Following the First World War, the victorious powers planned to create an independent Kurdish state. However, due to both Turkish objections and Kurdish infighting, these plans were scrapped at the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne. Kurdish areas were instead divided among Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran.
Almost a century later, we may be witnessing the birth of an independent Kurdistan, albeit in a fraction of majority-Kurdish areas. Kurds cannot have everything they want, but they are on the brink of a real state. And the countries traditionally most hostile to this are suddenly its main facilitators. This is not only counterintuitive. Until recently, it would have been unimaginable.
The ironies are almost overwhelming. Turkey is already serving as the guarantor of de facto Kurdish independence in Iraq, and, increasingly, in a fragmenting Syria. And Iraq has become the most probable midwife of a fully independent Kurdish state.
The process began with the ousting of Iraqi forces from Kuwait in 1991 and the imposition of a “no-fly zone” above the 36th parallel in Iraq. This gave the Kurds an unprecedented degree of autonomy. They put aside long-standing differences, after a bitter squabble between the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and their rivals, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), from 1994-1998.
By the time of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Kurds were ready to establish a quasi-independent area – the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) – solidified by a KDP-PUK unification in 2006, mediated by, of all countries, Turkey.
Following the establishment of the de facto independent Kurdish area in 1991, the Turks were faced with a conundrum: to treat this as a hostile entity that could undermine its control of Kurdish parts of eastern Anatolia, or to attempt to build such strong relations with it that Iraqi Kurds would have no incentive to promote rebellion in Kurdish areas of Turkey.
Finding the Kurds receptive, Turkey decided to build an alliance with the KRG. Trade and other relations flourished. By 2008, Turkey had become one of the closest allies of the KRG. And as Ankara’s relationship with Baghdad steadily deteriorates, its relationship with Erbil only intensifies.
Turkey was confronted with a similar conundrum when Kurdish groups – including its longtime nemesis, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – united to form the “Western Kurdistan Autonomous Region” in northern Syria under the tutelage of KRG President Massoud Barzani.
Kurdish groups in northern Syria have been successful in fending off challenges from jihadists and others who seek to use these same territories for their own purposes. They are, in effect, building an annexe to the KRG in Syria. Both fractured countries will, therefore, produce Kurdish areas that will be, at the least, virtually independent.
Concomitant with this development, a “peace process” was initiated between the PKK and Turkey. The PKK agreed to withdraw its fighters into KRG territory and cease hostilities. Such an agreement is essential for convincing Turkey to regard the Kurdish entity in Syria as tolerable, but this process is now in some peril.
PKK leaders complain Turkish officials are not living up to promises to respect Kurdish minority rights. The PKK has recently suspended the withdrawal of their forces, but have not resumed hostilities.
It is likely, however, that a workable agreement will eventually hold, preventing Turkey from viewing the Syrian Kurdish entity as a threat challenging its rule in Kurdish areas of Turkey.
Even more remarkable than Turkey’s about-face regarding virtual Kurdish independence in Iraq and Syria is the growing sentiment in Baghdad in favour of full Kurdish independence.
Iraqi prime minister Nouri Al Maliki and his allies have tacitly, and occasionally overtly, endorsed this for three main reasons. First, they believe they can more easily control a state which is simply Arab and has a clearer Shiite majority. Second, they see an independent Kurdish state as a buffer with an increasingly hostile Turkey. Third, in their view, approximately $17 billion of oil revenue from the Shiite south gets transferred every year to the KRG without reciprocal benefits.
The disputed city of Kirkuk and some other sensitive issues would have to be negotiated, but, despite Iranian objections, there seems to be genuine interest in Baghdad for Kurdish independence.
Several remaining potential roadblocks must be overcome. Turkey may ultimately find these developments, particularly a PKK-dominated mini-state in northern Syria, simply too threatening. PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan may prove too recalcitrant to finalise a deal with Turkey, or the chauvinistic Turkish AKP government with him. And there could be another crippling intra-Kurdish power struggle, for example between Mr Öcalan and Mr Barzani.
But the stage now seems set for the KRG to continue to consolidate its de facto independence, and expand its influence into an analogous area in northern Syria. This would create a de facto independent Kurdish state for the first time in modern history. However, in order to survive, any de facto or de jure independent Kurdish entity must ensure that it is not seen as posing a direct threat to Turkish rule in Kurdish-majority areas of Turkey for the foreseeable future.
Assuming Turkish anxieties are assuaged, Syria continues to fragment, and the Iraqi Shiite majority remains willing to part ways, then, at long last, the establishment of a fully independent Kurdish state is merely a matter of time.