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The Case Against a Unified Kurdistan

Daniel Pipes has announced his conversion to the cause of an independent Kurdistan, to be built on the foundations that ethnic group has established in Northern Iraq. In the 1990s, he says, he doubted the idea on multiple grounds, not least that “it would embolden Kurds to agitate for independence in Syria, Turkey, and Iran, leading to destabilization and border conflicts.” Now, though, he greets the prospective new nation with a hearty “Hello, Kurdistan!” [1]

As the U.S. becomes ever more deeply involved against ISIL, we are going to hear many such calls to support a free Kurdistan. By the standards of the region, the Kurds are undoubtedly the good guys, the closest thing we might have to an actively pro-Western state. The problem is that defining this nascent Kurdistan is a fiendishly difficult project, which at its worst threatens to spread massacre and ethnic cleansing to parts of the region that are presently relatively safe. Actually, we should listen closely to the wise words of the unreconstructed Pipes, version 1.0.

You can make an excellent case for supporting the independence of a Kurdistan in roughly its present location in Northern Iraq. But the Kurdish people are spread widely over the region, with communities in Syria, Iran, and Turkey, and the eight million Iraqi Kurds constitute only a quarter of the whole.

With commendable frankness, Pipes takes his ambitions to the limit. As he asks, “What if Iraqi Kurds joined forces across three borders—as they have done on occasion—and formed a single Kurdistan with a population of about thirty million and possibly a corridor to the Mediterranean Sea?” He presents a map of the new mega-Kurdistan, which is produced by “partially dismembering its four neighbors.” Yes, he says, this would dismay many, but the region “needs a salutary shake-up.”

This is not dismaying, it’s actively terrifying.

As Syria and Iraq are already in dissolution, little additional damage would be caused by tearing off extra fragments of their territory. In Iran, though, any attempt at Kurdish secession would of necessity generate a bloody civil war, but that prospect does not deter Pipes: secession “would helpfully diminish that arch-aggressive mini-empire.” Turning relatively stable Iran into a fragmented failed state would be music to the ears of U.S. and Israeli hawks, but it is a recipe for escalating carnage for decades to come.

But it is in Turkey that any Kurdish ambitions meet a massive reality check. The country has 15 million Kurds, around a fifth of the whole population, spread over the southeastern third of the country. Turkey’s revolutionary PKK, the Kurdish Workers Party, is an extremely active and dangerous movement, and its decades-long nationalist guerrilla struggle is currently on hiatus. While rightly stressing that the Kurdish state has rejected the terrorist tactics used by Turkish groups, Pipes specifically notes schemes by the Kurdish military to ally with the Turkish Kurds, and his imagined mega-state incorporates huge swathes of present Turkey.

A renewed secessionist movement in Turkey would be catastrophic. It would cause many thousands of deaths and cripple one of the region’s most successful societies. Beyond civil conflict and terrorism, expect a rash of outright wars between the new and emerging mini-states. Violence would likely spread into Turkish and Kurdish communities in Western Europe.

Why on earth does Pipes think such an outcome is worth risking? The only seeming benefit is to punish Turkey’s President Erdoğan, who has shown undemocratic ambitions. More to the point, though, he has become a harsh critic of Israel and of Western policies in the Middle East. As Pipes writes, “Kurds’ departing from Turkey would usefully impede the reckless ambitions of now-president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.” Even if you assume the very worst of Erdoğan, he still falls very far short of the region’s dictators and demagogues, making Pipes’s proposed solutions wildly disproportionate, and, yes, reckless.

A salutary shake-up is one thing. Provoking a regional cataclysm is quite another.

Philip Jenkins is Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University and serves as Co-Director for the Program on Historical Studies of Religion in the Institute for Studies of Religion.

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22 Comments To "The Case Against a Unified Kurdistan"

#1 Comment By tz On September 15, 2014 @ 6:26 am

And Turkey is a member of NATO, so unlike Ukraine which has a similar ethnic split, we, and Europe would be required to come to their defense.

If those marching across our southern border were armed, it would be called an invasion.

We should leave the other hemispheres alone.

#2 Comment By Michael On September 15, 2014 @ 8:41 am

Defensible in theory for Iraqi Kurdistan. But the peshmerga’s weakness before ISIS doesn’t suggest a country ready for primetime. Also, Kurdish proclivity for ethnic cleansing bothers me. Regional conflict would probably be inevitable. There is a reason why Washington always opposes Kurdish grand ambitions.

#3 Comment By EliteCommInc. On September 15, 2014 @ 11:26 am

” . . . as they have done on occasion—and formed a single Kurdistan with a population of about thirty million and possibly a corridor to the Mediterranean Sea?”

And end as they routinely have, at war with each other. If you ignore why discovering why they are spread tghroughout the region, because they inevitable wind up fighting each other, the argument makes sense.

It makes sense if you ignore the historical realities of these artificial states made by the west which have not resolved the matter we experience today.

If you ignore that the Kurds in Iraq actually rooted for Iran while under the protection of their host nation, the idea makes sense.

If you are prepared for the almost inevitable reclaiming by Sunnis, Shia and even Christians of those portions you have essentially stolen for state advantage, the idea makes sense.

Sure the idea makes sense if you intend on ignore a good deal of socio-political realities in the region.

No onme should be supporting the notion unless it is first granted by Iraqis. And given the financial loss — I would seriously doubt that Sunnis or Shia are willing to hand over gtheoir wqealth to a band of ungrateful squatters.

#4 Comment By The Wet One On September 15, 2014 @ 11:42 am

Aw c’mon now? Who doesn’t need a little cataclysm in one’s region every now and again? It keeps folks on their toes after all.

#5 Comment By Rizgar On September 15, 2014 @ 12:02 pm

You cannot ignore our right to live free an in peace. If we are not allowed to rule our country through a peaceful solution, we have to start a new war. The next war will be completely different and destructive so let us gain our independence through a peaceful referendum.

#6 Comment By peacemaker On September 15, 2014 @ 1:03 pm

“Yes, he says, this would dismay many, but the region “needs a salutary shake-up.””

Not without some sadness, I agree with Pipes regarding an independent Kurdistan and a “salutary shake-up of the region”.

As countries, Iraq, Syria, Israel, Jordan, and Lebanon are profoundly artificial. Their internal contradictions and instability have repeatedly dragged us into staggeringly costly interventions. Clearly, the ethnic, and religious dynamics seething beneath their imitation Western facades are pulling them apart, and a great sorting-out is under way.

I disagree with Pipes suggestion that a piece of our NATO ally Turkey be carved out for the Kurds. We are bound by treaty to respect and defend Turkey’s territorial integrity. As to the rest, we owe them nothing: quite the reverse.

We should stand aside and let nature take its course, hopeful that whatever emerges will be stable, a quality every superpower prizes.

#7 Comment By Hassan Dibadj On September 15, 2014 @ 1:11 pm

Kurdish people are not al the same. The Iranian Kurds are not huge fans of Iraqi Kurds. Iraqi Kurds in different cities are culturally different (Soleymanaie vs Erbil). In the absence of an incessant foreign meddling, Iranian Kurds prefer to stay with Iran, I think Kurds in Turkey think the same.

#8 Comment By Adam On September 15, 2014 @ 1:32 pm

The PKK is presently assisting the KDP and PUK against IS, in addition so is KDP-I. The PKK’s insurgency against Turkey, specifically it’s civilian population, is abhorrent but how can you call them out while ignoring the Turkish Government’s near genocide of the Turkish Kurds.
During the last invasion of Iraq the Turks graciously volunteered to allow US Forces to enter via their borders under the pretense that they could come along. Smartly, we turned them down which in order to avoid their occupation of a historically marginalized society that had only recently achieved peace thanks to a specific country’s no-fly zone. While I do agree with you for the most part I think you are missing the bigger picture. Kurdistan has only said they will vote for independence at “some point”. Becoming an independent state surrounded by enemies is not a smart move and I assure you someone like Talibani must see this. Likewise, his neigbors are trying to make his choice easier on which state to join.
The Quds Brigades are already in Kurdistan purportedly with armor as well and Turkey is waiting their chance to sell themselves as well. Iraqi Kurdistan is one of the most stable areas in that entire region and produces enormous wealth that Turkey heavily relies on with their pipelines(producing approximately half of Iraq’s Oil as well). Iran has no ties with that region of Iraq other than their marginalized Kurdish population. And the Turks forming an alliance with former insurgents is questionable as well.
Independence may be the only plausible alternative for Iraqi Kurdistan either that or a heavy western presence that can push out IS and allow the Kurds to remain in Iraq. however, That may require US forces on the ground and most definitely a full overall of the Iraqi government.

#9 Comment By John G On September 15, 2014 @ 2:09 pm

Whether we like it or not, an independent Iraqi (and probably Syrian) Kurdistan is already a reality. I am sorry, but if you have your own army, you ARE independent.

Also, whether we like it or not an independent Iraqi + Syrian Sunnistan is already emerging. Now, we can fight ISIS hoping to prevent this, but the only consequence I see is activating pan-Islamism across the world and dealing with terrorism for decades to come AND having this Sunnistan emerge in the end anyway. Alternative: Let the Sunnis get their state/turf sooner rather than later and even if they choose to be ruled by ISIS at first, ISIS stops being a global problem or terrorist threat AND probably gets booted as soon as the population gets a taste of its rule.

As far as Turkey, its territorial integrity, and NATO, one quick question: Would NATO object to the separation of Scotland or Catalonia? If Turkey is less democratic than most NATO countries and chooses to oppress its Kurdish population, why should that be NATO’s problem?

As far as ethnic cleansing. All parties have shown propensity to do it, haven’t Sunnis been cleansed from large parts of Iraq? Isn’t this whole thing largely a reaction to that? The best way to stop this hideous practice is to step in and help the parties NEGOTIATE a fair partition that leaves roughly equal minorities on all sides. Let them fight, try to micromanage the conflict with “surgical” (whoever came up with that awful term) airstrikes and you’ll have brutal ethic cleansing because that’s what happens in civil wars.

I’d say federalize Iraq while helping the parties define new borders that are equally (un)fair to all. Then if it sticks together as a country – fine! If it doesn’t – fine again! And do the same in Syria, sorry Turkey.

#10 Comment By channelclemente On September 15, 2014 @ 2:13 pm

Better you ask why Turkey is allowing Chechens to filter freely into Syria. Besides, the idiotic pencil and ruler drawing of those national boundaries by two idiotic Europeans post WWI, what is sacrosanct or desirable about them now.

#11 Comment By Lex Talionis On September 15, 2014 @ 3:50 pm

“Would NATO object to the separation of Scotland or Catalonia? If Turkey is less democratic than most NATO countries and chooses to oppress its Kurdish population, why should that be NATO’s problem?”

It would object insofar as the separation was illegal, I think. Britain authorized Scotland’s independence vote, effectively ceding it legitimacy / legality. Turkey has done no such thing. Nor has Spain.

#12 Comment By EliteCommInc. On September 15, 2014 @ 4:15 pm

“As countries, Iraq, Syria, Israel, Jordan, and Lebanon are profoundly artificial. Their internal contradictions and instability have repeatedly dragged us into staggeringly costly interventions.”

Our desire for oil is what has dragged into the conflicts in this region. And there have been relatively few that have been cause for us to intervene.

Our peace keepers in ebbanon — stayed in barrack, if I remember correctly.

Had Saddam not threatened oil production/pwnership in Kuwait, we would never have entered. Interstingly enough, an article I read demobstrated no spikes in the price of oil after Iraq invaded Kuwait.

I am unclear what these internal contradictions are. Every country has nternal contradictions. Which ones demand our resolve I would need some expl,aination and further, examples of our constantly having to go in seems to contradict the effectiveness of our making another artificial state.
___________________________________________

“I am sorry, but if you have your own army, you ARE independent.”

Small note: the ability to control your border soi as to maintain at least the very frame of identity is what makes a stste independent. Merely having an Army or a military doesn’t cut it.

Now the only reason there is any semblence of Kurd state is because of the US military presence. I might support such a state, but the Kurds have thus far proven to be mere bounders, opportunists as opposed to actual, nation builders.

Even the recent history of Kurdish behavior suggests they are not to be trusted.

#13 Comment By EliteCommInc. On September 15, 2014 @ 4:18 pm

Example: their end around run to sell oil without giving the Iraqis the agreed upon cuts.

Before supporting a nation stste, it would be helpful if they could demonstrate the single most important dynamic in international relations — honsety and fair dealing.

#14 Comment By Harrison H. Elfrink On September 15, 2014 @ 4:50 pm

If only we could leave the Middle East up to Middle Easterners themselves.

…Of course that is much easier said than done, when you consider the explosive sectarian and ethnic strife, oil politics, water politics, energy dependency (of western nations), religious radicalism, Israel and foreign military bases and installations. Because of that, the U.S. and other powerful nations just can’t and won’t go with a laissez-faire approach to the region.

#15 Comment By philadelphialawyer On September 15, 2014 @ 5:23 pm

I really don’t care if there is an independent Kurdistan, or not. As with ISIS, why should it matter to the USA whether the current ME States continue as they are, or if they break up, or combine, or recombine, or if parts of one join with parts of another, or of more than one other, and form new units? The Kurds have made it clear that they are all about keeping the oil flowing, and beyond that, the oil, there is nothing of interest in the entire region, as far as the US needs to know.

As for Turkey, I doubt that the North Atlantic Treaty pledge to defend Turkey would apply in the case of internal revolution. If a Kurdish separatist movement fights against the Ankara government, the US can choose whether to support the latter or not.

Of course, separatist movements and civil wars and so on mean suffering and dislocation. But thwarted nationalisms lead to same thing. Perhaps it would be better, for the folks most concerned, to have a round or two of fighting, leading to the drawing up of new borders. Certainly, the frozen borders of the post WWII period have not led to peace and stability. Far from it, these patched together States and broken up national groups have been causing low level, and sometimes worse, fighting for decades.

I certainly don’t agree with Pipes that the US should be sponsoring any such series of war, civil wars, and separatist revolutions. However, I don’t it is the job of the US to prevent them, either.

#16 Comment By philadelphialawyer On September 15, 2014 @ 7:49 pm

Harrison H. Elfrink:

“If only we could leave the Middle East up to Middle Easterners themselves.

“…Of course that is much easier said than done, when you consider the explosive sectarian and ethnic strife, oil politics, water politics, energy dependency (of western nations), religious radicalism, Israel and foreign military bases and installations. Because of that, the U.S. and other powerful nations just can’t and won’t go with a laissez-faire approach to the region.”

It is easier said than done, but not all of your reasons why are equally persuasive…

“the explosive sectarian and ethnic strife?”

Why should the West in general or the USA in particular care about that? Ethnic and sectarian strife is nothing new, and is not unique to the ME. I see no reason why the West needs to concern itself with it.

“religious radicalism?”

Again, who cares? Let them be radical to their heart’s content. Proper law and border enforcement, and intelligence work, will keep our country safe, no matter who wants to re establish the caliphate and no matter how much they blame us for their failure to do so.

“water politics?”

I’m not sure what that means. But, sufficed to say, there is plenty of water in the West. If the ME’ers themselves want to fight over their scare fresh water, as they fight over so many things, so be it.

“oil politics…energy dependency (of western nations)?”

Yes, this is a real concern. But the USA gets only a quarter of its oil (its oil, not its total energy) from the ME. Other Western nations, and China, Japan, Korea, etc, are more dependent. But, first of all, the lack of US dependence calls into question why the US should be doing the policing. And, secondly and more to the point, what use is the oil to anyone, unless they sell it? All current ME regimes with oil resources sell it. There is no reason to believe that rebel groups (who are even more strapped for cash) would do any differently. The Kurds and ISIS are ALREADY selling oil, and neither actually has the legal right to do so yet, particularly (obviously) ISIS. No matter how radical, no matter whether Sunni, Sh’ia, Arab, Kurd, or Persian, the whole region depends on oil, economically, and that is not going to change no matter who runs it, where the lines on the map are drawn, or where the real lines in the sand are enforced with guns.

“foreign military bases and installations?”

But those are problems of our own making. By leaving the ME to itself and the ME’ers, I assume you included giving up the bases and installations. We don’t actually need them to protect the oil (see above), and they only serve to inflame the already hostile religious extremists and to provide targets for their attacks. We should be reducing our profile in the region generally, military bases, yes, but also unnecessary or duplicative embassies, consulates, trade offices, as well as the secret prisons, etc.

“Israel?”

That is the real and only reason why we can’t leave. We are over there to do Israel’s bidding. That is the long and the short of it. Without Israel, Arab/Muslim-US hostility would have had no beginning, no founding basis, and probably would not exist at all. Instead, we have chosen, for no good reason, to take the side of their enemy, and to use all of our powers, influence, money, etc for the benefit of that enemy and to their detriment. That’s “why,” in a nutshell, “they hate us.”

Dump Israel, as we should have done long ago, and as most of Europe seems more than ready to, and all or at least most of OUR ME problems would go away, in the medium to long run. Of course, that is not to say that all of the problems in the ME would go away, but only that, without Israel, they would be no concern of the USA or the West generally.

#17 Comment By Brian Allan Cobb On September 16, 2014 @ 7:00 am

Who says anything about “provoking?”

#18 Comment By Harrison H. Elfrink On September 16, 2014 @ 1:24 pm

Re. to Philadelphia Lawyer

Actually, I want the U.S. to have a strictly non-interventionist stance in the Middle East myself, and our sentiments are not much different. I’m just trying to explain the rationale on why our leaders continue to pursue activist foreign policy in the Mideast.

By “water politics” I meant control of water supplies, which is a very salient issue in the Northern Middle East with Turkey engaging in many damming projects. A lot of the fresh water that the Syrians and Iraqis rely on for irrigation is sourced from Turkey.

Israel is the large elephant in the room, but America isn’t going to break free from the Israeli Agenda until the American governments starts cracking down on foreign lobbies and interests and limits their abilities. Personally, I think the only role Interest groups that sponsor foreign nations and interests (and I’m not just going to limit it to just Israel’s AIPAC, but also the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), the Arab American Institue, US-Cuba Democracy PAC, etc) should advocate cultural exchange and education, NOT influence our foreign policy.

#19 Comment By Douglas On September 16, 2014 @ 2:10 pm

Scotland secedes. AmCon goes “Wonderful! Freedom!”

Kurds secede. AmCon goes “Oh no, this is too destabilizing”. AmCon. Sheesh.

#20 Comment By Reinhold On September 16, 2014 @ 3:09 pm

“the cause of an independent Kurdistan, to be built on the foundations that ethnic group has established in Northern Iraq.”
Now that Iraqi Kurds have given the West a political and economic model which accepts foreign investment and American money, the West is going to give the Kurds a shot. Does this mean that the new unified Kurdistan will include the Turkish communist Kurds and the Muslim Iranian Kurds in the government, or will the U.S. ‘allies’ of Kurdistan only allow a pro-Western, pro-development government as per Iraqi Kurdistan? I’d imagine the answer’s pretty clear.

#21 Comment By EliteCommInc. On September 17, 2014 @ 11:05 am

“Now that Iraqi Kurds have given the West a political and economic model which accepts foreign investment and American money, the West is going to give the Kurds a shot.”

I guess the expectation is that we establish a permanent presence.

I understand the oil issues. But I certainly never expect a single word about our support for South Vietnam by those who are attempting to justify that presence in in the ME.

Laughing . . .

#22 Comment By Julia Duin On September 30, 2014 @ 3:03 am

The world 25-30 million Kurds have waited long enough for their own country and they’ve more than earned the right to have one. The Turks have done disgusting things in making life hell for their Kurds and Turkey only cleaned up its act when it wanted to join the EU. Had there been a united Kurdistan in much of the region that ISIS now occupies, there wouldn’t be this mess.