The major crises destabilising the Middle East today have been ongoing for over 100 years. Some of the major factors that have caused and have fed them include: the drawing of the Sykes-Picot borders, Western interventions, Persian-Turkish-Arab rivalry, Arab-Israeli conflict, sectarianism and religious extremism.
The Kurds have not been party to any of these issues and, in fact, have had to pay a heavy price for problems they did not create.
Yet some analysts and observers have claimed recently that the Kurdish desire for statehood is a major destabilising factor in the Middle East. Such claims willfully ignore realities on the ground and decades of history.
The Kurdish independence movement
The Kurds are among the first peoples in the Middle East who sought a nation-state of their own. The Kurdish national idea found expression on the ground as early as July 1880, when Sheikh Ubeydullah united Kurdish tribes into a confederation and announced an uprising in the Kurdish territories of the Qajar Empire.
He sought Western recognition of a Kurdistan nation. In his October 5, 1880 letter to a US missionary, he wrote: “the Kurdish nation, consisting of more than 500,000 families, is a people apart. Their religion is different (to that of others), and their laws and customs are distinct.”
This rebellion failed and Sheikh Ubeydullah was exiled to the Hejaz, where he died in 1883. But the Kurdish national idea lived on.
The Ottoman Empire collapsed at the end of World War I, as did the model of the multiracial, multireligious Eastern state. Britain, France and Russia proceeded to divide the region and push on it the idea of nation-states, drawing arbitrary borders under the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916.
The idea of a Kurdish nation-state was also on the table, and was mentioned in the Treaty of Sevres of 1920 between the Western powers and the Ottoman Empire.
As the British were imposing their colonial control over Mesopotamia, Kurdish leader Sheikh Mahmud Barzanji led a series of rebellions and formed a Kurdish kingdom in 1922. By 1924, the British had destroyed this state, despite initially agreeing to it.
The 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which presented the final settlement of World War I, effectively ended any plans for a Kurdish state in northern Kurdistan.
The struggle for civil and cultural rights
Regional and international factors and a myriad of issues related to the Kurdish movement meant that the Kurds failed to achieve their “national project”, in spite of being the fourth-largest population in the Middle East after the Arabs, Turks and Persians. As a result, the Kurds found themselves under the control of governments which embraced the exclusionary ideas of citizenship and nation-building.
The Kurds tried to secure the bare minimum of cultural and national rights in their “new” countries, in an effort to preserve their national identity. But that proved almost impossible.
Turkey’s response to the Kurdish demands came in the constitution of 1924, which denied the existence of all non-Turkish peoples in Turkey. The newly established nation-state issued a long list of laws and decrees aimed to Turkify the Kurds and absorb, deny and efface their cultural and national identity. At the same time, the government sent the military to Kurdistan to enforce these regulations by force, and crush rebellions provoked by these assimilationist policies.
The situation in Iran was fairly similar under the Shah, who rejected Kurdish demands for cultural and national rights. The advent of the Islamic Republic did not herald any change in the status of Kurdish citizens in Iran and, in fact, increased the pressure on them. The Kurds in Iran were deprived of political rights and denied participation in the government; a number of Kurdish leaders have been assassinated.
The situation in Iraq was worse. After the Arab government in Baghdad, under the British mandate, ignored its 1924 promise to the League of Nations to respect the administrative and cultural rights of Kurds in the country, consecutive governments waged war in Kurdistan. This escalated to Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons in the 1980s and ethnic cleansing operations in Kurdish cities and villages.
The Kurds in Syria were in no better situation, as the Damascus governments adopted openly racist policies towards them. Matters reached their worst during the 1960s when thousands of Kurds were stripped of their Syrian citizenship, as part of a plan to divide and Arabise the Kurdish regions and create an “Arab belt” by settling Arab clans into Kurdish cities and villages.
For decades, these four countries coordinated action on the Kurdish issue, working together against any national demands or advances made by their Kurdish populations. The policies of ignoring the Kurds, denying their rights and altering their demographics have resulted in the general economic and cultural backwardness of their cities and villages.
Iraqi Kurdistan and stability in the Middle East
The Kurds of Iraq seized the first opportunity they got for self-rule after decades of war and genocide, and, in May 1992, they had the first free elections in their history and in the history of the Iraqi Republic. This resulted in the creation of an elected government and a parliament.
In spite of the difficulties of the early years, both friends and foes of the Kurds have to admit that with more autonomy from the Baghdad government, Iraqi Kurdistan moved quickly towards embracing civic values, achieving economic prosperity and safeguarding rights for minorities and women.
Furthermore, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) succeeded in gaining recognition from Turkey and establishing a partnership with Ankara. This was the first step in solving one of the longest-lasting conflicts in the Middle East, and could serve as a model for solving similar crises in the region.
Within two decades of gaining autonomy, Iraqi Kurdistan became a bastion of stability in Iraq and the region, weathering well the internal Iraqi insurgency caused by the 2003 US invasion and the turmoil after the Arab Spring.
When the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) attacked Iraq and threatened both Baghdad and Erbil, the Kurds seized the opportunity to show off to the world the success of the Kurdish experiment. The stability and internal strength of Iraqi Kurdistan allowed it to successfully defend itself against ISIL and eventually push back and reclaim territories ISIL had occupied.
Kurdistan became a safe haven for all the non-Muslim minorities that the Iraqi government had failed to protect, as well as the Sunni Arabs who were fleeing Shia regions and Shia Arabs fleeing Sunni regions. In 2016, in spite of Baghdad refusing to offer support and consistently cutting the KRG’s budget, the region was hosting a large number of displaced persons and refugees, who at that point comprised at least 30 percent of the inhabitants of the province.
Thus, claims that Iraqi Kurdistan is threatening the “peace and stability” in the region with its bid for independence do not really reflect facts on the ground. Iraqi Kurdistan has been the only region that has presented solutions to many chronic crises of the Middle East. Since its establishment in the early 1990s, it has achieved peace and democracy and adopted a culture of diversity and acceptance, in spite of the hostility it has faced.
The decision to hold a referendum on September 25 was an expression of the Kurdish leadership’s responsiveness to the demands of the people of Kurdistan, that their voice and their desires be communicated to the international community. The vote was part of its democratic tradition and was held according to international standards; it did not contradict the regulations of the United Nations, international law or the Iraqi constitution.
Kurdish independence from Iraq could have been a practical, peaceful and democratic solution to the Kurdish problem, because it would have satisfied Kurdish aspirations and responded to the Kurdish nationalism which rose after the victory over ISIL. It would have made it easier for the international community to find an acceptable solution for the Kurdish problem in the Middle East as a whole.
Baghdad responded by closing Kurdistan’s airspace, launching a military campaign along the borders of Kurdistan and attempting to cancel Iraqi Kurdistan’s legal status enshrined in the Iraqi constitution of 2005. The Iraqi government dispatched the Popular Mobilisation Units and their “adviser”, Qassem Suleimani, the leader of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, to attack the KRG’s forces and push the country to the brink of civil war. The statements against Kurdistan coming out of Baghdad were, at times, more extreme than the statements of the Baathist officials in charge of the mass extermination operations against the Kurds in the 1980s.
The strengthening of Haider al-Abadi‘s government and the preservation of Iraq’s unity may well serve the interests of the US and the West at this point in time, but they will not bring about a long-term solution that would establish peace in Iraq. There are no guarantees that the Kurds will not pay a hefty price once again for someone else’s failed experiment.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.