What strikes me as the one of the more upsetting aspects of the Iraq war and its aftermath is the preoccupation with preserving Iraq’s territorial integrity. Both the United States, which leads the coalition of the willing that toppled the previous Iraqi government and now occupies the country, and the other leading powers in the international community, have been very clear that there will be no redrawing of Iraq’s borders as a result of this conflict. Meant to appease the many Iraqi Arabs who fear the growing autonomy of ethnic minorities as well as Turkish leaders who oppose Kurdish nationalism, this commitment to preserve territorial integrity perpetuates more problems than it solves. More importantly, it is wholly inconsistent with the Bush administration’s vision of a new, democratic Middle East.
Iraq, with a population of roughly 23 million, is very ethnically diverse, though the majority of its citizens are Muslim Arabs, who are divided by religious differences into Sunni and Shiite communities. The largest non-Arab minority is the Kurds, who live mostly in the mountainous North. Also living in the area are large numbers of Assyrians and Turkomen. The Kurds, though, are between 15 and 20 percent of Iraq’s population, and they have been unofficially independent since the end of the First Gulf War. This makes the Kurds a major player in the post-war reconstruction of Iraq.
After the First World War, the victorious powers redrew the map of Europe according to the distribution of different national groups. The result was not perfect, but it was a step in the right direction that greatly influenced the political geography of today’s Europe. In the Middle East, after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, more emphasis was placed on rewarding the Arab leaders who had joined with British and French forces during the war than on advancing the same principle of self-determination that had been applied in Europe. New states were created on borders whose routes were mostly arbitrary and did not represent strong ethnic divisions. Accordingly, in the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, the British and French divided Ottoman-occupied Kurdistan in to the newly created states of Syria, Turkey, and Iraq. About a third of Kurds have lived under Iranian occupation since the 16th century as well. In an earlier agreement, the 1921 Treaty of Sevres, Kurdistan was to become independent, but Turkey objected and at Lausanne this principle was abandoned.
The Kurds speak several dialects of Kurdish, which is an Indo-European language similar to Persian, and the vast majority are Sunni Muslims, though some are Christians or adherents to older indigenous traditions. Like other peoples who have found themselves dispossessed and without political independence, the Kurds have a diaspora with communities in Western Europe and the United States. The Kurdish nationalist movement has been active for over a century, first directed against the Ottoman rulers in Istanbul and then against both the Turkish government and Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq. After the 1991 Gulf War, the U.S. patrolled no-fly zones in the north and south of Iraq; the northern zone was established to help the Kurds in an uprising against Hussein’s regime. As a result of that rebellion, Ba athist forces massacred thousands of Kurdish civilians in the now notorious Anfal campaign, but the Kurds were able to establish de facto autonomy over Iraqi Kurdistan.
President Bush has outlined a bold vision for long-term change in the Middle East, but his scorecard on advancing the plan is covered in zeros. Both his second inaugural address and his most recent State of the Union address called for an American commitment to spreading liberty and human freedom to every corner of the Earth, especially in the Middle East where such freedom is scant. But his administration’s efforts to spread democracy and liberty seem limited to the military and the rhetorical. It is time for the President and his aides to lead a movement for self-determination in that region through sound diplomacy and innovative action.
A free and independent Kurdistan would be a great tool with which to demonstrate the principles that the United States government wishes to see adopted by other states in the Middle East. Many Kurds already have experience with popular government, and a nation that struggles for so long for independence against a tyranny (as was Iraq’s Ba athist regime) is one that is more likely to embrace democracy and individual freedoms. An additional benefit would be the presence of a non-Arab free state in a region dominated by regimes whose Arab leaders often suppress non-Arab minority groups. A free Kurdistan would be the first non-Arab indigenous state to achieve self-determination in the Middle East since the rebirth of the State of Israel in 1948. Its creation would boost the success of Bush’s vision by leaps and bounds.
There are still many obstacles to helping the Kurdish people win their freedom, such as objections from Turkey and Iraqi Arabs and fears from other world leaders that redrawing borders might lead to destabilization in an already volatile region. But if Bush truly desires to make bold strides toward reshaping the Middle East in a positive direction, establishing an independent Kurdistan would be a step worth taking. Maybe then his lofty rhetoric will begin to resonate with more force, and he may be remembered as the President who dared to break with tradition and start drawing new, better lines in the sand.