The West’s Kurdistan Dilemma

The Middle East is one complicated place. Pretty much any statement about the geopolitical situation of the region has to have an asterisk by it to account for exceptions and anomalies. Take the example of ISIS. The West is fighting ISIS along with Russia, Iran, Hamas, Al-Qaeda, and the Taliban just to name a few. This puts the West in a difficult position. For example it is very difficult for the US to criticise the Russians for supporting Bashir al-Assad when all three are fighting against the same enemy.
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The political dynamics of the Middle East would be very different if Kurdistan was recognised and supported by the West. (The Washington Times)
Similarly, if countries like Britain and Australia want to provide military assistance to forces opposing ISIS, this doesn’t exclude arming the Taliban, which would be stupid because both these countries invaded Afghanistan in 2001 to destroy the Taliban. To take another strange situation, Hamas is fighting against Israel, who are staunch allies of the US, however Hamas is also fighting ISIS. These circumstances mean that the US is fighting ISIS, which helps Hamas, but helping Hamas hurts the Israelis, who are helped by the US. Hopefully you’re still with me because these logical loops are commonplace in this part of the world.
However despite all these complications there is one thing that there seems to be clarity on: the Kurds. The Kurds have been on the front line in the fight against ISIS and everybody agrees that they are acting justly. Unfortunately this clarity of rhetoric cannot be matched with actions due to the other complications of the region. The antiquated military tactics of the West, the dominant ideology of Western nations, and the military alliances between countries like the US and Britain and regional powers all make support for the Kurds one massive political dilemma.
The West could have a fruitful alliance with the Kurds but the main obstacle in the way is Turkey. Turkey is a NATO member and, since the presidency of Kemal Atatürk, has wanted to become more European in its geopolitical dealings. Indeed it is this desire to appear more European that motivated its desire to become a NATO member and in recent years some Turkish politicians have supported Turkish membership of the European Union.
However since 1978 the Turkish government has been locked in an armed struggle with Kurdish secessionists in the south-east of its country. Turkey’s membership of NATO is the key problem here as, in theory, the principle of collective security is in effect. In this situation countries like the US and Britain are supposed to be willing to defend Turkey from attacks, rather than side with the group that is attacking Turkey, which is obviously problematic. If the West’s primary foreign policy goal is to tackle Islamic extremism, and more specifically the threat of ISIS, assisting the Kurds is a no-brainer, but to do so would anger a key regional ally.
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When talking about the fight against ISIS, Kurdish self-determination is the elephant in the room. (http://syndikata-np.deviantart.com
The main Kurdish group fighting the Turkish government’s repression is the Kurdish Workers’ Party or the PKK, which is a Marxist guerrilla organisation that is heavily influenced by the foco tactical philosophy of Che Guevara. The PKK is an umbrella organisation for a left-wing secessionist political party as well as paramilitary groups, namely the People’s Defence Forces (HPG) and the Free Women’s Units (YJA-STAR). The West’s alliance with Turkey has led many organisations that are based in the West, specifically NATO and the EU, to classify the PKK as a terrorist group. However many other countries around the world have not labelled the PKK as a terrorist group, and nor have the UN. To clarify, the Kurds fighting Turkey are doing so because of years of oppression, so it is more nuanced than the Turkish government will acknowledge. There have been some dubious practices in the past that I am personally not comfortable with but to whitewash the PKK as akin to other terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda would be erroneous.
However the other dimension to this is the ideological element. The grand narrative of history in the last thirty years has been that the Cold War has ended and this is because the capitalist powers of the West defeated communism, and this has led many people (particularly on the Right, but not exclusively) to argue that the tactics of the West during the Cold War were therefore justified. A key tactic during the Cold War was to fund groups that would essentially fight proxy wars against the perceived enemies of the West. This tactic isn’t inherently wrong but it puts the countries like the US in a bit of a problem. In order to fight Islamic fundamentalism, which the CIA actually funded to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan, the US wants to arm Kurdish groups including the PKK. I wouldn’t be opposed to such a move, but surely the Turkish government would be.
Further, the United States is one of the countries in the world who have deemed the PKK as a terrorist group, so by the US’ own logic it is seeking to arm terrorists in order to defeat different terrorists. The other problem the US and others like them have is that they are essentially funding a group that wishes to bring into existence a political and economic system that they oppose. If Kurdistan were to eventually become independent and the PKK stood for election, there is a very good possibility that it would win a handsome amount of the vote, not necessarily a majority but a significant plurality. Again this is a situation that I have no ideological objections to, but from the US’ perspective this would be problematic.
I believe the solution to this impasse is still for Kurdistan to become its own nation-state, despite the ideological problems for Western nations because those problems can be reconciled. For instance, South Africa has been ruled by the ANC since 1994. The ANC stands for elections as a part of the Tripartite Alliance along with COSATU (the Confederation of South African Trade Unions) and the South African Communist Party. Despite these facts post-Apartheid South Africa is largely considered a ‘Western’ country. If such a situation comes into existence in Kurdistan, which I believe is unlikely, the West will probably adopt the same approach as it does towards South Africa.
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People venerate Nelson Mandela despite having very left-wing views, and if Kurdistan elected a left-wing government I’m sure people in the West would cope. (history.com)
Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani has told the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), which is that parliament of Iraqi Kurdistan, that a referendum on secession will take place this year before the 2016 US Presidential election. Due to the rise of ISIS it is likely that the result of such a vote would be support for unilateral secession, and because the Iraqi army is focused on attacking ISIS it would be irrational for Baghdad to attempt to recapture the region. Governments in general are hostile to regions declaring their independence as that state’s international influence, tax base, and military power diminishes. However in such a situation, I cannot see any other solution to the current problem than having an independent Kurdistan that can receive financial and military support from the UN and countries around the world.
Kurdish Iraq is not all the land that is claimed by the secessionists, but in the mean time there needs to be a governmental force that can orchestrate the Peshmerga as well as negotiate with the Turkish government to facilitate a ceasefire. Western nations are not really calling for a ceasefire between Turkey and the Kurds because Turkey is a NATO ally, and those that are don’t tackle the issue head on, and this is part of their Kurdish dilemma. A negotiated ceasefire would free up Turkish military personnel and PKK fighters to go to the front line against ISIS, which would be useful given that Raqqa, ISIS’ headquarters, is only about 100km south of the Turkish border.
The formation of an independent state is an important step because it would also allow for humanitarian and financial aid to be sent to the region. There are investigative journalists in the region have claimed that some Kurdish fighters have sold weapons provided to them on the black market in order to get money. By dealing directly with Erbil, rather than having to go through Baghdad, financial support and humanitarian aid could more easily be targeted, and this would also remove the need of people to sell their arms.
There are many instances where I oppose the continued pumping of arms into a region. For example in 2013 there were widespread calls to arm the Syrian ‘rebels’ however at the time I opposed this for two reasons. Firstly Syria was already awash with weaponry and a lack of arms wasn’t the issue. And secondly the ‘rebels’ were being portrayed as do-gooder liberals that wanted to overthrow Assad, when in fact most of these rebel groups were jihadis including Al-Nusra Front which is essentially the Syrian branch of Al-Qaeda. The Kurdish example, however, is slightly different.
Whilst it is true that there is a lot of weaponry in the region, the problem that the fighters have is a lack of military supplies like ration packs and body armour, which many countries still prohibit being exported. Further, many politicians in the KRG and senior officers in the Peshmerga have said that they do not have ready supply of ammunition, which transforms the thousands of assault rifles into expensive melee weapons. As long as Kurdistan is administered from Baghdad, there are legal complications to dealing with the KRG, however secession would solve a number of these problems.
The other thing that secession would do is provide a democratic framework for the country. Political systems when imposed from above are often resented by the citizenry, however when these governmental structures are voluntarily accepted by the people, they are more stable. This is why I believe that one cannot bomb democracy into people as this causes resentment. A referendum on statehood is a massive exercise in democracy and this will only strengthen the prospect of democracy in an independent Kurdistan. Furthermore, the KRG is essentially a self-contained democracy within the political minefield that is the rest of Iraq. The prospective nation would also have a series of political parties to contest elections including the PKK and the People’s Democratic Party, a political party currently based in Turkey.
Because the Kurds have been historically persecuted by Iraqi and Turkish authorities, there is a strong sense of community and this understanding of the concerns of a wider group is widely recognised by political theorists as essential in creating a civil society. Although the democracy would be fragile to begin with, it would be much stronger than the democratic system imposed upon Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Also, Kurdistan has a long tradition of people of different religious and cultural backgrounds living side by side without major tensions, thus minimising any potential sectarian tensions.
Kurdistan rally AFP
Turkey and the Kurds have been fighting on and off since the 1970s. It’s time to end this ongoing conflict and recognise an independent Kurdish state. (AFP)
However I would be remiss not to mention the next step after secession. Creating a new nation-state wouldn’t solve the immediate tactical problem of a hostile Turkish government, an existential threat in the form of ISIS, and an increasingly unstable Iraq tearing itself apart along sectarian lines to the south. The solution to these issues would be to have an active role for international institutions. An independent Kurdistan would be accepted into the United Nations. How can I make such an emphatic statement? Because the US, Britain and France are assisting the Kurds currently, and vetoing their membership would be counter-intuitive. Furthermore, the Chinese and Russians are also supplying the Kurds with weaponry. With the veto-holding countries on board, the UN Security Council would most likely approve the application for membership and then the UN General Assembly would ratify it. I may be wrong but at the moment I can see no reason for the UNSC or the UNGA to vote against recognition of an independent Kurdistan.
The other key institution would be the Arab League. To the best of my knowledge, in order to join the Arab League a nation must have Arabic as a nationally recognised language and must be approved by a majority of existing members. Iraqi Kurdistan, which would become the independent nation in this hypothetical scenario, has Arabic as one of its official languages, and there are only four nations that would seek to deny its accession: Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. Turkey and Iran aren’t in the Arab League so don’t get to vote on whether Kurdistan would join.
In 2011 Syria had its voting privileges suspended indefinitely until the Assad regime is replaced with the opposition. And Iraq on its own cannot veto Kurdish accession. All the Kurdish government would have to do is work with other member countries in order to get to magic number of 12 votes in favour of admission, and considering that other member states like Somalia and Libya are currently fighting Islamist militants, I don’t believe this would be difficult. Upon joining the Arab League, Kurdistan would have access to regional development aid and military assistance from other member states, and this would be symbolically important as it would put the Arab League at the forefront of the fight against ISIS rather than the West.
The second part of the post-secession plan would be in relation to the rest of Iraq. With a significant portion of the nation no longer under the jurisdiction of Baghdad, the Iraqi government would have to manage the difficult sectarian divide. I would personally prefer if the rest of Iraq remained as one nation-state that dealt with sectarian violence without having to have the Sunni and Shia areas become their own separate countries. Such a situation would be symbolically important, as the idea of sectarianism as a concept would be challenged, but it would also go some way to restoring Iraq’s status as the counterbalancing force to the Shia power of Iran and the Sunni power of Iraq.
Furthermore if the Sunni west of the country became it’s own nation-state, this new power would be substantially weaker than the rest of the country. Kurdistan would succeed as a new country because the region is largely autonomous and much of the prospective governmental structures and institutions already exist. The same cannot be said to the same extent in western Iraq. If the Sunni west seceded along with Kurdistan, the Shia remnant of Iraq would be able to have a functioning government as Baghdad would presumably be the capital, and much of the Sunni west would be under the control of ISIS. This prospective Sunni breakaway state would immediately collapse in a way that Kurdistan would not.
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Western intervention is spun by ISIS as a war against Muslims, but if Kurdistan was an organised political entity ISIS’ propaganda would be undermined. (Snopes)
An independent Kurdistan is the first step to changing the dynamic of the Middle East and by vesting sovereignty in Erbil rather than Baghdad, the West and its partners in the Arab world would be able to assist in the fight against ISIS whilst also providing the grounding of another democracy in the region. In such a situation the international community would have to assist the rest of Iraq to prevent the country from disintegrating into chaos, but to be honest sectarian lawlessness has been the status quo in the country since the fall of Saddam Hussein. In order for the West to effectively combat terrorism, which is the primary foreign policy goal of countries like the US and Britain at the moment, it must take a back seat as anything else could be spun by jihadis as ‘Christian crusaders attacking Muslims’. However, if the West worked with other Arab nations to change the geopolitical configuration of the region, groups like ISIS would be undermined and democracy would have another home.
An independent Kurdish nation-state would also reduce the ideological chasm between the West and groups like the PKK as it would be unlikely that the party would single-handedly acquire power. Turkey would remain an obstacle, but the existence of an independent Kurdistan may encourage Turkish Kurds to emigrate and this would reduce the tensions between the two states. The ultimate aim of Turkish Kurds would, of course, be the unification of Turkish and Iraqi Kurdistan, but in the short term I believe tensions would reduce as any Turkish act of oppression would be tantamount to a declaration of war on another sovereign state.
The West currently has a dilemma when it comes to Kurdistan and that is because of entangling military alliances, ideological inconsistencies, and the narrative of terrorist groups. By supporting the Kurds’ right to self-determination, the West can set in motion a realignment of power in the Middle East. The region is currently one giant quagmire but the way to deal with such a situation is to change the dynamics. Kurdish secession would annoy the Turkish government, but this is not difficult to do. In June 2016 the Turkish government withdrew its ambassador to Germany because they had the audacity to recognise the Armenian genocide as having taken place. Turkey can play a role in stabilising the Middle East but the current government has the diplomatic nous of a petulant child.
This geopolitical dilemma is caused by a number of factors but could be made much less complicated with the above measures. Despite my own preferences, the expulsion of Turkey from NATO or the total dissolution of that organisation is unlikely, and as such the West will always have a geopolitical problem in the form of Turkey. By supporting the secession of Iraqi Kurdistan, it is likely that this prospective state would be a democracy and would also be an ally of the West, especially in the fight against terrorism. The political stability of an independent state would be based on whether or not there is a functioning civil society. Economic assistance from the international community would help create such a civil society and a strong military would be able to prevent existential threats undermining their economic and political advancement.
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