Freedom in the Balance: A Kurdish State

Editorial Notebook

Lema Kikuchi

As a military confrontation with Iraq looms on the horizon, it is generally believed that Saddam Hussein will be easily defeated and end up deposed and perhaps killed as a result of U.S. military action. The war against Iraq, however, will also make losers out of the region’s most populous captive population: the 20 million Kurds who straddle territories in Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria. While an opportunistic Turkish government has done everything it can to deny the Iraqi Kurds a new state, the American government should make sure that an independent, democratic Kurdistan is created in northern Iraq, finally giving the Kurds something they have fought for and dreamed of for centuries: a homeland.

Instead, the Bush administration recently assured Turkish leaders that in exchange for Turkey’s support against Saddam, the United States will not support the creation of an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq. This deal comes in spite of the recent flowering of Kurdish civil society in the northern No-Fly-Zone under the protection of American and British air forces. Northern Iraq is home to several Kurdish political parties, Kurdish-language newspapers and television stations, and in May 2002, the Kurdish community held local council elections, an event that is unthinkable in the rest of Iraq. Kurdish Iraq already has an effective government with an active prime minister and even an independent army and provides its population with a wide range of social services. Democratic, viable and protected from Saddam, the Kurds have created a relatively prosperous society that serves as an exemplar for the rest of the Middle East.

Turkey, however, views a Kurdish state on their border as unacceptable. It fears that a Kurdish state in northern Iraq would inflame separatist tensions among the dominant Kurdish community in southeastern Turkey. It may seem as if Turkey is acting in the interests of regional security and stability by trying to prevent fragmentation, but its fears are overblown. Organized militant Kurdish separatism in Turkey ended two years ago in 2000, when the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a group which had waged a 15-year guerilla campaign against the Turkish military, finally embraced a non-violent, non-separatist democratic agenda. Since then, Turkey has further consolidated its political and military control over the Kurds by repressing Kurdish political parties and organizations, arresting Kurdish political leaders and restricting the expression of Kurdish identity. Ultimately, backed by hundreds of millions of dollars in American military aid, Turkey’s battle against the PKK cost almost 30,000 lives and displaced two million Kurds. It is therefore unreasonable to suggest that the creation of a Kurdistan in northern Iraq would reignite another Kurdish separatist struggle in Turkey when the last one ended in a major blow to the Kurds.

It is actually more likely that the creation of a Kurdish state in northern Iraq would instead mitigate desires for secession elsewhere. Given the long history of the Kurds’ inability to secure their own country, they would be willing to take whatever they could get. It is possible that Kurds from neighboring Iran, Turkey and Syria would flood into the newly created Kurdish state, rather than remain behind and demand for even more territorial secession.

But Turkey would still have to worry about a Kurdish state on its border, and that is a good thing. Turks would no longer have free license to systematically deny its large Kurdish minority—20 percent of the overall population—its cultural and political rights. A free Kurdistan could place pressure on Turkey to improve its treatment of the Kurds, demanding, for instance, the implementation of newly passed laws that finally allow Kurdish-language schools and broadcasts. Faced with the possible population transfer of a large portion of its population, and faced with a new, sovereign political rival, Turkey’s treatment of its Kurdish population would have to improve.

It is disheartening that one of the few democracies in the Middle East would use a war on Iraq to suppress the democratic hopes and aspirations of other people. The United States, in the interests of promoting democracy in a region starved of it, should help the Kurds secure a state in northern Iraq. The Kurds have already provided the infrastructure and the resolve; all that is needed now is strong American initiative.