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Iraq’s Instability offers Kurdistan an Opportunity

This is a unique time in modern history for the Kurdish people. Iraq is a failed state. The sectarian lines have been drawn: Sunni, Shiite, and Kurd. This gives the Kurdish region of Iraq an opportunity to declare independence. Iraqi Kurdistan is the regional source of stability right now, with over one million refugees from Syria and southern Iraq fleeing to safety within its borders, which are being held secure by the Kurdish military, the peshmerga. Nearly a century after state lines were drawn by the League of Nations after World War I, Kurdistan (or just its Iraqi portion) may soon be recognized as an independent state. And for Kurdish refugees, many of whom fled Iraq during Saddam Hussein’s ethnic cleansing campaigns, this can’t come soon enough. Kurds are the largest ethnic group in the world without a state. They number nearly 40 million.

After World War I, the West initially planned for the Kurds to have an independent state. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson outlined the post-World War I peace process, highlighting ethnic self-determination and autonomy, in his Fourteen Points speech (1918). Kurdish independence was then promised in The Treaty of Sevres (1920), which was meant to be the peace treaty between the Allied Powers and the Ottoman Empire. Under it, the Kurdish region would have become the independent state of Kurdistan.

During this period, the Turkish War of Independence (1919-1923) broke out and upon its conclusion, the Treaty of Sevres was abandoned for the Treaty of Lausanne (1923); which created the states of Turkey, Syria, and Iraq, among others. It was brokered by the League of Nations, and gave the British control of Iraq and its oil. This left the historic Kurdish territory divided among Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran (formerly the Persian Empire, which had been occupied by the British during World War I).

The concept of a separate Kurdistan was abandoned. This division meant that the historically nomadic Kurds could no longer cross the Mesopotamian plains at will. This forced them to transition from a subsistence, nomadic economy to a market economy, and from tribal to capitalist boundaries. If the area they occupied had become one state, Kurdistan, this would not have been a problem.

The Kurds spent the majority of the 20th Century struggling to maintain their identity within the newly defined states. Iran saw the rise and fall of the Shah, and the Islamic Revolution (1979). Iraq saw the rise and fall of the monarchy, the expulsion of the British, and the advent of the Baath party with Saddam Hussein as its leader. Iran and Iraq also fought each other. The Kurds were caught in the crossfire. During the Islamic Revolution in Iran, they were persecuted for trying to remain autonomous. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein conducted ethnic cleansing campaigns (code name: Al-Anfal) to wipe out the Kurds – killing over 200,000 (1987-1991) with chemical weapons and mass executions; and torturing, harassing, and displacing millions more.

When the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, Saddam Hussein was removed from power. The Kurds supported the U.S. and helped form the new constitution in 2005. There was an unwritten agreement that in the new Iraqi government the three major positions of power would be divided as follows: the speaker a Sunni; the president a Kurd and the prime minister a Shiite. Article 140 was introduced as part of the new constitution to guarantee resettlement and compensation for Kurds and Arabs displaced under Saddam Hussein’s “Arabization” policy. It also determines Arab or Kurdish ownership of certain northern regions of Iraq. However, after several delays Article 140 has yet to come to a referendum.

In 2011, the Arab Spring began – sparking uprisings throughout Northern Africa and the Middle East, including Syria where the conflict became a civil war. The Syrian Civil War (2011-present) has spawned many separatist and Islamic extremist groups, including the group now known as IS (Islamic State), previously known as ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), and ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant). IS is a Sunni Islam extremist group of jihadi terrorists seeking to create a caliphate in the Middle East. By spring 2014, IS controlled a significant portion of Syria and was seeking to expand into Iraq. Massoud Barzani, leader of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), reportedly warned Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki that IS was a threat to Iraq, but Al-Maliki took no action. In June 2014, IS invaded Iraq and began occupying cities at a rapid pace.

Iraqi refugees began fleeing to Iraqi Kurdistan where the peshmerga (Kurdish military; literally translated means “those who look death in the face”) were already defending the region. They were also protecting oil fields in the region. By mid-July, over one million refugees from Syria and southern Iraq were living in Iraqi Kurdistan, and that number continues to increase. Ironically, although the Kurds have been denied their own state for nearly a century, the most secure place in this area of the Middle East, where refugees can find refuge and borders are secure, is the area controlled by the Kurds.

Despite the instability in Iraq, new elections are taking place. So far a Sunni Speaker, Salim al-Juburi, and Kurdish President, Fouad Massoum, have been elected. However, a Shiite Prime Minister may be more difficult to elect given Nouri Al-Maliki’s record and low approval rating. The key issue for the Kurds is whether Article 140 will finally come to referendum. If it does not, President Fouad Massoum, with the support of his Kurdish constituents, may declare independence of Iraqi Kurdistan. Iraq may then divide into three countries on sectarian/religious lines: Sunni Iraq, Shi’ite/Southern Iraq, and Kurdistan. This is not unprecedented – Yugoslavia, also a state created after World War I that included multiple distinct ethnic groups, was divided into seven countries beginning in the early 1990s.

At this point, an independent Kurdistan may be the best option for regional stability. As an independent state, Kurdistan could petition for humanitarian aid for the Syrian and Southern Iraqi refugees that are flooding into the region. In addition, the Kurdish refugees who fled during Saddam Hussein’s reign are more likely to return and support the state. Without the outside support it could receive with independence, Iraqi Kurdistan is more likely to fall to IS. If IS captures that northern stronghold, the rest of Iraq would follow and violence would escalate rapidly.

With statehood, Kurdistan also could contribute to the world economy. Iraqi Kurdistan already exports its own oil on a limited basis. It produces 233,000 barrels of oil per day, and reportedly has 45 billion barrels in reserve. Given current regional instabilities, a stable Kurdistan would mean a stable source of energy for the West. Additionally, Kurdistan is in the center of the Fertile Crescent and has many natural resources.

For the first time in nearly a century, an independent Kurdish state is aligned with Western interests. The U.N. should support an independent Kurdistan, give it aid to help the refugees, and welcome it into the world economy. To support an independent Kurdistan is to side with stability.