Professor Henry Srebrnik

Professor Henry Srebrnik

Wednesday, April 23, 2003

Will the Kurds seize the day and attempt to create a sovereign state?

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

Has the moment of historical opportunity finally arrived for the Kurds, the largest ethnic group in the world without a state of its own? Will one of the results of the war with Iraq be the formation of a sovereign entity on Kurdish territory?

A non-Semitic but Muslim group of some 25 million people, the Kurds live in eastern Turkey, northern Iraq, northern Syria and northwestern Iran.

Their tribal lands were divided up after World War I by the new colonial powers in the Middle East, Great Britain and France.

Initially, under the Treaty of Sevres, signed in 1920 between the defeated Turkish Ottoman sultan and the victorious Allies, Turkey was to grant autonomy to Kurdistan. However, a new Turkish leader, Kemal Ataturk, emerged, mobilized the Turkish nation, and forced the abrogation of the treaty. It was superceded by the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which completely ignored Kurdish national aspirations.

Instead, the Kurds became a minority in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. In all these countries, their ambitions for national independence were regarded as threatening and Kurds advocating independence faced prosecution. They were told they were now “Iraqis” or “Syrians” or “Turks.”

Today, about half the Kurdish people live in Turkey. Another 3.5 million are in Iraq, and the remainder in Iran and Syria.

Kurdish rebels fought the Iraqi government in the early 1970s but the Kurdish guerrilla movement collapsed when neighboring Iran, Israel and the United StatesIran’s war against Iraq in the 1980s, Saddam Hussein responded by attacking 200 mainly Kurdish villages with poison gas. In the town of Halabja alone at least 5,000 people died in one attack in March 1988. Saddam also forced Kurdish residents out of Kirkuk, a traditionally Kurdish city, and brought in Iraqi Arabs to take over their property. withdrew support in 1975. When the Kurds joined

After the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the United States and Great Britain established a so-called “no-fly zone” above the 36th parallel in northern Iraq, allowing Kurds in that region to establish a de facto autonomous jurisdiction with a fair amount of internal democracy.

While divided into two major political groupings, the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the Kurds have for the time being managed to present a united front in their efforts to gain control of northern Iraq.

Will the Kurds be able to reclaim Iraqi cities such as Kirkuk and Mosul, surrounded by oil-rich areas that would enable a Kurdish state to become economically self-sufficient, indeed wealthy?

The Kurdish gains in this war have greatly upset neighouring Turkey.

Because 20 percent of the Turkish population is Kurdish, Ankara fears that an independent Kurdish state will further aggravate separatist sentiment among Turkish Kurds.

Turkey has long suppressed Kurdish efforts to maintain a separate ethnic identity. Kurdish language publications were banned until 1995 in Turkey and even now the teaching of the Kurdish language is still largely prohibited.

Abdullah Ocalan, leader of the Kurdish separatist insurgency inside Turkey, was arrested in 1999 and initially condemned to death. His sentence was later reduced to life imprisonment. So any entry of Turkish forces into northern Iraq will provoke resistance.

It is true that the practical obstacles faced by an emerging landlocked Kurdish mini-state would not be unsubstantial. But reason does not always prevail in the affairs of states and nations, and often passion rules those who can not bear the arbitrary borders imposed on them by diplomats.

Some Kurdish leaders say that if a new Iraq emerges with a federal system--the model endorsed by the Iraqi opposition coalition--they might be able to preserve the hard-earned gains of the last decade.

Still, reunification would be rocky, not least because relatively few young Kurds can speak Arabic, the language of most Iraqis. As well, since most Iraqi Arabs are Shi’ites, while Kurds are Sunnis, a democratic Iraq may prove less attractive.

In any case, the Kurds have seen previous attempts to provide them with a large degree of self-rule founder. A 1970 agreement granted four Kurdish provinces a degree of autonomy, but this did not last long.

In a decade of de facto autonomy in Iraq's north, the Kurds have proved they can run a civil state. And they would have oil, which will go a long way in providing economic stability.

This is probably the best chance the Kurds have had in 70 years to form a sovereign state in at least a part of their historic patrimony. Will they prove audacious enough to defy Turkey and even the U.S., and seize the day?