Barely a week after the controversial Iraqi Kurdish advisory independence referendum, the Spanish region of Catalonia held a similar vote. The similarities stop there, as the robust reaction of the Spanish authorities to the referendum could not be more different from that of Iraq’s enfeebled leaders and corrupt officials.
By most credible accounts the Spanish authorities have used disproportionate force to suppress an inherently peaceful – albeit illegal – quest for independence. What has been most striking though is not the violence of the Spanish security forces, but the largely muted international reaction to it. Had the Iraqi government used force to disrupt the equally illegal referendum organised by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), undoubtedly there would have been much opprobrium.
The Iraqi Kurdish and Spanish Catalan independence referendums unfolded against a backdrop of similar internal circumstances. Constitutionally speaking, both referenda are illegal and in terms of wider domestic politics the rest of Iraqi and Spanish societies are strongly opposed to secession. Moreover, the broader regional balance of power does not favour secession for fear of touching off a domino effect of destabilisation.
Yet, there is one major difference: the Iraqi Kurds have an army in the form of the Peshmerga which can potentially enforce independence, or failing that an extreme form of autonomy on favourable terms and conditions. Similarly, the irredentist Kurdish nationalist movement in neighbouring Syria is equally well armed and enjoys the same level of support if not recognition from the Western powers.
At this juncture it is worthwhile examining the nature and claims of Kurdish nationalism with a view to pontificating on the effect of potential Kurdish statehood on the Middle East. The Kurds have successfully constructed a nationalist narrative based on victimhood and dispossession.
However, the foundational myths of Kurdish nationalism are nowhere near as dangerous as its contemporary deceptive arguments. The Kurdish nationalist groups rail against “strong” regional states such as Iran and Turkey and call for their dissolution on grounds of fairness and human rights. Yet, these same groups ultimately aspire to a regional Kurdish super-state.
Kurdish nationalism is increasingly identified as one of the most potent political forces in the Middle East. Some analysts even argue that this insurgent force is set to shape the future of the region, likely at the expense of established nation-states.
Most analysts are agreed that the rise of Daesh and allied groups has been a shot in the arms for the nationalist Kurdish groups in Iraq and Syria, and to a lesser extent in Turkey, inasmuch as it has provided these groups with the opportunity to present themselves as the first line of defence against pseudo-jihadist nihilism.
Moreover, the Kurdish groups have reaped the dividends of Daesh’s predictably calamitous collapse by exploiting the chaotic political and strategic landscape left in its wake. This is particularly the case in Iraq where the Peshmerga has seized control of the “disputed territories” and expanded the KRG zone by as much forty percent.
Yet despite this aggressive posture and a clearly demonstrated appetite for large-scale land grabs, Kurdish nationalism is anchored in an elaborate discourse of victimhood and dispossession. According to this narrative, the Kurds are the largest stateless ethnic group in the world whose modern woes can be traced to the Sykes-Picot agreement which set out a grand political and strategic vision following the conclusion of World War One.
The terms and conditions of Sykes-Picot in the Middle East effectively removed the opportunity for the formation of a Kurdish state, so the Kurdish nationalist argument goes. Modern Western historians, academics and journalists often buy into this narrative of isolation and oppression, as immortalised by the description of the Kurds as a people who have “no friends but the mountains”.
This narrative is, of course, at best a half truth. There are other large stateless ethnic groups in the world, notably the Tamils in southern India and northern/eastern Sri Lanka, who outnumber the Kurds.
In terms of oppression, it is true that the Kurdish people have been subjected to horrific and at times near-genocidal punishments, notably the al-Anfal campaign undertaken by the former Iraqi Baathist regime. But the sweeping narrative of oppression masks multiple layers of complexity, not least the fact that the Kurds have often been the object of their own oppression. It is noteworthy that the former Iraqi regime employed armies of Kurdish collaborators known as Jash to contain the nationalist groups.
Moreover, Kurdish groups have at times employed large scale violence against other ethnic groups. Arguably the best example is the Kurdish role in the Armenian genocide at the closing stages of World War One. Moreover, the Kurdish nationalist groups have often attempted to suppress minorities in the areas under their control with a view to imposing a fixed Kurdish identity on their subjects.
Insurgent potency and favourable strategic conditions notwithstanding, it is wrong to assume – as many analysts do – that Kurdish statehood is inevitable. Foremost, this assumption fails to take sufficient stock of the historical record of Kurdish nationalist elites.
A short-lived Kurdish state, known as the Mahabad Republic, was established in Iran at the end of World War Two but quickly collapsed in the face of inadequate Soviet support. Three decades later Mullah Mustafa Barzani, the standard-bearer of modern Kurdish nationalism and the father of KRG president Massoud Barzani, was making headway toward establishing a Kurdish state in northern Iraq before he was betrayed by the Shah of Iran.
The Kurdish people have often been misled, and at times betrayed, by overly-ambitious leaders whose desire for power has not been matched by corresponding level of political skills and strategic foresight. History may be repeating itself as the latest attempt at statehood appears to be backfiring as Iraq finally asserts sovereignty and takes back control of its borders.
The current situation has only come about because Iraqi Kurdish leaders have consistently exploited Iraq’s weakness to advance a thinly disguised separatist agenda. They have also leveraged the support of much of the international community, some of whose key players are oblivious to the consequences of establishing a mono-ethnic state at the heart of the Middle East.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.