A Kurd is not a piece of cheese often used in one of Canada’s most treasured of national dishes. It’s a type of human being. For most of history, they’ve been ignored, oppressed, conquered, and passed by, as greater powers nearby sought to use them as a buffer. But now it’s looking more and more like they’re about to get their own state. Patience is a virtue, after all.
Truly ancient and truly screwed
Kurds have always inhabited a region that’s not terribly attractive – the goat-friendly northwestern edge of the Zagros Mountains, a mountain range that’s historically helped divide Iraq from Iran. With no lands wide enough to farm on a large scale, no ocean to build cities on to trade and fish from, and nasty breezes bearing down from Russia every winter, Kurdistan was always doomed to be less than developed than other regions.
“No friends but the mountains”
As they say of the Kurds. These very same mountains that prevented large scale agriculture and any proto-state from forming also provided a certain degree of protection. Although the exact origins of the Kurds as a culture group is up for debate, what isn’t is that while they were developing, they had plenty of protection doing so. For any imperial power, from Persia to Rome to the Turks to the British, there was very little payoff in trying to take over Kurdistan, and, so long as they were quiet, much incentive to leave them alone.
Armies often went around their mountains, preferring to let the mountain folk be mountain folk, while happily drawing a map of their empire that included the very same mountains. When Islam conquered pretty much everyone in the 7th and 8th centuries, they did much the same. Over time, Islam as a religion penetrated and converted the Kurds who, by around the year 1000, were developing a few statelets in the chaos of the downfall of the Abbassid Caliphate. The most successful was Saladin, who went on to build quite the empire, but one which was not overwhelmingly Kurdish in nature, and one that did not last terribly long.
Like many of the geographically weak states in the region, this situation could only last so long as the geopolitically powerful regions were in chaos. Once power reasserted itself in its natural places – Turkey, Iran, or Egypt – Kurdistan was put under the thumb of the strongest. Even one of their own couldn’t resist the temptation to set up a capital elsewhere.
Now that we’re back to chaos, the Kurds have a chance to set up shop – and to actually keep it
Since 1979, the Middle East has been descending into disorganized chaos. The Iran-Iraq War created enough churning to let the Kurds try to wiggle into a taste of freedom, but Saddam gassed them for even trying. It was in the disaster of Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait in 1991 that truly generated the sustained chaos needed for Kurdish independence. While Kurds in Turkey have been attempting – and failing – to fight an insurgency against an organized and determined central government, the Kurds of Iraq were saved by the Angels of the Outfield in the West. After crushing the Shi’a in the aftermath of the Gulf War, Saddam was told not to enter Kurdistan again, one of the few agreements the bastard kept.
As Saddam’s Iraq reeled under the effects of war, sanctions, and occasional American bombings, Kurdistan was given enough breathing space to fight both a civil war and an actual one with Saddam’s army. Following the 2003 invasion, which only ticked the insanity meter up one more notch, Kurdistan effectively set itself up as an independent state in all but name. In fact, I could fly to several of Kurdistan’s airports right now visa free, something I’m not accorded in the rest of Iraq.
Throw Syria into the mix and you’ve got some real Kurdish power going
Syria’s own Kurds are rapidly following the same pattern. Of the four states which Kurdistan strides, two are now in play for independence. Neither Iran nor Turkey want to lose territory to such a state, but may not have much of a choice. With northern Iraq as the nucleus, other Kurdish regions could become autonomous and act as de facto satellites of a free Kurdistan. Over time, as the region Balkanizes, these territories could join up officially.
This is breaking a big rule of American strategy, of course
Since World War II, America has not wanted to see Middle Eastern borders change much. However, new thinking has come to recognize that to fight these forces simply prolongs the misery. The sooner the borders align with the ethnic, sectarian, and national reality on the ground, the better. Big powers like Turkey and Iran want to preserve the status quo for as long as possible, but will, on humanitarian grounds, eventually give way to some form of Kurdish freedom.
Baghdad can kiss Irbil good-bye
But Iraq will soon lose its Kurdistan. Neither Arab nor Shi’a, the Kurds lose out on any power contest in the rest of Iraq. Despite America’s insistence in keeping the borders intact for as long as possible, it also doesn’t like the idea of handing the compliant and reliable Kurds over to increasingly pro-Iranian Iraq. Being a pawn sucks, but at least they’ve being talked about.
Inevitable because this time the Kurds know what they want
The last time the Kurds really had a shot at a country was at a time when they had neither the power nor the ideology to build themselves one. This time they have both. The Middle East won’t be stabilizing anytime soon, not so long as Syria bleeds, Saudi Arabia competes with Iran (and both have the oil cash to fuel the fires), and Iraq’s society remains fragmented. In such an environment, the Kurds will be able to use their meager geopolitical power to leverage themselves into the open for the first time in history.
Good for them, but painful it’ll be
Such a move will cause a chain reaction throughout the region. States that are wobbly will crack; cracked states will fall apart. But perhaps that’s precisely what the Middle East needs to go through.
(Sunday: What a Free Kurdistan Will Probably Look Like)