The nightmare that is the Kurdish independence referendum will be a lost opportunity for lasting peace in the Middle East.
Some argue that an independent Kurdistan within what is now Iraq could bring more stability to the Middle East, but the idea that a state that is solidified with a functioning military could aid the fight against the so-called Islamic State (IS) is extremely dangerous for the delicate balance of the Middle East. A Kurdish state is necessary for sustainable positive peace – more than simply the cessation of physical violence – in the Middle East. Conducting the Kurdish referendum at this turbulent time, however, will mark the tragic loss of a valuable opportunity that might be better used in the future.
A Kurdish nation-state can eventually bring stability to the Southern Turkish border.
Before I go on to point out the obvious issues with striving to establish a Kurdish nation-state at this point in time and in current political context, I must first give due credit to the possibility of a Kurdish state. It is important, in order to demonstrate that this will be a lost opportunity for peace, to expand upon the potential benefits of a Kurdish nation-state at a more suitable time.
Many political theorists in favor of culturally and linguistically homogenous nation-states point out that a multinational state must develop a complex power sharing system that rarely ensures sustainable peace and often institutionalizes ethnic or religious contradictions among populations, makes contradicting ethnicities hyperaware of their differences and empowers feuding factions, eventually leading to violent conflict. The alternative option for a multinational state is to adopt a single national identity and deny to another group their own identity, as was done in the earlier years of the Turkish Republic in order to ensure stability after the tumult of the Great War. As we see again and again through history, suppressing a particular identity be it religious or ethnic only causes some of its proponents to become highly militaristic in a reactionary and violent manner, allowing us to conclude that most multinational states are doomed for failure. This reasoning certainly applies both to Kurds in Iraq and in Turkey.
A Kurdish nation-state in modern-day Iraq would mute the demands, often manifested in the form of terrorism over the last 39 years, of Kurdish nationalists and ensure Kurds would no longer be discriminated against as they often were in the earlier years of the Turkish Republic with the substitution of the ‘Kurd’ with ‘Mountain Turk’ and the banning of Kurdish as a language. One could make the retrospective case against Turkey’s adamancy over control of the Southeast and the Anglo-French division of formerly Ottoman territory as put forward in the secret Sykes-Picot agreement in 1916, and in favor of having granted a Kurdish state, albeit small, in order to avert the ethnic militarism we see today in Kurdish terrorist organizations because of the denial of national identity to these groups, now allowing for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party to partake in extensive drug-smuggling under the guise of being freedom fighters.
Moreover, provided that a new Kurdish nation-state remains legitimate and does not fall into the hands of terrorists, conflict between Turks and Kurds is far less likely because the current world order of the United Nations places larger penalties on interstate war as does the still prominent concept of borders and sovereignty. As we’ve seen in Bosnia, Lebanon, Rwanda, and now are bearing witness to the tragic events in Myanmar, intrastate wars which can take place with greater ease in today’s political order are very hard to intervene in because they often result in insurgencies and can also lead to outcomes of ethnic cleansing. With a Kurdish nation-state that is highly responsive to the needs of the Kurdish people, there are less openings for divisive leaders like Abdullah Ocalan to advocate for violence, and therefore the realization of Kurdish statehood in Iraq is in line with the Turkish national interest too.
A Kurdish nation-state is in the mutual interest of the Kurds as well as Turkey.
Some might argue that peace is not in Turkey’s interest because of the increased opportunity that guerilla violence provides for Turkey to exercise tighter control over the Southeast, as opposed to peaceful separatist groups gaining international favor through their use of culture and appeals to morality, thus diminishing Turkey’s geographical significance. A simple exercise in logic will disprove this line of thinking.
From a liberal perspective, the guerrilla war has killed thousands of Turks and caused fear for masses of innocent ethnic Kurds living in Turkey, and therefore a government that prioritizes the inalienability of negative rights would desire peace. In terms of the common good of the people, they too would desire for this bloody internal conflict to end. Conversely, from a strictly realist angle, every organization’s primary interest is to remain in power, and increased attacks by the PKK since the failed 2013 ceasefire have led to challenges to the competence of the current government, and therefore a purely selfish government would also want peace after decades of Turkish military power being challenged in front of the Turkish people. Moreover, realists heavily prioritize domestic sovereignty. Therefore, having an active group such as the PKK compete with the Turkish state for a monopoly on the legitimate use of force in Southeast Turkey is not in a realist state’s interest or in the interest of the people for that matter.
In summary, peace, mostly likely in the form of a Kurdish state in Iraq, is in the Turkish government’s and people’s interests, and one can subsequently say it is in Turkey’s national interest. One stunningly obvious example for the practicality of this is Armenia. Despite the allegedly extensive discrimination against the Armenians, comprising accusations of a brutal genocide under the lead of the Committee of Union and Progress, there has been no interstate conflict between Armenia and Turkey because of the weightier consequences of interstate conflict. Furthermore, because the Armenians have a state that is responsive to those who identify with Armenian culture and history, one no longer has to worry about a reactionary movement that can become violent as a result of pervasive Turkish or other non-Armenian nationalistic narratives.
The establishment of a Kurdish nation-state at this time risks undermining NATO and simultaneously empowering IS.
Although a Kurdish nation-state in Iraq might benefit both the Turks and the Kurds, we cannot rush to conclusions at a time of such disarray in the Middle East. To apply the forespoken argument with no consideration for context would be foolish and dangerously parsimonious. Should a Kurdish nation-state be formed at such a paradigmatic time, the US will be forced to make a decision that will inevitably hurt the effort against IS, the already waning integrity of NATO, or both.
Once a Kurdish state is declared, supported by forces that the US is currently using to fight IS, the US will have to take a much clearer and more divisive position on the issue because the stakes have been raised and the issue has begun institutionalizing itself in the sphere of international law. If the US is to choose the Kurdish side, it will completely undermine the spirit of the North Atlantic Treaty’s Article V and its values of collective defense, and if it chooses Turkey it will alienate yet another one of the most effective forces currently fighting IS, also NATO’s second largest Army.
The status quo, a Kurdish militia as a sub-state actor, allows the US to ride the fine line and yields the most effective fight against IS with Kurds and Turks fighting IS unilaterally. This is all due to the fact that the Turkish government has fairly well-justified fears that a Kurdish nation-state, at this point in time, could fall into the hands of those allied with the PKK due to the high levels of activity, positive reputation, and US backing of Kurdish militias that have de facto spoken out against the PKK but still have well-documented links with the terror organization. Whether the US chooses Turkey or the newly minted Kurdistan, it will inevitably alienate either side of the fight against IS. The result of this will also be to further undermine the fight against Syrian despot Bashar al-Assad because of the fact that the Syrian Defense Forces could be preoccupied with protecting the newly established Kurdish state.
Not only is war with Turkey a possibility, but such a war could draw in other states and cause a severe political rift within NATO. Multiple Western European member states have voiced support for a Kurdish state and allow demonstrations by the PKK, a recognized terrorist organization, to run free. Despite the fact that interstate is rare and has greater penalties under the international status quo, the current situation dictates that there is the significant risk of a clash between Turkey due to the possibility of groups identified as terrorists by Turkey seizing power within the new Kurdish state. In such an event, it is unlikely that Western European NATO members will readily follow through on Article V or the North Atlantic Treaty, undermining the already waning integrity of NATO. This, coupled with the preoccupation of Kurdish forces that would otherwise be fighting the Syrian army, will allow Russia to gain greater influence in the Middle East and empowers the Assad regime that has no regard for negative human rights and basic standards of morality.
At a time of year when Russia’s Zapad-17 military exercises are in full swing, an analyst might fear that Russia could take advantage of NATO’s complacency and inability to defend Turkey in order to solidify Turkey’s standing with Russia and expand its geographically needed influence over the formerly iron-curtain Baltic states. Just as Russia annexed Crimea in 2013 because of their need for a warm water port, and they have been invaded time and again from the West, it is not unthinkable that Russia would capitalize on the dispersing of NATO in order to expand influence, militarily or covertly, over these areas as well as grabbing more geopolitical power in Syria in the form of better access to warm water ports, without having to cut through the Bosphorus and the Black Sea.
Even if a Kurdish nation-state was to be established, it would be in futility.
Establishing a ‘state’ within a domain where there are clear competitors for and challenges to Kurdish power would be futile because such a state would have no internal sovereignty. States are institutions that have a monopoly on the legitimate use of force, and an ongoing war in the region is glaringly obvious sign that no such monopoly exists in the hands of any particular actor.
Moreover, the Kurdish leadership have no traditional Westphalian sovereignty whatsoever due to the fact that it would be impossible to resist the influence of outside state actors. The US undoubtedly would look to coopt the new dependent Kurdish state in its fight against IS regardless of its national will and other priorities as a newborn state. Turkey, on the other hand, would be forced to use whatever means necessary to ensure that the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), that has been waging a campaign of terror in Turkey for decades, has no prospects of gaining any power within the newborn state. This would be a complete removal of the state’s ability to deal with issues as it sees fit independent of external pressure, in other words a complete removal of its external sovereignty.
Moreover, at this time, it is foreseeable that the new Kurdistan would be plagued with either internal conflict, distracting from the fight against IS yet again, or would be destabilized by Turkey upholding its right to self-defense. It would be in the interests of President of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), Masoud Barzani, to ensure that the PKK does not begin to hold political power in a new Kurdistan, because in the event that it begins to hold power, Turkey is tempted into intervention with permission under Article 51 of the UN Charter that confers upon states the right to self-defense, undermining the Kurdish nation-state’s sovereignty and legitimacy. The potential alternative to this would be violent resistance from the PKK within the state if the government chooses not to legitimize it, still lacking legitimacy because it would be undemocratic and could once again have its internal sovereignty undermined by a group competing for power within the state in the instance of an insurgency or armed resistance. This way, the new Kurdish nation-state could be stuck at a crossroads between internal strife and external intervention, both scenarios undermining its legitimacy in varying ways.
The danger of referenda pertaining to ethno-national questions and ideas of popular sovereignty during times of political instability
Furthermore, to ignore the volatility of referenda centered around the creation of states or independence movements has dangerous implications. Hosting a referendum on the ideas of popular sovereignty and ethnicity only exaggerates and institutionalizes sharp contradictions within a local population and can cause violent outburst of ethnic conflicts that are very hard to resolve and can even end in sinister atrocities. The Bosnian referendum in 1991 for Muslim-Bosniak independence from Yugoslavia produced this exact knee-jerk reaction despite the complete absence of any previous ethnic tensions between Bosniaks, Serbs, Croats. This ended, four years later, in the genocide at Srebrenica and Potocari, the second largest atrocity on European soil since the holocaust.
Has the world still not learnt that attempting to revive a nation-state within the boundaries of an already existing state, purely on the basis that such a nation exists or had existed in the past, sets a very dangerous precedent? This is precisely what the world has been bearing witness to in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a violent and unforgiving conflict that has displaced hundreds of thousands of Arabs and Jews, with both sides quarreling over land rights based on the historical presence of a certain people. This sets a very dangerous precedent and simply isn’t compatible with contemporary world politics because of the potentiality of endless land-based conflicts arising if every single people was to strive to revive a state from centuries ago.
As Amitai Etzioni points out his piece, The Evils of Self–Determination (Foreign Policy, Edition No. 89, Winter 1992-93), if there was to be formed state for every single existing nation – a particular group bound by common tradition, language, culture, ethnicity, or religion – we would be welcoming hundreds, maybe thousands, of new nation-states to the United Nations General Assembly. In other words, this is simply asinine, and to risk adding extra dimensions to the already deeply entrenched and non-binary conflict(s) in Iraq and Syria in the name of such a redundant concept cannot be intelligent. As I have pointed out, this goal could be attainable, but at times of political instability, such movements only ever result in disaster as we have seen in the 1948 Nakba and the Bosnian War (1992-95) as well as other conflicts, such as the Rwandan genocide that ended in the loss 800,000 innocent lives. More generally, therefore, we see the dangers of sharpening contradictions and disputes of national identity during unstable times, certainly something that has been the bitter fruit of the run-up to this referendum.
The sort of aforementioned internal conflict is arguably taking shape, and such sharp ethnic differences will only exacerbate this. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has issued warning that Iraq could retaliate to this referendum with the use of force. This makes the issues in this case two-fold, because it would preoccupy the Iraqi army that would otherwise be fending IS off of its territory. The factoring of oil into this equation makes the situation far more likely to cascade into conflict because a new Kurdish nation-state would be fledgling for power in its earlier stages, and the central Iraqi authority, so greatly undermined by IS, would also desire this valuable resource in order to attract foreign aid.
This referendum may jeopardize dearly the fate of the Middle East.
One who values the integrity of NATO cannot feasibly support this referendum as it risks further dividing Western European member states from Turkey, encouraging Russia to further expand its influence over the Middle East and creating the political conditions, as doubt will arise in NATO, for the expansion of Mother Russia into the Baltic.
Hosting such a paradigmatic referendum in an area that is already infused with decades of political strife and violence cannot possibly be a bright idea, unless one wishes to ignite an ethnic conflict within the already ruined Iraq. Nothing could be more helpful to IS than to divide the forces that are fighting it. Nothing could be as cruel to those innocent Yazidis, Christians and mostly Muslims that are being persecuted and slaughtered in unthinkably depraved ways. To carry out this toxic and divisive referendum at such a time runs multiple risks such as removing Turkey from the fight against IS, triggering a separate conflict within Iraqi Kurdistan.
The domestic nor the external sovereignty of such a state is unlikely to come into fruition, and thus it is a complete waste for the Kurds to go through with this attempt at independence, only undermining their own chances. A Kurdish nation-state has become a necessity in the equation of peace for Turkey and the wider Middle East, presenting future opportunities for the two sides to cooperate more and allowing the campaign of terror in Turkey to finally cease, but the referendum completely crushes these hopes. As KRG President Barzani has persisted on following through on arguably the most poorly-timed referendum in history, the Middle East is bound only to continue its descent into chaos and bloodshed.