16 July 2019
Kurdish people in Turkey watch smoke billowing from Kobane as they gather upon a hill overlooking the Syrian town in October 2014. The Kurds are left helpless amid a power game between Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. Photo: AFP
Kurdish people in Turkey watch smoke billowing from Kobane as they gather upon a hill overlooking the Syrian town in October 2014. The Kurds are left helpless amid a power game between Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. Photo: AFP

Is Kurdish independence possible?

I recently traveled to the Kurdish autonomous region in northern Iraq, where I had a chance to interact with some locals and gain fresh insights on the situation there.

Although the Kurdish people’s bid for independence through a referendum in northern Iraq ended in a failure last year, their sense of shared national identity remains strong.

By talking to the local people whom I met during my trip, I have come up with a whole new observation on whether the Kurds can eventually gain statehood in the coming days.

The Kurdish people are currently living in a vast, mountainous area that straddles the borders of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran.

As one can expect, these four powers are all strictly against any attempt to build an independent Kurdish state on their soil.

Intriguingly though, while the governments in Ankara, Damascus, Baghdad and Tehran are all staying highly vigilant against Kurdish independence movements on their own soil for fear that other ethnic minorities might follow suit, they have actually been secretly supporting Kurdish separatism in one another’s territories over the years.

It is because by doing so, it can give them substantial diplomatic leverage over their powerful neighbors.

For example, during the Iran-Iraq war back in the 1980s, both Baghdad and Tehran were working aggressively to try to win over each other’s Kurdish population, but at the same time keeping a close eye on their own indigenous Kurds in order to prevent them from staging uprisings.

Likewise, in recent years, the Assad regime in Syria has also attempted to cultivate the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, in Turkey, a paramilitary organization which is deemed by Ankara as a terrorist group.

Yet ironically, while Turkey has been mounting an all-out offensive against Kurdish militias in Syria, it has reached some sort of an unspoken agreement with the Kurdish Peshmerga forces in northern Iraq.

That said, whenever an independent Kurdish state is likely to become a reality, the four Middle East powers are likely to immediately join forces to curb it.

The reason is that it would be in their best interests to preserve the status quo so as to maintain leverage over one another by manipulating the Kurds and keeping them divided.

Besides, both the United States and Russia don’t want the Kurds to succeed in gaining their statehood either, because they have proven a powerful pawn for Washington and Moscow to maintain their regional influence in the Middle East.

Given that, the possibility of the Kurdish people being able to set up their own independent country in peacetime is close to zero.

As a matter of fact, the Kurds would probably have gained their independence amid the regional chaos in the wake of the First World War, had it not been for the rise of Turkish strongman Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and his subsequent military intervention.

After the outbreak of the “Arab Spring” in 2011, the Kurds immediately seized on the haos in the region and made another bid for statehood.

In particular, the Kurdish Peshmerga forces in northern Iraq quickly gained ground and went from strength to strength, while Syrian Kurds also managed to set up their own autonomous government in the north, which are already the biggest achievements the Kurds have ever made over the last 100 years in their independence bid.

Nevertheless, given the tough stance of Turkey on the Kurdish issue and the nation’s formidable military might, the chances of the Turkish and Iranian Kurds being able to build their own independent states would be extremely remote unless revolutions break out in Turkey or Iran and throw the two countries into complete disarray.

Another prerequisite for Kurdish independence is that the Kurds have to convince the great powers that giving them statehood is the least unpredictable variable compared to the otherwise possible volatility in the region in the coming days.

Or, the Kurds can seek to create a tiny Kurdish sovereign state like the size of the Vatican instead of continuing to pursue the ambitious goal of building a Greater Kurdistan, so that they can at least secure international recognition of their statehood for the time being, and then wait for the opportunity to expand their territory.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Dec 11

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

– Contact us at [email protected]


Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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