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Demise of a political project or Kurdish nationalism?

Kurdish nationalism is one of the oldest political ideologies in the Middle East, dating back to the late 19th century. Since then, Kurds — who make up the fourth-largest ethnic group in the region — have been dreaming of an independent state of their own. Iraqi-Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani was closest to realizing that ambition, but he failed, as did his father 60 years ago.
After World War I, the Kurds tried to take advantage of the chaos and political vacuum created by the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire to establish a Kurdish state.
But their hopes were dashed, particularly after the signing of the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which set the boundaries of modern Turkey and made no provision for a Kurdish state. Over the years, the Kurds tried several times to realize their long-held dream of an independent state.
One such state was the Republic of Mahabad, established in northern Iran in 1946 with strong Soviet support. Mahabad’s survival depended on a continued Soviet presence in Iran, so when the Soviets withdrew a few months later the republic collapsed, but it inspired Kurds nonetheless. The commander of Mahabad was Barzani’s father, who founded the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) after fleeing the republic.
Barzani took control of the KDP upon his father’s death in 1979, and became president of Iraqi Kurdistan in 2005. Barzani was hoping to be a historic leader of the Kurds, but he ended up resigning after the independence referendum he championed backfired.

Washington knew that even if it supported Kurdish independence, no other states would. So rather than side with Masoud Barzani, it preferred to stand with the international community, at least until the next Kurdish attempt.

Sinem Cengiz

On Sept. 25, the Kurds once again thought they had seized a historic opportunity for statehood. Like his father, Barzani needed allies to ensure the survival of a Kurdish state, but again this did not happen.
He stepped down after his biggest political gamble, thinking it was the right time to realize the Kurds’ dream. But he did not calculate that no country in the region wants a new state emerging at a time when Syria and Iraq have become failed states. Except for Israel, the international community supported Baghdad against the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
Kurds try to align their interests with those of the major powers that are active in the region. Barzani relied on the US, but the American stance on the referendum proved once again that the Kurds were misguided.
Washington knew that even if it supported Kurdish independence, no other states would. So rather than side with Barzani, it preferred to stand with the international community, at least until the next Kurdish attempt. The reluctant US stance on Kurdish independence is a good lesson for Syrian Kurds, who also rely on Washington.
Barzani is disappearing from the scene, but this does not spell the end of Kurdish nationalism. His resignation means only the failure of a political project. Kurdish nationalism is actually stronger now regionally than it was decades ago. With the formation of an autonomous region in northern Iraq, scholarly interest in Kurdish identity has also increased.
A Kurdish intellectual sphere is emerging in the Middle East, and nationalism as a political and ideological framework is regaining steam. But this does not mean an independent Kurdish state will be established anytime soon. There are several regional and global actors that have a stake in the region and share common concerns against Kurdish statehood. Under these circumstances, any attempt at Kurdish independence will be doomed from the start.

Sinem Cengiz is a political analyst who specializes mainly in issues regarding Turkey’s relations with the Middle East. Twitter: @SinemCngz