The Kurdish Question 

This month, an important vote will be held which may very well bring about the beginning of a new nation.

Violence under the so-called Islamic State and the subsequent civil unrest has ravaged the region of ethnic Kurdistan – an embattled and oil rich region of the Middle East. Despite political and territorial lines, Kurdistan has consistently been home to the world’s largest stateless minority. Now, with IS seemingly on the back foot, the central government of Iraqi Kurdistan is holding a referendum for independence on September 25.

The region in Northern Iraq is currently under semi-autonomous rule by the KRG (Kurdish Regional Government) and the referendum has drawn dire condemnation from surrounding governments. It has vast implications on the political and sectarian balance, or lack thereof, in the Middle East. Its implications spread even further, too, effecting the greater role taken by the United States and other international leaders who have lead efforts in the region to eradicate the threat posed regionally and internationally by the Islamic State.  

Why should you care? 

It is important to understand the breadth of the struggle of the Kurdish people and the gravity with which regional powers have previously dealt with the so-called Kurdish question. The Kurdish people have resided for centuries in the ethnic region which spreads over considerable swathes of Iraq, Syria, Iran and Turkey; they have routinely been denied political sovereignty, while maintaining ethnic and cultural segregation from the pan-Arab region.  

Not ethnically Arabic, the land of the Kurdish people was divided up in the wake of World War 1 which saw the demarcation of the former Ottoman Empire. Ever since, the Kurdish people have regularly come into violent confrontation with political leaders, from ethnic violence and oppression spurred by the powers of Iran and Syria, to volatile guerrilla warfare in the Turkish highlands throughout the 1980s 

Few reasonable and peaceful answers to the so-called Kurdish question have been supported by regional powers. Political representation of the Kurdish people has failed to mark any meaningful change. Too often, the Kurdish political powers have suffered from the internal strife that has previously stricken Iraqi Kurdistan and often surrounded the PPK (Kurdistan Workers Party). The PPK are a Marxist movement residing in Iraqi and Turkish regions, rallying behind the socialist works of imprisoned Abdullah Occalan. Occalan, a scholar and reluctant guerrilla leader has been behind bars in a Turkish prison for years, in conditions often condemned by human rights agencies. Occalan’s ideas define the Middle East as a deeply important region apt to a socialist secular revolution that would, as Occalan saw it, redefine the global power dynamic. 

The Kurdish armed forces, particularly the YPG (People’s Protection Unit), the armed division of the Syrian Kurds, and later the Peshmerga, after a much-needed reorganisation, established themselves as a crucial arm in the war against IS. The US-led coalition rallied behind the Kurds in Syria – though not so much in Iraq, in a way they couldn’t so wholeheartedly do with President Bashar al-Assad’s revolutionary opponents.  

Time and time again, the Kurds were on the forefront in the war against the so-called caliphate. When the Yazidi’s – an ethnic minority in Syria – were butchered by IS fighters, and the survivors forced to take refuge in the mountains of northern Syria without any food or water, it was the YPG that fought bitterly to save them. The YPG and Peshmerga forces (the military wing of the KRG of Iraqi Kurdistan) provided refuge to those brutalised by the Islamic State.  

At every stage, women remained on the frontline. YPJ forces, the female only wing of the YPG, as well as female Peshmerga forces created a dire problem for the Islamic State; a deeply defiant alternative to their fundamentalist, Wahhabist ideologies. Though majority Muslim, the Kurdish people have not defined themselves or their religion in the same way that ideological and political divisions between Shi’ite and Sunni sects continue to permeate the politics of the Far-East. Regional authorities in both Iraqi Kurdistan and Kurdish regions of northern Syria have defined themselves as a secular response to sectarian divisions, providing a safe haven or citizenship to Muslim ethnic minorities and Christian sects in the region, as well as providing social conditions apt to a strong female role within society. 

In the narrative of conflict in the Middle East, and specifically that of Syria and Iraq, where moral lines are not so clear cut, the Kurdish forces arise as a moral hero amidst the bloodshed. Their secular foundation has helped the armies of the West in supporting the group. They have now presented these Western forces with a dire ultimatum as the referendum vote draws near. Losing countless lives in the name of what the West would call a greater good – differing from the politically minded good of the likes of Russian or Iranian intervention in the conflict, the Kurdish people feel that they have earned their sovereignty.  


Why don’t people want a Kurdish state? 

Kurdish independence in Iraq presents a dire problem to surrounding political institutions. Roughly 35 million Kurds reside in the Middle East, 15 million of them in Turkey, and 5 to 6 million in Iraq and Iran respectively. The Kurdish populations of surrounding regions, possibly inspired by the independence of their counterparts in Iraq, wield the power to deeply disrupt the fragile balance of power in a post-Arab Spring Middle East.  

The Kurdish problem has long been a problem to the Turkish regime, one that did not cease with the imprisonment of Abdullah Occalan. An armed conflict within their own borders is the last thing any of the regional powers want. Which also, as the US is primarily concerned, diverts attention, and crucial military might should there need to be such a response to Iraqi Kurdish independence or possible subsequent revolution, from the war on IS. While on the back foot, IS still wields the power to wreak havoc to regional powers, and to take countless more lives before the fighting is over. Let alone dealing with issues of rebuilding and cultural issues in the wake of the so-called caliphates’ violence, including strengthening sectarian divisions between Sunni populations and the Shiite militias instrumental to the war effort. Yet, this is the very reason now is the time for Kurdish independence, taking advantage of the lucidity and instability of the current political status in the region. 

By all accounts, the referendum will go through on the 25th September. President Barzani of Iraqi Kurdistan has spearheaded the vote despite vehement regional opposition. Iraq governance in Baghdad has condemned the vote almost unanimously – minus the Kurdish members of parliament – and removed the regional governor in Kirkuk who spoke out in favour of the vote and for his oil rich region to be included therein. Syria, Iran, and Turkey have all condemned the vote and threatened the government of Iraqi Kurdistan with military action should it go through. The only regional supporter of the vote is Israel, who serve to, as many have observed, further the goals of any sectarian, non-Arab power in the region. Meanwhile, while not condemning the vote nor cutting off any military support, the US has called for a postponement of the vote, citing the war on IS to be more important. Yet, to the millions of Kurds in Iraqi Kurdistan and greater ethnic Kurdistan, issues of sovereignty run deep. In the chaos, this may be the only time for the Kurds to, against the greater might of regional opposition, stake their claim. The culmination of decades of oppression, and years of vicious fighting, may very well end up being a bright spark in the whole affair.  

Featured image via Flickr by ‘Kurdishstruggle‘.