Why Have Not the Kurds Been Successful Thus Far in Achieving Statehood?

Such is the historical peculiarity of geopolitics that state borders do not necessarily reflect the reality of the ethnic distribution of population. This is so not least because some ethnic groups have succeeded in establishing and maintaining a state of their own, while others have failed on the path towards statehood, although not for lack of trying. A quick scan of relevant literature shows that there are several dozen stateless nations in the world (Minahan 22). Few of them, however, are as large as the Kurdish people. Scattered across the contiguous regions of Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq, the Kurds number some 30 million. This puts them into a comfortable 4th slot in the rank of the most populous Middle Eastern nations (Aziz 8). Kurds are generally steadfast in their belief that they should be rightfully deemed a nation. Indeed, the Kurds have all the essential hallmarks of nationhood, including history and population, language and culture, territory and economic resources. The problem is, however, that the Kurds are not in control of their territory and economic resources due to certain vicissitudes of fate. Indeed, in a situation where the Palestinians – an ethnic group that did not yet have a distinctive national consciousness – achieved statehood on the ashes of the crumbling Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century and the Kurds had not, there are ample grounds to speak of the vicissitudes of fate, in addition to other factors, of course.
Given the problem as it is outlined above, this research project seeks to ascertain the vicissitudes of fate that have thwarted the Kurdish quest for statehood. The overarching goal of this research project is to understand why Kurdistan remains conspicuously absent from the Middle Eastern map now that about one century has passed since the resurgence of Kurdish nationalism and more than several centuries since the emergence of a distinct Kurdish identity. To this end, the research project begins with an excursus into history to understand why the Kurds failed to achieve statehood following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century, when the timing was particularly auspicious. With the caveat that Kurds are split between four countries today, the research project then discusses Kurdish efforts towards their own statehood in each of these four countries. In a way, it uses several separate case studies to identify the factors impeding Kurdish independence in each nation, as circumstances vary significantly across the borders. Ultimately, on the basis of these findings, the research project explains the chief reasons why the Kurds have thus far been unsuccessful in achieving statehood. Before concluding the paper, the author also makes brief comments about the perspectives for Kurdish statehood in the future. Overall, the findings indicate that…
The Kurdish Question in the Ottoman Empire
Delving deep into ancient history, it appears that Kurdish people populated Upper Mesopotamia and some contiguous areas even before the advent of Islam and Christianity. Izady refers in his book to multiple primary sources produced between 2nd century BC and 10th century AD, which mention early Kurdish people and even the land of the Kurds (5-42). Yet, whereas a more or less distinct Kurdish identity already existed at the time, Kurdish people seldom enjoyed self-rule historically, even during the period of classical antiquity. Accordin to O’Shea, the first independent and semi-independent Kurdish and/or Kurdicized chiefdoms and principalities – including the Rawwadids, the Shaddadis, the Annazids, the Marwanids, and the Hasanwayhids – appeared on the map of Upper Mesopotamia in the 10th century (67-69). Because of bitter internecine strife between these Kurdish dynasties, their principalities soon all sank into oblivion. By the early 13th century, no independent or semi-independent Kurdish principality existed in the region.
In the ebb and flow of events in the larger Middle East in the ensuing centuries, Kurdish-inhabited territories were effectively divided between the Ottoman and Safavid empires along the borders stipulated in the 1639 Treaty of Zuhab (Kashani-Sabet 24). Most of the Kurdish-inhabited territories ended up in the hands of the Ottomans. Importantly, however, these Kurdish-inhabited areas were not organized into a single Kurdish province. Instead, smallish and often antagonistic Kurdish chiefdoms – spearheaded by “scions of their old established dynasties” – each aspired to achieve a degree of its own self-rule within the Ottoman Empire (Bruinessen 16). The status of these chiefdoms in the Ottoman Empire changed repeatedly, depending on geopolitical circumstances and the whim of Ottoman sultans. For much of the time between the 17th and 19th centuries, these Kurdish chiefdoms had a degree of autonomy, as Ottoman rulers reasoned that they needed Kurdish allegiance more than their taxes to prevail in the intermittent conflict against the Safavids and other consecutive Persian dynasties (Bruinessen 16). After the Ottoman Empire and Persia reached armistice and signed the Treaty of Erzurum in 1823, the threat of Persia receded into abeyance (Natali 23). In these circumstances, the Ottomans no longer feared that the Kurds within their empire would defect to the Persian side and took measure to bring the Kurdish chiefdoms back under their direct control.
Clearly, although there were periodic setbacks, Kurds in both the Ottoman Empire and Persia coexisted with other ethnic groups in legitimate but not powerfully centralized monarchies for much of the 15th-18th century. As long as Kurdish chieftains retained at least a modicum of autonomy within these monarchies, Kurdish people were content with the distribution of power and did not rebel against the central government. Against this backdrop, Kurdish nationalism was dormant, if not completely absent. During the so-called Tanzimat period of 1839-1876, however, Ottoman leaders made efforts to centralize power by curbing the authority of local claimants (Natali 5). Another goal of this quest for higher centralization was stem the mounting tide of nationalism. To this end, the Sublime Porte employed both charm offensives in the form of enhanced rights for non-Muslims, but also quashed the first murmurs of dissent (Natali 5-11). In these circumstances, some Kurds were reconsidering their status in the Ottoman Empire and contemplating independence. Nonetheless, Kurdish nationalism gained little traction in the 19th century.
It was only on the cusp of the 20th century that Kurdish nationalism emerged as a more or less potent force. Importantly, it did not emerge in response to the Ottoman attempts at centralization, as the Kurds still retained much of their autonomy. Even when truculent Young Turks, nationalist to their core, rose to power in the Ottoman Empire and began to assert Turkish identity aggressively, closing non-Turkish schools and associations, they did not incur the wrath of the Kurds, not least because they did not encroach too much on the daily life of the Kurds (Natali 14). The reason was, perhaps, that the mainly mountainous topography of Kurdish-populated areas made them impregnable to Young Turks’ debilitating edicts and initiatives. One way or the other, Kurds could still be Kurds. As Natali maintains in her treatise, The Kurds and the State:
On the eve of World War I, while the Kurdish regions were under fire, Kurds still had the legal right to speak their mother tongue, celebrate Kurdish traditions, and identify as a distinct ethnic community. Consequently, a constructive relationship between Kurdish leaders and the Porte continued alongside hostility and violence (14).
Of course, the Young Turk government suppressed Kurds in many ways, deporting them and even killing them (Schaller & Zimmerer 8). Even so, Kurds nonetheless contributed to the Porte’s war effort during World War I in exchange for some concessions. On the contrary, Kurdish nationalism surfaced in the early 20th century, because the Kurds simply sensed that the Ottoman Empire was crumbling and scurried to take advantage of the situation to achieve statehood. In this sense, Kurdish nationalism sprang up at about the same time with Turkish nationalism and Arab nationalism in the ailing Ottoman Empire. Just as Arab intellectuals met in Damascus cafes to discuss the prospects of independent statehood, fledgling Kurdish organizations organized meetings and took other measures to promote Kurdish identity with the ultimate goal of establishing their own state. One such organization, the Society for the Rise of Kurdistan, flashed into existence in 1918 and vehemently promoted the ideas of self-determined Kurdistan (Natali 29-35). After World War I, Kurdish nationalism gained momentum.

Fig. 1. Kurdistan’s Borders According to the Sevres Treaty; Edmaps; 10 Sep. 2017, https://www.edmaps.com/html/kurdistan_in_seven_maps.html.
The Kurds had a meaningful chance to achieve statehood in the wake of World War I. In 1920, the leaders of the Triple Entente met at a porcelain factory on the purlieus of Paris to draft a treaty on the remaking of the vanquished Ottoman Empire. Articles 62-64 of the Sevres treaty they concluded stipulated a possibility of independence for Kurdistan, if they voted for such an option in a referendum, within the “areas lying east of the Euphrates, south of the southern boundary of Armenia as it may be hereinafter determined, and north of the frontier of Turkey with Syria and Mesopotamia, as defined in Article 27” (“The Treaty of Peace between the Allied and Associated Powers and Turkey” 1). The borders assigned to Kurdistan by the Sevres treaty can be seen in Fig. 1 above.
Many of those Kurds who campaigned for independent statehood were dissatisfied with such notion of Kurdistan, because it excluded other major predominantly Kurd areas. The territory assigned to Kurdistan was substantially smaller than the concept of the Kurdish homeland presented by Kurdish delegates to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 (see Fig. 2). Yet others were happy to see any mention of an independent Kurdistan in the Sevres Treaty, as flawed as it was. Ultimately, however, even though the ailing Sublime Porte acquiesced to the treaty, the Kemalist government in Ankara refused to recognize it. As Turkish Kemalist based in Ankara waged a successful war for independence between 1919 and 1923, it effectively administered a coup de grace against the Sevres Treaty. Interestingly, Danforth of Foreign Policy observes, “many Kurds fought alongside Ataturk to upend the treaty” (1). They closed ranks with Ataturk’s forces not so much because they opposed the truncated Kurdish state enshrined in the treaty, but rather because political allegiances transcended national identities for many of them (Danforth 1). In other words, support for Kurdish independence was not as strong and unanimous at the time as one might suppose. But it is also imperative to note that not all Kurds were coopted by Turkish Kemalists. Likewise, not all observed supinely as Ankara quashed their hopes for autonomy. In 1921, for example, Kurds staged an abortive Kocgiri rebellion (Natali 72). In any case, they ultimately failed.
Before long, the new borders of the Middle East – proposed tentatively in the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement, confirmed in the 1920 San Remo resolution, and clarified partially by the 1923 Lausanne treaty – were cemented. Unlike the aborted Sevres treaty, the Lausanne treaty did not even mention Kurdistan. In the ensuing years, some territorial disputes occurred in the areas abutting on the Kurdish homeland, but they all were settled to favor someone else but Kurds. The decision of the League of Nations to award the predominantly Kurdish province of Mosul to British-mandated Iraq in 1926, for example, completely negated the calls of local Kurds for statehood (Jeffries 146). As Randal explains, Britain essentially forced Kurds into a “blood-spattered union with its freshly minted Iraqi state, dominated by its Sunni Arab minority” (1). As the new post-Ottoman states crystallized their borders, Kurdistan-inhabited areas were effectively split between Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran.

Fig. 2. Kurdish Homeland as Conceived by Kurdish Delegates to the Paris Peace Conference; Edmaps; 10 Sep. 2017, https://www.edmaps.com/html/7urdistan_in_seven_maps.html.
Summing up the lessons from this critical period, when the Kurds had high chances to establish their own independent state on the ashes of the lacerated Ottoman Empire, it seems legitimate to conclude that they failed for two major reasons. First and foremost, Kurdish nationalism was still in its incipience and nascent Kurdish nationalist groups in disarray. Indeed, although some nationalist groups sought to reinvigorate a distinct Kurdish identity with the ultimate goal of forming a state on its basis, they had too little time to organize the nation that had just awakened from its centuries-old hibernation in in the Ottoman Empire. The Kurds generally lacked sectarian unity and their vision of the future often diverged. In fact, not all Kurds even supported the idea of separate statehood, as many fought alongside Turkish Kemalists against the implementation of the flawed, yet promising, Sevres treaty. Second, the quest for Kurdish statehood stuttered, because it had little support from the west, which to a great extent decided the fate of the region in the wake of World War I. Thus, after several failed attempts to enforce the Sevres treaty, the UK and France abandoned the idea of Kurdish statehood. The US, too, was not particularly steadfast in its support of Kurdistan. In his “14 points” speech, Woodrow Wilson promised to carve a vaguely-defined Kurdish state from the decaying carcass of the Ottoman Empire (McDowall 115-118). Yet, the US promptly reneged on its promise. Barring these limited efforts, the Kurds did not receive political assistance from the west at the time and, unable to pursue statehood single-handedly, lost the critical momentum.
The Kurdish Question since the Ottoman Empire
Between the 1920s and 1940s, the Kurds continued to pin their hopes for self-determination on greater powers involved in the region, including France, the UK and the Soviet Union. These great powers, for their part, learnt to manipulate the trust of the Kurds to attain their own ulterior motives. In 1923, for example, the Soviet Union sought to win the support of Kurdish people in Turkey and Iran by establishing a small Kurdish province, known colloquially as Red Kurdistan, in its own territory (O’Ballance 8-9). Within short, in 1929, the Soviets dissolved Red Kurdistan and expelled most Kurds to other areas of the country. Meanwhile, between 1922 and 1924, a short-lived semi-independent Kingdom of Kurdistan existed in and around the city of Sulaymaniyah in Iraq (Gelletly 68). The British, however, no longer supported the ideas of Kurdish independence and absorbed the puny kingdom in Mandatory Iraq. The Soviets made another attempt to exploit the Kurdish question for its own benefit in December 1946, when they orchestrated the establishment of the self-governing Kurdish Republic of Mahabad in the northernmost part of the Iran. The Soviets wanted to absorb the adjacent Autonomous Republic of Azerbaijan and, to this end, fomented Kurdish nationalism (O’Ballance 8-9). By the end of the year, the Republic of Mahabad was no more.
It appears from the discussion above that the Kurdish quest for statehood suffered both from the unwillingness of Iran, Iraq and Turkey to cede territories to the Kurds and from the duplicitous ambitions of the great powers involved in the region. Importantly, however, lest government should appear too gentle to the Kurds, they too often failed to organize a powerful and well-coordinated movement for statehood. The period between the 1920s and 1940s was characterized by disconcerted efforts of individual groups in either Turkey, Iran, Iraq or Syria – the efforts that were inimical to any meaningful progress. One important, albeit cautious, attempt to establish a Kurdish state that would encompass all territories with Kurdish majorities occurred in 1945, when Kurdish delegates presented a map of a viable Kurdish state at the San Francisco Conference (Meho & Maglaughlin 58). The map presented at the conference encompassed all territories with Kurdish majorities, as presented in a more recent map (see Fig. 3), but extended to the Persian Gulf in Iran, which was not justified. Yet, although the British had already withdrew from Iraq and the French mandate for Syria was about to expire the next year, the great powers did not even entertain the Kurdish proposition in earnest, perhaps so as not to further exacerbate tensions in the region. With the great powers officially gone, the Kurds were now left to fend for themselves. Fig. 3 below, based on the estimates of Izady presented in his treatise The Kurds, clearly shows the geographical distribution of Kurdish people across the borders of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran in the early 1990s (60-116). It was roughly the same in the 1940s. Comparison to fresher maps shows that it is roughly the same today.

Fig. 3. Distribution of Kurdish Population; Kurdish Academy of Languages; 7 May 2008, http://www.kurdishacademy.org/?q=fa/node/199.
One of the major obstacles to Kurdish statehood since the 1940s has been the absence of a powerful and well-coordinated border-spanning campaign for statehood, although not for lack of trying. Even so, while some Kurds in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran have sought to achieve an independent nation-state that would encompass all areas with Kurdish majority, most have nonetheless campaigned for greater autonomy within the existing boundaries. The discussion below analyzes both strands in the context of each country with a sizable Kurdish minority.
Lackadaisical Progress of Kurds in Syria. For most of the 20th century, Kurds in Syria had campaigned for greater sociopolitical rights and greater democratic rights in the country in general. They seldom voiced trenchant ambitions for independent statehood or greater autonomy within the borders of Syria. Looking at the situation with the benefit of retrospective vision, it appears that they simply wanted to become full-fledged citizens of the country. But as Baczko, Dorronsoro and Quesnay explain, the espousal of “Syrian nationalism based on Arabism to the exclusion of other ethnic groups” by the ruling elites in the 1950s led to omnipresent and pervasive discrimination (58). A common thread from the reviewed literature shows that Kurds in Syria had been frequently denied citizenship in many cases (Baczko, Dorronsoro & Quesnay 58-60; Tejel 112-114). In 1962 alone, the Syrian government deprived over 120,000 Kurds in the Jazeera region of their Syrian citizenship (Baczko, Dorronsoro & Quesnay 59). Shorn of their Syrian passports, these ethnic Kurds became virtually powerless and transmitted their spurious status to their descendants. The discrimination continued, with little meaningful resistance, into the 21st century. In 2008, for example, the Syrian government further restricted Kurdish property rights (Baczko, Dorronsoro & Quesnay 59). For all this time, the Syrian authorities had encroached upon Kurdish culture, banning its language and other cultural expressions. In these circumstances, impoverished and disenfranchised Kurds could not challenge their legal and social status. Statehood was no figure of speech at all.
Yet, the situation has changed recently and the downtrodden Kurds of Syria are now waging a campaign for separate statehood. The change transpired when the Syrian government forces retreated from Kurdish-inhabited provinces in the country’s north on the early stages of the ongoing civil war in Syria. Never desisting, the Kurds filled the power vacuum and created a de-facto autonomous region of Rojava. Known officially as the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, Rojava is home to at least 1.3 million Kurds (see Fig. 3) and about 2 more million Syrians, Assyrians and other minorities. The Kurds are in charge of Rojava and experiment with direct democracy there. Ross observed after his travel to Rojava in 2015:
I kept looking for a hierarchy, the singular leader, or signs of a government line, when, in fact, there was none… There was none of that stifling obedience to the party…Self-government in Rojava means that, as much as possible, decisions are made at the local, communal level (1).
According to Ross, the Kurds of Rojava are not contemplating separate statehood at this point (1). Much, of course, will depend on the outcome of the ongoing civil war. Yet, it is unlikely that the Kurds of Rojava will pursue separate Kurdish statehood. If the declarations of Kurdish spokespersons are to be trusted, Rojava is a blueprint for a new, federalized Syria rather than for a new Kurdistan (Wilgenburg 1). Apparently, just like in the 20th century, the Kurds of Syria will be happy to just have their sociopolitical rights enhanced. Kanli, on the other hand, objects that Rojava will head towards independence: “If there is an army, there will also be a state” (1). Should this indeed happen, Syrian Kurdistan could potentially unite with Iraqi Kurdistan, coming one step closer to forging a greater Kurdish state.
The Quiescence of Kurds in Iran. The Kurds of Persia – the precursor to today’s Iran – had had a different experience historically, as they never lived under the Ottomans. In Persia, their fate had been uneven, as they suffered under some dynasties but enjoyed broad rights for most of the time. The affinity of Persian and Kurdish cultures helped the two groups reconcile their differences and ensured rather peaceful coexistence.
Nonetheless, Kurdish separatism in Iran began with the ascendance of secularist Pahlavi Reza Shah in 1918 in parallel to the overall tendencies in the region. Throughout the 1920s, several major Kurdish revolts occurred in Iran. Yet, the consulted authors concur in the idea that personal ambitions of tribal leaders rather than a conscious desire of Kurdish people to achieve separate statehood underlay these revolts (Bengio 25-27; Pelletiere 34-35). The Kurdish Republic of Mahabad, too, was a half-hearted attempt of the Soviets to establish sway over northern Iran rather than the reflection of local Kurds’ aspirations. The first serious rebellion against the central government occurred in the wake of the 1979 Iranian revolution. Although Kurds generally supported the revolution, they did not agree with their political isolation practiced by the new government (Romano 244-245). Yet, just as the Kurds of Syria, Iranian Kurds rebelled against their political exclusion and required greater rights rather than separate statehood. Of course, some Kurdish factions expressed the ideas of independence, but the groundswell of opinion was in favor of staying within Iran (Romano 244-245). One way or the other, the central Iranian government quashed the rebellion, showing its determination to keep the country both intact and politically stable. According to the most conservative estimates, 5,000 Kurds lost their lives (Ward 233).
Barring several major revolts in the 20th century, the Kurds of Iran have been largely quiescent regarding the ideas of separate statehood. One part of the explanation is that they enjoy more rights within Iran than those Kurds who live in Iraq, Syria and Turkey. This, in its turn, is explained by the cultural affinity between Persians and Kurds. In fact, the sociopolitical conditions of Kurds in Iran deteriorated after the 1979 Islamic revolution, as the consecutive post-revolutionary administrations emphasize the importance of Persian identity and discriminate against non-Shias. Likewise, the Kurds of Iran may be so generally unenthusiastic about the ideas of independence, because they realize that the cost of separatism would be high, as the recollections of the 1979-1981 rebellion are still raw in their collective memory. At this juncture of history, support for separate statehood is limited among Iranian Kurds. For example, the bellicose and currently active Kurdistan Free Life Party – the leftist-nationalist Kurdish group, which is closely affiliated with the notorious Kurdistan Workers’ Party of Turkey – has an estimated 3,000 members (Berman 77). Other groups have even fewer supporters. Overall, such meager participation is not representative of Iran’s 6.8 million Kurds (see Fig. 3).
Systemic Repression of Kurds in Turkey. In juxtaposition to the Kurds of Iran, who have received relatively acceptable treatment from the government, those living in Turkey have been oppressed significantly since the establishment of the Republic of Turkey following the Ottoman collapse. It is imperative to make a peremptory declaration at the outset of this subsection that Kurds in independent Turkey are in a more precarious situation than their compatriots were in the Ottoman Empire. Even so, Kurds in Turkey are persevering to gain independence in the face of untoward circumstances.
According to the most conservative estimates, there are some 15.4 million ethnic Kurds living in Turkey’s southeast or nearly 20% of the country’s entire population (see Fig. 3). In any case, Turkey’s community of Kurds is the largest in the region. In a way, they have been most vehement in their struggle to achieve statehood. Following the establishment of the Republic of Turkey in the early 1920s, Kurd activists organized a series of revolts against Turkish rule and in favor of self-determination. The Ankara government, however, made it abundantly clear that it would not tolerate such outpourings of separatism, quashing all manifestations of Kurdish dissent. Taking the offensive, the Turkish government adopted a number of constitutional amendments and laws to sanction the retribution against the first murmurs of Kurdish dissent. In the 1960s, for example, it outlawed Kurdish political parties and even oblique references to the existence of Kurdish identity (Rosenblum 444). In these circumstances, it was extremely easy for the government to find pretexts for the suppression of Kurdish pro-independence sentiments, however vaguely expressed.
Taking cognizance of the threats emanating from the Kurdish calls for independence or at least greater empowerment for its territorial integrity, the Turks have also consistently sought to undermine the backbone of the Kurdish pro-independence movement: their culture. As mentioned earlier, it was dangerous to acknowledge the existence of Kurds in Turkey in the 20th century. Furthermore, they systematically closed Kurdish educational institutions, muzzled their newspapers and other mass media, gagged their religious organizations, banned their political and civic associations (Meho & Maglaughlin 6-14). In the same vein, the Turks took measures to prohibit other expressions of Kurdish culture, including their national dress and folklore (Lafferty 37). The oppression assumed paradoxical proportions when Kurdish names were also prohibited (Lafferty 37). Importantly, most of these bans are still enforced. But it is the Kurdish language that the Turks have prosecuted with the greatest éclat. Although the ban on informal use of Kurdish was lifted in 1991 and broadcasts in Kurdish were resumed in 2004 (Meho & Maglaughlin 6-7), the Kurdish language is still marginalized.
The Turks have succeeded in suppressing the Kurdish language to a certain extent – the fact that can be seen from the disproportionate number of Kurds speaking their native language. Yet, they have failed to nip the Kurdish identity in the bud or to reduce the Kurds into total submission. As Kurdish people understood that all diplomatic initiatives to achieve meaningful progress on the path of either empowerment or independence were stillborn, they took up arms. The Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the most radical organization seeking independence for Kurdistan, has been engaged in full-scale insurgency against the Turkish government since 1984. Although there have been several lulls in the fighting, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party is still fighting the government. Between 1984 and 2016, no less than 40,000 people had lost their lives in the hostilities (Tucker 493). Most of the victims have been Kurdish civilians, as the Turkish government has razed entire villages to the ground to suppress Kurdish resistance. In addition, several hundred thousands have been displaced (Tucker 493). Suffering heavy losses, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party has had to modify its rhetoric somewhat, claiming now that it wants to achieve democratic confederalism for Kurds in Turkey (Stansfield & Shareef 252-254) – something similar to what Kurds in Syria have established in Rojava. However, the headstrong Turkish government is unlikely to acquiesce even to such scenario.
Relative Progress on the Kurdish Question in Iraq. Compared to Kurds living in Turkey and, for that matter, to all Kurds of the region, the Kurds of Iraq have surged ahead on the path towards statehood. Although Kurds in Syria have recently broken relatively free of the embattled central government, making an uncertain step towards separate statehood, their success pales into insignificance relative to that demonstrated by the Kurds of Iraq. Looking ahead, it needs to be said that the Kurds of Iran have been partly successful in their nationalist claims due to the assistance of the west. Indeed, while the western powers failed to enforce the 1920 Sevres treaty and abandoned the idea of an independent Kurdistan, they nonetheless made several important contributions to the establishment of the semi-independent Iraqi Kurdistan. During their rule in Iraq in the 1920s-early 1930s, for example, the British awarded the initial degree of autonomy to Kurds and ensured that their equal rights would be enshrined in the constitution with the view to placating this restive group (Franzen 14-16). As a result, Kurds would thrive in the northern parts of Iraq for much of their early history within independent Iraq.
However, the initial degree of autonomy does not mean that the road of Kurds to semi-independence of today has not been bumpy. As Quil Lawrence quips in his book Invisible Nation, Kurds have rebelled against the government of Iraq since there has been the government of Iraq to rebel against (55-289). Between the 1950s and 1970s, for example, the government of Iraq had made persistent attempts to Arabize Kurdish areas by deporting locals and bringing in Iraqis. A flashpoint in the relationship between Kurds and the central Iraqi government occurred in the maelstrom of the decade-long Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. Attacking Kurdish settlements in the country’s north, the Iraqi government detained about half a million civilians, and killed up to 100,000, including those who died of chemical attacks (Mufti 22).
The situation improved in the 1990s due to, again, the support of the west. This time, the US and the UK established a no-fly zone over northern Iraq, as their air forces provided protection from the air. The newly-minted Kurdish Regional Government assumed the reins of power in autonomous Kurdistan Region (Lawrence 253-313). Now 20 years after the Iraqi-Kurdish autonomy agreement of 1970, the Kurds finally had de-facto control of their region. While the democratically-elected Kurdish Regional Government was responsible for adoption and enforcement of laws, the 200,000-strong Peshmerga assumed responsibility for security (Laoutides 171). In the ensuing decades, as the central Iraqi government limped from one crisis to another, the Kurds have made some further gains. Of course, like many fledgling states are wont to do, the quasi-state of Iraqi Kurdistan plunged into civil war in the mid-1990s between two rival factions. Yet, it survived these perturbations and continued on the path for full statehood.
According to the 2005 Iraqi constitution, which has further amplified the status of Kurds, Iraqi Kurdistan is nonetheless considered a federal entity (Lawrence 277-280). In reality, however, the central Iraqi government has little control over Iraqi Kurdistan, which, meanwhile, seeks to establish control over other areas of Iraq with significant Kurdish populations. Although the central Iraqi government still hopes to reassert control over its Kurdish-populated areas, Iraqi Kurdistan is, in fact, poised to achieve full statehood. In September 2017, the overwhelming majority of Kurds voted in favor of independence in a referendum held by the Kurdish Regional Government (Zucchino 1). Although a similar referendum in 2005 did not lead to concrete change, the odds are that Iraqi Kurdistan will bring its quest for independence to logical conclusion. Whether it will be able to hold back the resistance of the antagonistic and frightened governments in Turkey, Syria and Iran will depend very much on the stance of Kurds in these countries. Currently, only the badly-stretched government of Syria seems innocuous. Much will also depend on the strength of the central government in Baghdad. The western powers will unlikely hasten to protect an independent Kurdistan again.
Projections for the Future
The recent plebiscite in Iraqi Kurdistan has rekindled the debates in academic and journalistic quarters about the future of this region and Kurdish statehood in general. While the commentators are consumed by a rancorous argument, most of them opine that an independent Kurdistan is not possible or at least viable, portraying its future as dim. A quick scan of the Internet turns up a plethora of similarly alarming and pessimistic projections. Indeed, at this point of history, the odds for a unified Kurdistan are persistently low, as Kurds face repression across the region, especially if they express aspirations for statehood. Save for some progress in Iraq and Syria, Kurds in general are nowhere close to forging a greater Kurdish state. In addition to all issues mentioned earlier in the text, part of the problem is that Kurds are split between the four countries and cannot mount joint resistance. The Kurdistan Communities Union, one of the few organizations of Kurds from all four states, is too weak to launch a joint Kurdish campaign for statehood (Gunes & Zeydanlioglu 244-250).
It is important to understand, however, that Kurdish statehood is possible even without a unified Kurdistan. The Kurds in Iraq are tantalizingly close to independence. The Kurds in Rojava, too, have taken advantage of the ongoing strife to establish a quasi-state of their own, even though they do not express clear aspirations for separate statehood. Kurds in Turkey, on the other hand, are stuck in a limbo. Given the brutality and resolution of the Turkish government, they are highly unlikely to break ground in this important area. Kurds in Iran, too, are unlikely to organize a meaningful campaign for independence in the near future. Of course, if Iraqi Kurdistan finally cements its tentative gains by proclaiming independence, it might encourage Kurds in the neighboring regions to press for statehood. Yet, the governments in Iran and Turkey are too strong to let that happen.
This research project has shown that the Kurds have failed to achieve statehood for several major reasons. Historically, multiple autonomous and semi-independent Kurdish entities existed, but they lacked cohesions and entered into rivalries against each other. The timing was perfect in the early 1920s, when Kurdish nationalism resurged and the Ottoman Empire crumbled. Yet, fledgling Kurdish nationalist groups were largely disorganized at the time and lacked time to orchestrate a powerful campaign for statehood. As a corollary, many Kurds were either unsupportive or nonchalant about the ideas of separate Kurdish statehood. Many even joined Turkish Kemalists in their fight against the implementation Sevres treaty – the treaty that stipulated an independent Kurdish state covering much of land inhabited by ethnic Kurds. Another major obstacle on the Kurdish path to separate statehood at the time was lack of support from the western powers. Although the UK and France insisted on the Sevres treaty initially, the abandoned it quickly. The support coming from the US was, too, limited to the lofty but unfulfilled declarations of President Wilson.
Importantly, the quest for Kurdish statehood did not come to a grinding halt after the unfavorable redrawing of the Middle East. Kurdish groups in independent Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran have intermittently raised revolts and otherwise campaigned for greater rights, autonomy and often independence. Yet, even though Kurds have often sought to achieve greater rights only, central governments of the respective nations have nonetheless responded brutally. In fact, the brutality of central governments in relation to Kurds is one of the main obstacles to Kurdish statehood. Indeed, Turkish, Syrian, Iranian and Iraqi governments all have a dismal Kurdish-rights record, never desisting to use weapons to placate the aspirations of these people for sovereignty. Witt the same alacrity, these governments have encroached on Kurdish culture, banning their language, closing their cultural organizations and other cultural expressions in an effort to nip the Kurdish identity in the bud and suppress pro-independence sentiments among them. Of course, there are important regional variations. Turkey, for example, has been most consistent in its oppression of Kurds. Iran, on the contrary, has been more tolerant, owing partly due to ethno-cultural affinity of Kurds and Persians. Yet, the ideas of separate Kurdish statehood have failed to fall on fertile soil in Iran, because the groundswell of opinion in the country is against such a scenario. In these circumstances, many Kurds would be content with just the achievement of national rights rather than independence.
Given the absence of a powerful far-reaching movement for separate statehood, the future of Kurdish independence will depend on the efforts of Kurds in each country. Yet, it is essential to understand that the success Kurds in one country could potentially encourage Kurds in other countries.

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