When you think of a people without a nation who do you think of? Many in today’s political climate would jump immediately to the Palestinians, a group of Arabs oppressed by a government that doesn’t represent them politically or culturally. If that question had been asked 70 years ago, it’s quite possible that the Jews would have been that nationless people. But what about the Kurds? As far as their total population goes, there are almost 3 times as many Kurds as there are Palestinians, and they have managed to live in the same region for thousands of years, giving them a more solid claim to their land than the Jews in Israel have.
They are far from being a small group of people, in fact, in Turkey, Iraq, and Iran they are the second largest ethnic group (being 20%, 19%, and 10% of the population respectively). As other powers have exercised dominion over the Kurds, they have managed to maintain their identity and keep their cultural foothold in their territory in spite of efforts to assimilate or destroy them. Many have argued that the Kurds should have their own separate nation, but there are still many obstacles in the way of realizing this wish.
The only Kurdish groups that are really stable enough currently to create a viable independent nation are the ones in Iraq, where they have established a sense of stability and security that is greatly envied by Kurds in other places like Turkey. Iraqi Kurds play an important role in the new Iraqi government, providing a three-way balance with the Shiites and Sunnis. This balance could be compared to a three-legged milking stool, just enough balance to keep things steady, but with a very real chance of tipping over if one leg leaves.
There are still major issues standing in the way of full cooperation between Kurds and Arabs in Iraq, and these issues will be difficult to resolve, meaning that the possibility of independence is still on the table. First, it is important to understand the history of the Kurdish region and people. Anciently, the inhabitants of Kurdistan were a semi-nomadic pastoral people, never having much ambition in the way of expansion.
Although the ancestors of the Kurds shared some linguistic and cultural similarities with each other, they were separated into distinct tribes that operated independently of each other, only working together as the situation required, or when a particular tribe was able to exercise enough power to set itself up in the position of a dynastic regime. Their homeland was perched precariously in the mountains between four historically expansionist groups, namely the Russians to the north, Ottomans to the west, Persians to the east, and Arabs to the south.
One analyst for STRATFOR has observed that “[w]hile this terrain has protected them from major foreign invasion, it has also nurtured deep-seated tribal rivalries. These rivalries are so strong that Kurds have often sided with a common enemy (like Iran, Turkey or Baathist Iraq) to undermine each other. ” As various external groups vied for control of the region, invading powers would usually allow the Kurdish groups a large degree of individual administrative autonomy (the map shows the divisions of the Kurdish controlled states of Bokhti, Hakkari, Soran, and Baban, in the Ottoman Empire, 1835).
It was by no means a complete autonomy, however, and the oppression of the outside empires was often felt enough by the Kurds to ferment a spirit of insurrection. Their distance from the ruling capitols of the different empires allowed them to lash out at garrisons on their frontier when the occupier’s internal problems would turn their focus inward. It would be fair to say that rebellion against outside attempts to control them is a national pastime for the Kurds.
Whether against the Safavid Persians, the Ottoman Turks and their successors, the Imperial British, or the Baathist Arabs, the Kurds have a history of asserting their independence and their right to self-determination. The last two hundred years provide modern examples of the back-and-forth swinging of Kurdish allegiances. As the Ottoman Empire declined in the 19th century, some Kurds made bids for independence, but did not succeed. Then, during WW1, quite a few Kurds fought for the Ottomans, while some fought for the British against them.
After WWI ended, the Kurds were promised there would be an independent Kurdistan in the Treaty of Sevres, but these promises never materialized. The British, who controlled Iraq after the war, decided that the realities on the ground made it undesirable for Kurdistan to assert itself as an independent nation. This was in large measure due to their fears that other ethnic groups would also want to gain independence, and their belief that Kurdistan was too underdeveloped to be viably independent. Kurdish fighters took up arms against yet another imperial power, and the British found themselves facing a serious threat.
It took almost two years to put down the rebellion, and they had to employ artillery, aircraft, and even poison gas against the rebels. Eventually, the rebellion was quelled, and several of the leaders where exiled to the Kurdish region of Iran. (McDowell, 151-186) This illustrates an interesting feature of the Kurdish regions in Iraq, Iran, and Turkey. As different rebellions have taken place, the refugees and exiles have usually gone to the Kurdish regions of the neighboring countries, where they can continue to operate. McDowell, 455)
In the 1958’s, after the Iraqis overthrew the government set up by the British, the leaders of Iraqi Kurdistan were asked to help in the new government. Several were brought out of exile, and were asked to participate in the new systems, with the promise of regional autonomy. By the 19’s these promises failed to materialize, the Kurds did what they always do, they rebelled. The Iraqi Army targeted Kurdish civilian populations in an attempt to quell the rebellion, but this only solidified the rebels’ resolve.
This rebellion would prove extremely difficult and costly for the new Iraqi Government to put down, and would eventually contribute to the instability that would pave the way for the Baathists to take over Iraq. (McDowell, 308) Unfortunately, this regime change did not mean an end to the fighting between the Kurds and the Iraqi government. The new Baathist regime proved just as hostile to the Kurds. Iran’s government began funneling funds, provided to a large degree by the CIA, to the Kurdish rebels, playing again off the cross-border nature of the Kurdish groups.
This allowed the Kurds to continue to fight the Iraqi Baathist regime. Eventually, the willingness of the Iranians to continue this conduit ceased, and the Kurdish rebels were forced to lessen their efforts. Baathist leaders began trying to move more Arabs into areas controlled by Kurds to help lessen their control over the region, and they seized control over one of the most important Kurdish cities: Kirkuk. The oil fields around Kirkuk made this a big economic loss for the Kurds. The suspicion of Kurdish and Iranian cooperation would lead to violent attacks against the Kurds during the Iran-Iraq war.
Saddam Hussein, the leader of the Baathist government of Iraq, started an operation to exterminate the Kurds, known as the al-Anfal Campaign. During the course of this campaign, poison gas was once again used against the Kurds in the village of Halabja, where thousands of residents were either killed outright, or forced to suffer the effects of the gas. The total effect of the campaign was that as many as 100,000 Kurds were killed by the Iraqi army, and over 4,000 villages were destroyed by the time major operations had come to an end in 1989. McDowell, 343-367)
In 1991, as Saddam’s army was reeling from the decimation of the First Gulf War, the two ethnic groups that had been persecuted by the Sunni Baathists, namely the Kurds and the Shiites, rose up in rebellion against Saddam. This uprising was instigated by American propaganda directed at inflaming just such sectarian uprisings. Unfortunately for the rebels, Iraqi Mi-24 attack helicopters were able to operate with virtual impunity because the rebels lacked the Anti-Air weapons required to shoot down the gunships.
The resulting chaos led the United Nations to pass a resolution establishing a “No-Fly Zone” over northern Iraq that would last until the US invasion of the country in 2003. After the end of the uprisings, the Iraqi Government put a trade embargo in place against the Kurdish regions, cutting them off from the rest of the country. Because the UN trade embargo in place against Iraq also prevented goods from coming in from other outside sources, Kurdistan was economically cut off. In spite of this turmoil, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) was established as the ruling body for Iraqi Kurdistan.
During the time of economic crisis created by the lack of external trade, two major political groups within the Kurdish government began vying for power. The primary strife was over the control of the smuggling routes out of the Kurdish regions. When the contest turned violent in 1996, Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) turned to Iran for assistance, while Massoud Barzani’s Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) actually turned to Saddam’s regime to get the support it needed.
The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) which is a militant group based out of Turkey, also entered the fray, which in turn, caused Turkey to attack PKK forces inside Iraq. A series of attacks, cease-fires, alliance re-arrangements, and renewed attacks ensued. Finally, in 1998, the United States brokered a peace agreement between the KDP and PUK. Both sides agreed to work together to keep the PKK and the Iraqi Army out of the region. They agreed to work together in governing all the Kurdish region, sharing both profits and responsibility. The US also agreed to interfere militarily if Saddam showed any more signs of aggression.
Because of the creation of the UN’s “Oil For Food” program which opened up trading opportunities, the new united Iraqi Kurdistan began to recover economically. With this economic success and political independence, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) began to really take up its mantle as a viable government. It is important to realize, however, that even though the KDP and the PUK were functioning as a cooperative government, they maintained their own Peshmergas (literally translated as “those who face death,”) or militia groups. To the north, the KDP still faced the threat of incursion by the PKK Gorillas in Turkey.
This could prove to be an obstacle to Kurdistan ever becoming independent, since the two groups are still wary of each other’s intentions. After the US invasion of Afghanistan, many radical Islamic fighters fled to Iraq. A Militant group known as Ansar al-Islam, led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, formed in the PUK controlled region on the Border with Iran. This group was supported by outside funds and was heavily tied to Al-Qaida. It represented a serious threat to Kurdish control of the region, and violent clashes erupted between these extremists and PUK Peshmerga.
Prior to the US Invasion in 2003, CIA operatives, followed by the Operators of the 10th Special Forces Group (10th SOG) were sent to Kurdistan, ostensibly to help fight these terrorist groups. However, Author Michael Lortz observes that “…the true mission of the CIA was to acquire intelligence about the Iraqi government and military” (Lortz, 66). These clandestine operatives worked with the Peshmerga to drastically weaken Ansar al-Islam, and then turned their focus to disrupting Iraqi military infrastructure. (Robinson, 305)
The Original battle plan for the US invasion called for a two pronged assault, with one force pushing from the south out of Kuwait, while another would push from the north out of Turkey. The Turkish Government decided not to allow the US to stage the invasion from their territory, so this idea had to be scrapped. Instead, the battle plan was changed so that the Peshmerga and the 10th SOG would be solely responsible for keeping the Iraqi Army units in the north engaged, so that they could not be repositioned south to help defend against the main invasion thrust.
The Peshmergas showed themselves to be valiant fighters in this endeavor, and they won the respect and trust of the US military commanders. After the US invasion, the Kurdish region was the only region of the country that remained relatively untouched by the sectarian violence that engulfed the rest of the country. When the decision to implement a de-Baathification policy in Iraq was implemented, the Baath-party-controlled police and army dissolved and looting became widespread. The different sects and ethnic groups began fighting amongst themselves.
At the same time, the remnants of Ansar al-Islam, led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, began a large scale insurgency against the American occupation forces. Hundreds of Iraqis and dozens of Americans were dying each month… but not in Kurdistan. In fact, according to the KRG website, not a single American soldier died in the Kurdish controlled regions of Iraq during the eight year occupation. Some sectarian groups tried to attack and provoke the Kurds into over-reacting and launching retribution attacks, hoping that this would destabilize the American efforts at nation building, but the Kurds remained largely aloof from the violence farther south.
At this point it would seem to some that the Americans, now in control of the country, would have let the different groups in Iraq establish themselves as autonomous regions in a very loose federation, if not separate countries altogether. But the issue was not simply whether or not the Kurds, Shiites, or Sunni wanted independence. The political pressure from Iraq’s neighbors on the Americans to keep Iraq together as a nation was intense.
As STRATFOR noted in 2004: An autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq will prompt Kurds in neighboring countries to take advantage of this situation, which obviously is cause for consternation in Ankara, Damascus and perhaps Tehran. Turkey long has been apprehensive of Kurdish moves in northern Iraq, even threatening military force if the situation appears to be threatening its interests. Arab states also are averse to anything that might lead to a partitioning of Iraq. Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Yemen have urged the United States to ensure that Iraq’s territorial integrity is maintained.
They are not acting out of only pan-Arab concerns: Given the fluid situation in the Middle East following the ouster of Saddam Hussein, other states — such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt — are worried about their own political future. ” Inching Closer to Kurdistan? | STRATFOR Basically, nobody (besides the Iraqis themselves) wanted to see Iraq split up. The Americans urged the Kurdish leaders to participate in the new Iraqi Governing Council. The only way the Kurdish leaders would agree to participate in the newly forming government was if they would be given the power of self-rule as part of a Federalized Iraq, which they were granted.
The KRG would retain its practically independent authority. A new constitution for was written, and in 2005 Iraqis went to the polls. The Sunni, feeling like they were being left out of the process, boycotted the election. The Kurds benefited immensely from this and they were able to gain power in some key areas. Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani, former leader of the PUK, was elected as the president of Iraq, and many important ministry seats went to them as well. They used the political power they gained to be sure that the KRG would still maintain most of the control over the oil revenue that it was earning.
Massoud Barzani, former leader of the KDP was elected as the new head of the Kurdistan Regional Government, and he began flexing the muscles of the Peshmerga. If the Kurds ever want to be able to be truly independent, then they need revenue. Iraq’s Sunnis and Shia and its neighbors — most notably Turkey, Iran and Syria, all of which have sizable Kurdish populations — have no interest in seeing Iraqi Kurds inch closer and closer to de facto independence. This includes taking a dim view of increased KRG control over lucrative oil revenues from Iraq’s northern fields, which will lessen the Kurdish body’s dependence on Baghdad.
Read more: The oil field around the city of Kirkuk can provide very substantial revenue, if the Kurds can gain control of them. In the 1980’s, Saddam took control of the traditionally Kurdish City of Kirkuk, and the regions of Diyala, Salah ad Din, and Ninawa. He then began to bring in large numbers of Arabs to offset the Kurdish populations in these territories. The Kurds view control of Kirkuk as being vital to their future. The oil revenue would allow them greater freedom and development potential. The Shiites and Sunnis do not want them to gain that source, fearing that it would move them too close to independence.
After the 2005 election, Kurds began using their large control of the parliament (due to the lack of Sunni representatives) to its advantage. They began trying to get as many oil laws to favor Kurdish control of the oil industry in their territory as they could. They also tried to get the government to pass control of the areas of Kirkuk, Diyala, Salah ad Din, and Ninawa into their hands. There was a date set for a vote on the issue in 2007, but it was delayed repeatedly because of pressure from Turkey. Politically, the move toward Independence would cause a lot of friction with Iraq’s neighbors, especially Turkey.
Why do the Turks care about Kirkuk? It’s simple: an empowered Kurdistan in Iraq could drastically embolden the Turkey’s Kurdish population, which had been in rebellion to one degree or another for decades. The PKK in Turkey has regularly used terrorist and guerilla tactics to push for Kurdish independence in Turkey. Ever since the mid 1990’s when Turkey interfered in the Kurdish clan fighting mentioned earlier, they have maintained several Military outposts and checkpoints inside of Iraq. According to STRATFOR, “Turkey is believed to have roughly 2,000 troops, a few dozen tanks and few helicopters [at their strongpoints inside Iraq].
Since the KRG wants to be able to have the recognition and respect of Turkey if it ever does become independent, the KDP Peshmergas have played an active role in combating PKK insurgents that have crossed the border. There are also a large number of ethnic Turkmen live in and around Kirkuk. Turkish President Abdullah Gul traveled to Iraq on March 23, 2007, to meet with president Talabani. This is the first time a Turkish President has visited Iraq in 33 years. They discussed how the two countries can work together, but there is still definite tension between them.
Turkish military actions inside Iraq do still occur, and could cause strained relations and tensions between Turkey and the KRG in the future. In August of 2008, Barzani took the initiative and just moved several groups of Peshemerga to the area around Kirkuk, to begin reclaiming it for the KRG. They set up checkpoints on the roads leading to the Arab regions, displayed Kurdish flags, and just made sure that they were visible. This action angered many. The Kurds were trying to assert more control over the disputed territories, because the process of determining who would control the contested regions mentioned earlier was taking so long.
The referendum delay was seen as a power move by the Arabs, so the Kurds simply countered it. Since the Sunnis seem to have realized that their boycott of the last election did them more harm than good, they have turned out in larger numbers for the most recent parliamentary elections. Because of this increase in Sunni involvement, it is unlikely that the Kurds will have enough votes in the parliament to get the resolution allowing them to control the regions they feel entitled to pass in parliament. For the Arabs and Turks, Kurdish control of Kirkuk is not an option.
For the Kurds, control is a necessity. This issue could very well lead to a civil war, and de-facto independence at gunpoint. The KRG has tried to bring as many foreign investors and companies as it can, citing the security and safety of their region as a big selling point. Arab Iraqis have tried to counter this Kurdish investor grab in some interesting ways. One technique was to threaten foreign oil companies to keep them from making deals with the Kurds that would be extremely helpful and beneficial.
For instance, the South Korean oil company SK Energy was told that unless it backed out of the deal it had made with the KRG, the central Baghdad government would stop all other Iraqi oil shipments to South Korea. Since Iraqi oil imports accounted for about 4 percent of South Korea’s total crude imports in 2007, the effect on the market would have been significant. This is typical of the maneuvering that continues to go on. In spite of these bold moves that could make independence a reality, Barzani and Talabani have both repeatedly stated that they are committed to a unified Iraq.
They say that the economic realities require them to remain a part of Iraq for the time being. After all, Kurdistan is a land-locked country, and they would be dependent on the hostile countries all around them to allow their crude oil to be exported through them. No matter how politically independent they are, Kurds will always be geographically dependent on their neighbors. The sound proclamations of their leaders in favor of unity are in stark contrast to the overwhelming opinion of the general population that they should have outright independence. During the 2005 elections, independent volunteers polled 1. million Kurds as they were leaving the polling centers, and over 95% of them were in favor of just splitting off.
This is a remarkably high number, but it’s not unexpected. Most of the Kurds fear that the Arab majority will pass laws that will persecute them. Many remember all too well the personal pains caused by the Arab dictatorship of Saddam, and they are not anxious to see anything like that happen again. As the US forces complete their withdrawal from the country, The Kurds are faced with the very real prospect that the enemies all around them will combine to stifle their independent aspirations.
Without a large U. S. military presence in Iraq, the Kurds will lose their insurance policy against Turkish, Iranian, Syrian and Iraqi Arab designs to contain Kurdish autonomy. The only American troops that will be left after the December 31, 2011 deadline for withdrawal will be 1,500 troops left in Kirkuk, near the airport, where they will protect the US Consulate, and act as a small buffer in the hotly contested region. It has been agreed that until the Kirkuk question is settled, these troops should remain in the region.
Iraqi Kurdistan has some viability as an independent state, but only if it is able to establish that independence with the help of at least one major outside power, preferably one of its immediate neighbors. Its viability is also dependent on its ability to gain control of the Kirkuk oil fields. Kurdish Iraq will likely remain subservient in some measure to Baghdad and the oil exporting infrastructure in place, so unless the separation can be peaceful, civil war is very likely to break out. Civil war in Iraq would most likely be won by the Kurds, if no outside help came to the other groups.
This would be very unlikely. Civil war would almost certainly bring in Iraq’s neighbors, especially Iran, and Tehran is most likely to align itself with the Shia. That would tip the balance dramatically in their favor, and the Kurds would have a rough time resisting. The situation does not look particularly good for the Kurds in all honesty. Historically, Kurdish self-determination has greatly affected the politics of the region, and the issue will remain an important part of the geopolitical situation in the future.
The very real possibility that the Kurds could feel like independence is the only option in the face of a Shiite-Sunni effort against them is a dangerous prospect. This would totally destabilize the Iraqi government, and a power grab would be likely to follow, where surrounding countries take what influence and control they can. This precarious three-legged milking stool is built on legs that are working against each other. For now, there is balance, but if one leg is removed, everything will come crashing down.