It has been almost 100 years since the Kurds were denied sovereignty at the settlements following the breakup of the Ottoman Empire. Now, demands for Kurdish independence are as strong as ever, and Kurdish contributions to the fight against IS have sparked hope that a Kurdish state can emerge from the ashes of Iraq as we know it now. The situation has galvanized Pan-Kurdish sentiments and expectations— for Iraq’s 6 million Kurds, the question is not ‘if’ a Kurdish state will exist, but when and how.
The most recent development toward independence came with the US invasion of Iraq, overthrowing Saddam Hussein and granting Iraqi Kurds a greater degree of autonomy. While Iraq has been in a shambles since the Iraq invasion and the current IS crisis, Iraqi Kurdistan boasts a commendable democracy amidst a region riddled with conflict. The IS’s attempt to redraw the borders of the Arab-Muslim world have favoured the Kurds: Kurdish efforts to push back IS have proved valuable, allowing them to secure territory previously disputed with Iraq. The threat of IS has also aided the Kurds economically, with the Iraqi government granting oil concessions in return for much-needed military assistance. The Peshmerga’s valuable contribution to fighting the Islamists has also brought the question of Kurdish nationhood to public attention, especially on social media.
Now seems as propitious a time as ever to re-evaluate the potential for an independent Kurdistan in Iraq. Baghdad cannot have much of a say as the government has proven unable to hold its own people and country together throughout the years, and is now largely relying on Kurdish military support. Meanwhile, in Turkey, relations between Istanbul and the Kurds are warming. This bodes well for the hopefuls, as the potential for independence lies largely with the co-operation of this vital Kurd host nation. Erdogan has been considered a more co-operative Turkish leader, and a move to peaceful relations between the two parties has been facilitated both by him and the imprisoned PKK leader Abudallah Ocalan, who recently called for an end to violent struggle.
The Kurds face a period of great uncertainty, but also opportunity. They have earned their independence but face many challenges, not least from world powers refusing to rethink their situation. The West, acknowledging Iraq’s authority, declines arming the Kurds directly in the fight against IS, fearing that a well-armed Kurdish army could later turn against its host. Furthermore, the oil-based economy is not stable enough to secure financial stability in Kurdistan, and corruption is widespread. Although less important than relations with Turkey and Iraq, optimistic Kurds also need to turn to Iran and Syria for cooperation. Syria, like Iraq, is in no position to oppose Kurdish secession, which is adding to the Kurdish momentum. But Kurds continue to face obstacles to their goal, not least the shortage of international support for their cause. Western states, while quick to applaud Kurdish military accomplishments against IS, are reluctant to support their quest for national self-determination. Despite their current momentum and however much they deserve independence, unfortunately it seems that Kurdish dreams remain in the hands of outside powers.