Foreign Policy Blogs

An Independent Kurdistan under U.S. Protection?

Independent Kurdistan

Independent Kurdistan on the territories of Iraq and Syria.

In 1991, Iraqi Kurds secured a de-facto independence they have defended against the  Arabic dictatorship of Saddam Hussein (1991-2003), Maliki’s Shi’a dictatorship (2013-14) as well as the Sunni Islamic State (since 2014). Similarly, Syrian Kurds have retained self-rule of their three cantons Jezira, Kobani and Afrin against the Islamic State and Assad’s regime since 2011 and they have liberated another one, Shahba, recently.

It is important to note that so far, Kurdistan has proved to be the only element of stability in the region and it is the only entity that can guarantee the survival of the Middle Eastern minorities: Turkomans, Yezidis, Faylis, Shabaks and Christian Assyrians.

It is the Syrian and Iraqi Kurdistan that separates Turkey from the territories inhabited by the Sunni Arabs. The only place where Turkey and the Sunni Arab areas meet is Azaz district north of Aleppo and west from River Euphrates. Here Turkey has been installing its buffer zone.

As suggested in “Turkish and Egyptian Occupation in Iraq and Syria“, Turkish and Egyptian occupation zones should be established in the Sunni Arab areas of Iraq and Syria. In order to provide efficient occupation, the Turkish army has to build several safe corridors. These corridors can only be built through Iraqi and Syrian Kurdistan. However, there are two risks here.

First, in case of any deterioration of relations between Turkey and the Kurds, as is the case in the last couple of months, there is a threat of Kurdish blockade of the Turkish military corridors and eventual attacks against them. This could also happen in case of a democratic change in Kurdistan’s orientation and its effort to change the course of the Turkish occupation. The blockade of the American corridor from Pakistan to Afghanistan via Khyber Pass after the democratic victory of the PTI party in the elections of the Pakistan’s Pushtu state of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa can be a good example.

Second, since the Lausanne Peace Treaty (1922) defining the current Turkish borders, Turkey has been continuously claiming the former Vilayet of Mosul which partially corresponds to contemporary Iraqi Kurdistan. Currently, Turkey has its units in Baashiqa area of the Nineveh Plains. The Turkish military located both north of Kurdistan (in Turkey) and south of Kurdistan (in the Turkish occupation zone of Iraq and Syria) would surround Kurdistan from two sides. Its compulsion to overrun Kurdistan and to solve the Kurdish problem once for all could be irresistible.

US Protection Zone in Kurdistan

As suggested in “Sunni Areas Post-ISIS: Occupation by Sunni Powers?“, post-war arrangements should be based on a principle of minimum necessary foreign occupation: where state structures do not exist (i.e. Sunni Arab areas), occupation regime should be established. Where state structures exist (i.e. Shi’a and Kurdish governments), only protection zones are needed.

Kurdistan Regional Government (Iraqi Kurdistan), on one hand, has friendly relationship with its key neighbor, Turkey. Government of Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan), on the other hand, has hostile relations with Ankara as its ruling YPG is an affiliate of PKK in Turkey. Any stable solution of this uneasy problem should, therefore, include integration of Rojava to the Erbil-based government of Kurdistan with friendly relations to Ankara.

It was also mentioned that the U.S. and Russia should be excluded from the occupation regime in the Middle East. However, protection regime, where the local government is the sovereign power and external powers only provide security for a transitional period, cannot be secured without those global powers.

Kurds are, with the exception of Israel, the only element in the Middle East where the U.S. is very popular. Therefore, security of the Iraqi and Syrian Kurdistan against the expansionist desires of the Turkish or Iraqi armies and the remnants of the Islamic State should be ensured by establishing a US protection zone.

Occupation and Protection zones in Iraq and Syria.

Occupation and Protection zones in Iraq and Syria. Click to enlarge.

Guarantees for Kurdistan and Turkey

The US protection forces would leave Kurdistan only after stabilization of Syria and Iraq and after withdrawal of the Turkish occupation forces from northern Syria and Iraq.

In order to protect Kurdistan against Turkey and the Arab states as well as to protect Assyrians, Turkomans, Yezidis and other minorities against Kurdish expansionism, United States should preserve minor military bases in Kurdistan.

On the other hand, in order to protect Turkey against Kurdish separatists and to promote Turkish interests in the region, Kurdistan would become a part of a Turkic alliance between Turkey, Azerbaijan, and eventually Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, as a counterpart to the Arab dominance in the Middle East and Russian dominance in Central Asia.

Turkey and Kurdistan would be also bound by mutual checks and balances: constitutional guarantees for the Kurdish minority in Turkey would be compensated with constitutional guarantees for the Turkoman minority in Kurdistan.

Independent Kurdistan as a buffer state.

Independent Kurdistan between Turkey, Iran and the Arab states.

Non-Arab minorities inside Kurdistan

As already mentioned, today, Kurdistan is the only pole of stability in Iraq and Syria. For representatives of the non-Arab minorities adjacent to Kurdistan, such as Christian Assyrians, Shi’a Faylis, Qizilbash Shabaks, Shi‘a, Sunni and Alevi Turkomans, as well as Yezidis and Kaka‘is, it would be foolish to still rely on the vision of multicultural Syria and Iraq.

Dreaming of this vision resulted in mass emigration of the minorities from Iraq and Syria to Europe and the U.S. and threaten that the Middle East, being the cradle of Christianity and other religions, ceases to be home for any Christians or other minorities. The only perspective of preservation of the minorities is within Kurdistan that took care of the refugees from those minorities during their occupation by the Islamic State.

After all what happened, the question of who should rule the Kirkuk oilfields should not be contentious anymore. Arabs showed that they do not deserve it. The Shi‘a acted miserably towards the rest of Iraq in 2013-14 and the Iraqi army fell apart on the north in 2014. The Sunni only managed to found the Islamic State. For these reasons, the US protection zone should include not only Kurdistan Proper but also all minority districts and sub-districts.

In Mosul (Nineveh) governorate, all areas inhabited by the Kurds, Assyrians, Yezidis, Shabaks and Kaka‘is – from Sinjar through Tal Afar down to the Nineveh Plains and Akkre, including medieval cities of Nineveh and Nimrud as well as eastern Mosul. In Kirkuk governorate, areas inhabited by the Kurds, Turkomans and Kaka‘is, i.e. except of Hawija district with a Sunni Arab population.

Further south, all districts inhabited by Faylis and Turkomans from Tuz Khurmatu through Kifri down to Mandali. Even if some of the Fayli and Turkoman cities are ruled by the Shi‘a Iraqi army, their handing over to the American protection zone would protect them against uncertain future within the Iraqi Arab state.

Ethnic composition of independent Kurdistan.

Ethnic composition of independent Kurdistan. Click to enlarge.

Impossible Survival of Minorities in a Multi-Ethnic Iraq or Syria

The narrative of the Islamic State showed clearly that politicians of the minorities must start behaving realistically. Representatives of the Christian Assyrians in Iraq have daydreamed about a united and multi-ethnic Iraq as their only possible homeland. This politics resulted in occupation of their cities, Bakhdida (al-Hamdaniya) and Tel Keppe (Tal Kaif), by the Islamic State and destruction of ancient Nineveh and Nimrud.

In the elections since 2005, most of the Shi‘a Faylis, Shabaks and Turkomans voted for the coalition of the Shi‘a Arab parties from southern Iraq. Their unrealistic vote resulted in desecrating of the Shi‘a mosques, homes and people by the fighters of the Islamic State almost in all cities of the Turkomans, Shabaks and Faylis, from Tal Afar down to Shareban (Miqdadiyah). These Shi‘a minorities are getting faced with the choice in which coexistence with their southern kin Shi‘a Arabs is none of the realistic options. The only realistic options are either Kurdistan or the Sunni Arab ex-ISIL.

Not so long ago, the Syrian Turkomans experienced proof that their survival within Syria is impossible. Their villages have been bombed by the Syrian regime and Russia within their “war on Islamist terrorists”. This was one of the reasons for dangerous escalation when the Turks downed the Russian aircraft in November 2015.

Minority Protection in Independent Kurdistan

During the American occupation of Iraq, the Kurds committed numerous crimes against Christian Assyrians as well as Muslim Turkomans, Shabaks, Yezidis and others. One should not forget the Kurdish role in the Ottoman genocide of the Armenians, Assyrians and Greeks in 1915. Therefore, there is no reason to believe that Kurds will start treating those minorities perfectly.

However, security of the minorities can be granted. Up to now, independent Kurdistan has not been recognized by any nation. So the future potential Kurdish independence can be subject to certain conditions such as constitutional guarantees to the minorities. As the Croats in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina acquired some Croat and mixed cantons and as the minority Serbs in Kosovo were granted Serbian districts, also the minorities in Kurdistan would have to obtain guarantees on their own homelands.

It was Maliki’s government that already approved establishment of three new provinces for minorities: Tal Afar and Tuz Khurmatu for the Turkomans and Nineveh Plains for the Assyrians, Yezidis, Shabaks and Kaka‘is. Setting up of another two minority provinces was expected: Sinjar for Yezidis and Khanaqin for the Faylis.

This kind of cantonal arrangement would be advantageous for both sides: Kurds would secure their dream land Kurdistan in its maximalist version in Iraq and Syria while the minorities would obtain constitutional guarantees for their autonomy.

Cantons of the independent Kurdistan.

Kurdish and minority cantons of the independent Kurdistan. Click to enlarge

Kurdish Cantons

The cantonal arrangement of Kurdistan would enable the parallel existence of multiple official languages: Kurdish languages of Kurmanji, Sorani and Fayli as well as the languages of Turkomans and Assyrians.

One of the possible cantonal arrangements could combine Kurdish cantons based on historical regions with minority cantons. In this setup, each of the three Kurdish regions would contain five cantons, making a total of fifteen Kurdish cantons.

In areas ruled by the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), there could be Kurdish cantons of Sind, Badinan, Soran and Hazaban with capitals Dahuk, Aqrah, Rawanduz and Erbil; as well as eastern Mosul on the left bank of River Tigris.

In areas traditionally ruled by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), cantons of Baban, Bijhen, Garmian, Barzang and Hawraman could be established with capitals Sulaymaniya, Koysanjak, Kirkuk, Kifri and Halabja.

Finally, in areas of Syrian Kurdistan ruled by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), cantons of Jazira, Kobani, Afrin and Shahba have been already established with capitals in Qamishli, Kobani, Afrin and Manbij. An additional canton of Khabur with capital in Hasakah could be added.

Minority Homelands / Cantons

In minority areas, there could be four Turkoman cantons: three in today’s Iraq and one in today’s Syria, with capitals in Talafar, Tuz Khurmatu, Kirkuk and Jarabulus. As for the city of Kirkuk, its southern, Turkoman neighborhoods could become the capital of the Turcoman canton of Turkmen Kerkuk while its northern, Kurdish neighborhoods would be the capital of the Kurdish Garmian canton. Turkmen Kerkuk would also include Kaka’i areas south of Kirkuk.

There could be another three Christian Assyrian cantons. In Nineveh Plains, Assyrian cantons of Nimrud and Nineveh with capitals in Hamdaniya and Telkaif could be established. In northeastern Syria, canton Tur Abdin (reminding nearby Tur Abdin mountains in Turkey) would be founded, based on Tell Tamer district on Khabur river, with exclaves in Assyrian neighborhoods in cities of Malikiyah and Hasakah and settlements between Qamishli and Bir al-Helou.

Shi’a Faylis would have Guran canton with capital in Khanaqin while Shabaks, Kaka’is and Bajalans could have Shabak canton in Nineveh Plains with Baashiqa as a capital. Finally, Yezidis could get two cantons: Sinjar in the Sinjar mountains near the Syrian border and Yezidkhan with capital Ain Sifni and with Yezidi holy town of Lalish in Nineveh Plains.



Ladislav Garassy

Ladislav Garassy, an ethnic Hungarian from Slovakia residing in the Czech Republic, is a political geographer focused on ethno-political identity. He has been an election observer in multiple post-conflict countries of the Middle East, Africa and Asia. He lectures political geography, nationalism, ethnic conflicts and European integration at the East European Educational and Cultural Center. He also publishes his blogs in Slovak ( and in Czech (
Twitter: @LGarassy