WHY THE WEST WON’T PULL FOR A KURDISH STATE
Written By David J. Horvitz
Reading about the struggles of the Kurds, a long persecuted ethnic group divided among the nations of the northern watershed of the Tigris and Euphrates, it is natural to call for a response. They’ve suffered cultural genocide, such as the historical banning of the use of Kurdish in Turkey, and overt genocide, such as Saddam’s use of chemical weapons on Kurdish civilians. Turkey has also extended its war with the The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey to include shelling the predominantly Kurdish military organization in Syria, the People’s Protection Units (YPG). There is a high degree of cooperation with and support for United States’ policies in the Middle East from Kurdish groups. Naturally, this leads to discussions in mainstream and social media of the merits and drawbacks of the establishment of a Kurdish state, dubbed “Kurdistan.” It is brought up frequently as as a safe haven, or even as sort of reward for the Kurds. But although the United States may criticize Turkey’s treatment of Kurdish rebels, it has recently shown that it is not against selling Turkey weapons to use against them. Even as the current vacuous situation in Syria may make the creation of a Kurdistan seem tempting, it would likely be more of a curse to the Kurdish people than a blessing. In addition, the establishment of such a state could have the unintended consequence of undermining Western multilateral actions in the Middle East.
An independent Kurdistan without external military support from the West would likely not last long.
If the major Kurdish force in Syria, the Kurdish Supreme Committee (that the YPG enacts as the military force), were to incorporate into a new Kurdistan state in Syria, they would of course still be under an immediate existential threat. Naturally, it would need to contend with extremist oil and drug militias like ISIS. More importantly however, it would be under threat from regional powers. In Turkey, making any statements which are viewed as pro-Kurd can lead to arrests. Turkey considers Kurdish nationalist movements a serious threat to its own sovereignty and integrity, a consideration that is not without some cause. The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) engages in terrorist actions in Turkey in pursuit of an independent Kurdistan. Turkey is already shelling the YPG in Syria, which they declare a branch of the PKK. If a Syrian Kurdish state joined together as a recognized nation, there is little reason to believe that Turkey would reduce military action. Other nations with Kurdish separatist movements, such as Iran and (possibly) a more independent Iraq, would likely oppose them as well. An independent Kurdistan without external military support from the West would likely not last long. So, let us consider the situation if it did have military support.
If the major Kurdish force in Syria, the Kurdish Supreme Committee, were to incorporate into a new Kurdistan state in Syria, they would of course still be under an immediate existential threat.
What if Western countries, namely the USA, changed policies and chose to politically and materially support a new Kurdistan? Could the nascent state survive having Turkey, the 10th most powerful military by the Military Strength Index, right on its doorstep? Perhaps, but we should ask if this would be in accordance with the interests of the West. Ongoing military support of the fledgling nation would be unpopular within the countries giving support, especially if it was in the form of deployed troops. Even though there would be an economic interest in supporting Kurdistan, as it could allow for the development of a natural gas supply line to Europe, this support would send a destabilizing neocolonial message to other countries of the Middle East and the world at large.
It is not uncommon for colonialism to be lamented in the media, but when it happens, it can still sound like it carries a modern colonial message. The drawing of the modern borders of the Middle East was not done with any regards to local ethnic groups, such as the Kurds. This fact has been blamed for much of the regional conflict to date. As such, it is not rare to hear that a Middle east with national borders redrawn on ethnic lines could represent a hope for a more stable, prosperous and peaceful Middle East. But how does that sound to the powers-that-be in the Middle East, besides a neocolonial plan to carve up the region into smaller, more easily manipulated chunks? Fears that the West could sponsor new ethnic uprisings might drive Iran to renege on its recent anti-nuclear treaty so that it could develop the ultimate deterrent against invasion.
Ongoing military support of the fledgling nation would be unpopular within the countries giving support, especially if it was in the form of deployed troops.
Ethnic nation-states are by and large a small minority among the world’s current countries. The establishment and support of a Kurdish state would suggest that a return to this mono-ethnic tribalism is a desirable component of modern Western liberalism, and furthermore, Kurdistan could look to many non-Western countries as a new casus belli for the West. Since virtual every country has its own mistreated minorities, the idea that Western powers could intervene under the guise of granting them their own state could be a driving factor for the persecution of ethnic minorities. The United States cannot step in and create a new territory for the Rohingya or Chechens if they are all driven out or slaughtered. The fear that minority groups would be propped up in support for foreign interests is ancient and persuasive, and has recent examples such as the Hmong allegiance to the United States in the Vietnam War. Therefore a new, clear-cut example of the Western hegemony’s establishment of a new country for minorities could inflame fear and persecution across the globe. It could fuel greater disenfranchisement for minority groups than they have already; we see, for example, that China limits foreign travel for Tibetans and Uyghurs, likely out of a fear that foreigners might encourage nationalist resistance among them.
Also worth considering is how Western aid to the establishment of this country might cause an upswing in irredentism in belligerent countries across the globe. If properly establishing a country to represent and protect an ethnicity is good cause to seize territory, then wasn’t Russia’s seizure of Crimea justified? Could this be a new carte blanche to seize former Soviet territories where many citizens still call themselves Russian? If the West can “help” by redrawing old colonial borders to better represent minorities, can Russia then redraw old Soviet borders for the same reasons? This does not seem to be a precedent in line with typical Western geopolitical thought. Furthermore, it would give precedent that would help justify non-Western countries using military force; this would disempower the Western hegemony.
Would this Kurdistan even be a strong Western ally as imagined?
Let’s go back to our hypothetical Syrian Kurdistan. What would this country do for the Kurds themselves? We have a good example of a contemporary ethnic-nation state in the Levant, strongly tied to and supported by the West. Just a stamp from this country on your passport is enough for some Middle Eastern countries to deny you entry. We might expect the same fate for Kurds in this scenario. If that is the case, it might be even harder for Kurds to visit family across borders. We might see some countries attempting an exile of Kurds into the new Kurdistan, a humanitarian crisis and one not in keeping with Kurdish separatist thinking. Assuming large Western economic support, the new Kurdistan might be able to offer this influx a reasonable quality of life; however, it would nevertheless represent a large uprooting of people and a greater instability throughout the Middle East.
Would this Kurdistan even be a strong Western ally as imagined? If we look at our other example, Israel, we see that it has developed into a modern apartheid state – and although it echoes the United States in terms of treaties and UN votes, it also acts as a completely free agent in regards to the buying and selling of weapons and military technology. Indeed, Israel is a vector by which China has acquired high tech missile guidance systems. Conflict and violence seems to breed fierce nationalism rather than accordance with Western policies. Also worth noting is that many of the Kurdish independence movements have roots in socialist ideology, and Western powers might not wish to support a young state that maintains control over industries or enforces protectionist economic regulations. If the West insisted on neoliberal economic policies as a condition of support, then it would further antagonize regional powers by making this Kurdistan appear as a puppet state.
For the reasons above, I strongly doubt that Western powers are likely to support the creation of any new Kurdish states any time soon. Nevertheless, these powers, namely the US, often rely on the support of regional minorities in military interventions. As such, it is in the United States’ interest to have a sort of reward, support, and advocacy for those that help them. Such a support system could help secure alliances in the future. Support and advocacy can be established without direct material support or recognition of a Kurdish state. Reactive sanctions, condemnation, and calls for humanitarian relief are all valued by popular Western ideology and common policies. Clear demands, such as an end to the laws limiting use of languages and an increase in media coverage of the mistreatment of minority groups, can be effective — especially if it is framed as a clear alternative to nationalist movements, and not a way to further them. One could even imagine, for example, the United States one day insisting that key negotiations with Turkey be carried out in Kurdish.
Cover photo credit: AFP/Bulent Kilic