserves to sign deals with foreign oil companies. Last year, after Baghdad failed to pay them their share of oil exports, the Iraqi Kurds began selling oil abroad on their own—despite Iraqi and U.S. opposition and lawsuits that unsuccessfully sought to stop this. They also have their own, more liberal border rules. While Baghdad requires that most foreigners obtain visas in advance, Iraqi Kurdistan’s two international airports provide visas on the spot. Foreign embassies are in Baghdad, but more and more countries recognize that they need a consulate in the Kurdish capital Erbil. Among them are the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, and Turkey. The feel in Erbil is of total separation from the rest of Iraq—which suits people just fine.

Kurds are also building their own state in Syria’s northeast, an area that borders Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan. The collapse of Syria as a state gave the Syrian Kurds an opening that they grabbed. Kurds associated with the Democratic Union Party, known as PYD and an affiliate of the PKK (the Kurdish Workers Party that is fighting Turkey), and now control most of Syrian Kurdistan (known as “Rojava” meaning western Kurdistan). The Syrian Kurdish military forces, known as the YPG, in effect lead the U.S. campaign against ISIS in Syria. In a little over a year, the YPG has pushed ISIS off most of the Syrian-Turkish border, depriving the jihadists of vital supply lines (see maps here). Although they have taken heavy losses—their fighters have no helmets, body armor, or even basic field dressings—the YPG is now around 30 miles from the ISIS capital, Raqqa.

The Syrian Kurdish administration says it doesn’t want independence. They have declared a series of so-called self-administered cantons that for all practical purposes are as independent as can be in wartime. They’ve introduced new textbooks and set up rudimentary judicial systems and are working on economic development. They’ve received positive attention for their fighters’ focus on defeating ISIS and their commitment to women’s rights—they have outlawed polygamy and deploy women on the frontline. They take pleasure in the widespread belief among the jihadists that being killed by a Kurdish woman is a ticket to hell.

The U.S. and its Western allies have long opposed an independent Kurdistan. That’s because they have always seen the Kurdish issue through the prism of the states in which the Kurds live, in particular Turkey. For decades, the Turkish government sought to forcibly assimilate the Kurds, denying their existence as a separate ethnic group with their own language. Turkey long feared that any gains by Kurds in other countries would boost Kurdish demands inside.

Turkey’s fears are now moot, because the Kurds of Turkey have no need for external encouragement. Turkey’s Kurds are politically well-organized, managing to elect dozens of deputies to the Turkish parliament despite ongoing lawsuits against many representatives and the closure of multiple Kurdish parties over the years. The PKK’s on-and-off 30-year fight against the Turkish state has also strengthened the ethnic identity of many Kurds in Turkey. While Turkey’s Kurds aren’t yet in a position to control their region outright, their main demand is autonomy. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan once spoke of broad reforms for the Kurds and in 2013 announced the start of negotiations with the PKK’s imprisoned leader, Abdullah Ocalan. The ceasefire that resulted from those talks collapsed in July 2015.

Just as the world needs to accept that there are multiple, self-governing Kurdistans, so do the Kurds. The common political idea among Kurds for decades has been the need for a single Kurdistan that would bring together the Kurdish regions of Syria, Turkey, Iraq, and Iran. For the Kurds to accept a series of Kurdistans, they will need to stop intervening in each other’s politics. There will be less tensions among Kurdish parties, and less international wariness of Kurdish nationalism, if Kurds themselves accept that there will never be a united Kurdistan.

A few years ago, there was some hope that the Kurds could form a loose operating body by holding a Kurdish national congress. Massoud Barzani was supposed to convene this assembly because he was the only legitimate Kurdish leader in office at the time. The Kurdish National Congress of 2013 was never held, in part because of disputes between Barzani and the PKK over who would chair the congress and how many seats each party would receive.

The Iraqi-, Turkish-, and Syrian-based Kurdish parties all refuse to stop interfering in each other’s affairs. Barzani, head of the Kurdish Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in Iraq, has sought to exert his influence in Rojava. He has demanded that his Syrian Kurdish allies be allowed to deploy their own militias separately from the YPG. The YPG refuses, saying that having two different military forces is a recipe for civil war. That’s something Barzani should know well, given that his KDP forces fought with their rivals, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, from 1994 to 1998.

The YPG and PKK have done the same in return, insisting that they be allowed to deploy in Iraqi Kurdistan. Their forces helped to save Yezidis in August 2014 from the ISIS assault on Iraq’s Sinjar area. The YPG and PKK returned in November 2015—against the KRG’s reported wishes—when Barzani commanded a force of Iraqi Kurds, backed by the U.S., to successfully recapture Sinjar. The PKK’s involvement was important, but Barzani’s administration claims political authority over Sinjar and refuses to accept YPG and PKK demands for a separate governing structure for the Yezidis.

For the moment, there seems to be no chance of autonomy or independence in Iran, where around 7 million Kurds live. The Islamic Republic of Iran represses Kurdish activism and executes Kurdish political prisoners. The Party of Free Life of Kurdistan (PJAK), a PKK-affiliated group, engages in very occasional fighting with Iranian forces. The PKK, on behalf of PJAK, offered a ceasefire in 2011, which the Iranian government rejected. Since then, numerous Iranian Kurds have joined the fight against ISIS, whether in Iraq or Syria. As one Iranian Kurd fighting in Kobane in Syrian Kurdistan told the BBC, “When we’ve freed Kobane, we’ll be off to Iran. It’s their turn next.”

Given how Kurds have been treated in the countries in which they live, it’s no surprise that they have demanded the right to govern themselves and are willing to fight. So it’s time that the international community caught up with Kurdish desires and helped Kurds build stable, democratic institutions, instead of taking the side of those who want to rule over the Kurds.

Aliza Marcus is the author of Blood and Belief: The P.K.K. and the Kurdish Fight for Independence.

Andrew Apostolou is a Kurdistan expert based in Washington, D.C.