The internal conflict in Syria has generated momentum towards a Kurdish state, mobilising many Kurds in the region and within the diaspora. Currently, Kurdish minorities are the largest ethnic grouping of people without a state of their own; consequently, many reside in Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. Additionally, many Kurds are marginalised socially and politically, within the nations aforementioned.
What we witness presently is a renewed attempt towards a sovereign Kurdish state in what is now northern Iraq. Created after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, a patchwork quilt of different ethnic and religious groups forms what is now Iraq. The three provinces consist of a Shiite majority in the south, a Sunni majority in the centre and a Kurdish majority in the north. However, after enduring years of trauma and political marginalisation inflicted by the Baghdad government, this has further incentivised the push for an independent Kurdish state. Moreover, with Iraq a shadow of its former self, for many Kurds in Iraq this is a window of opportunity to finally solidify a nation state in the Middle East. Two years before we became accustomed with Kurdish Peshmergas fighters battling the Islamic State (IS), Masoud Barzani, the President of the Kurdish regional government, understood that the current state of affairs in the Middle East presented an opportunity for Kurdish statehood. In July 2014 he told the Kurdish parliament, “The time has come to decide our fate, and we should not wait for other people to decide it for us.” Barzani’s use of “decide our fate” hints not only at the opportunity but also at Kurdish wariness of western support due to western abandonment in the past.
Moreover, it can be argued what has led to the mobilisation of Kurdish minorities is not only the desire for nationhood but also survival. The IS massacre of Kurdish civilians at Kobani was a flashback to attempts of ethnic cleansing experienced by Kurds in recent history. The chemical attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja in 1988 is one such example, where an estimated 5,000 civilians were killed when Iraqi jets dropped poison gas on the town. Furthermore, many others later died of illnesses such as cancer. Halabja is still haunted by the legacy of chemical contamination more than two decades after the attack. The grievances arising from attacks such as Halabja and the IS slaughter are catalysts for Kurdish determination towards independence.
In addition, Kurdish mobilisation in the name of sovereignty and survival does provide some challenges for resolving the current conflicts within the Middle East. While western powers are keen to utilise the Kurdish Peshmergas in the fight against IS, the creation of a Kurdish state contradicts the aims of the external powers regarding the Iraqi border. For example, the sentiments of Masrour Barzani, son of Masoud Barzani and Kurdish intelligence chief, regarding Iraq’s current borders demonstrate the contradiction of western and Kurdish aims for the future of Iraq. He insists in his interview with the New Yorker that “Iraq exists only in the minds of people in the White House,” emphasising the need for Kurds to have their own sovereign state. Whether Kurdish statehood will materialise is hard to conclude. Nonetheless, the resolve to build such a state will never disappear unless the Iraqi state becomes a state where religious and ethnic factions are blurred to create a sole national identity.
By Chawahir Yussuf