Kurdistan is possible!
Do not fear what has blown up.
If you must, fear the unexploded.
Suheir Hammad, 2010
In October 1992, shortly after the formation of the Kurdistan Regional Government in May, the Kurdistan National Assembly (KNA) issued a decree expressing the unanimous commitment of Iraqi Kurdistan “to determine its fate and define its legal relationship with the central authority at this stage of history on the basis of the federation within a democratic parliamentary Iraq.” This was a remarkable statement in at least two senses. First, it came after a decade of destruction of Kurdistan by Saddam Hussein’s forces in the 1980s, during which more than 180,000 people were killed and over 4,000 villages and towns were destroyed. Chemical and biological weapons were used against unarmed civilians. The Kurdish town of Halabja had sadly become internationally known, along Hiroshima. Anfal, the Quran verse that sanctions mass killing and looting, was used by Saddam Hussein and his killing machine to justify his genocide against the Kurds and to rally support among Muslims and Arabs for his operations. It sanctioned the killing of the Kurds as infidels. The Iraqi forces then dealt with the Kurds as enemies of Islam. Killing them was presented as religious duty.
In 1992, hardly anyone could imagine that the Kurds in Iraq might one day govern themselves through a federal constitution, in Iraq, and without Saddam Hussein and the Ba‘th party. Hardly anyone could imagine that the Shi‘a majority in Iraq would be in command of Iraq’s political, economic and security affairs. This was a slow and arduous political process. The Kurds in Iraq had a period of internal fighting during which Kurdistan’s territory in Iraq was divided among the two warring sides of KDP and PUK. Several thousand people were killed, internally displaced or ended up in exile. Yet, most Kurdish political leaders did not give up the idea of living in a federal, democratic and plural Iraq in the future. Looking back to the post-1992 era, it seems clear that not only did Kurdish leaders keep the idea of federalism alive, but they also tried to convince other Iraqi opposition groups and leaders in order to reduce violence in a post-Saddam Iraq.
Ten years later, efforts seemed to have paid off. In December 2002, George W. Bush’s envoy to an Iraqi opposition meeting in London made a first public statement according to which, in the event of a regime change in Iraq, the country would be re-built as a federal state. That was a clear triumph for the Kurds of Iraq after a decade of isolation, UN and Iraqi sanctions and political uncertainty. Though the Bush administration had already decided to remove Saddam Hussein’s regime, the Iraqi opposition had no territorial base within the country, except for Kurdistan. This gave the Kurds another opportunity to play a leading role in promoting the idea of federalism. When the opposition groups gathered in Iraq, i.e. in Kurdistan’s regional capital Erbil, the Kurdish leaders and opinion-makers sought further reassurance that Iraq’s future would be re-built on the basis of federalism in order to prevent any future destruction of Kurdistan by any Iraqi government.
After the failure of Saddam Hussein’s security arrangements, Iraq’s army and the entire government collapsed immediately. While Iraq’s state institutions melted away, Kurdistan’s political, military, security, economic and social arrangements remained intact. In a sense, this reality put Kurdistan apart from the rest of Iraq for the following ten years.
Shortly after the introduction of the Coalition Provincial Authority (CPA), an intensive discussion and debate started in Kurdistan and in the rest of Iraq. Why should Iraq be a federal state? Was federalism the only solution? If yes, what kind of federalism should Iraq go for?
In Kurdistan, political parties organized meetings, be they between the parties themselves or through public debates. Academics from Europe and North America and Canada were invited to talk about different options, details of various federal arrangements and pros and cons of past experiences. Several events were also organized in London, Washington and Paris about negotiation strategies, potential roles of the “Coalition of the Willing” (the multi-national forces who managed to remove Saddam Hussein’s regime) and a few NGOs who were willing to share their expertise and experiences around the world. Gradually, the Kurdish negotiators agreed on a strategy in order to prevent any recurrence of the past destruction, to end violence against the population of Kurdistan by various governments in Baghdad, and to recognize the reality of Kurdistan’s achievements since 1992. Only then, Kurdistani forces would be able to start resetting, rebuilding, redirecting and reshaping politics in Iraq, including the country’s Achilles’ heel, i.e., the issue of state-building. In such context, the constitution was seen as an important tool for mitigating conflicts and promoting a federal, democratic and plural society in Iraq.
During the first rounds of talk, both American and British officials (diplomats as well as military) emphasized the idea of “Iraqi-ness.” Paul Bremer, the American administer in Iraq was leading some of the discussion about the future of Iraq. He was communicating the American official line while insisting that “The path to a new Iraq (is) ... where the majority is not Sunni, Shia, Arab, Kurd or Turkomen, but Iraqi.” This resonated badly among the people and leadership of Kurdistan. In the past, “Iraqi-ness” meant Arab domination in Iraq. In a new Iraq, the Kurds wanted to be partners, shareholders and co-decision makers. Masud Barzani, now president of the Kurdistan Region, responded by declaring, “The fact remains that we are two different nationalities in Iraq—we are Kurds and Arabs. If the Kurdish people agree to stay in the framework of Iraq in one form or another as a federation, then other people should be grateful to them.”
As a consequence, two different arguments and negotiation strategies were pursued. Most American, British and Iraqi diplomats and politicians worked very hard to create a centralized federation in which Kurdistan would be reduced to an autonomous region at the mercy of the government in Baghdad. They hoped for a strong centralized security, management of natural resources and legal supremacy. American officials were particularly adamant on the issue of secularism and the bill of rights.
The negotiations—first for the Transitional Administration Law (TAL) of March 2004 and later for Iraq’s new constitution (August 2005)—had mixed results.
For Kurdistan’s negotiators, being part of a new Iraq should mean a decentralized federation with asymmetric options, which was recognized in the 2005 Constitution. Kurdistan Region (KR) is a recognized legal entity in addition to the federal government. What is more interesting is the fact that not only were KR’s institutions legitimized but the past legislations (dating back to 1992) as well. KR representatives managed to negotiate a regionalized security arrangement. Thus, management of Iraq’s natural resources—a vital revenue for the region—became a federal issue in which regions and provinces would have direct influence and take. In order to avoid past experiences of unilateral cancellation of agreements, Kurdish negotiators achieved regional legal supremacy. The idea of “Iraqi-ness” was replaced with Iraq being a bi-lingual, multi-national, and multi-religious federation.
Politically speaking, these achievements are historically unprecedented for Kurds in any part of Kurdistan. As such, the actual negotiations became a source of inspiration for Kurdish political parties and organizations in Iran, Turkey and Syria, as well as in the diaspora. The first sign of such aspiration appeared as early as March 2004: when the Governing Council approved the TAL, Kurds in Syria were celebrating the Kurdish achievements in Iraq publicly, including waving the Kurdish flag in several cities. The idea that the Kurds of Syria also deserve rights (political, cultural and economic) were gradually, sometimes violently, promoted more publicly by various Kurdish political parties. Since the start of the uprising in many parts of Syria, the Kurds have gone from being known as guests in their homeland to demanding a region of their own. A young Kurdish fighter recently declared: “This is our country and we’ll fight for it.” This is an assertion that their homeland “Rojava” (an abbreviation for western Kurdistan”) is gaining more and more popularity. In January 2014, a Kurdish province declared independence during the second Geneva conference to deal with the situation in Syria. Clearly, the idea is to adopt the Kurdish model in Iraq, in order to create a federal state in Syria in which the Kurdish provinces (Kubani, Afrin and Jazira) would get a share of the state budget and the oil income. If and when that happens, we would not be very far from what the American National Intelligence noted in December 2012, “In the event of a more fragmented Iraq or Syria, a Kurdistan would not be inconceivable.”
In Turkey, intensive discussions on how to deal with the Kurdish issue have resulted in a dramatic change for the Kurds, from being denied the basic rights to debates about democratic rights, the nature of the state in Turkey and the issues of national identity, religious beliefs and security and constitutional arrangements. Although the risk of state fragmentation is almost non-existent in Turkey, the re-shaping of the discussion about the rights of the Kurds in that country has been influenced by a greater improvement of the relationship between the Kurdistan Regional Government and Turkey in the last few years.
The Kurds in Iran have the least uncertain future in terms of political and national rights. However, the Kurdish political parties are increasingly using concepts related to federalism, decentralization and regional security arrangements. Although the outcome is strongly linked to what will happen to the Islamic Republic in Iran, we should still envisage unexpected events. If anything, the surprising changes of the last few years in the Middle East can either encourage people to turn events in their favor or face harsher conditions if things go out of control.
Maybe, by 2030, events could take a more positive turn. Maybe, “the rise of Kurdistan” would not result in “a blow to Turkish integrity, increasing the risks of major conflict in its surrounding neighborhood,” as the National Security Council report expressed it. Maybe, Kurdistan could be possible in a different sense than that feared by the National Security Council declaring, “In the Middle East, we now have a Kurdistan, carved out from several countries. Winston Churchill and Gertrude Bell — architects of a united Iraq after World War I — would be spinning in their graves.” Different parts of Kurdistan may achieve various levels of political rights, constitutional and security arrangements within a re-shaped state system in the Middle East. Other parts of Kurdistan may be equally responsible in the way the Kurdistan Region of Iraq has participated in the creation of a stable regional sub-state system during the past two decades.