The Fear of a Free Kurdistan in the Middle East of the 21st Century

Dr. Ayla Gol*

Since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad and the de facto existence of Iraqi Kurdistan in northern Iraq, Ankara’s fear of the disintegration of the Turkish state has been severely intensified. In particular, a speculative map of the Middle East was published in the American Armed Forces Journal in 2005 that proposed to divide Iraq into three separate states: Sunni, Arab Shia and ‘free Kurdistan’ (See Map 1) with Iranian, Syrian and Turkish borders adjusted accordingly.

The scenario of re-drawing the borders of ‘free Kurdistan’ in the Middle East reminded the historical clauses of the Treaty of Sevres of 1920. The possibility of a free Kurdistan has always been perceived as a real threat to Turkey’s national unity and territorial integrity that led to the construction of hegemonic discourses by the state. Moreover, an independent and prosperous oil-rich Kurdish state in Iraq has the potential to attract Turkey’s citizens of Kurdish ethnic origin to unite with Iraqi-Kurdistan.

Map 1: A New Map of the Middle East?(2

Hence, Ankara governments have continued resisting the de jure existence of the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq and opted for establishing diplomatic and economic relations via Baghdad. When Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki banned the PKK from operating in Iraq in 2006 this was seen largely as a gesture to Turkey. Ankara accused northern Iraqi self-rule of supporting the PKK. While Ankara’s military incursions in northern Iraq occupied the attention of the international community between 2006 and 2009 it remains uncertain as to how the pro-Islamic AKP government will reconcile its Kurdish issue in domestic politics in post-liberation Iraq in 2010.

Search for a Viable Solution? Democratic Engagement The Kurdish path to radicalisation and the subsequent rise of PKK terrorism was shaped by the repressive policies and hegemonic discourse of the authoritarian states that refused to accommodate ethnic diversity in Turkey and Iraq. On the one hand, a cultural and political expression of a distinct Kurdish ethnic identity was denied by the hegemonic discourses and, on the other, the emergence of a radical minority group among the Kurds that demanded the recognition of cultural rights and ethnic identity. The transformation of the movement from non-violent to the use of violence for their specific political causes led to Kurdish demands to a non-democratic dead-end. It was only after the AKP came to power in 2002 that cultural reforms have been passed through the Turkish Parliament. Undoubtedly, it was an integral part of an attempt to achieve Turkey’s fast-forward membership into the EU. Diplomatic and political pressure from Brussels to improve Ankara’s record in minority rights had positive impacts on the AKP policies towards the Kurds in its domestic and foreign affairs.

In domestic politics, a new process of democratic engagement with the Kurdish question was initiated that led to lifting previous bans on the Kurdish language in public and allowing parents to have Kurdish names for their children. The EU-led reforms relatively eased restrictions on public expressions of Kurdish ethnic identity that indicated significant progress in Turkey’s democratic credentials. During this process, the PKK’s decision to reinitiate the armed struggle on 1 June 2004 seems to be a paradoxical response that questions the viability of democratic solutions. According to Tezcur, the PKK’s further radicalisation as a response to EU-induced democratic process disqualifies the argument that “fostering democracy would reduce the problems of ethnic conflict”(7).

Map 2: Demographic distribution of Kurds in the Middle East(6)

However, this argument is not only far from convincing but also shadowed by the burden of hegemonic discourses. Tezcür’s conclusion can be easily turned on its head by counter -arguments. As Waldman’s comparative study of Northern Ireland, the Basque country and Quebec indicated, Northern Ireland was too unstable to make democracy work and the same can be said for Spain, but succeeded in ending violence and finding democratic solutions.

From a Kurdish perspective, there is a more powerful counter-argument that the EU- induced reforms can be interpreted not so much as democratic, but as mere pragmatic concessions aimed at promoting Tur- key’s ‘democratic’ image for its EU member- ship(8). Moreover, in terms of the key regulations of Turkish law, there is no real progress in democratization with reference to the Kurdish reality in Turkey. As lucidly signaled by the AKP’s constantly changing policies, if Ankara is convinced that the EU will never accept Turkey’s membership despite the ‘democratic’ progress, Turkey’s pro – Western orientation can be slowly but surely shifted towards the (Middle) East, where they can find better solutions to regional issues, including the Kurdish question.

The Iraqi Kurdistan and the post -liberation era

In regional affairs, the controversial parliamentary elections in Iraq on 7 March 2010 introduced further complications to regional politics. Although it brought partial victory to the Iraqi National Movement under Ayad Allawi’s leadership, none of the parties se- cured a majority of seats to form a government according to the Iraqi constitution of 2005. After the parliamentary elections in Iraq President Obama’s message spoken from the White House Rose Garden on March 7th, 2010, was very clear. He said that the US government supports “the right of the Iraqi people to choose their own leaders.” His speech indicated the following pol- icy of change on three key issues: a) the Iraqi prime minister will be elected by Iraqis in Baghdad. b) The United States is no longer a central player in Iraq. c) The Kurdish leaders must take the initiative and use their influence to elect the right candidate. Moreover, this implied that the de facto Kurdistan in Iraq and the Kurdish self-rule should continue without the US presence in the country. All the US forces will be out of Iraq by the end of 2011(9). Iraq needs a stable government and a charismatic leader, like the American President Barak Obama, who has the power to speak for Iraqi people, including the Kurds, and voice their concerns over future policies.

“From a Kurdish perspective, there is a more powerful counter-argument that the EU induced reforms can be interpreted not so much as democratic, but only pragmatic concessions to promote Turkey’s ‘democratic’ image for its EU membership.” 

A new Iraqi government has to be sovereign and legitimate to lead the country through the crucial and most challenging stage of the post-liberation era. There are pressing critical issues for the Iraqi government such as preventing terrorism, establishing security and stability while building the institutions of the state and constructing the collective identity of a united nation, which includes the Arabic, the Mandaean, Shabak, Yezidi, Chaldo-Assyrian, Turkmen, Kurdish peoples. The national unification and the ‘reconciliation’ will not suddenly appear ex nihilo among these et hnic gr oups. Hence, building trust between Iraq’s ethnic groups should be the key objective that will ultimately transform Iraq into a state of citizenship and the rule of law. This is exactly what needs to be done to pro- tect the rights of Kurds and other ethnic groups as well as individuals in Iraq. The rise of insurgencies and subsequent sectarian violence since the parliamentarian elections in March 2010 brought Iraq to the brink of civil war. Sunni anger over being largely excluded from government in the post-liberation Iraq reinforces fears that insurgents are regrouping in Iraq. The idea of transforming Iraq into a functioning state under the rule of law is easier said than done. A stable and democratically governed Iraq is also obliged to prevent its strong neighbours (Turkey, Iran and Syria) from interfering in Baghdad’s internal affairs. This is not an easy task for either Iraq or Turkey that makes the historically already complicated Kurdish question more difficult to resolve in contemporary Middle Eastern politics.

It is clear that future governments in Ankara and Baghdad must make democracy as a self-governing of the people for the people work for all citizens.”

Concluding remarks

It is clear that future governments in An- kara and Baghdad must make democracy as a self-governing of the people for the peo- ple work for all citizens. The Kurdish question is the acid test of democracy promotion in the Middle East. Historical trends and recent events in Turkey and Iraq indicate that the demo- graphic composition of the Middle East is more complicated than many analysts and policy-makers assumed with its strong ramifications of regional politics. If I may recall Franz Fanon’s words at the head of this paper: “History teaches us clearly that the bat- tle against colonialism does not always run straight away along the lines of nationalism(10). The resistance of Kurds against colonialism and the hegemonic discourses of the Turkish state were reinforced by the rise of Kurdish national- ism. The subsequent policies of the Turkish state based on their ‘assimilation’ and the denial of their ethnic identity led to the path of radicalisation and violence.

The Kurdish question also shows that Islam is not necessarily the main cause of either radicalisation or violent terrorism. The forces of ethnic nationalism with its separatist tendencies and identity politics can be stronger than religious ties. In similar vain,

the debates over ‘silent assimilation’ of Kurds in Turkey and the PKK terrorism fed directly into twenty-first century identity poli- tics and the Turkish government’s policy of ‘democratic engagement’. In particular, the historicised and contextualised analysis of the Kurdish radicalisation and the rise of PKK terrorism overlap on the search for non-violent solutions and, therefore, democratic engagement is the acid test of Turkish and Iraqi democracies. Politically, although it is still too early to predict whether a democratic solution to the Kurdish question can be found, based on the experiences of Irish, Basque and Québec politics it is paradoxically too late to acknowledge the relationship between radicalisation, terrorism and the denial of ethnic identity. After all, these ethnic conflicts overlap on the same crucial dimension of identity politics: to be Irish is not to be English; to be Basque is not to be Spanish and to be Kurdish is not to be Turkish or Iraqi. Hence, suppressing the expression of ethnic minority rights and identities by undemocratic ways is more likely to further radicalisation, violent insurgencies and terrorism in the Middle East of the 21st century.


* Lecturer in International Politics, Aberystwyth University (

1) Franz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth , Penguin, 2001: 119
2) http:/ / images/ graphics/ war/ ralph_peters_solution_to_mideast_medi um.jpg See the before and after versions of the map (Accessed on 27 January 2010).
3) See R. Peters, ‘Blood Borders: How a better Middle East would look,’ Armed Forces Journal, which originally included the map in 2005. 20 06/ 06/ 1833899 However, the map is no longer available on this site (Accessed on 27 January 2010). See also P. W. Galbraith, The End of Iraq: How American Incompetence Created a War Without End, Simon & Schuster, 2006, which suggests a policy of American withdrawal from Iraq by breaking the country into three parts: an independent Kurdistan, Sunni and Shiite Arab states.
4) Robert Olson, ‘Kurdish Nationalism, Capitalism, and State Formation in Kurdistan – Iraq,’ in the Evolution of Kurdish national- ism, 205
5) ‘American troops among nearly 50 dead in Iraq,’ The New York Times, 13 August 2006.
6) The estimated demographic distribution of Kurds in the Middle East see free -kurdistan- maps.htm (Accessed on 23 January 2010)
7) G. M. Tezcur, ‘When Democratization Radicalizes? The Kurdish Nationalist Movement in Turkey’, Journal of Peace Research (September 18, 2009). Avail- able at SSRN:http:/ / abstract=1451562
8) Kurdistan National Assembly of Syria – Kurdish Nationalism from World War I through 2007: 23/ 01/ 2010 18:41
http:/ / en/ index.php?op tion=com_content&task=view&id=573 &Itemid=71 Page 6 of 18
9) K. Katzman, Iraq: Politics, Elections and Benchmarks, CRS Report for Congress, 2010. http:/ / sgp/ crs/ mideast/ RS21968.pdf
10) Franz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, Penguin, 2001: 119



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