By Michael Rubin

Although the prospect of Kurdish independence appeared remote a decade ago, events have converged to offer Kurds an unprecedented opportunity toward statehood. This project investigates the ongoing evolution of Kurdish nationalism and presents policymakers with an informed overview of the national security challenges emanating from Kurdish territory in four countries: Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. Kurdish nationalism ultimately touches on multiple dimensions of American foreign policy, presenting challenges to the stability of the Middle East and to American interests in that region.


War, insurgency, and terror afflict every country in which Kurds live. Still, independence without a willingness to first tackle hard problems or plan for the future can be a recipe for disaster.

Kurdistan Rising?: Quick Take

The Kurdish drive for independence has the potential to disrupt a Middle Eastern order that has lasted more than a century. And yet, the debate both in the United States and among Kurds continues to focus almost exclusively on questions of morality and justice, rather than on the security, diplomatic, and economic issues that one or more Kurdish states or a federation of Kurdish regions would almost immediately face. Michael Rubin examines the challenges facing the Kurds and US policymakers in a new volume titled, “Kurdistan Rising? Considerations for Kurds, Their Neighbors, and the Region.”

Displaced Iraqi children, who fled from the violence in Mosul by the Islamic State (IS), study during refresher courses at the start of a school year organized by UNICEF at Baherka refugee camp in Erbil September 11, 2014. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah (IRAQ - Tags: CIVIL UNREST CONFLICT POLITICS SOCIETY IMMIGRATION EDUCATION) - RTR45UWV

  1. Internal divisions will affect Kurdish political aspirations. With a population exceeding 25 million, Kurds say they are “the largest people without a nation.” However, Kurds are anything but unified. While Iraqi Kurds probably would embrace independence if given the chance, their leadership has not moved beyond a symbolic endorsement of such a vision. Meanwhile, Kurdish leaders in Turkey and Syria now speak more of confederations rather than outright independence. Despite nominally sharing an ethnic identity, the reality is much more complex, with competing political philosophies, religious diversity, tribalism, and even language undercutting any shared vision for the future or what independence would mean.
  2. Iran, not Turkey, is the biggest impediment to Kurdish independence. Turkey has come around to Iraqi Kurdish autonomy and would most likely seek to co-opt rather than crush a Kurdish state emerging from Iraq. Iran, however, would interpret an independent Kurdish state as a threat to its own territorial integrity. Because of past Kurdish challenges and because Iran is so ethnically diverse, any discussion of Kurdish statehood raises deep suspicion inside Iran.
  3. Creating a state is one thing; having a functioning economy is another. In theory, oil and water should make Kurdistan rich. In reality, rentier states often find themselves at an economic dead end. The Kurds will need foreign investment to diversify and expand their economy, but they face five challenges to sustained foreign investment: their continued embrace of left-of-center, if not Marxist, economic philosophy; corruption; a lack of management experience; a lack of financial infrastructure; and the lack of procedural and substantive legal tradition.
  4. Military readiness remains in doubt. Kurdistan will, at best, find itself in an unstable region and, at worst, will be surrounded by hostile powers resentful of its independence and disputing both its borders and claim to resources. The transition from autonomous guerrilla units to a more professional, unified Kurdish defense force therefore would be one of the greatest challenges facing a new Kurdish entity.

Kurdistan Rising Event Video

Ask most Kurds if they want independence and the answer is a resounding yes. “We’re the largest people without a nation,” goes a common refrain. Iraqi Kurdish political leader Masoud Barzani talks about the inevitability of independence and, every few years like clockwork, he calls for a referendum. How would that referendum be worded? No one knows, because no work has been done to make it happen.

Indeed, for all the talk about Kurdish independence, the Kurds have planned little for it. In some ways, that’s understandable. War, insurgency, and terror afflict every country in which Kurds live. Still, independence without a willingness to first tackle hard problems or plan for the future can be a recipe for disaster. Take the most recent cases of devolution and separation: South Sudan (2011), Kosovo (2008), Montenegro (2006), East Timor (2002), and Eritrea (1993).  Of these, only Montenegro is reasonably successful; the rest are either mired in war, dictatorship, ravaged by organized crime, failed, or on the verge of failing.

Alas, Kurdistan is no Montenegro or, for that matter, Slovakia, Slovenia, or Scotland. Whether in terms of the political, diplomatic, economic, or military, Kurdish leaders have failed to prepare for independence.

Residents shop at a market in Erbil province, north of Baghdad, March 8, 2016. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari - RTS9TL5

Just a few of the unresolved issues:

  • Will there be one Kurdistan or many? Every Kurdish region has separate structures and leaders. Are they willing to unite, or will they each aspire to independence on their own, separate terms. Kurds say they are divided among four countries. Could this mean four separate Kurdish states? This isn’t so far-fetched: After all, there are two Romania’s (Romania and Moldova), two Albania’s (Albania and Kosovo), two Palestine’s (Gaza and the West Bank, if not Jordan) and, for that matter, 22 Arab states. And, while Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Öcalan has outlined a plan for confederalism among various states’ Kurdish regions, is this realistic?
  • How would citizenship be determined? Would citizenship be based on ethnicity or geography? If Iraqi Kurdistan becomes independent, for example, would it welcome Kurds from Turkey, Syria, and Iran who seek to move to the new country? Would Kurds living elsewhere in Iraq, for example in Baghdad, receive citizenship? Would Kurdistan recognize dual citizenship? Even if the answer to that were yes, would any of Kurdistan’s neighbors recognize such dual citizenship? And if Kurdish ethnicity is the key to citizenship, what is Kurdish ethnicity anyway? Should Iran’s’ Lors be considered Kurds? What about Turkey’s Zaza?
  • Are Kurds willing to compromise on territory? Maps of Kurdistan vary drastically: Some depict Kurdistan stretching from an outlet on the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf. Will Kurdistan be revanchist? If Kurds are unwilling to compromise, will independence be just the beginning of a new era of conflict?
  • Will Kurdistan’s neighbors intervene? Of course, not only Kurds get a say. Iran, fearing the precedent could impact its own territorial integrity, is probably the most hostile state to Kurdish independence. Likewise, whether Turks are willing to acknowledge it or not, Turkey is heading to eventual partition. After all, with the Turkish-Kurdish peace process in tatters and with so much blood spilled, it seems inconceivable that the Kurds will settle for anything less than autonomy. But partition probably won’t be smooth. Take the F-16 base in Diyarbakir: Would Turkey really hand that over to Kurds, or could a Kurdistan carved out of Turkey end up having a Turkish military base in the heart of its capital? And, while we’re at it, how would Kurdistan build its own air force?
  • What about the economy? A quarter century of nepotism, cronyism, corruption, and incompetence and, more recently, rentierism have decimated Iraqi Kurdistan’s economy. Independence would have a hefty price tag. With estimates of its own oil reserves exaggerated and with no more claim to a share of southern Iraqi oil, an independent Iraqi Kurdistan would begin its life deep in the red. That said, Iraqi Kurds at least have oil. Most Kurds—in Turkey and Iran, for example—do not. Would Iraqi Kurdistan be willing to share its oil revenue with Kurds beyond its borders? If not, that’s a reality check to the nationalist rhetoric so many espouse. That’s not the only problem. The PKK is by far the most popular political movement spread among the four major Kurdish regions. It dominates in Turkey, Syria (sorry John Kerry, the PYD — Syria’s Democratic Union Party — is PKK by a different name) and Iran, and still retains some support in Iraq. If a greater Kurdistan emerges, the PKK — which hasn’t completely shed its Marxist roots —would dominate. Its suspicion toward free market capitalism might do more to repel than attract foreign investment.
  • Is the region ready to renegotiate treaties? The emergence of an independent Kurdistan would mean rewriting 70 years of water sharing agreements. Is the region ready? Or could an independent Kurdistan mean water wars in the heart of Mesopotamia?
  • Will reconciliation or revenge follow independence? In every conflict involving Kurds in the last century, Kurds have been on both sides of it. Questions of who served Saddam and who fought against him are still front-and-center in Iraqi Kurdistan. How will a new state address village guards in Turkey who have served Ankara, or Kurds in Iran who have collaborated with the government?

- Continue reading Michael Rubin's latest blog on Kurdistan

Whether in terms of the political, diplomatic, economic, or military, Kurdish leaders have failed to prepare for independence.

Who Are the Kurds?

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Is It Time for an Independent Kurdistan?


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