By Adam Tiffen
The recent announcement of the founding of the “Islamic State” across vast regions of Iraq and Syria by a Sunni Islamic insurgency formerly known as ISIS has the potential to redraw borders in the Middle East for the first time in almost 100 years. In conjunction with the declaration, a senior member of the Islamic State announced the “end of Sykes-Picot” in a recent video.
In May 1916, three years before the conclusion of World War I, the current borders of the Middle East were drawn up under a secret agreement between two British and French diplomats, Sir Mark Sykes and Georges Picot. The “Sykes-Picot” agreement delineated the borders of new nations that would emerge from the devastated remnants of the Ottoman Empire and highlighted spheres of influence for the triumphant European powers.
These borders were drawn entirely for the benefit of the colonial powers. In dividing up the spheres of influence, when Sykes was asked by then-British Foreign Secretary Lord Balfour, “What do you mean to give the French, exactly?” Sykes responded by slicing his finger across a map that lay before them on a table and said “I should like to draw a line from the ‘e’ in Acre to the last ‘k’ in Kirkuk.”
As a result, France received Syria, Lebanon and part of Turkey, while Great Britain acquired the rest of the Middle East. The resulting borders, literally drawn with a ruler, failed to take any ethnic considerations or realities on the ground into account and were eventually cemented by a newly formed League of Nations. While the modern Arab nations were created and led by monarchs drawn from the Saudi Arabian family of Faisal bin Hussein, a British ally who fought with T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) against the Turks, one notable ethnic group was left out in the cold. The Kurds, an independent ethnic group with their own language, culture and history, found themselves divided against their will across four countries: Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran.
The Kurdish people have been fighting for the right to self-determination ever since. As we take the time to commemorate our own Independence Day, it is time we take a hard look at supporting an independent Kurdistan. It is worth recalling the words of Thomas Jefferson, who penned the Declaration of Independence:
“Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government”
In Iraq, Saddam Hussein repeatedly used brutal force to put down Kurdish aspirations of independence. Between 1986 and 1988, during the final stages of the Iran-Iraq war, the Kurds were subjected to systemic abuses including aerial bombardment, destruction of settlements, mass deportation, firing squads and chemical warfare. Tens of thousands of Kurds were killed and over 4,500 Kurdish villages were destroyed. Over one million Kurds out of the estimated 3.5 million Kurdish population in Iraq were displaced from their homes and became refugees. As many as 182,000 Kurds are estimated to have been killed during this time. An infamous chemical attack against the Kurdish village of Halabja resulted in the deaths of between 3,200 and 5,000 people, and thousands of others suffered from long-lasting injuries.
Under Iranian rule, the Kurds have fared little better. Despite supporting the creation of the current Islamic Republic in 1979, the elected representative of the Kurds was denied a seat in the “Assembly of Experts” that was tasked with writing Iran’s new constitution by Ayatollah Khomeini. This marginalization, a result of the Kurdish community consisting primarily of Sunni Muslims, resulted in the rise of an anti-government movement. When armed conflict broke out between armed Kurdish factions and the Iranian regime’s security forces in August 1979, Khomeini declared jihad against separatism in Iranian Kurdistan.
According to Amnesty International, the Kurds have long suffered a history of discrimination in Iran, and Kurdish activists, writers, and academics have routinely been arrested and sentenced to death for their work in favor of Kurdish independence. Sunni Kurdish religious freedoms are routinely denied — an estimated one million Sunnis live in Tehran, yet no Sunni mosques exist to serve their religious needs.
In Turkey, there have been several Kurdish rebellions against the government. From 1937 to 1938, tens of thousands of Kurds were killed and thousands more went into exile. Today, with an estimated population of 14 million, the Kurds are the largest minority population in the country.
Concentrated predominately in the east and southeast of the country, Kurds have used both peaceful political movements and military action to advocate for independence. Some of these groups, such as the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), are recognized as terrorist organizations by the United States, NATO and the European Union. Turkish military action against the terrorist organizations has resulted in the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people and the virtual depopulation of traditionally Kurdish regions of the country.
Under Turkey’s government, the use of the Kurdish language is discouraged and the only language permitted in the educational system is Turkish. Between 1983 and 1991, it was forbidden to publish or broadcast in any language except for Turkish unless the Turkish government had diplomatic relations with a country that used the language in an official capacity. The Kurds, with no nation of their own, were thus forbidden from broadcasting or writing in their own language. As a result, Kurdish culture and traditions have been significantly suppressed. As the Turkish constitution forbids the formation of political parties along ethnic lines, the Kurds have been historically underrepresented in the political arena.
Turkey however, is faced with the new reality of a militant, hostile, and chaotic Sunni Islamic State along its border. If a newly established Kurdistan could be founded in such a way that it alleviated Turkey’s legitimate concerns about the possibility of an emboldened secessionist movement in its south and southeast to join a newly formed Kurdistan, Turkey might actually benefit from the establishment of a moderate buffer between itself and the increasingly militant Sunni and Shia regimes along their borders.
Kurds also make up the largest minority population in Syria, comprising between 10 and 15 percent of the country’s population. Despite such a sizeable minority, Kurds have routinely experienced discrimination and harassment by Syria’s Arab majority.
After the formation of Syria under the French Mandate along the lines of Sykes-Picot, the Kurds enjoyed considerable freedom. Unfortunately, when a movement for Kurdish autonomy rose in the mid-1930, it was quashed by the Syrian authorities. When Syria was declared an Arab Republic in 1961, the new government instituted a systematic campaign against the Kurds. Over 120,000 Kurds were stripped of their citizenship, and despite having resided in the region for generations, many were classified as “aliens.”
These policies prohibited many Kurds from working, pursuing education, owning property, and in some cases, getting married. Land was often taken from Kurds and given to Arab settlers. In Kurdish regions where oil was discovered, the Kurdish inhabitants were forcibly removed or forbidden to build, and Arab Bedouins were brought in to be resettled. Like in Turkey, as a result of this systematic discrimination, armed Kurdish groups (some designated as international terrorist organizations) have developed in a bid to support Kurdish independence.
Given the current chaos in the region and the potential for the redrawing or abolishment of some of the national borders drawn in the Sykes-Picot agreement, it is not surprising that many are now reconsidering the idea of an independent Kurdistan. Since the fall of the regime of Saddam Hussein in 2003, the Kurds of Iraq have had de facto independence, operating within an autonomous region with tentative ties to Baghdad, and the area has been a hallmark of political stability and economic progress. The Kurds have proven themselves to be capable and worthy of self-governance. As the rare bright-spot in an otherwise darkening and increasingly barbaric Middle East, they have evolved into a reliable partner of the United States; as an independent nation, they could prove a critical ally in stabilizing regions of Iraq.
A Kurdish state could provide critical intelligence, manpower and a stable base of operations to combat the rise of the Sunni insurgent groups. Not surprisingly, other nations that stand to benefit from the rise of a stable Kurdistan have begun calling for the formation of the Kurdish nation. The Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has voiced support for an independent Kurdish nation as a means of forming a moderate-bloc within the Middle East. Jordan, currently one of the few moderate nations in the Middle East and becoming increasingly destabilized by an influx of war refugees, could be bolstered by the creation of another stable and moderate regime within the region. The formation of an independent Kurdistan could also bolster U.S. efforts in the region by providing a regional ally that is hostile to the territorial ambitions of a newly emboldened Tehran.
For the time being, the United States remains in favor of a unified Iraq, and objects to the formation of an independent Kurdish state. Likewise, Iran has signaled that they will not support an independent Kurdish nation that could become allied with Turkey, and Iraq has voiced anger over the Kurdish military’s willingness to fight for Kurdish land, but not support Iraqi forces as a whole.
As Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, the Kurds have the right to self-determination and to develop a government in which they might most “effect their Safety and Happiness.” History has shown that the Kurds have passed the Jeffersonian test, and the governments under which they have existed since Sykes-Picot have certainly been “destructive” of their pursuit of life and liberty.
Given the historical mistreatment and genocide inflicted on the Kurdish people and the significant security and economic benefits for the United States and its allies that would likely develop from the founding of a Kurdish state, it is time for the United States to take a hard look at the founding of what could become one of the most promising, moderate and stable nation-states in the region.
Adam Tiffen is a co-founder of Tri-Star Collaborative, a firm specializing in sustainable development in emerging markets and post-conflict environments. He is a member of the Truman National Security Project’s Defense Council and a veteran of three tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. Views expressed are his own.