A couple days ago, a large majority of voters in Iraqi Kurdistan voted for their independence in a unilateral referendum that was not supported by Iraq nor by any other nation in the Middle East except for Israel. Although Iraqi and Syrian Kurdistan have had a de facto sort of autonomous status for a few years given the general breakdown of central order and the desire of those weak central regimes for support against the Islamic State, the Kurds remain the largest stateless nation in terms of population in the entire world. As someone who has written and read some about this particular problem, I find it somewhat baffling and striking as to why the Kurds have missed out on the previous rounds of nationalism that gave most of their neighbors independent states .
The Kurdish problem is not a new problem. In Xenophon’s excellent Anabasis, he talks about fighting a fierce mountain tribe while seeking to retreat back home with the survivors of the Greek mercenary force that had won a battle only to have it lost by the death of the candidate they backed for Persian emperor. It was in this account that the Kurds enter history as a fierce mountain-dwelling population that wanted to be left alone and was continually involved in imperialistic endeavors despite its own wishes. The high point of Kurdish power was during the rise of the Ayubbid dynasty, most famous for that paragon of Muslim honor and rectitude, Saladin. During this time, the Kurdish dynasty ruled over a territory from contemporary Iraq through Syria, Jordan, Israel, Lebanon, and Egypt. This rule would not last a long time before the dynasty was overthrown, but it does mark a high point in the history of the Kurds to this day. For most of recorded history, though, the Kurds simply are a people who live in the valleys of the northern part of Mesopotamia and want to be as independent as possible despite the desires for empire after empire to control them.
Their fate in the 20th century is instructive. Currently, the Kurdish people are divided among several nations, in all of which Kurds are at best second class citizens subject to some degree of repression. In Turkey, they make up a substantial part of the Turkish population but have often been called “Mountain Turks” even though their language is of an entirely different language family from Turkish and even though they have lived in the land far longer than the Turks have, who are relative newcomers to Anatolia in the 11th century. Iran, a multi-ethnic state, has had similar issues with the Kurds as well as other peoples who inhabit the northerwestern part of the nation like the Turkish Azeris, who have a nation of their own just north of Iranian Azerbaijan. In Syria as well the Kurds make up a notable portion of the population, about a tenth, and are concentrated in the northern part of the country near the dominant minority population of Alawites. It should be noted that although there are Kurdish members of government in various nations, they have no nation of their own, and no nation particularly wants an independent Kurdistan in their area, with the possible exceptions of Israel and Armenia, who are similarly small peoples with a history of massive oppression that mirrors that of the Kurds.
We may see a sample of the likely repercussions for unilateral Kurdish declarations of independence in the remainder of Kurdistan by what is happening in Iraq at present. Despite a large degree of solidarity on the part of Kurds themselves for independence even without the blessing of Iraq, Iraq’s response has lacked a certain degree of finesse. Their response has been to attempt to shut down transportation and communication into Kurdistan and desire to control Kurdistan’s airports as well as the cities like Kirkuk and other areas within the Plain of Nineveh that have been taken over by Kurds in their warfare alongside the Iraqi state against the Islamic state. None of the other nations in the area with large Kurdish minorities would likely be any less oppressive and tyrannical if the Kurds in their area declared independence. Secession may be in the air in Kurdistan (and other areas) but it is not the sort of choice that many people want to make the Middle East even more unstable and complicated of a place, however just it is for Kurds to have their own nation.
Although there have been many reasons in the past why empires wished to rule over the Kurds despite the disaffection the Kurds had for such rule, in the contemporary period Kurdistan has two essential resources that the rest of the region recognizes as vital to national security, namely oil and water. The same mountainous, rugged country that makes Kurdistan a challenge to rule and a challenge for its own people to unite in defense of their liberty also makes it the watershed of many rivers, such as the famous Tigris and Euphrates. Kurdish independence, especially if that includes not only Iraqi Kurdistan but also Syrian, Turkish, and Iranian Kurdistan, would be in a powerful position to dominate the nations that sit downstream from its mountain valleys, and that is a position that no nation wants to be in. Similarly, the fact that Kurdistan has oil as well would give it a great deal of leverage as an independent nation for transit routes for pipelines and ports that would give the landlocked nation a seaport. One could imagine a trade war going badly for a nation that faced its faucets being turned off unless it allowed the Kurds trade rights as well as logistical support, and that is likely a nightmares of many Middle Eastern states.
My hostility to the secession efforts of the Confederate States of America likely make people think I am far less favorable to secession than I actually am. In general, I am a firm believer that peoples who are oppressed have every right to seek self-government, regardless of what the international community thinks. I do not believe that blood and treasure should be spent trying to prop up states that lack the legitimacy of those they claim to govern. If that legitimacy can be found in smaller, ethnic-based states that feel free to join supranational organizations and seek to live at peace with neighbors, I am all for that. If that legitimacy can be found in larger states that have somewhat looser structures that allow for a great degree of decentralization and local autonomy to protect regional distinctions, I am all for that as well. The only situation where I am hostile to separatist movements is where they involve peoples whose desire to be separate involves the oppression of others. As the Confederate States of America wished to secede in order to oppress blacks and even non-slaveholding whites by denying them fair apportionment of seats in local politics, their cause was unjust and deservedly crushed. As most similar movements involve oppressed minorities who simply wish for self-government, and who possess strong historical and cultural claims for distinctiveness, I generally support such movements worldwide, regardless of how complicated they make the world map appear. Here’s hoping that we can see a free and independent Kurdistan that is able to avoid the cycles of repression and anarchy that have threatened the nations they have been a part of so often, and may the areas they split off of be better for the departure by having a free and peaceful neighbor rather than a restive and rebellious oppressed minority.
 See, for example: