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The Question of Self-Governance of the Kurdish People

Who are the Kurds?

For centuries, Kurds have lived in the heart of the Middle East. Today, some 30 to 40 million Kurds live predominantly in the area where Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq come together (north Iraq, northeast Syria, southeast Turkey, and northwest Iran). They constitute one of the world’s largest nationless ethnic minorities. Towards the end of the 19th century and during the 20th century, the Kurdish question escalated once more, and the heat seems to have only increased in the 21st century, especially over the last few years.

The fall of the Ottoman Empire meant that many previously “united” regions suddenly had a very real chance at independence and self-governance. Among those were areas inhabited by the Kurdish people. However, despite being a very prominent ethnic group, the question of a Kurdish state was very sparingly discussed after World War I. Several attempts to establish an independent Kurdish state took place, but all failed. The most notable were the so-called, British-backed, Republic of Ararat, and the Kingdom of Kurdistan. However, the big Kurdish revolts died down towards the end of the 1930’s. Many Kurds were displaced, and as a result of population redistribution attempts, the relationship between the Kurds and the Turkish government was heavily damaged, and has not recovered today.

But in recent decades, tensions have flared up once more. Between 1984 and 1999, the Turkish government and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) waged open war, both sides committing war crimes. In Iraq, the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s put the Kurdish population directly into the crossfire. In Syria, anti-Kurdish violence similar to that In Iraq or Turkey, for example, took place a lot less – but heavy restrictions are in place to suppress the Kurdish language, some breaching international law. These tensions led to the destruction of thousands of villages, the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians, and the deportation or otherwise primarily domestic displacement of hundreds of thousands, if not more.

What other players are involved?

Kurdish minorities live predominantly in Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria, but there are also significant minorities in Armenia and Azerbaijan. Relations between the Kurdish minorities and the governments of their respective home countries have historically always been rather tense, but several governments have Kurdish representatives in their parliaments, and recently, there have been some shifts in the representation of the Kurds in the Turkish parliament, with the current government’s AKP losing seats and the pro-Kurdish HDP gaining significant support.

Besides the nations with Kurdish minorities, several other countries play an important role. Israel, for example, openly supports the formation of an independent Kurdish state. The United States also plays a significant role, in that it facilitated the creation of a safe-haven for Kurds in northern Iraq during and after the Iraq War of 2003. Also, US forces have worked closely with the Peshmerga, the Kurdish militia operating from the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq. There are numerous other countries that have supported the Kurds, especially over recent years, with various forms of aid. Additionally, there are several actors that refuse to see the PKK as a terrorist organization, as Turkey, the US and many of its allies, or the EU, would. These actors are the UN, China, India, Russia and Switzerland.

The current situation

When the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) declared a caliphate in 2014, the MENA region was still reeling from the changes brought about by the Arab Spring – with Syria already in a civil war. ISIL swept across vast swathes of land, and the Iraqi army failed to prevent ISIL from occupying significant areas, as well as setting up a headquarter in the northern city of Mosul – barely 30 kilometers away from the Iraqi Kurdistan area, and just 85 kilometers away from its capital, Erbil. This allowed ISIL to radically expand its operations, whereby it took big parts of Syria – including Aleppo, Raqqa and Palmyra – which was already in disarray due to the local fighting that had been going on for several years.

Soon after ISIL’s big expansion in 2014, governments formed a coalition to support local ground troops in the fighting against ISIL. However, not all airstrikes were meant for ISIL – Turkey regularly bombs YPG positions in Syria. The People’s Protection Units (YPG) is viewed by Turkey as an extension of the PKK. However, numerous NATO members including one of Turkey’s key allies, the USA, have been sending aid in the form of small arms and vehicles to the Syrian Democratic Forces’ (SDF) Kurdish units. Among these units are not only YPG fighters, but the PKK from Turkey has units fighting alongside their Syrian cousins. As you probably have noticed, the situation in Syria is immensely complex, and the discussion of a Kurdish state in Syria does not seem to be of particular relevance until the fighting will have abated.

In Iraq, however, the war against ISIL is nearing a close. The terrorist group that proclaimed a caliphate three years ago has lost about 96% of the area it controlled at the height of its conquest. Kurdish forces were significantly involved in ousting ISIL from Mosul in July 2017, and also important to note is that ISIL never managed to gain territorial control in the Iraqi Kurdistan regions of Erbil, Dahuk, Halabja and Sulaymaniyah. However, during 2014, when the Iraqi army fled Kirkuk and the oil-rich region was at risk of falling into the hands of ISIL, Kurdish forces took control of it. Now that ISIL has been mostly defeated, Iraqi forces pushed into Kirkuk, effectively recapturing it.

Part of what led the Iraqi army to recapture Kirkuk using military force was the independence referendum held on September 25th. The referendum had a high turnout of 72%, and was accepted overwhelmingly by 93% of voters. The referendum and its result triggered a wave of controversy, with varying comments coming from many international actors and agencies, as well as numerous countries. Prior to the referendum, the UN urged the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) to hold off, as it could – and eventually did – lead to further destabilization of an already sensitive region.

Despite the Iraqi military retaking parts of Iraq that during the war against ISIL were seized by the Peshmerga, there are still some territories under Kurdish control that are disputed. At the moment, a ceasefire is in effect, but the real question here is how long this will last and what will happen with the disputed areas, and, in the longer run, what will happen with the Kurdish bid for independence? In Iraq, the Kurds have come the furthest. But once the war in Syria is over, which it hopefully will be as soon as possible, there is a plethora of possible outcomes – all dependent of the further course of the war and who will come out on top at the end.

I would urge all delegates to focus on the situation in Iraq. Of course Turkey, Syria, Iran and Armenia are of high importance as well, and the Kurdish question there can definitely be incorporated into a resolution. However, the Iraqi Kurdistan region suits this topic block particularly well.

Things to keep in mind:

  • Self-governance is not synonymous with the creation of an independent nation!
  • Despite the Kurdish people having struggled for centuries, many countries do not, at present, openly support the creation of an independent Kurdistan.
  • The autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan region could be a good starting point, and may serve as an example for neighboring countries.

The following links may prove helpful in obtaining more information on the topic at hand: