DAVA Analytic Brief no. 2 by Razvan Luca, Associate Expert

(also see in .pdf format)

A month from now – on 25th September – the Kurdish Regional Government is scheduled to hold a referendum on whether to pursue independence from the Iraqi federal government. It is by no means surprising, having been a constant topic of discussion within the Kurdish community ever since the signing of the Treaty of Sévres. This long overdue moment has been hailed as a victory by what is commonly known as the largest ethnic group without a country in the world – the Kurds. Their struggle to achieve statehood may seem odd in an age when nation states are regarded as obsolete, but the opportunity that arose with the disintegration of the Iraqi state and army in the heyday of the ISIS expansion could not be overlooked.

In the Shadow of the Caliphate

The rise of the Islamic State has brought dismay in many western cabinets, where people came to realize that they failed to fully apprehend the true nature of the ‘Arab Spring’ and its potential consequences, save for what corresponded to their preconceived ideas. As it turned out, popular disaffection with the autocratic rulers was not necessarily spirited by a longing for freedom and tolerance.

map kurds

Decision makers in Washington sought for a local political actor behind which they could throw much of their weight without the risks of affiliating themselves with religious fundamentalists or with corrupt figures from governments that have already delegitimized themselves in front of the people and the international community. Seeking to avoid any long term commitment that would involve ground troops to combat both the reactionary regimes of contested autocrats and the growing threat of a nascent Islamic rogue state that constituted itself in complete juxtaposition to modern principles of government, strategists of the Coalition have found common ground with the Kurds, both in Syria and in Iraq.

For one, they seemed to represent the only viable proxy and panacea to the Islamic caliphate, with their less then rigid attitude towards religion and acceptance of women. Having fought wars in the past, they were also the most efficient against any designated enemy. Nevertheless, something was hindering the external partner from wholeheartedly backing the Kurds. The devil was in the details. And reading the fine print of the agreement between western powers and the Kurds showed that it entailed emancipation, redrawing of borders and – more or less – a general shaking of the international agreements in place, shattered as they were.

 The Conundrum

As chaos became the regular dynamic of the region, Masoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdish Democratic Party declared: ‘The time has come to decide our fate, and we should not wait for other people to decide it for us.’ Striving for statehood has been an age-old dream of the Kurdish people, but the political context has never been timely, with strong regimes opposing such endeavors.

A pattern of ambivalence characterized relations between established states and their Kurdish minority. It was common occurrence to see governments that would internally persecute and purge them, under the pretense of colluding with foreign agents, while at the same time using Kurdish minority groups living outside one’s borders as proxies in their foreign policy strategy. It happened during the Iran-Iraq war, it also happened during the Turkish-Syrian spat of the early ‘80s, when Hafez al-Assad granted asylum and safe havens to PKK and Abdullah Öcalan in response to Turkey’s plans to build a series of dams on the Tigris and Euphrates that would have seriously limited Syria’s access to water.

The volatility of this situation and the general feeling of inferiority that accompanies their status as it has been ascribed to them – that of efficient tools for destabilization – has made them yearn for administrative and territorial self-determination. The prior and short lived Republic of Mahabad, established in 1946 in Iran with Soviet support has galvanized Kurdish ideals for independence. It also highlighted their dependence on an external hegemon to act as a guarantor, bypassing the constraints of Middle Eastern politics.

It is at this point that the American strategy for the Levant has stumbled, in trying to find the working formula for empowering the Kurds without creating the risks of them escaping the Iraqi state. Washington’s clout and influence over the post-Saddam governments is the one that made it possible for Kurds to acquire autonomy, as a means of offering them the best possible option save for total independence in return for their cooperation during the invasion. The Americans have been clear though that they would not support Kurdish secession, sometimes showing more commitment for the ‘One Iraq’ policy than the actual leaders of Iraq.

There are telling signs, though, that the Kurds do not employ vain rhetoric. In the aftermath of the fall of Mosul, when it was clear that the Islamic State had the intention to continue its advance, Maliki agreed with Kurdish representatives to let the Peshmerga forces take over Kirkuk before ISIS could. The symbolic value of this achievement is hard to assess, since Kirkuk, despite being afflicted by Saddam’s Al-Anfal campaign to purge and reshape the demography of the country, has remained part of the Kurdish Lebensraum. It also has considerable pecuniary value, which is quantifiable and thus easier to measure than the former.

The oilfields outside Kirkuk have since been contested by the KRG and the Iraqi government, but also by the different competing parties within the Kurdish community, which leads us to the following question: could Kurdish independence be a unitary phenomenon throughout the region, or chances are that each party would search its own autonomy in relation to a given central government, using national self-determination as a pretext for entrenching family-based power in the internal competition of the Kurdish community?


The Kurdish people have embodied a paradox which in part unites them deeply and in part divides them. It is their long shared memory of persecution at the hands of multiple regimes that emboldened them to search for a state of their own, with complete administrative and political autonomy. However, the hypothesis of who will rule this potential polity was always a source of quarrels and strife, which by no stretch of imagination would subside in the day after the referendum, assuming it will pass with a vote in favor of independence – and assuming that regional and global power brokers will not pile on pressure for its total dismissal.

Foreseeing this potential gridlock, Abdullah Öcalan proposed a form of ‘democratic confederalism’, a leftist libertarian concept that parts ways with the nation-state, in condemnation of it. Öcalan’s precepts seem to render the states useless rather than to ashes, but it shows a propensity to work only in places abandoned by centralized power, which is not common place in the Middle Eastern history.

Regardless of the path they choose to follow, be it that of a nation-state, promoted in Erbil and Sulaymaniyah, or that of a ‘democracy without a state’ of Öcalan, there are signs of anxious anticipation in global partners that understand the ripeness of the situation and how inviting this is for Kurds far and wide to take advantage of.

Will the imminent defeat of ISIS shorten the grace period and tolerance that western states have shown to Kurdish rhetoric of secessionist adventurism? And how will states in the region act with regards to Kurds in Iraq gaining additional autonomy, if not total independence? Such a precedent will surely have a strong impact on Turkey, which has recently asked for the referendum to be suspended. Nevertheless, as fate does seem to favor the bold, when better to be bold then in the chaos that has exceedingly subsided most of the opposing forces to your petitions of independence?

DAVA Analytic Brief  no. 2, August 2017 (also see in .pdf format)

Photo credit: Jan Sefti | Flickr.

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