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Research Report

Kurdistan Rising?: Considerations for Kurds, Their Neighbors, and the Region

Michael Rubin
Copyright Date: Jul. 1, 2016
Pages: 147
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Table of Contents

  1. (pp. 5-18)

    Almost any visitor to Kurdistan will hear Kurds quip that they are “the largest people without a state.” Indeed, they are. None of the countries in which the bulk of Kurds live—Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria—have had a real and apolitical census in decades, and most have had a habit of disempowering Kurds, if not outright denying the existence of Kurdish identity. Yet the existence of more than 40 million Kurds in the Middle East is increasingly a fact that no country can ignore. Indeed, if all of Kurdistan’s constituent parts were to become independent together, the resultant...

  2. (pp. 19-26)

    While Kurds have long aspired to self-government and have achieved their aim for short periods of time in very limited areas, many factors beyond great-power politics and diplomacy have undercut their larger aspirations to realize a greater Kurdistan stretching from the Anatolian plains through northern Iraq and across the Zagros Mountains. Whatever cultural and linguistic ties the Kurds share, the multiplicity of experience among various Kurdish groups left an indelible mark on their current situation and contributes significantly to their inability to form a cohesive whole. If the Kurds are unable to overcome their divisions, they will remain a minority...

  3. (pp. 27-55)

    It would be both condescending and paternalistic to suggest that Kurds should simply forgo their dream because of the complexities surrounding it. Whether to seek independence or some other autonomous or federal arrangement ultimately should be the decision of the Kurdish people, their leaders, and to some degree the societies from which they seek to separate. Nor are Kurds uniform at present in their aspirations: while Iraqi Kurds overwhelmingly favor independence (even if their leaders are less enthusiastic in practice), the majority of their brethren in Syria and Iran seem to cap their ambitions at autonomy.

    Kurds in Turkey run...

  4. (pp. 56-63)

    Too often, Kurds discuss independence as if it is the end of a process, but it is really just the beginning. Upon independence, if not before, Kurds will need to inaugurate a new government. The greater the number of Kurdish regions that win independence, the more difficult post-independence governance will be.

    The problem is twofold. First, each region of Kurdistan that exercises any degree of local control has drifted effectively into autocracy. For all the rhetoric of local democracy in Öcalan’s more recent writings, PKK leadership clustered in the group’s regional headquarters on Qandil Mountain in Iraqi Kurdistan, HDP officials...

  5. (pp. 64-90)

    Kurdistan’s independence would shake the Middle East. It would, in effect, be the first major adjustment in borders and the nation-state system since a new generation of states emerged from the ashes of World War I. But creating a state is one thing; having it function is another. While many Kurds focus on the trappings of the state—flags and coins, for example—these are often cosmetic. The real backbone of any state is its economy. America’s Founding Fathers had Alexander Hamilton to establish a financial system which enabled the United States to grow and mature. In Kurdistan, however, the...

  6. (pp. 91-100)

    While choice of a government system remains contentious for Kurds and Kurdistan, that might only be the tip of the iceberg. After all, any government or governments would need a well-established legal code upon which to function on a daily basis. Regularizing law will be a Herculean task. Each of the four main regions of Kurdistan brings with it a different body of law, on top of which, the long history of struggle, insurgency, and civil war brings with it immediate legal obstacles which must be addressed before Kurds address the minutiae of their legal needs and necessary reforms.


  7. (pp. 101-106)

    Many Kurds may be conservative socially, but there is broad consensus that any Kurdish state’s primary function should be to provide social services to its citizenry. Part of this is the result of Kurdish experience: in each state where Kurds found themselves, the state often favored non-Kurds in provision of services, be it through uneven development or outright discrimination. As Iraqi Kurdistan develops its oil infrastructure, domestic pressure will increase to provide basic social services to the citizens of any Kurdish entity, be it a state or a confederation of regions.

    Most Kurds expect their government to provide free or...

  8. (pp. 107-118)

    Perhaps the greatest responsibility of any government is defense. This will be especially true in the case of Kurdistan, which at best will find itself in an unstable region and at worst will be surrounded by hostile powers resentful of its independence and disputing its resources.

    Each Kurdish region rightly lionizes its fighters for having prevailed against vast odds, to the point where Kurdish independence seems possible, if not likely. The transition from guerrilla units to a more professional defense force remains, however, one of the greatest challenges facing a new Kurdish entity. Should the process fail, it could undermine...

  9. (pp. 119-124)

    There have been three distinct chapters in US government posture toward the Kurds and Kurdistan. Between 1945 and 1975, American policymakers saw the Kurds through a Cold War lens. They were alternately an asset and a liability, but they were always expendable. Between 1975 and 1991, the White House and State Department largely ignored the Kurds, treating them as an impediment and inconvenience to broader US interests, if not with outright hostility. The Reagan administration largely looked the other way as Saddam Hussein’s regime used chemical weapons against the Kurds, and it fully backed Turkey’s brutal crackdown on the PKK...