Tensions in Mideast after Kurdish independence referendum
Neighboring countries threaten economic and military responses; Benjamin Hall reports from Irbil
Over 90 percent of Iraq’s Kurdish population have now voted for independence from Iraq. While the referendum is not binding, it reflects the will of a minority group that has a long history of persecution and statelessness.
The independence referendum is an important step toward remedying a historic injustice inflicted on the Kurdish population in the aftermath of World War I. Yet while millions took to the streets to celebrate, it is clear that the challenges of moving forward toward establishing an independent Kurdistan are only just beginning. Already, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has said: “we will impose the rule of Iraq in all of the areas of the KRG (Kurdish Regional Government), with the strength of the constitution.” Meanwhile, other Iraqi lawmakers have called for the prosecution of Kurdish representatives who organized the referendum –singling out Kurdish Regional Government President Marsouni Barzani, specifically.
It is worth noting that Turkey strongly supports statehood for the Palestinians but not for their own Kurdish population. The Palestinian leadership, which is seeking statehood for its people, also opposes statehood for the Kurds. Hypocrisy abounds in the international community.
While Israel immediately supported the Kurdish bid for independence, Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan tried to extort Israel to withdraw its support, threatening to end the process of normalization unless it does so. It is worth noting that Turkey strongly supports statehood for the Palestinians but not for their own Kurdish population. The Palestinian leadership, which is seeking statehood for its people, also opposes statehood for the Kurds. Hypocrisy abounds in the international community, but that should surprise no one.
The case for Kurdish statehood is at least as compelling as the case for Palestinian statehood, but you wouldn't know that by the way so many countries support the former but not the latter. The reason for this disparity has little to do with the merits of their respective cases and much to do with the countries from which they seek independence. The reason then for this double standard is that few countries want to oppose Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria; many of these same countries are perfectly willing to demonize the nation state of the Jewish people. Here is the comparative case for the Kurds and the Palestinians.
First, some historical context. In the aftermath of WWI the allied forces signed a treaty to reshape the Middle East from the remnants of the fallen Ottoman Empire. The 1920 Treaty of Sevres set out parameters for a unified Kurdish state, albeit under British control. However, the Kurdish state was never implemented owing to Turkish opposition and its victory in the Turkish War of Independence, whereby swaths of land intended for the Kurds became part of the modern Turkish state. As a result, the Kurdish region was split between Turkey, Syria and Iran and the Kurds became dispersed around northern Iraq, southeast Turkey and parts of Iran and Syria. Though today no one knows its exact population size, it is estimated that there are around 30 million Kurds living in these areas.
In contrast to the Palestinian people who adhere to the same traditions and practices as their Arab neighbours, and speak the same language, Kurds have their own language (although different groups speak different dialects) and subscribe to their own culture, dress code and holidays. While the history and genealogy of Palestinians is intertwined with that of their Arab neighbors (Jordan’s population is approximately 50 percent Palestinian), the Kurds have largely kept separate from their host-states, constantly aspiring for political and national autonomy.
Over the years there have been countless protests and uprisings by Kurdish populations against their host-states. Some Arab rulers have used brutal force to crack down on dissent. Consider Turkey, for example, where the “Kurdish issue” influences domestic and foreign policy more than any other matter. Suffering from what some historians refer to as “the Sevres Syndrome” – paranoia stemming from the allies’ attempt to carve up parts of the former Ottoman Empire for a Kurdish state – President Erdogan has subjected the country’s Kurdish population to terror and tyranny, and arrested Kurds who are caught speaking their native language.
But perhaps no group has had it worse than the Kurds of Iraq, who now total 5 million – approximately 10-15 percent of Iraq’s total population. Under the Baathist regime in the 1970s, the Kurds were subject to ‘ethnic cleansing.’ Under the rule of Saddam Hussein they were sent to concentration camps, exposed to chemical weapons and many were summarily executed. It is estimated that approximately 100,000 Kurds were killed at the hands of the Baath regime. So ‘restitution’ is an entirely appropriate factor to consider – though certainly not the only one – in supporting the establishment of an independent Kurdistan in northern Iraq.
In contrast, the Palestinians have suffered far fewer deaths at the hands of Israel (and Jordan) yet many within the international community cite Palestinian deaths as a justification for Palestinian statehood. Why the double standard?
There are many other compelling reasons for why the Kurds should have their own state. Firstly, the Iraqi Kurds have their own identity, practices, language and culture. They are a coherent nation with profound historical ties to their territory. They have their own national institutions that separate them from their neighbors, their own army (the Pashmerga) and their own oil and energy strategy. Moreover, international law stipulated in Article 1 of the Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States, lays the foundation for the recognition of state sovereignty. The edict states: “the state as a person of international law should possess the following qualifications: (a) a permanent population; (b) a defined territory; (c) government; and (d) capacity to enter into relations with the other states. The KRG meets these criteria, as least as well as do the Palestinians.
Moreover, the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq – the closest it has come to having its own state – has thrived and maintained relative peace and order against the backdrop of a weak, ineffectual Iraqi government and a brutal civil war. As such, it represents a semblance of stability in a region comprised of bloody violence, destruction and failed states. The Kurds have not repeatedly rejected offers of statehood as the Palestinians did in 1938, 1948, 2001 and 2008.
Why then did the United States— along with Russia, the EU, China and the UN—come out against independence for one of the largest ethnic groups without a state, when they push so hard for Palestinian statehood? The U.S. State Department said it was “deeply disappointed” with the action taken, while the White House issued a statement calling it “provocative and destabilizing.”
Essentially, the international community cites the following two factors for its broad rejectionism: 1. That it will cause a destabilizing effect in an already fragile Iraq that may reverberate in neighboring states with Kurdish populations; 2. That the bid for independence will distract from the broader effort to defeat ISIS – which is being fought largely by Kurdish Pashmerga forces.
These arguments are not compelling. Iraq is a failed state that has been plagued by civil war for the last 14 years, and the Kurdish population in its north represent the only real stability in that country, while also assuming the largest military role in combatting ISIS’ occupation of Iraqi territory. There is also nothing to suggest that an independent Kurdistan would cease its cooperation with the anti-ISIS coalition. If anything, the stakes in maintaining its newfound sovereignty would be higher. Additionally, Iraqi Kurds were a key partner for the U.S. coalition that toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime and has staved off further sectarian tensions in that country.
One thing is clear: if the United States continues to neglect its “friends” and allies in the region – those on the front line in the fight against ISIS— the damage to its credibility will only increase.
Israel is the only Western democracy to come out in support of Kurdish independence in northern Iraq. One would expect that the state-seeking Palestinian Authority – which has cynically used international forums to push for Palestinian self-determination – would back Kurdish efforts for independence. However, while seeking recognition for its own right to nationhood, the PA instead subscribed to the Arab League’s opposing position. This is what Hasan Khreisheh of the Palestinian Legislative Council said about the referendum: “The Kurds are a nation, same as Arabs, French and English. But this referendum is not an innocent step. The only country behind them is Israel. Once Israel is behind them, then from my point of view, we have to be careful.” Clearly, there are no limits to the Palestinian Authority’s hypocrisy.
Nor are there any limits to the hypocrisy of those university students and faculty who demonstrate so loudly for Palestinian statehood, but ignore or oppose the Kurds. When is the last time you read about a demonstration in favor of the Kurds on a university campus? The answer is never. No one who supports statehood for the Palestinians can morally oppose Kurdish independence. But they do, because double-standard hypocrisy, and not morality, frames the debate over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Alan M. Dershowitz, Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law, Emeritus and author of Taking the Stand: My Life in the Law and Electile Dysfunction. Follow him on Twitter @AlanDersh and Facebook @AlanMDershowitz.