To be or not to be: Why the Kurds wait

By Wayne Lavender, Ph.D:

Sulaymaniyah, Iraq.  With a combined population of 30 – 40 million persons, the Kurds are the largest ethnic group on the planet without their own nation.  Persecuted for centuries, their dream of an independent nation was shattered in the chaotic period following WWI when British-drawn boundaries split the Kurdish people between Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey.  The Kurds still yearn for a united homeland, self-rule and freedom but remain fragmented, living within these oppressive boundaries.  Instability and revolution within the region, however, now offers a unique moment when the Kurds might declare independence and create their own independent state. Will the Kurds unite and take advantage of this opportunity, or will internecine squabbling allow the status quo to remain in place?

The lack of accurate data concerning the number of Kurdish persons within these four nations is telling: the release of Kurdish population totals within Iran, Iraq, Syrian and Turkey would be a passive acknowledgment by these nations that a significant ethnic group lives within their borders, something they are unwilling to concede.  Conservatively estimating the combined Kurdish population at 30 million would rank a united Kurdish nation as the 41st largest nation on the planet: accepting the larger estimate of 40 million Kurds would make a united Kurdistan the 32nd largest nation.  Either way, this is a significant population whose unity could help it emerge from the shadow of empires and claim its sovereign place within the global community.

Is this the proper time to move forward towards independence?  Consider this:

  • Iraq: The withdrawal of the remaining US troops from Iraq in 2011 has created an atmosphere filled with tension, uncertainty and anxiety in this post-conflict nation.  The ongoing standoffs and recent skirmish between the Iraqi Army’s elite forces and the Kurdish Pershmerga soldiers near Kirkuk is indicative of the hostility between many in the Kurdish and Arab populations.  The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) already functions as a semi-autonomous entity – its step to full independence would be a large leap but something it has been steadily moving towards for two decades.
  • Syria:  The Syrian Crisis has disintegrated into a full-blown civil war and humanitarian crisis.  It seems unlikely that the government of Bashar al-Assad can remain in power much longer.  Whether he and his administration continue to rule, however, is somewhat irrelevant; the political, social and economic upheaval has created a window for change.  The Syrian Kurds, primarily content to watch this revolution from the sidelines, are in the same position their Iraqi siblings found themselves in at the end of the Gulf War in 1991 when Saddam Hussein’s power had been greatly reduced, and again in 2003 when Saddam was removed from power. This is a time for Syrian leaders to move deliberately towards independence, strengthening their bonds with the Iraqi Kurds while at the same time developing their own governmental institutions and policies.
  • Iran:  The heavily protested outcome of the presidential election in Iran on 12 June 2009 revealed cracks within the Iranian government and in the popular support for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Although it is impossible to accurately calculate the level of discontent among the people of Iran against their government, it seems certain that opposition is mounting.  No government can remain in power indefinitely without the support of its own people. It seems likely that major changes in the Islamic Republic of Iran are on the horizon, again creating an environment that the Iranian Kurds can leverage.
  • Turkey: Turkey is politically, economically and socially the strongest of the four nations whose boundaries contain Kurdish populations.  But Turkey, seen as a bridge between East and West, has been beset since its creation by its Kurdish populations who have fought consistently for independence.  Allowing the Kurds to depart could strengthen Turkish identity and continue its development towards peace and prosperity as a potential member of the EU. Additionally, the recent collaboration between Iraqi Kurdistan and the Prime Minister Erdogan show a possible shift in Turkey’s historically inflexible policy toward Kurdish sovereignty.

There would be many hurdles, of course, in the path towards independence and a united Kurdistan.   Of primary concern is the infighting and politics that divide the Kurdish people as evinced in the Iraqi – Kurdistan Civil War between member of the PUK and KPD during the 1990s. Also, Kurds have developed few regional allies. Few, if any, foreign nations have come to the Kurds assistance in the past, invoking the old phrase: “The Kurds have no friends except the mountains.”

Further, there is, as of now, no unifying character or personality to draw the different factions together: Where is the Kurdish Thomas Jefferson or Nelson Mandela, the contemporary Maximilien Robespierre or William Wallace who can speak to the hearts and minds of the Kurdish people and rally them towards independence and freedom?  There is Abdullah Öcalan, the charismatic leader of the PKK in Turkey, who has been imprisoned since his capture on 15 February 1999, but his appeal is limited and could be considered a liability (we must acknowledge that the PKK is considered to be a terrorist organization by NATO, EU, Turkey and the US).  Other potential leaders are not likely to unite the Kurds because they are perceived as corrupt and inclined towards patronage politics.  Like the Greek philosopher Diogenes, the Kurdish people are “looking for an honest man.” Finally, a new Kurdish state would be virtually landlocked (depending on how the boundaries are worked out along the Mediterranean Sea) and surrounded by potentially hostile nations.

​These obstacles can be overcome, through, and only through, genuine political consensus coupled with true international statesmanship.  There is an old phrase worth remembering here:  “Where there is a will there is a way.”  If the people of this would-be nation truly want independence it would behove them to think creatively of ways to solve these and any of the many other obstacles that will stand in the way of independence.

​Initially, the first step towards this lofty goal of independence must be uniting behind a single purpose.  Leaders must be chosen and supported who abandon the quest for personal power and influence and instead focus on a united Kurdistan, building a vibrant society and national unity.  These leaders will reach out across political, personal, sectarian and regional chasms to form coalitions whose mission is independence vis-à-vis politics as usual.  Compromise, cooperation, conciliation and concession-making will be the order of the day and the route to success.  The leaders who are willing to share power and trust other members of this coalition will be the ones who can make a difference.

​It is true that few have come to the aid of the Kurds throughout their beleaguered history, but this need not pertain to the future.  An estimated 1.3 million Kurds now live in Europe representing the Kurdish Diaspora, refugees from their nations as a result of persecution and conflict.  Leading that list is Germany, where approximately 800,000 Kurds live, followed by France (135,000), Sweden (100,000), the UK (90,000), Netherlands (80,000), Switzerland (70,000), Austria (60,000) and Belgium (60,000).  These Kurds represent a strong voice within their adoptive countries who can speak out for an independent Kurdistan, and are an important international voice to this cause.

​My experience has shown me that the Kurdish people are, almost without exception, open, tolerant and willing to befriend the Western nations. Jews, Christians and Muslims have lived side-by-side here for centuries within an atmosphere of respect and acceptance.  They seek stronger ties to the West and are eager for foreign investments and development.

An independent Kurdistan would give Europe and the US an Islamic ally in the Middle East, a bridge and a buffer to Islamic nations that are perceived as threats, something to be taken very seriously.  The Kurdish Region is rich in natural resources, including, in some locations, oil: an independent Kurdistan could develop its own relationship and create great friendships with the developed west.

​There may not currently be a strong leader who will bring this region together, but this is not a requirement for independence.  Many movements for independence or freedom have been achieved without the presence of a leading, charismatic figure, including the ongoing “Arab Spring,” in which governments in four nations have been overthrown (Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen) and more seem likely to follow.  These movements can be added to the list that already includes Chile, Argentina. The Maldives and Serbia.  Popular support was the key to these movements, facilitated now by great advances in social media and technology.  The Internet, we all know, can be used as a tool for grassroots movements – bringing people together around a shared goal or purpose.

​And while an independent Kurdistan may be totally or virtually landlocked, so is Switzerland.  When we think of Switzerland today we have a mental image of an idyllic, peaceful nation nestled in the mountains and surrounded by wonderful nations such as Germany, France, Italy and Austria.  This is true, but we should also remember that Switzerland has a long history of warfare stretching back centuries that ended only through its acceptance of neutrality during the World Wars.  In fact, during World War II Switzerland was completely surrounded by fascists’ nations or collaborating regimes.  It worked diligently to develop its political system, economy and culture and today stands as a potential model for Kurdish independence.

​I cannot see into the future and therefore do not know whether the Kurds will seize this moment and work towards independence.  I can see the present, however, and see a policy window which today is wide open for independence.  Whether it does will depend on the choices made in the coming years by the people here and their chosen leaders who hold the future in their hands.  Insha’Allah, independence will come for these wonderful people whose time has, perhaps, finally arrived.

Wayne Lavender is a United Methodist pastor dedicated to creating a world of peace and justice for all people.  He is an author and has published “Counting Ants While the Elephants March By,” “Evelyn and Damon: A Story of Love and Peace” (his newly published children’s book) and soon to be published “Worldview and Public Policy: From AmericanExceptionalism to American Empire.”  He is a teacher – this past year working as a professor at the University of Human Development in the Kurdish city of Sulaymaniyah in Northern Iraq, and the director of the Foundation 4 Orphans (F4O) an international, interfaith and intergenerational organization whose mission is to serve the emotional, educational, physical and spiritual needs of the orphan.  He holds a Ph.D. from the School of Public Policy at George Mason University.

Copyright © 2013

One Response to To be or not to be: Why the Kurds wait
  1. Kuvan Bamarny
    August 30, 2013 | 19:21

    Eevery single kurd yearn for independence of kurdistan but the problem is kurdish poeple have been stuck in a dilemma, between Western (Judo Christian nations) and the surrounding nations (Islamic nations) that each side has been pressuring them to work for them and go their way, and so far none of them have officially announced and confirmed that they would support the idea of an independent Kurdistan.
    Considering that both sides( Judo-Christian and Islamic nations) have betrayed Kurds in the past,kurds wonder as who would sincerely support their independence before they go for their independence .And who should they take as a solid trustworthy friend for the long run in order to support them living in peace and security , judo Christian nations or Islamic nations?

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