As the Islamic State in the Levant and Syria (ISIL) tore through Iraq and Syria, there was a brief opportunity to reframe the political geography and future of the Middle East. It would have been tantalizing, but for a moment the possibility of creating a Kurdish state existed.
There are legitimate arguments against the creation of a Kurdish state. There are also moral and pragmatic reasons to find the status quo in the Middle East unacceptable. The post-Ottoman region requires new ideas to correct a century of imperial exploitation, political instability, and violent religious extremism. The creation of a recognized Kurdish state could have been the linchpin for stability in a 21st-century Middle East.
A Changing Region
Within the modern geopolitical context, there is very little practical argument for a Kurdish state. Though a large, and largely autonomous group, the Kurdish population is split primarily amongst five countries, and their territory is landlocked among neighbors unsympathetic to their aspiration of statehood. These factors have weakened the Kurdish position and stalled their dreams of independence for decades. But, the Arab Spring unleashed a revolution that could have altered the strongman-paradigm of the 20th-century Middle East. Dictatorships fell, and the upheaval created space for new actors in the region, particularly in Syria.
One of these actors is ISIL. The neo-caliphate spawned in Syria and conquered wide swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria. Imposing harsh sharia law, ISIL attracted recruits from around the world and continued an effective offense, threatening both Iraq and Syria.
The Kurds were among the few actors in the region capable of effectively combating ISIL. The militants routed the Iraqi Army, and Syrian forces were consumed in their battle with various rebel groups — including ISIL — to focus exclusively on the caliphate’s territorial expansion. ISIL’s rampage through the Middle East brought them into contact, and conflict, with the Kurds in northern Syria and Iraq. The geographic boundaries of the Middle East were momentarily redrawn, and the window for a Kurdish state briefly opened.
History Meets the Moment
Considered the world’s largest stateless group, an estimated around 25 million Kurds live in Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Armenia, and Iran. The Kurds have occupied this area for centuries, and count among their most famous figures the great Muslim conqueror Saladin. Like other ethnic groups, the Kurds spent centuries under Ottoman rule, but after World War I their path diverged from many of the region’s other peoples.
The Great War’s European victors gave little regard to the concerns of distinct local populations when drawing the boundaries of the modern region. The promises made to various local interests in exchange for support against the Ottomans were often contradictory, and while some promises were fulfilled the arbitrary borders of the post-Ottoman Middle East did not necessarily reflect the histories or ambitions of those living within the newly formed nations, including the Kurds.
The Middle East has lurched from crisis to crisis over the last century. Many countries exist in states of ephemeral stability, too strong and strict to invite full rebellion, too illegitimate and repressive to ensure true peace and prosperity. Leaders exploit religious and ethnic divisions and use divisive politics to increase their holds on power. Many have suffered, but the stateless Kurds are particularly at risk, suffering from ongoing violent repression by the Turkish government to biological weapons attacks from Saddam Hussein.
Until very recently, geopolitical realities did not lend themselves to addressing the desires of the Kurdish people for statehood. The collapse of Syria and the birth of ISIL changed that paradigm. After a decade of rebuilding Iraq, the United States could not watch the country collapse in the face of ISIL’s onslaught. The American public was appalled by the group’s barbaric murders, but weary of direct intervention after years of foreign wars. Instead, America searched for reliable ground partners to support with training and airpower. They found the Kurds.
What Didn’t Happen Next
Although the Kurds were fighting for their survival, they also had a clear objective in their war against the Islamic State: to claim territory. Like the caliphate, the Kurds wanted land for a nation and saw an opportunity in the Syrian cauldron. Although the United States collaborated with and supported the Peshmerga, there were no promises or commitments to Kurdish national aspirations. Still, the United States supported the Kurds knowing they were pursuing territorial ambitions and, possibly, statehood.
Although the Kurds were fighting for their survival, they also had a clear objective in their war against the Islamic State: to claim territory.
Without a plan for how to deal with the power vacuum in Syria post-ISIL, the United States supported Kurdish forces who pushed into Syria and invited an aggressive response from Turkey, a NATO ally. The instability in Syria and tensions between Turkey and the Kurds increases the likelihood of a larger regional conflict that may force more direct US involvement. Both the Obama and Trump administrations failed to prepare for the current scenario, even while knowing the Kurds were using the cover of US air strikes to capture territory for a future homeland.
Had the United States acted early and decisively to create dialogue among key regional actors, the blueprint for a new, more sustainable Middle East could have been drawn. Geopolitical realities and the American commitment to defeating ISIL combined to open a brief window for the creation of a Kurdish state.
Rather than a precise plan, the details of which would require intense negotiations, it is useful to ask: What preconditions would need to be in place for a Kurdish state to be feasible? There are five major considerations that must be addressed: geographic; economic; military; political; and demographic.
- Geographically, a new Kurdish state would comprise territory in the semi-autonomous region of northern Iraq as well as any Syrian territory previously held by ISIL but captured by the Kurds. Thus, the new state would abutt Turkey, Iran, Syria, and Iraq, but only consist of territory once belonging to the latter two nations. The borders of the new state would be policed predominantly by the security forces of Kurdistan and the neighboring countries, except in the case of Turkey, where initially an international peacekeeping force would maintain border security.
- The Kurdish economy would be dominated by oil production. Being landlocked, the Kurds would need to sign economic treaties to ensure the export of Kurdish oil, particularly to Iraqi refineries, which is where they ship much of the oil produced in northern Iraq.
- Militarily the Kurds are quite capable, but the they possess limited capacity for offensive strikes. A new state would require a security apparatus to police itself and its borders, but should agree to limit the size and scope of its military forces and, ideally, would agree to non-aggression pacts with neighbors as well as Israel, Jordan, and Lebanon.
- Politically, the new state would be based on the inclusive, self-representative model used by Iraqi Kurds and the Peshmerga. History suggests this important political infrastructure is already in place, but the new Kurdish nation would produce a constitution that enshrined democratic freedoms under the supervision of a international tribunal comprising representatives from many of the world’s democracies.
- Finally, the new nation would attract Kurds from the diaspora, and they would need to establish a mechanism to admit them to the new nation and register them as citizens. Given the potential for conflict between the new Kurdish state and its neighbors with large Kurdish populations, the new government should give priority to Kurdish immigrants from Turkey and Iran who would be compensated for their property through an internationally-established fund run by the United Nations or ad hoc body specifically for this purpose that would purchase Kurdish homes in these two nations and then return the land to the government. This way emigres would be fairly compensated, and the governments of Turkey and Iran could maintain geographic, political, and financial integrity. Such a compensation method should apply primarily to immigrants from Turkey and Iran.
It is difficult to anticipate how the Kurds would perform as actors in the international arena since, to date, all of their actions have focused on attaining statehood. However, with strong western support for their new homeland, a democratic constitution, non-aggression pacts with their neighbors, and one internationally policed border, the Kurds would have little incentive, or room, to forge a destabilizing diplomatic path. International patrons must provide support for the development of democracy in Kurdistan to prevent internal disputes, so normal in a democracy, from dragging the nascent state into destabilizing civil war.
It is possible Kurdistan eventually becomes what Iraq was supposed to be; a true bastion of democracy in the Middle East and a reliable partner to the west. It is important to remember that the conditions for the creation of Kurdistan are far different than the conditions preceding the invasion of Iraq.
Were Kurdistan to develop into a representative, democratic state, it would buttress Israel, become an American ally in the region, and could even serve as a proof point for a two-state solution between Israel and Palestine.
Although this proposal may seem to fit the pattern of Western meddling in the political structures of the region, the unique situation of the Kurds—their semi-autonomous status, pre-existing political and military infrastructure, and historical diplomatic quest for nationhood—make efforts to facilitate a Kurdish state quite different from previous ventures. Unlike the establishment of a Jewish homeland in the Middle East, which created friction with many native Palestinians, the Kurds already inhabit the territory in question. There will be no equivalent to Churchill’s Hiccup as the boundaries of the state are pre-determined on the eastern, Iraqi border, and would only constitute territory taken from ISIL on the western end of the nation. There is no American invasion. Even the tribunal helping draft the new constitution and the international peacekeeping force along the border with Turkey would be composed of multinational groups, more legitimate than American-only endeavors. Were Kurdistan to develop into a representative, democratic state, it would buttress Israel, become an American ally in the region, and could even serve as a proof point for a two-state solution between Israel and Palestine.
After nearly two decades of watching violence in the Middle East consume American soldiers and funds, it is in the interest of the United States to attempt the creation of a more sustainable region. An independent, autonomous, and fully sovereign Kurdish state could be just the linchpin of stability the region needs.
Will Staton is a career K-12 educator who just began work on his Masters in International Relations via Syracuse Maxwell School’s full time program in Washington, DC . Most recently he served the Director of Scholar Support for Democracy Prep Congress Heights in Washington, DC. and in 2017 published his first novel, Through Fire and Flame, a modern rethinking of Dante's Inferno.
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Header Image: A man carries the Kurdish flag. (John Moore/Getty Images)