Statehood and the Kurds

By Neil Misra 


This piece seeks to address the feasibility of an establishment of a Kurdish state in the Middle East. A basic analysis of recent Kurdish history will be provided to help explicate why a “Kurdistan” never existed, before concluding with an evaluation of the current status of the Kurdish demographic and the viability of Kurdish statehood in the near future. The conclusions reached are that (1) the prospects for the creation of a Kurdistan are rather bleak and (2) the present state of the Kurdish population varies significantly from country to country.


 The Kurds are considered a stateless nation. Map from BBC News. 

The Kurds are considered a stateless nation. Map from BBC News. 

The origins of the “Kurdish problem” can be traced back to the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Due to the vast and fluid borders of the Empire, its defeat impacted the Middle East region significantly, leaving it in disarray-- what would become of the former imperial realms in the post-Ottoman vacuum? . The Kurds, who were subjects of the Ottoman Empire, seized this as an opportunity to advocate for the creation of a Kurdish state. Provisions were subsequently made in the Treaty of Sèvres to set aside some territory for a Kurdish homeland. However, the Treaty of Sèvres was later rejected by the Turks in favor of the Treaty of Lausanne, which made no provisions for a Kurdistan. Rather, two factions claimed the majority of the Ottoman Empire: the Turkish nationalists and the victorious Entente Powers (namely the British and French).

On the Turkish nationalist side, leader Mustafa Kemal Atatürk sought to establish a purely Turkish successor state. He reasoned that his new state ought to be located in Anatolia, due to the Turks’ historic ties to the region. Thus, he was willing to sacrifice all other former Ottoman territories, so long as he could secure Anatolia (now Turkey) for the Turkish people. To secure his vision, Atatürk implemented two key policies. First, he motioned to “de-Ottomanize” Turkey by adopting the Latin alphabet, removing Arabic words from the Turkish language, banning the fez, terminating Ottoman traditions, and secularizing the state. Second, he commenced a process of ethnic cleansing to eliminate all non-Turkic minorities from Anatolia. The Greeks living in Anatolia were consequently expelled into Greece and the Armenians were forced into Armenia (hundreds of thousands were also massacred). However, there was nowhere to banish the sizable Kurdish minority living in the region (they could not migrate south, as the British and French had occupied that region). Atatürk would have never ceded the Kurdish occupied areas of Turkey; he thought he had already forfeited enough Ottoman land and felt a sense of entitlement towards Anatolia. Thus, the Turks prevented the creation of a Kurdish state by refusing to grant the Kurds Anatolian territory and blocking the Treaty of Sèvres.

The remaining of the Kurdish population remained fragmented under multiple political entities (the British (modern day Iraq), French (Syria), and Persians), which ultimately crippled any prospects of a contiguous Kurdistan. The creation of a Kurdish state simply did not align with major British interests (i.e. oil) and no other independent country would willingly cede land to the Kurds. Further, the Iraqi Kurds were not compelled to unite in Turkey as they were treated relatively well by the British in comparison to the Kurds in Turkey. The enumerated problems proved insurmountable in the establishment of a singular Kurdistan, and continue to plague the Kurds to this day.

However, the question remains as to if creating Kurdistan is a viable proposition for the near future and if the current conditions of the various Kurdish populations in the Middle East are of particular interest. Therefore, it is necessary to pivot towards modern-day Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran to provide a greater insight into these inquiries.

In Turkey, the relationship between the Kurds and the central government has been contentious at best. Both sides have endured sporadic, direct confrontation and heavy guerilla fighting since the formation of the Turkish state. The advent of the leftist Kurdish nationalist movement, the PKK, has also been particularly effective in exacerbating tensions. Nevertheless, the Turks continue to aggressively repress the Kurds, while maintaining entitlement towards the land of Anatolia. In result, the potential for a free Kurdish state in the area is virtually non-existent.

In Iraq, the Kurds have been granted their own semi-autonomous region, which they primarily administer themselves. While not the same as an independent nation-state, it is indeed the next best thing. The Kurds are permitted to elect their own government (based in Erbil) and even maintain their own military force (the “Peshmerga”). Despite these conditions, Iraq is unlikely to ever sever ties in entirety with the region for two reasons. First and foremost, the Turks would intervene militarily in Iraq if it ever ceded a Kurdistan due to the threat of domestic instability.. Iraq would not benefit from a war and thus cession is not an attractive option for the Iraqis. Secondly, Iraqi Kurdistan does produce substantial amounts of oil, and some of those oil revenues go to the Iraqi central government. Losing Kurdistan would mean losing out on some of those revenues. Therefore, while the Kurds are relatively well treated in Iraq, an independent nation does not appear to be on the horizon.

In Syria, the Kurds are in a particularly difficult predicament as they are embroiled in the Syrian uprising. To make matters worse, they are unable to flee: the Turks and the Iraqis will not accept them into their borders. Therefore, the Kurds have made motions to arm themselves and strengthen their security forces. Independent statehood is impossible under the same reasoning: President Bashar al-Assad would never cede land to the Kurds. Perhaps the best the Syrian Kurds can hope for is an autonomous zone (similar to Iraqi Kurdistan) in a post-Assad Syria.

In Iran, the Kurds are coexisting with the Iranians on a less than equal platform. While they are treated well in comparison to their neighboring Kurds in Turkey and Syria, the Iranian government maintains close control over the ethnic group and fails to have an incentive to cede any land over to the Kurds.

It is clear as to the reason no Kurdistan was formed following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, and why no Kurdistan appears plausible today. The Turks wanted to maintain absolute control over Anatolia after the fall of the Ottoman Empire and were unwilling to sacrifice any portion of their Anatolian land. The British could have potentially produced a unified Kurdish state, but only seized those portions of Kurdistan that had significant amounts of oil. The actions of these two political entities, along with other factors, served to divide control over Kurdistan between several different countries.  Today, while the treatment of Kurdish minorities varies from country to country, the one consistent thread between all those countries is that they would never cede land. It is simply not within their political interests for the aforementioned reasons (attachment to Anatolia, threat of Turkish invasion, etc.). Thus, the prospect for a Kurdish state is unlikely for any near future. 

Neil Misra is a student at George Washington University, majoring in International Relations and Affairs.