With a scattered population of 28-35 million, indigenous Kurds are one of the largest ethno-cultural communities in the Middle East. As reluctant residents of adjacent regions of Armenia, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey, they have long sought to create an independent national homeland.
Elsewhere, the world was transforming itself over more than a century from approximately 53 independent countries in 1900 to about 193 today. In the Middle East alone, Arabs today have 22 states; Turks, Iranians and Jews each have one.
Kurds have aspired to the creation of “Kurdistan” since the early 1900s. With the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War One, Western allies provided for a Kurdish state in the 1920 Treaty of Sevres.
Unfortunately, when the boundaries of modern Turkey were established three years later, the promised Kurdish state had vanished. All attempts since to found one have been crushed.
The patterns of oppression in Turkey and Iraq are illustrative of the continuing obstacles to Kurdish independence in all five nations and led to the old saying, “Kurds have no friends but the mountains.”
They comprise 15-20 percent of the Turkish population, but for generations Kurdish names and costumes were banned, the use of their language was restricted, and they were insultingly termed “Mountain Turks.”
In 1978, Abdullah Acalan launched the PKK seeking an independent state within Turkey; the violence that began six years later saw more than 40,000 persons killed and hundreds of thousands displaced.
In the 1990s, the PKK reduced its demand to greater cultural and political autonomy and a ceasefire resulted from 2012 until 2015. Hundreds have since died from Turkish military attacks on PKK camps in northern Iraq.
Turkish President Recep Erdogan, seeking a Sunni-dominated Syria, struck at the Syrian Kurds’ Democratic Union Party (PYD). By disrupting logistics between the PKK in Iraq and the PYD in northern Syria, he weakened the most effective ground force fighting ISIS.
Assisted by the U.S.-led coalition’s airstrikes, the Kurdish peshmerga soldiers nonetheless retook almost all Kurdish territory and protected not only Iraq’s infrastructure but also their own population and 1.6 million refugees seeking sanctuary with them.
Recently, Erdogan is threatening military intervention, and asserts that blocking Kurdish independence is “a matter of survival” for Turkey.
In Iraq, Kurds experienced their worst treatment during the decades of Baathist rule, when Saddam Hussein ethnically cleansed tens of thousands of them in the 1970s. In the closing days of the Iran-Iraq War, his regime used poison gas to murder at least 3,200 Kurdish civilians, summarily executed men and boys, and sent entire villages to concentration camps.
President George H.W. Bush’s no-fly zone in 1991 provided Iraqi Kurds some protection against Saddam and a measure of autonomy. They used the opening to develop institutions of self-government that stand out as beacons in the region today.
Most Kurds are Sunni Muslims, though there are also Christians and Jews among them. They have deep historical ties to their land; culture sets them apart from neighbors. They are a functioning and largely corruption-free democracy.
The successes of their peshmerga soldiers in confronting ISIS in Iraq and Syria, including heroic efforts to protect Yazidis facing genocide from ISIS, has enlarged both Kurdish determination and international respect for them. They remain a key ally of the US-led coalition fighting ISIS; many lost their lives seeking to end the ISIS nightmare.
On July 1, Kurdish president Masoud Barzani announced his intention to call a referendum on independence in part because Iraq has already been “effectively partitioned.”
The referendum was held on Sept. 25 with a turnout of about 78 percent among five million eligible voters and about 93 percent of the votes cast in favor of independence. The Kurdistan Regional Government characterized it as binding, although it later said the result would only trigger the start of state building and negotiations with Iraq.
The Kurdish people have more than earned their right to independence and the European empires, which drew the Middle East boundaries mostly to suit their own interests, are now mercifully gone. It is long overdue for the United States, Canada, and other democratic governments to stand with the Kurds instead of abandoning them again. American allies in the region, Europe, and Asia are watching carefully.
Kurdistan, moreover, would help all members of the U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIS to push back against Russia and perhaps even to be an effective regional counter to Iran’s proposed Shiite crescent from Sanaa to Beirut.
David Kilgour, a lawyer by profession, served in Canada’s House of Commons for almost 27 years. In Jean Chretien’s Cabinet, he was secretary of state (Africa and Latin America) and secretary of state (Asia-Pacific). He is the author of several books and co-author with David Matas of “Bloody Harvest: The Killing of Falun Gong for Their Organs.”