By Prof. M. R. Izady
The geopolitics of Kurdistan has effectively precluded the formation of an independent Kurdish state in this century. Currently stretching over seven inter-national boundaries (and detached pockets in two more states), Kurdistan resembles an arching shield of highlands, which separated the Middle East from the advance defense lines of the Soviet Union in the Caucasus for 74 eventful years. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, coupled with the receding power of Russia, an unclear future looms on the northern horizons of the Middle East, with Kurdistan continuing to serve as a buffer zone.
The Kurds have had the dubious distinction of being the only ethnic group in the world with indigenous representatives in four contending world geopolitical power formations: the Arab world (in Iraq and Syria), NATO (in Turkey), the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet bloc (in Soviet Caucasia), and the South Asian-Central Asian bloc (in Iran and Soviet Turkmenistan). The Kurds and their fate in the 20th century must be understood within the context of power politics among these world blocs and their shifting points of interest.
For world powers to help the Kurds in order to pressure Iran meant to indirectly but seriously press Turkey’s eastern flank with the USSR, with clear ramifications for NATO security. To help the Iraqi Kurds is to assist Iran and Syria indirectly in their long-standing antagonism toward Baghdad, and again worry Turkey. The Arab bloc, at any rate, has found it unpalatable to have non-Arab minorities in Iraq or Syria wooed by out-side forces. For the West, not to help the Kurds at all meant to leave them to seek aid from the Soviet Union, or to push the Kurds towards terrorism as the only other alternative for furthering their cause. The demise of the Soviet Union has removed this northern card from the Kurdish leaders’ deck, but the present fluid situation can revert to its old form, or find a new and unfamiliar shape.
Kurdistan as the primary watershed in an otherwise dry Middle East is of critical importance to the states that now administer it. Further, nearly all the Syrian and Turkish petroleum deposits are in Kurdistan, while the old Kirkuk fields in Iraq constitute about one-third of that state’s total petroleum reserves (see Natural Resources: Oil). In fact these very same economic concerns likely were the principal reason Britain chose to short-circuit the process set in motion by the Treaty of Sèvres for an independent Kurdistan after World War I. Because of the strategic and economic importance of the oil-bearing territories of central Kurdistan, Britain incorporated them in its Mandate of Iraq, allowing the rest to be annexed by Turkey in return.
A further impediment to their national well-being is that the Kurds lack natural friends in their immediate vicinity. In this respect they contrast markedly with the Palestinians, who are surrounded and generally supported by other Arabs and serve as a unifying cause for pan-Arabists. The Kurds share an ethnic identity with none of their sovereign neighbors. The Kurds are victims of their own strategic location and world geopolitical concerns. They re-main friendless locally and internationally.
At the same time the Kurds are divided by their dispersal into so many geopolitical blocs, each with a distinct state culture and weltanschauung whose influence they cannot entirely escape. Today the eastern and southern Kurds are expected to follow the Islamic, traditionalist ideology of Iran, while the Iraqi and Syrian Kurds, on the other hand, are obliged to adapt their heritage and justify their existence under the radical Arabism of these two anti-Western states. In Anatolia, Kurdish culture faces a Turkey with a southeast European outlook and a staunchly pro-Western, modernist government.
These cultural, economic, and political forces are pulling the segments of the Kurdish nation in various directions. If not stopped, in the long run they will undoubtedly undermine the cultural coherence and national identity of the Kurds, creating new nations out of the single old one. It is a possible fact that these forces have already done so.
Considering all the benefits and liabilities that holding on to the Kurdish territories and expanding population have and will have for the administering states of the Middle East, what would actually happen if Kurdistan were to become wholly or in part independent? What would be the geopolitical, economic, and social ramifications of an independent Kurdistan for the states from whose present territories such a sovereign Kurdistan might hypothetically emerge? Who would be the winners and who the losers?
Let’s start with Turkey, where the majority of Kurds live today. Were a greater pan-Kurdish sovereign state to emerge that included all contiguous territories in which Kurds predominate today, the Turkish Republic would actually fare better economically, socially, and internationally than now. Kurdistan is economically the most depressed part of Turkey, and its society is the most conservative, most procreative, least educated, and least integrated portion of the otherwise European Turkey. It does not require much sophistication to see that for Turkey to shed such an area and population, it would be shedding only liability. In fact, in losing Kurdistan, peninsular Turkey would become as European sociologically, demographically, economically, and historically as any country in southeastern Europe, if not actually more. Trimmed of its deeply Asiatic, and poorest, parts in Kurdistan, peninsular Turkey would almost certainly be admitted into the European Community, paving a very clear road for Turkey in Europe. Kurdish strategic water resources would also become irrelevant to Turkey, as no major river in the reconfigured Turkey would depend for any appreciable part of its waters on the Kurdish highlands. The Tigris-Euphrates system, for example, flows south from Kurdistan into Iraq and Syria, and the Araxes and Kura east into Armenia and Georgia. The high Taurus mountain system effectively separates geologically and hydrologically Kurdistan from peninsular Anatolia. Turkey would lose the potential sale of the Kurdish waters to the thirsty Arab countries farther south, but such earnings would never compensate for the expense of up keeping Kurdistan.
The dissolution of an unworkable and economically unviable polity has in fact just occurred in the state neighboring Turkey: the Soviet Union. Overlooking the current difficulties born of many decades of economic mismanagement, Russia is already faring better in the realm of social and human rights, and should fare better economically than when it held onto its empire, which drained Russian wealth in order to pay for the upkeep of the poor dominions in central Asia and the Caucasus. Trimmed of Kurdistan, Turkey would have a much higher per-capita income, higher literacy rates, much lower population growth rates, a much more modern transportation system, and less reason to pile up cases of human rights abuses. In fact, it would also have fewer neighbors in Asia to worry about. The land borders in Asia of such a reconfigured Turkish state would be solely with a sovereign Kurdistan and Georgia. Turkey, in short, would be the biggest winner in the geopolitical scenario of an independent Kurdistan.
For Iran, on the other hand, the loss of most of its Kurdish territories (the Khurâsâni enclave could not conceivably be included in the Kurdish state, because of its distance from contiguous Kurdistan) would likely mean further dissolution of that state along its ample inter-ethnic seams. Iran would cease to exist as it has since ancient times. The state is basically made up of ethnic minorities. The consent to let go of the Kurds, their third largest ethnic group, would leave little justification for Teheran to keep the other dozen or so ethnic groups within its borders. The northern Azeris have al-ready established their own independent state on the former territories of the Soviet Union. The more numerous Iranian Azeris might find it meaningless to stay on if pieces start falling away from the Iranian state body. They might well opt for unification with the independent northern Azerbaijan. We need not to look into economic ramifications for Iran, as the political ones are dire enough. Iran would turn out to be the biggest loser if a pan-Kurdish sovereign state were to form.
Syria would lose its pockets of Kurdish lands, with little overall affect on the state, except perhaps a bruised sense of “nationalism.” The loss of Kurdish territories to Syria could be well compensated by a transfer to that state of those Arab-inhabited territories of the Harrân Plain (southeast of Urfâ) and south of Mardin. These areas are now part of Turkey, but out of geographical necessity would be included within Kurdistan in any Turkish-Kurdish disassociation arrangement. Syria would then be-come almost totally Arabic speaking, with little or no overall territorial loss. Economically, all the disjointed Kurdish territories in Syria are of less economic value than the fertile cotton fields of the Harrân Plain alone. Iraqi consent to let go of its Kurdish territories, with their rich natural and agricultural resources, would mean a good deal of economic loss to that state. The loss of the petroleum fields of Kirkuk, its refineries, and other facilities would be dearly missed. But there is much more oil in southern, Arab Iraq, and the loss of Kirkuk oil would be forgotten sooner than later. It would be the loss of its strategic hold on the headwaters of the Tigris’ major tributaries, which would put it at the mercy of an independent Kurdistan for three-quarters of its river water supply, that could not be forgotten sooner or later. Both the Tigris and the Euphrates form in Kurdistan, and receive no other tributaries of note once outside the Kurdish mountains. The question of control over its water resources should be of great worry to any government in Baghdad, and loss of its Kurdish territories would be most dearly felt because of water, not oil.
The entire Iraqi state has had a tormented modern history due mainly to the Kurdish question, and all parties would breathe in relief once a disassociation had taken place. Like Syria, Iraq too would become almost totally Arabic speaking, but less wealthy, and much less secure.
A Pan-Kurdish State?
It would be very difficult to justify the need, initial or eventual, of one, all-inclusive independent “Greater Kurdistan.” To include all Kurdistan and all Kurds within such a country would unrealistically anticipate the brake up of many established state boundaries. Contemporary world contains many sovereign countries that share a common language and culture. There are, e.g., a score of Arab countries, a dozen Spanish-speaking, many who speak German or English, and three sovereign states with Persian being their official language. Many Arabic, Spanish, German, English and Persian speaking groups who live as minorities in other sovereign countries. Why should Kurdish statehood then mean Greater Kurdistan or none? A Kurdish state need not contain all Kurds or even most of the Kurds. Republics of Azerbaijan, Armenia and Laos contain only a minority of the Azeris, Armenians and Laotians alive today. Kurdish leaders like Barzani, Talabani or Ocalan may, realistically, legitimately and morally aim their aspirations at only their own respective portions of Kurdistan.
Based on the experience of other nations, two types of independence are possible for Kurdistan:
1. A Pan-Kurdish State. A near all-inclusive, pan Kurdish state, is the most illusive of all options, not just for external reasons, but internal as well. This option foresees the dismemberment of four Middle Eastern states, including its two most populous and powerful ones: Iran and Turkey. Middle Eastern societies are far from that level of social maturity that allows for the Quebecers or the Slovaks to divorce Canada and Czechoslovakia by simply voting for it. None of the states administering portions of Kurdistan are about to allow such a luxury to the Kurds or any other group living under their jurisdiction any time soon. In view of the effectiveness of modern weaponry (impact of some of them were well tasted by the Iraqi Kurds in the last decade), a protracted bloody war between the Kurds and these states will surely result in destroying more than would ever survive to become part of that pan-Kurdish state. Short of a cataclysm of the magnitude of the WWI and the break up of the all local states’ structure, one cannot see how else the Kurds can extract all their people and territories from these states.
A pan Kurdish state may not even be feasible for internal reasons. Kurdish society’s internal cultural cleavages are as vast as those that normally exist among all large, far-flung nations. Uniting the Kurds of Maras and Antep with those of Sanandaj and Kirmanshah may be as awkward and impractical as uniting the comparably-distanced Arabs of Iraq and Syria, or Germans of Austria, Switzerland and Germany.
In the event that such a pan-Kurdish state did come to be, it should in the long run fare well. Economically, it would have vast water and agricultural resources. Its petroleum reserves are already well-developed, with its own refineries, pipelines, and exporting facilities on the Gulf of Alexandretta already in place. It would be one of the biggest countries in the entire Middle East, and potentially one of the wealthiest. It would border at least on seven sovereign countries, and would by necessity be a major player in Middle Eastern affairs.
2. Many Kurdistans: But why should there be the only one Kurdistan, small or large? Let us not forget that in the very neighborhood of Kurdistan there are now over a score of Arabic-speaking and three Persian-speaking states. Farther a field, there are four German-speaking, a score or so Spanish and a dozen English-speaking states. Each groups of these countries have much in common historically and culturally in addition to the element of language. National identity takes more than just a common language or a common culture to translate into a unitary state. None of the above-mentioned states are rushing to unify under a single flag. Such a feat requires either brute force or a plain and immediate profit to compel the average person opting for it. Lacking these, the prospect of a unified, pan-Kurdish state emanating solely from a common Kurdish national identity is as unlikely as a pan-Arab, pan-German or a pan-Persian state. In case of Kurdistan, even now when there are no immediate prospect of independence, the various Kurdish political parties are often compelled to settle their differences through open warfare (see Recent History and Political Parties). How realistic is to expect that these same groups put their differences aside for the sake of a unified greater Kurdistan when and if such a prospect present itself? What would prevent the far-flung, heterogeneous Kurdistan not go the way of all these other nations given as examples above, splitting into many “Kurdistans”?
In any scheme to create independent Kurdistan(s), vast numbers of Kurds will remain outside its (their) territories. By the very necessity of geography, Kurdish-inhabited regions of Khurasan, central and western Anatolia and the Caucasus cannot be connected to an independent Kurdistan without transferring more non-Kurds populating the intervening lands to “Kurdistan” than Kurds. Kurds of central Anatolia and Khurasan have not been connected to contiguous Kurdistan since the classical times, and those in the Caucasus since the middle of the 19th century following the massive influx of Armenians into the khanate of Erivân (Republic of Armenia). These regions could not be expected to join an independent Kurdistan, but the inhabitants can choose to emigrate in their millions and settle in such a hypothetical Kurdish state(s).
These immigrant populations will have a hard time sympathizing with such a state when a real prospect of secession emerges. Being left behind, they would need to bear the brunt of the secession and demand for their speedy departure or assimilation.
Bibliography: Mehrdad Izady, “Geopolitics of Kurdistan vs. Hopes of a New World Order,” in Altered States: A Reader in the New World Order, eds. Phyllis Bennis and Michel Moushabeck (New York: Interlink, 1993); Chris Kutschera, “Le Mouvement National Kurde,” Military Review 6-6 (1981); Theodore Nash, “The Effect of International Oil Interests upon the Fate of Autonomous Kurdish Territory: A Perspective on the Conference at Sèvres, August 10, 1920,” International Problems 15, 1-2 (1976).