Of all the displaced peoples in the world; perhaps the most surprising population (on the face of it) to still be in this situation are the Kurds. To fathom this it must first be understood that the Kurdish diaspora are highly global. Most major European cities have sizeable Kurdish populations, which makes occasional protesting easy, but sustained lobbying remains more difficult and therefore their geopolitical desires have not been realised thus far. In this piece, we examine whether the Kurdish dreams of an independent homeland are possible.


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The vast majority of Kurds are centered on four Middle Eastern nations, and their populations in these respective countries are not insignificant:

  • Syria (2 Million)
  • Iraq (5 million)
  • Iran (5 million)
  • Turkey (18 million)

These countries are of most relevance to any future Kurdistan, as it is from these that an independent Kurdistan will need to be carved. The Kurdish populations have had a difficult relationship with their parent countries, and much like the Jews of 1940’s Europe, clamor for nationhood. Of those Turkey has had probably the most fractious relationship with its Kurds in the shape of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (or Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê / PKK) and its 40 year struggle for independence and recognition, leaving huge numbers of dead on both sides. Iraq’s Kurds fared little better under Saddam Hussein’s despotic rule; over 5000 died in the gas attack on Halabja in 1988.

Kurdish population map

Fig 1.0 – Kurdish ethnic enclaves in the Middle East-Levantine region

So will a Kurdish homeland ever happen? In short: No. Probably not. Not in any truly meaningful statehood way. However not all is lost for the Kurds and this article will explore the ethnic group’s options.

I believe that the most logical aim should be a 4 state solution for the Kurds. This is not revolutionary and it is essentially an extension of the current situation. This is predicated on a detail that many people ignore: that the Kurds are not a homogenous people, and that therefore Kurdistan is not a solution. The Kurds of Turkey have little in common with the Kurds of Iraq and Iran. Indeed the Turkish government is happy to trade and live alongside the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) of Northern Iraq whilst conducting airstrikes against PKK positions nearby. Even amongst the Turks, not all Kurds are alike.

So to look at each country in turn and what a likely future holds:

Syria

Perhaps the most promising place for a burgeoning semi-autonomous Kurdish land. In spite of the Turkish invasion of Afrin, the Kurds here are in a strong position. The Kurdish People’s Protection Units (or Yekîneyên Parastina Gel / YPG) is backed (for now) by the United States and is likely to be protected by the Syrian Regime in return for them bending the knee to Assad. The Syrian Regime does not really care about this remote area of Syria; they care about territorial integrity. If the Syrian Kurds play along with the Syrian Regime in such a way that bolsters state sovereignty while freeing up government resources to focus on other frontiers they stand to be one of the few groups to profit from the civil war.

Iraq

The Iraqi Kurds are in a tricky position. Pre-referendum they were in a very strong position and were the poster boy for the international community’s use of a proxy force to beat back the Islamic State. However President Barzani overplayed his hand. Now they are firmly back in their box after President Abadi reestablished the old Kurdish territorial boundaries and reclaimed Iraqi Central Government control over the Kirkuk oil fields. They will continue to have semi-autonomy, but under the heel of Baghdad, and with a 5% reduction in their annual budget. Finally the relationship between the KDP and their rival Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), never the easiest of bedfellows, shows no sign of being fixed any time soon.

Iran

Despite historical leverage of Iraq’s Kurds as a proxy force during periods of rivalry with Baghdad, the Iranian Government have recently been perhaps one of the most vehemently opposed to an independent Iraqi Kurdistan and have placed significant diplomatic pressure on its neighbours to stop the quest for independence in its tracks. Not least closing all its borders and threatening to suppress the movement by force. Most likely this is due to the fear the Iranian Government has of its own 5 million Kurds and their close cultural and linguistic bond with their Iraqi Kurd neighbours. Either way, the chance of the Iranian Kurds having a homeland is slim. However they are in a remote area of Iran where the Central Government has very little practical control over them. Therefore this is an opportunity of sorts for autonomous Kurdish rule.

Turkey

Unsurprisingly Ankara is unreceptive to the concept of a Kurdish homeland, especially one within Turkey’s current borders. Over 40 years of conflict and many thousands of casualties caused by war with the PKK means that any attempt to give them what they want would be political suicide for President Erdogan. Realistically they cannot be allowed autonomy in the short term. This is especially clear when seen through the prism of the invasion of the Afrin Canton, launched to prevent the PKK-affiliated YPG from dominating the border with Turkey. The thought of a Kurdish nation on its border, acting as a lightning rod for Kurdish discontent, must strike fear into Ankara.

Conclusion

In the sweepstake of displaced peoples, the Palestinians most commonly win the public’s heart, not the Kurds. The West has shown that it will side with its established allies (Erdogan, Abadi) rather than the same Kurds they until recently backed (YPG, KDP/PUK) in the fight against the Islamic State. The Kurdish dream of a single nation is a romantic one, but it is just that: a dream. Within each country they will attempt to hold their language and traditions for the next generation, but under the watchful gaze of their respective governments.

Suggested books for in-depth reading on this topic:

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Archie Hicox is the pen name of a serving British Army officer with an academic background in current affairs and international relations. He has deployed throughout the world on multiple operations, most of which are spent in mentoring roles with local forces. He is particularly passionate about Middle Eastern geopolitical affairs.

For an in-depth, bespoke briefing on this or any other geopolitical topic, consider Encylopedia Geopolitica’s intelligence consulting services.


Photo credit: Cover image: Levi Clancy // Kurdish population map: Captain Blood/German Wikipedia

 

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