"We flew over the making of a new country which one day, if the Kurds weren't betrayed again – as I rather thought they might be – would be a nation called Kurdistan. The first break-up of Iraq."
Those were the words of Robert Fisk, the renowned, award-winning British journalist who recalls in his book The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East, the time that the US persuaded the Kurds of northern Iraq to rise up against Saddam Hussain in 1991, along with the Shia in the south. They did so on the guarantee that the US military would come their assistance and their dream of an independent homeland might finally come true.
That promise was, unsurprisingly, not delivered, and the US only intervened with a humanitarian effort after an estimated 50,000 Kurds had already been massacred by Saddam's forces, and only due to a public outcry in the West. The US had encouraged the Kurds in the north and the Shia population of southern Iraq to revolt against Saddam, but according to one rebel leader: "The Americans are not helping us. They stop us on the road and take our weapons. It is they who helped build up Saddam, then they destroyed him; now the war is over they will support him again."
This had all the appearances of the same old story of Western promises in the Middle East. Since then, the same Kurds of northern Iraq have decided to try their hand at independence, this time by staging a referendum, apparently the most popular choice for independence movements these days.
Months before the proposed poll, the surrounding countries lost no time in warning of the consequence of such a referendum. Turkey and Iran, as well as Iraq itself – which stands to lose the most if an independent Kurdistan breaks away from Baghdad's control — condemned it, claiming that the mere concept of a referendum, let alone the result, would create unrest among the Kurdish populations within their own borders and create a fresh civil war throughout the region. The US has not demonstrated a clear policy on the issue so far, but has suggested that with the conflict in Syria still raging, the timing is wrong. It seems to be more concerned about this than the redrawing of borders.
The opportunity of a lifetime
With the chaos sweeping throughout Syria for the past six years, the Kurds now have an opportunity to get their own state amidst the regional instability. For a century, they have tried and failed to establish an independent Kurdistan, with countless militant Kurdish groups spread across Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria all having differences with each other. The Syrian civil war and the subsequent power game between foreign powers and their proxies have combined to provide the Kurds with a chance they have not experienced since the aftermath of World War One.
The result of the referendum on 25 September was an overwhelming 92 per cent in favour of independence, proving that despite the political disunity in the Kurdish world, the Kurds of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq are generally united in their desire to split from Baghdad. As expected, this result was met with outrage from both Iraq and Turkey; the former closed Kurdish airspace and the latter shut its frontier with the territory run by the KRG and imposed a ban on trade. Both countries have threatened a blockade and voiced their readiness to use military force.
Playing the advocate
Voices in the West have asserted that the creation and implementation of an independent Kurdistan should be the new priority at the centre of US and European foreign policy. A century after neglecting the Kurds during the post-WW1 carve up of the Middle East, the West now wants to play the role of advocate for self-determination.
After so much betrayal and many false promises, the West might yet again be taking charge of the Kurdish question and fulfilling one of its oldest pledges. True, neither the US nor any European government has clearly revealed themselves to be in favour of independence, although leading Western media have, but their actions suggest that they are. The US supply of arms to the Kurdish militant groups in northern Syria – bedfellows of the PKK terrorist group in Turkey – and the deployment of military advisors and Special Forces units from both the US and Britain in particular show that Western powers are subtly influencing events.
In recent months, the US has openly declared the sale of arms to the YPG (People's Protection Units), the Kurdish militia in northern Syria, in order to lead the fight against Daesh. Turkey suspected, understandably, that the arms will not just be used against Daesh, but also in the struggle for an independent state after the extremists have been defeated. The same group confirmed those fears when, back in May, it proclaimed its aim to "build a free Syria" with the weapons that the US is supplying to them.
Lawrence of Kurdistan
Just as T.E. Lawrence, among other British military advisors, went among the Hashemites and their Bedouin fighters a century ago during World War One to lead the "Arab Revolt" against the Turks — with a doomed dream of a United Arab Kingdom — so too is a "Kurdish Revolt" now taking place. There are many Lawrences among Kurdish groups, training them and using their hopes for independence to the advantage of Western interests.
Whichever form of independence the Kurds will achieve in the future – whether it be simply a small state in the north of Iraq or a larger state encompassing most of the Kurdish heartlands in the four neighbouring countries – there are two things that we can say for certain: first, the uncompromising and stubborn attitude of all players involved means that a military conflict will be inevitable if the Kurdish "yes" vote is constantly dismissed and unrecognised. While all sides prefer restraint, we must remember that they have all proclaimed their readiness for direct conflict, and that the Kurds have been revived with arms which they will not hesitate to use. Secondly, the borders drawn up by the West 100 years ago will undoubtedly be altered.
KRG President Masoud Barzani was right when he said that "the era of Sykes-Picot is over," but he's wrong if he thinks that the new borders have not been shaped by those same Western powers. This era of a chaotic and brutal attempt by Daesh to destroy the borders and the subsequent power-grab by the Kurds is the prelude to a new Sykes-Picot carve-up which is, at the moment, both nameless and faceless. Nevertheless, change is happening.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.