Why Kurdish Statehood is Unlikely

Why Kurdish Statehood is Unlikely

Gunter, Michael M

The following briefs are edited versions of papers presented at the annual meeting of the Middle East Studies Association in Anchorage, Alaska, November 8, 2003. The editors were Hakan Yavuz and Michael Gunter, whose papers are included below.

With the possible exception of Iraqi Kurdistan, Kurdish statehood is unlikely in the near future for several reasons. In the first place, Kurdistan (the land of the Kurds) is completely contained within already existing states – Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. To create an independent Kurdistan would threaten the territorial integrity of these preexisting states. No state on earth would support a doctrine that sanctions its own potential breakup. Thus, the international community has generally been hostile to any redrawing of the map that was not part of the decolonization process. Between Iceland’s secession from Denmark in 1944 and the collapse of communism in 1991, the only successful secessionist movements were in Singapore (1965), Bangladesh (1971) and Eritrea (1991). The collapse of colonialism after World War II and the recent disintegration of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, led to two waves of state creation. However, there are no more empires to collapse and accordingly very few possibilities for further state creation today.

A Kurdish state would probably only emerge if there were a major collapse of the existing state system of Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria in the Middle East. With the exception of Iraq, this is highly unlikely to happen. The Kurdish situation, therefore, is reminiscent of that of the Poles between 1795 and 1919. It took the upheaval of World War I to shake loose a Polish state from the shackles of internal colonialism imposed by Germany (Prussia), Austria and Russia. Although the Gulf War in 1991 did result in a de facto Kurdish state in northern Iraq (more on this below), only a total re-rolling of the international dice that might follow another world war would be likely to lead to the creation of an independent Kurdistan for all the Kurds.

Unless this realignment happens soon, many actually fear for the long-term survival of the Kurdish people themselves as a distinct entity, because the states that contain them may assimilate them. Crawford Young, for example, has analyzed how the artificial states created by the colonial powers in Africa in time came to help mold new senses of ethnic selfdefinition.1 Both Ernest Gellner and Benedict Anderson have argued that states, in effect, create nations. “Nationalism is not the awakening of nations to self-consciousness: it invents nations where they do not exist”;2 or, as Anderson puts it, nationalism “imagines” nations.3

Demonstrating how the state can be used to create the nation, Massimo d’Azeglio, an Italian nationalist leader during the Risorgimento, supposedly declared: “We have made Italy, now we have to make Italians.”4 Again, the point is that the state can mold its ethnically diverse citizens into a single nation. All this would suggest that in time the arbitrary states that include the Kurds might assimilate them, a process that is already occurring in part.5

Thus, the Kurds continue to suffer from a form of internal colonialism that has stunted the full development of their nationalism. Many different observers have also noted the negative effect of such primordial divisions as tribe, clan, language and locality on the creation of a Kurdish state and nation.6 Kurdish nationalism seems stuck in a time warp from which others emerged more than a century ago. Even as a nation, the Kurds remain divided, as were the Germans before 1871 and the Italians before 1861.

The Kurds also lack a Bismarck or a Garibaldi. No contemporary Kurdish leader has been able to rise above the level of tribal warlord to true statesman. Jalal Talabani, Massoud Barzani and Abdullah Ocalan – the three main Kurdish leaders during the past quarter century – have fought against each other as much as they have fought against the states that deny Kurdish self-determination. Tongue in cheek, Jonathan Randal even “suspectfed] a rogue chromosome in Kurdish genetics causes . . . fissiparous tendencies.”7

The Kurdish tendency for infighting certainly allows the neighboring states to use divide-and-rule tactics against them. In the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88), for example, each side used the other’s Kurds as a fifth column. Since the 1990s, Turkey has repeatedly played the Iraqi Kurds off against its own rebellious Kurds and supported one Iraqi Kurdish group against another. Given such a situation, it is difficult to envision a united Kurdistan. What Kurdish desiderata, then, can we reasonably expect to occur?


Slightly more than half of the world’s 25-30 million Kurds live in Turkey, where until recently the Kurdistan Workers party – known by its Kurdish initials as the PKK – had been waging a ruthless guerrilla war against the state.8 Gradually, however, the Turkish army was able to militarily marginalize the PKK and in February 1999 capture its leader, Abdullah (Apo) Ocalan. His death sentence was appealed to the European Court of Human Rights, however, and then rescinded as part of Turkey’s application for membership in the European Union (EU). Indeed, the entire Kurdish question in Turkey has now become caught up in the question of Turkey’s application for admission to the EU.9

Even before Ocalan’s capture, however, the PKK had abandoned its demands for Kurdish independence in favor of, first, federation and, now, simply genuine democracy within the preexisting Turkish borders. Early in 2002, the PKK even changed its name to the Kurdistan Freedom and Democracy Congress (KADEK), which indicated a new, more moderate stance. Then in November 2003, KADEK dissolved itself and supposedly created a new, even more moderate and democratic organization tentatively called the Kurdistan Peoples Congress (Kongra-Gel).10

The fact that as many as 60 percent of Turkey’s Kurds now live west of Ankara, that is, outside of their historic homeland in the southeast of Turkey, makes Kurdish independence from Turkey even more impractical. Why would these ethnic Kurds, many of whom are at least partially assimilated anyway, want to give up their more prosperous lives in the west to return to a problematic future in the east?

To meet EU standards of democracy and minority rights as enumerated in the Copenhagen Criteria, Turkey must, among many other steps, grant its Kurdish ethnic population its cultural, educational, social and political rights. For many years, Turkey has feared that to do so would invite Kurdish secession. Slowly but surely, however, the lure of EU membership has begun to convince many in Turkey of the need to satisfy Kurdish demands.

In August 2002, the Turkish parliament finally passed a reform package that, in theory at least, promises to accomplish these ends. It remains to be seen, of course, whether these reforms will indeed be implemented. Too often in the past, similar hopes have been dashed on the rock of Turkish ultra-nationalism. Nevertheless, the best hope for the Kurds in Turkey today would seem to be Turkey’s meeting the EU criteria for true democracy, which would imply granting Kurdish rights within Turkey’s preexisting borders. As some have noted, Turkey’s road to the EU lies through Diyarbakir (the unofficial capital of Turkish Kurdistan).


Iraq is a unique case, partially the exception to the argument in this essay that a Kurdish state is highly unlikely. Because of the blunders of Saddam Hussein in calling down upon himself the U.S.-led alliance in the Gulf wars of 1991 and 2003, a de facto Kurdish state has arisen in northern Iraq since 1991.” This de facto state was protected by the U.S. no-fly zone from Iraqi invasion and economically supported by the Kurds. It received 13 percent of the Iraqi money garnered from oil sales allowed by the United Nations until the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Although the two main Iraqi Kurdish parties – Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic party (KDP) and Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) – fought a nasty civil war from 1994 to 1998, their still-divided rump state is currently prospering and indeed is even a model of democracy and economic success for other more benighted Middle Eastern states. The situation, however, remains precarious because nobody recognizes this de facto state. Turkey has even warned that it would be a casus belli if the Iraqi Kurds declared their independence. Iran and Syria also oppose Iraqi Kurdish independence because of the magnet effect it might have on their own Kurdish populations. In addition, the United States is on record as opposing independence because of the supposed instability it would create in the Middle East.12

Therefore, Barzani and Talabani have both realistically denied any claims for independence, opting instead for federalism in a post-Saddam democratic Iraq.13 Despite their disclaimers, however, it must be admitted that facts on the ground are being created. If the Iraqi Kurds continue to maintain their de facto independence into the foreseeable future, a rump Kurdish state there will become increasingly possible.

Iraq, after all, is an artificial state cobbled together by the British after World War I from the three former Ottoman vilayets of Mosul, Baghdad and Basra. Eacking detailed understanding of the various peoples they were trying to meld into this new state and handicapped by strong cultural stereotypes, the British managed to create little more than what may prove to be a failed state that could only be held together by the likes of a Saddam Hussein.14 Since Iraq has no democratic heritage upon which to build a federal democracy – the only type of state the Iraqi Kurds are on record as agreeing to remain part of- it is difficult to see the Iraqi Kurds remaining part of Iraq in the long run, except by force.

In addition, for the first time since the creation of Iraq, the Iraqi Kurds have a powerful ally in the United States. This ironic situation was brought about by Turkey’s refusal to allow the United States to use its territory as a base for a northern front to attack Iraq in March 2003. Courtesy of Turkey, the Iraqi Kurds suddenly were thrust into the role of U.S. ally, a novel position they eagerly and successfully assumed. This new situation was clearly illustrated in July 2003, when the United States apprehended some 11 Turkish commandos in Sulaymaniya apparently seeking to carry out acts that would destabilize the de facto Kurdish government and state in northern Iraq. Previously, as the strategic ally of the United States, Turkey had carte blanche to do practically anything it wanted to in northern Iraq. No longer is this true. The “Sulaymaniya incident” caused what a top Turkish general termed the “worst crisis of confidence”15 in U.S.-Turkish relations since the creation of the NATO alliance.

If Iraq indeed proves to be a failed state that cannot sustain a federal democracy, the United States, Turkey and Iran may actually come to see greater stability in allowing Iraq to be partitioned into its constituent parts rather than forcing it to retain a unity its citizens – especially the Kurds – may come to oppose. While it takes a stretch of the imagination to countenance such a development now, events may move quickly once it becomes more apparent that Humpty Dumpty cannot be put back together. This then would be the exception to the assertion at the beginning of this essay that Kurdish statehood is unlikely. What is likely, however, is that we will know sooner rather than later which road the Iraqi Kurds will travel.


Iran contains the second-largest number of Kurds in the world, but over the years has beaten the Kurdish national movement into the ground and further demoralized it by assassinating its main leaders, Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou in 1989 and then his successor, Sadeq Sharafandi, in 1992.16 Immediately after World War II, Iran also crushed the shortlived Mahabad Republic of Kurdistan in Iran and hanged its leader, Qazi Muhammad. Earlier, in the 1920s, Iran had defeated yet another Kurdish rebel, Ismail Agha Simko, and eventually killed him.

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s Islamic Republic had no place for minorities within the Islamic umma, and by the early 1980s crushed a Kurdish uprising trying to take advantage of the chaos caused by the overthrow of the shah. Therefore, the most that the Kurds in Iran can hope for would be the continuing development of a more secular Iranian orientation that would lead to updated cultural and educational rights for the state’s minorities including the Kurds.


The approximately one million Kurds in Syria are too divided and weak to threaten the current government. Unlike the situation in Turkey (until recently at least), Iran, and Iraq, the Kurds in Syria are separated into three non-contiguous geographical regions.17 The best hope for the Kurds in Syria, therefore, would be the gradual liberalization of the new regime of Bashar al-Asad.

1 Crawford Young, “Ethnicity and the Colonial and Post-Colonial State in Africa,” Ethnic Groups and the State, ed. Paul Brass (London: Groom Helm, 1985), pp. 73-81.

2 Ernest Gellner, Thought and Change (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1964), p. 168.

3 Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1991), from the title of the book.

4 Cited in Benyamin Neuberger, “State and Nation in African Thought,” Journal of African Studies, Vol. 4, No. 2, 1977, pp. 199-205.

5 On the precarious position of the Kurdish language, for example, see Amir Hassanpour, Nationalism and Language in Kurdistan, 1918-1985 (San Francisco: Meilen Research University Press, 1992), p. 466. For further background, see M. Hakan Yavuz and Michael M. Gunter, “The Kurdish Nation,” Current History, No. 642, January 2001, p. 33.

6 See, for example, Martin van Bruinessen, Agha, Shaikh and State: The Social and Political Structures of Kurdistan (London: Zed, 1992); and David McDowall, A Modern History of the Kurds (London: I.B. Tauris, 1996). These two studies stand as possibly the best contemporary analyses in English of the Kurds.

7 Jonathan Randal, After Such Knowledge What Forgiveness? My Encounters with Kurdistan (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997), p. 11.

8 For detailed analyses of the Kurdish problem in Turkey, see Henri J. Barkey and Graham E. Fuller, Turkey’s Kurdish Question (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 1998); Michael M. Gunter, The Kurds and the Future of Turkey (New York: St. Martin’s, 1997); Kemal Kirisci and Gareth M. Winrow, The Kurdish Question and Turkey: An Example of a Trans-stale Ethnic Conflict (London: Frank Cass, 1997); and Paul While, Primitive Rebels or Revolutionary Modernizers? The Kurdish National Movement in Turkey (London: Zed, 2000).

9 Michael M. Gunter, “The Continuing Kurdish Problem in Turkey after Ocalan’s Capture,” Third World Quarterly, Vol. 21, October 2000, pp. 849-69.

10 “International Initiative Briefings: KADEK Dissolves Itself,” accessed at www.freedom-for-Ocalan.com, November 11,2003.

11 For background, see Michael M. Gunter, The Kurdish Predicament in Iraq: A Political Analysis (New York: St. Martin’s, 1999); and Gareth R.V. Stansfield, Iraqi Kurdistan: Political Development and Emergent Democracy (London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003).

12 The argument that the Kurds supposedly make for instability in the Middle East has been made by Stephen C. Pelletiere, The Kurds: An Unstable Element in the Gulf (Boulder and London: Westview, 1984).

13 Michael M. Gunter, “Kurdish Future in a Post-Saddam Iraq,” Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, Vol. 23, April 2003, pp. 9-23.

14 Toby Dodge, Inventing Iraq: The Failure of Nation Building and a History Denied (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003).

15 Cited in Nicholas Birch, “Detention Strains Already Tense U.S.-Turkish Relations,” Christian Science Monitor, July 15, 2003.

16 For recent background, see Farideh Koohi-Kamali, The Political Development of the Kurds in Iran: Pastoral Nationalism (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2003).

17 For a recent analysis, see Ismet Cheriff Vanly, “The Oppression of the Kurdish People in Syria,” Kurdish Exodus: From Internal Displacement to Diaspora, ed. Mohammed M.A. Ahmed and Michael M. Gunter (Sharon, MA: Ahmed Foundation for Kurdish Studies, 2002), pp. 49-62.

Michael M. Gunter, professor of political science, Tennessee Technological University, Cookeville, Tennessee

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