Robin Wright writes: Pity the Kurds. Theirs is a history of epic betrayals. A century ago, the world reneged on a vow to give them their own state, carved from the carcass of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War. The rugged mountain people were instead dispersed into the new states of Turkey, Iraq, and Syria, with another block left in Iran. Since then, all three countries have repressed their Kurds. Saddam Hussein was so intent on Arabizing Iraq’s Kurdistan that he paid Arab families to unearth long-dead relatives and rebury them in Kurdish territory—creating evidence to claim Arab rights to the land. He also razed four thousand Kurdish villages and executed a hundred thousand of the region’s inhabitants, some with chemical weapons. Syria stripped its Kurds of citizenship, making them foreigners in their own lands and depriving them of rights to state education, property ownership, jobs, and even marriage. Turkey repeatedly—sometimes militarily—crushed Kurdish political movements; for decades, the Kurdish language was banned, as was the very word “Kurd” to describe Turkey’s largest ethnic minority. They were instead known as “mountain Turks.”
Iraq’s Kurds got a bit of revenge this week. In a historic but controversial referendum, more than ninety per cent of voters endorsed a proposal to secede and declare their own country. “The partnership with Baghdad has failed and we will not return to it,” the President of Kurdistan, Masoud Barzani, vowed on the eve of the poll. Jubilation erupted. Waving their distinctive flag—three stripes of red, white, and green, with a blazing golden sun in the center—Kurds across northern Iraq took to the streets.
The Kurdish vote reflects an existential quandary across the entire Middle East: Are some of the region’s most important countries really viable anymore? The world has resisted addressing the issue since the popular protests in 2011, known as the Arab Uprising, or Arab Spring, spawned four wars and a dozen crises. Entire countries have been torn asunder, with little to no prospect of political or physical reconstruction anytime soon. Meanwhile, the outside world has invested vast resources, with several countries forking out billions of dollars in military equipment, billions more in aid, and thousands of hours of diplomacy—on the assumption that places like Iraq, Syria, and Libya can still work as currently configured. The list of outside powers that have tried to shape the region’s future is long—from the United States and its European allies to the Russian-Iran axis and many of the Middle East’s oil-rich powers. All have, so far, failed at forging hopeful direction.
They’ve also failed to confront the obvious: Do the people in these countries want to stay together? Do people who identify proudly as Syrians, for example, all define “Syria” the same way? And are they willing to surrender their political, tribal, racial, ethnic, or sectarian identities in order to forge a common good and a stable nation?
The long-term impact of these destructive centrifugal forces is far from clear. But, given the blood spilled over the past six years, primordial forces seem to be prevailing at the moment, and not only among the Kurds. “The only people who want to hold Iraq together,” Lukman Faily, the former Iraqi ambassador to Washington, opined to me recently, “are those who don’t live in Iraq.” That sentiment is echoed, if not as concisely, elsewhere.
The challenge is addressing the flip side: If these countries, most of them modern creations, are dysfunctional or in danger of failing, what then will work to restore some semblance of normalcy to an ever more volatile region? No major player, in the region or the wider world, seems to be exploring solutions. [Continue reading…]