The Long, Bumpy Road
to Kurdish Independence

On September 25, 2017, the Kurds of northern Iraq held a referendum on independence that was steeped in history. Though it was fiercely opposed by the Iraqi government, as well as by its neighbors Turkey and Iran, the Kurds went to the polls and voted overwhelmingly to separate themselves from Iraq. Just a month later, the Iraqi government sent troops to retake Kirkuk, a city sacred to the Kurds, demonstrating their refusal to allow implementation of the results of the referendum the natural result of hundreds of years of history and ethnic struggle.

The Kurds are an ethnic group numbering more than 30 million people, which may make them the largest nation in the world without a state. They are located in parts of Iraq (5-6 million), Turkey (~14.5 million), Iran (~6 million), and Syria (~2 million), with smaller populations in various other countries.

The Kurds lived under the rule of the Ottoman Empire for centuries until the end of World War I, when that empire collapsed. England and France, victors of the war, drew up the Treaty of Sèvres, in which they carved up the Middle East into regions under their control. As victors often do, their map completely disregarded local cultures, ethnicities, and governments. While the plan included an independent country of Kurdistan, it was a much-reduced Kurdistan — limited to only the Kurdish region within Turkey, and still to be under British control and so most Kurds fought against the treaty. Turkey, under a new ultra-nationalist government, also fought the treaty, and had the army and the financial strength to resist what it saw as European attempts to define its borders. The Treaty of Sevres was soon replaced by the Treaty of Lausanne, which recognized the borders of modern day Turkey.

Although the Treaty of Sèvres was gone, it was not forgotten. The new treaty included no provisions whatsoever for an autonomous Kurdistan. And, although Turkey was now its own independent state, its national psychology was scarred by the West’s attempt to influence its politics. Particularly as the only Kurdistan contemplated by the previous Treaty of Sevres had been limited to the Kurdish region inside the new Turkey, from that point forward, Turkey would strongly oppose any attempts at either Kurdish independence or Western interference in their national politics.

Kurdish independence was not just blocked in Turkey, however. In the other four countries with sizable Kurdish populations, mass protests and rebellions erupted in the their struggle for more rights and autonomy. Every one of those uprisings was crushed by the central government of the country they inhabited.

Iraq was especially brutal in its campaign to repress the population. In the late 1970’s, Iraq engaged in a policy known as “Arabisation” to consolidate control of valuable oil fields. Tens of thousands of Kurds were removed from their homelands and moved east so that Arabic people from the center and south of Iraq, who were more loyal to the government, could take up residence there. The Kurds were relocated to areas near the Turkish and Syrian border.

Although the CIA and Iran had initially provided the Kurds with economic support, they rapidly abandoned them once Iraqi displacement forces began to mobilize.

Then, in September of 1980, Saddam Hussein started a war with the newly-formed Islamic Republic of Iran. The war lasted 8 years, cost billions of dollars, and resulted in little-to-no gains for either side. During the war, however, over 4,000 Kurdish villages were destroyed. Yet this was just the beginning. During the war, the Kurds partly sided with Iran in the hope that an Iranian victory would mean a free Kurdistan. When the war ended with an effective stalemate, Saddam Hussein turned inward on a campaign of revenge on the Kurds.

The Anfal Campaign, named after a section of the Koran that deals with the spoils of war, is one of the most recent genocides in history. Human Rights Watch estimates that between 50,000 and 100,000 Kurds were murdered by the Iraqi government.  

As reported by the New Yorker, “… the world thought it was more important to oppose Iran, Iraq’s enemy, than to interfere with Saddam. During the Iran-Iraq War, between 1980 and 1988, in which a million and a half people died, the West gave tacit support to Saddam.” The Reagan and Bush Administrations provided this support by undermining bills in the U.S. Congress that would have punished Iraq with sanctions, resulting in failed bill after failed bill. That allowed Saddam to use U.S. military equipment to conduct genocidal campaigns against the Kurds abducting people from their homes and killing them, dropping bombs containing mustard gas and other chemicals on villages, and bulldozing entire towns.

Then in August of 1990, Saddam Hussein ordered the invasion of Kuwait to seize their oil supplies. This triggered a massive international backlash, resulting in the Persian Gulf War. The United States, United Kingdom, France, and many of Iraq’s neighbors teamed up to wipe out Iraq’s military and force their retreat. During the war, the Kurds saw an opening in the weakened Iraqi military and launched a full scale rebellion, seizing many of the historical homelands from which they had been displaced. After the Gulf War ended, however, the Iraqis replicated what they had done in the Iraq-Iran War and turned their fury on the Kurds. The United States refused to support the Kurds, and without any outside help they were violently crushed by the Iraqi government. Only after witnessing the atrocities did the U.S. and other Western countries impose a no-fly-zone over sections of Northern Iraq, which remained until 2003.

What followed was a period of relative stability, during which the Kurds organized into political parties and gained more control over their territory. They formed the KRG, a regional government for the Kurdish people that hosted its own parliamentary elections. The KRG has its own policies and even its own military, known as the peshmerga. Internal conflicts remained on how to organize, however, and in 1994, a civil war erupted between the Patriotic Unity Party (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which lasted until 1997.

In 2003, the United States and its NATO allies, maintaining that Iraq still had chemical and nuclear weapons remaining from the Gulf War, declared that they would invade Iraq if Saddam Hussein did not step down. When he refused, they invaded the country. The Kurds sided with the United States and helped them topple Hussein’s dictatorship, in hopes of achieving Kurdish independence in the end. After the removal of Hussein, the Iraqi people held a referendum and approved a new constitution, which recognized the KRG and the Kurdish Parliament.

The Kurdish region of Iraq became what the George Bush and Barack Obama administrations said they wanted the rest of Iraq to look like: democratic, prosperous and largely secular, but also modeling a progressive Islam. Thirty percent of seats in the Kurdish regional government are held by women, and 16% of the budget goes to education.

Then, in 2014, the self-described “Islamic State” (ISIS) rose out of sectarian anger, hatred of the West, and Iraqi government weakness, organizing and radicalizing former Hussein generals into a streamlined terrorist organization that aimed to create a caliphate. They captured Mosul (the second largest city in Iraq), and waged a lightning campaign against the democratic Iraqi government, capturing large swaths of the country. They launched offensives against the Kurdish region as well, initially scoring victories against the peshmerga. However, after a bit of reorganizing, the Kurds were able to recapture much of the land that was taken from them, even conquering areas originally held by the Iraqi government.

One of these areas was Kirkuk, a city considered sacred to the Kurds for reasons both of historical and economic. For decades, Kirkuk was held jointly by the Iraqi and Kurdish governments (in 2011, U.S. soldiers also joined the mix). Many considered the unresolved ownership of Kirkuk a huge stumbling block to Kurdish independence. In its rapid expansion, ISIS decided to attempt a takeover of the city. Iraqi and U.S. forces crumbled under the pressure of the ISIS advance, and soon it was apparent that the city would fall. The Kurds refused to allow this: they sent peshmerga to fill the gaps left by the Iraqi and U.S. government, beating back the ISIS advance and retaking the city they had sought for so long. They soon made it clear that they would keep Kirkuk at all costs.

The war with ISIS came to be seen by the Kurds as another opportunity to achieve independence. The U.S. had other plans, however. Under their “One Iraq” policy, no parts of the country would be allowed to leave, since this could be a sign of weakness in the central government and would deprive the Iraqi government (and perhaps the West) of large oil supplies. And a significant dispute between the Iraqi and Kurdish governments could impair their cooperation in fighting ISIS. The U.S. walked a fine line during the war with ISIS: they had to arm the Kurds so they could fight, but they did not want to encourage and enable Kurdish separatists in the region.

The Obama administration’s hesitation led the Kurds to turn to an old ally, Iran, for military supplies. However, Iran was closely tied to the Shiite-led Iraqi government and the Shia militias operating in the country, which kept it focused on both defeating ISIS and maintaining a unified Iraq. The Kurds lacked a strong ally to support their ambitions for independence.

Once ISIS had been all but defeated, the question of what to do with Kurdistan arose once again. Fearing a repeat of history, the KRG quickly moved to organize a non-binding referendum of its people. It was opposed by Iraq, the U.S., Turkey, Syria, Iran and others, many fearing a similar attempt at autonomy by the Kurdish population in or around their countries. The Trump administration offered to negotiate for the Kurds with the Iraqi government in exchange for postponement of the vote. But the Kurds went ahead, holding the vote on September 25th.

92.73% of Kurds voted for independence. The Iraqi government reacted immediately: soldiers were sent to the region, retaking the city of Kirkuk and invalidating the vote. The two major Kurdish parties, the KDP and PUK, each blamed each other for the results of the vote, with the KDP even accusing the PUK of signing a deal that allowed Kirkuk to be retaken. The U.S. looked on as the Iraqi military occupied all the territory that the Kurds had previously fought ISIS to obtain, only releasing a statement that condemned the move. Western outlets such as The Washington Post declared that the Kurdish referendum had “backfired spectacularly”.

The Kurds have been steadfast supporters of U.S. involvement in Iraq, even leading President Obama to say that the Kurdish government is “functional the way we would like to see.” The U.S. government has repeatedly sought the help of Kurdish peshmerga to fight their wars: in both the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and in the war with ISIS from 2014 forward, Kurdish fighters provided critical assistance for military objectives that likely could not have been achieved without them. It is said that their assistance was critical in both capturing Saddam Hussein and in killing Osama bin Laden.

Yet the Kurds are still without a country, and none of their neighbors want to cede land for a Kurdish independence project (Turkey, for example, has such a large Kurdish population that it would have to give up nearly one-half of its territory). Thus, it would seem that an independent Iraqi Kurdistan still remains their best shot. There are still many moving pieces, and with borders and leaders shifting dramatically in the post-ISIS world, there will likely be another chance and soon.

David Fadul  (Well, The Netherlands)