The Wrong Way for Kurds

New York Post



June 25, 2004 — WITH the end of the 14-month period of occupation, Iraq is
likely to be faced, once again, with some of the problems it has had ever
since it was put on the map as a nation-state in 1921.
The most complex of these concerns the Kurds, whose leaders are playing a
game of bluff and counterbluff in the hope of exacting maximum advantage in
a period of uncertainty.

Both Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, the two most prominent leaders of
the Iraqi Kurds, have hinted that they might decide to “part ways” if their
demand for a Kurdish veto on some key national decisions is not included in
the new constitution.

This may be a bluff. But the threat of Kurdish secession has already met
with two different reactions from Iraq’s non-Kurdish leaders,

Some Arabs are horrified at the thought of the Kurdish problem dominating
the nation’s agenda once again. They are prepared to do all they reasonably
can to satisfy Kurdish demands within a multiethnic pluralistic system.

Others manifest frustration: “The Kurds have been the source of all our
national miseries from the start,” one Iraqi Arab leader told me, on
condition of anonymity. “We became involved in several wars because of them.
We also had to submit to dictators because we believed they would prevent
the Kurds from secession. But now that Iraq is free, why should we return to
the failed policies of the past just to keep the Kurds under our flag?”

Many Iraqis, and some policymakers in Washington, see Kurdish secession as
the worst-case scenario for the newly liberated nation. Barzani and
Talabani, arguably the most experienced politicians in Iraq today, know this
and try to exploit such fears.

In fact, there is little chance for a breakaway Kurdish state in northern
Iraq, for several reasons.

To start with, Iraqi Kurds don’t constitute a single ethnic entity, let
alone a “nation” in the accepted sense of the term. They speak two different
(though mutually intelligible) languages, with each divided into several
sub-dialects, with distinct literary and cultural traditions.

Iraqi Kurds are also divided into half a dozen religious communities,
including different brands of Sunni and Shiite Islam, Zoroastrianism and a
number of heterodox creeds. Some of the people labeled “Kurdish” are, in
fact ethnic Lurs and Elamites, with their distinct languages, cultures and

And the predominantly Kurdish area is also home to some non-Kurdish
communities, including ethnic Arabs, Turcomans, Assyrians and Armenians. To
make matters more complex, at least a third of Iraqi Kurds live outside the
area that might one day become an independent Kurdish state. (E.g: There are
more than a million Kurds in greater Baghdad.)

So the creation of a breakaway Kurdish state could trigger a process of
ethnic cleansing, population exchanges and displacements that could plunge
the whole region into years of conflict.

A Kurdish mini-state in northeastern Iraq might not even be viable. It would
be landlocked and will have few natural resources. Almost all of Iraq’s
major oilfields fall outside the area under discussion – and its water
resources would be vulnerable to manipulation from Turkey and Iran, where
the principal rivers originate.

What about a greater Kurdistan? After All, there are millions of people who,
despite the objective diversity of their languages, histories and ways of
life, feel themselves to be Kurds. Such a state, including parts of Syria,
Turkey, Iran, Armenia and Azerbaijan, as well as Iraq, would have a
population of 30 million in an area the size of France.

But to create this greater Kurdistan, one would have to reorganize a good
part of the Middle East and re-draw the borders of six states, including the
region’s largest: Turkey and Iran. And the greater nation would still be a
weak landlocked state with few natural resources, and surrounded by powers
that, if not hostile, would not go out of their way to help it.

Such a greater Kurdistan would face numerous internal problems also. Which
of the four alphabets in use for writing the various Kurdish languages would
it adopt as the national one? Turkish, since almost half of all Kurds live
in Turkey? But the bulk of Kurdish historic and cultural texts are written
in the Persian alphabet, itself an expanded version of the Arabic.

What would be the capital? The city with the largest number of Kurdish
inhabitants is Istanbul – Turkey’s cultural and business capital is home to
more than 1.6 million ethnic Kurds.

In a greater Kurdistan, the intellectual elite would come from Iran, the
business elite from Turkey. It’s hardly likely they’d allow Iraqi Kurds to
provide the political elite. Barzani and Talabani, now big fish in the Iraqi
pond, could end up as small fish in a much bigger pond.

So Barzani and Talabani have no interest in the disintegration of Iraq. Nor
do a majority of Iraqi Kurds have an interest in leaving Iraq, now that it
has, for the first time, a real opportunity to build a state in which Kurds
can enjoy full autonomy plus a leading position in national power

The experience of the 3.5 million Iraqi Kurds who have lived a life of full
autonomy thanks to U.S.-led protection since 1991 is a mixed one. The area
was divided into two halves, one led by Barzani, the other by Talabani,
showing that even limited unity was hard to achieve in a corner of Iraq, let
alone throughout the vast region where the Kurds live.

The two mini-states developed a complex pattern of shifting alliances in
which, at times, one allied itself with Saddam Hussein against the other.
They even became involved in numerous battles, including a full-scale war
that was stopped, thanks to U.S. pressure.

Like pan-Arabism, Kurdish unification is easy to talk about, but hard to
implement even on a small scale.

Barzani and Talabani should stop bluffing about “walking away.” Other
Iraqis, meanwhile, should realize that a shrunken Iraq, that is to say minus
its Kurds, would be a vulnerable mini-state in a dangerous neighborhood. The
preservation of Iraq’s unity is in the interests of both Kurds and Arabs. It
is also in the best interest of regional peace.

At the start of the 21st century, the Kurds cannot pursue their legitimate
aspirations through the prism of 19th-century romantic nationalism, which
has mothered so many wars and tragedies all over the world.

The Kurds, wherever they live, must be able to speak their languages,
develop their culture, practice their religions and generally run their own
affairs as they deem fit. These are inalienable human rights, and the newly
liberated Iraq may be the only place, at least for now, where Kurds can
exercise those rights.

In other words, this is not the time for the Kurds to think of leaving Iraq
– nor for other Iraqis to deny the legitimate rights of their Kurdish
brethren. E-mail:

[email protected]