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!”
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.