The Kurds have been scourged by history (as well as by British and French designs, with their 1920s ‘peace to end all peace’, as David Fromkin termed it in his remarkable book). In drawing up the borders that followed World War One and the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, despite earlier promises, left them stateless, split between Turkey, Syria, Iran and the fictitious country that is Iraq. But the stability of the latter has become crucial to the entire region.
After the 1991 Gulf War, the US protected the Iraqi Kurds from Saddam Hussein with a no-fly zone and an extensive de facto autonomy, which was strengthened and formalised after the 2003 US invasion and the dismantling of the Ba’athist state. Iraqi Kurdistan then embarked upon a process of ‘de-Arabisation’, as opposed to the policy that the Baghdad regime had pursued by force. There are now few Kurds who speak Arabic; their own language prevails. And the Iraqi state, if it can be referred to as such, does not extend that far.
The Iraqi Kurdistan government unilaterally organised a referendum on 25 September in which, according to its Electoral Commission, 92% voted in favour of independence on a turnout of 80%. Separation was not, however, immediately declared. President Barzani, of the Kurdistan Regional Government, knows that he has to negotiate with Baghdad, but the Iraqi Prime Minister, al-Abadi, who has elections coming up next year and whom opponents have criticised for letting the referendum proceed, refuses to negotiate and has demanded that the referendum be declared void before talks start.
The Iraqi Kurds are ploughing a lonely furrow with their plans. No country apart from Israel supports their claims, not even the US, because Washington’s priority is to maintain the stability of Iraq and finish off Islamic State (IS or Daesh), a fight in which Kurdish soldiers, the famous Peshmergas, along with the Iraqi army, play a decisive role. The EU countries and Russia do not warm to Kurds’ aspirations to independence, while Turkey and Iran are vehemently opposed, fearing that their Kurdish minorities and the territories where they live –with their respective calls for independence– would be attracted to or sucked in by a new Iraqi Kurdish state, thereby transforming borders and creating a new country with a population of over 40 million. Iran, which had been getting on well with the Iraqi Kurds, has closed the air border with Iraqi Kurdistan, Baghdad has cancelled flights and Turkey is also weighing up its options. Choking off Kurdish oil exports, which it could do, would go against Turkish interests, since it relies on them.
Terrorism, oil, the crisis in Iraq, the Syrian civil war and the burden of geopolitics all weigh against the birth of a new Kurdish state, and even its simple detachment from Iraq. The Iraqi Kurds have not been dealt the best cards, despite the fact that they have several aces up their sleeve (precisely because of which Baghdad does not want to yield), such as their reserves of oil, gas and the resource that is so essential in the region: water. A greater Kurdistan would control the bulk of the oil reserves in Iraq, Syria and Turkey, something that is underlined by the capture of the wealthy city of Kirkuk, although it is also populated by Arabs and Turkmen who have no desire to be integrated into a Kurdish state. Barzani is aware of the need to negotiate with Baghdad over ‘borders, water and oil’. He has his own problems in Kurdistan: divisions and conflicts between Kurdish parties (the Democratic Party, the Patriotic Union and the Gorran Movement), corruption and nepotism, not to mention an economy that has become heavily indebted following the fall in the price of crude oil and that imports between 80% and 90% of all it consumes.
There will be no let-up in the Kurds’ efforts, in both Iraq and Turkey, because perseverance is one thing they are not short of. Parcelled out between countries for generations, they have endured centuries with their sense of community intact. Their resistance and resilience should not be underestimated, particularly when it seems that the borders of the Middle East will sooner or later have to be re-drawn. The famous map sketched out in 1916 by the civil servants Sykes and Picot, respectively British and French, is in peril, although these days the desire for stability predominates. The situation will be influenced not only by geography but also the maps drawn up on it by Westerners, as is the case in Africa. ‘We have done away with Sykes-Picot’, boasted Islamic State in 2014. Not yet.
The role of the US, allied to both Baghdad and Erbil, will be decisive in facilitating dialogue between the two sides. The Iraqi Kurds who bade Iraq farewell in the run-up to the referendum will have to wait, possibly for quite some time. The moment of stability does not seem to have arrived. But it would be risky to state that a Kurdish state will never emerge, all the more so in the absence of any form of regional organisation.