In what is perhaps the most extreme case of persecution, the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons to kill thousands of Kurds in 1988. And the Turkish army is once again engaged in a war of attrition against the Kurdish minority in Turkey, in the course of which thousands have been killed, tens of thousands displaced and hundreds of villages razed to the ground. In Syria, the Kurds have been caught up in that country's civil war and are often victims of aerial attacks by Syrian and Russian forces. Only in Iran do the Kurds appear to enjoy a relatively peaceful, if less than ideal, existence.
The fate of the Kurds first emerged as an issue on the world scene at the time of the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. The conference convened to establish a new world order at the end of the First World War created hopes among many ethnic minorities then suffering from discrimination at the hands of majority governments. Among these were the Kurds. Kurdish leaders saw in the conference a rare opportunity to put forward their case for the creation of an independent Kurdistan. On the one hand, the Ottoman Empire in which most Kurds lived was going through its final death throes. On the other hand, President Woodrow Wilson of the United States had made the self-determination of peoples a main plank of his position at the conference.
Among the delegations in Paris, both the Americans and the British were initially sympathetic to the pleas of the Kurds, but in many ways the Kurds proved to be their own worst enemies. They were unable to unite and put forward any coherent demands, and to define precisely what territory they wanted. Over time, the Americans lost interest in the Kurdish cause and the British developed an interest in resisting it. For the British, the Kurdish area of northern Mesopotamia, with its rich oil resources, was to be incorporated into the new state of Iraq under British rule. Furthermore, both Turkey and Russia made it abundantly clear that they were not prepared to cede any of their territory occupied by Kurds. And thus died the idea of creating an independent Kurdistan.
What happened to the Kurds by the end of the various peace conferences was summed up in these terms by the distinguished Canadian historian Margaret MacMillan in her book Paris 1919: "The Kurds were left under different governments -- Attaturk's in Turkey, Reza Shah's in Persia and Faisal's in Iraq -- none of which had any tolerance for Kurdish autonomy. Within Iraq, the British toyed for a time with the idea of a separate administration for the Kurdish areas, recognizing that the Kurds did not like being under Arab rule. In the end the British preferred to do nothing. Iraq became independent in 1932 without promising any consideration to the Kurds. In Turkey, Attaturk and the nationalists "¦ moved to establish a secular and Turkish state to the dismay of many Kurds. The language of education and government was to be Turkish; indeed between 1923 and 1991 Kurdish was first discouraged and then outlawed."
Prof. MacMillan went on to point out that: "The Kurds have never accepted their fate quietly and Kurdish nationalism, a tenuous force at the time of the Paris Peace Conference, grew stronger over the years under repression." And there was much repression over time. But in the past 25 years there have been some notable changes in the situation of the Kurds.
In Turkey, active fighting and acts of terrorism committed by elements of the Kurdish community progressively gave way to accommodation. The government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which came to office in 2002, launched a process of negotiation with the Kurds. Slowly but surely the government relaxed its controls and allowed the Kurds to use their own language in their schools and in radio broadcasting. And Kurds began forming political parties and participating in government by electing members to the National Assembly. This happy state of affairs was not, however, to last for very long. By 2014, Erdogan decided to bow to the pressure of nationalists, for essentially electoral reasons, and started once again to embark on policies of repression. There is once more a state of civil war in Turkey pitting the Turkish government against the Kurdish minority. Kurdish terrorists have struck government targets and the Turkish security forces have grossly abused the human rights of their Kurdish victims. There is currently no end in sight to the conflict.
In Iraq, the Kurds have experienced a virtual renaissance. Following the first Gulf War of 1990-91, the Americans and the British decreed and enforced a no-fly zone over northern Iraq to protect the Kurds against attacks by the air force of Saddam Hussein. This began the process of creating a separate space for Iraqi Kurds. Following the American invasion of 2003, most of Iraq descended into chaos in the midst of war and civil war. The exception was the Kurdish region of northern Iraq. There the Kurds lived in relative peace and began to put in place the institutions for governing their region. A democratically elected president and legislative assembly now govern what has become an autonomous region of Iraq, with little involvement by the central government in Baghdad, much to the latter's annoyance.
The Kurdish government of northern Iraq has managed to oversee a fair amount of productive economic development and to make good use of the region's oil reserves. In order to defend itself against external interference, it has also built up a sizable military force in the form of the Peshmerga militias. Over time, the Peshmerga have displayed not only courage and determination, but also increasing skills as a fighting force. They have become the most valuable local allies of the western coalition now fighting against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. (There are some 200 members of the Canadian Forces now providing training and assistance to the Peshmerga.) Western defence ministers and generals visiting Iraq now make a point of not only calling on the government in Baghdad, but also on the Kurdish government in Erbil, thus providing it with a degree of recognition and legitimacy.
President Barzani of the Kurdish region of northern Iraq recently announced that he intends to hold a referendum in September to determine whether his region should become an independent state of Kurdistan. If that referendum goes ahead, there is every prospect that a majority of Kurds will vote in favour of independence. Thus will begin the difficult process of extricating Kurdistan from the rest of Iraq. The Iraqi government can be expected to put every obstacle in the way of a dismemberment of their country. The Kurds can expect to find little, if any, external support for their cause. Regional powers such as Turkey, Iran and Syria will be dead set against Kurdish independence for reasons related to their own Kurdish minorities. The Kurds' main western allies such as the United States and Great Britain appear to be firmly committed to the maintenance of a unified Iraqi state. And external powers such as Russia and China are almost by definition opposed to separatist movements.
A Kurdish referendum would seem to have two possible outcomes. The first would be a new process of negotiation between the Iraqi and Kurdish governments in which the Kurds would seek to obtain far more autonomy than they now enjoy within the framework of a new Iraqi federation. The other possible outcome would be yet another civil war in Iraq, this one pitting the Kurds against the Iraqi state. Since the last thing the Middle East needs is one more war, western and other diplomats can be expected to intervene very actively to prevent it.
Louis A. Delvoie is a Fellow in the Centre for International and Defense Policy at Queen's University.
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