North Africa, West Asia

Amidst ISIS war, Kurdish discourses on national self-determination

The US and EU urgently need a better understanding of realities on the ground, the nature and diversity of attitudes to national self-determination in various parts of Kurdistan, and how they have been affected by the war against ISIS.

Hannes Černy
29 October 2014
Massoud Barzani addresses official opening of US consulate in Erbil, 2011.

Massoud Barzani addresses official opening of US consulate in Erbil, 2011. RFE/RL/Demotix. All rights reserved. In both Iraq and Syria, officially or unofficially, Kurdish irregulars form the vanguard of the international coalition to defeat the radical militants of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

However, it remains to be seen whether the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) wages this war to defend the unity of the Iraqi state – as its western partners would have it – or pursues its own agenda of establishing an independent Kurdish state once ISIS has been defeated. An article in this month’s New Yorker alleges as much, and it is a concern routinely voiced in western capitals when discussing arming and training the peshmerga.

Such fears may appear even more valid in Syria, where NATO reluctantly came to fly sorties as well as to drop arms and ammunition in support of the defence of the contested town of Kobane; weapons, Turkey warns, that could end up in the hands of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

These concerns of the Kurds exploiting the current crisis to unilaterally pursue independence, though, seem to be more guided by western essentialist and normative understandings that perceive sovereignty as a zero-sum game – a way of thinking particularly salient in Turkey – than by realities on the ground, the nature and diversity of the discourses on national self-determination in the various parts of Kurdistan, or how they have been affected by the war against ISIS.

National self-determination versus sovereignty

The Kurdistan Region of Iraq has a predominantly young population, who, born or come of age after 1991, has never experienced Arab rule and has grown up in a Kurdistan governed by Kurds. They increasingly question their nominal subordination to a central government in Baghdad that is only perceived as having a negative impact, if any, on their daily lives. Among this segment of society, the widely held view of sovereignty as an absolute that either exists or not is most pronounced.

Such a view subscribes to the modernist take on nationalism, where, in the words of Ernest Gellner, “nationalism is primarily a political principal which holds that the political and the national unit should be congruent.” In other words, since modernism understands the modern sovereign nation state as the pinnacle of human political development, a nation, according to this view, is defined by its very desire to politically organize and express itself as a state; nations are seen as proto-states.

If the desire for statehood is lacking, said entity does not qualify as a nation. Furthermore, in the mainstream understanding of statehood, state sovereignty is seen as indivisible and only voluntarily transferable: once sovereign statehood is recognized by other states, only that state can claim undivided control over its territory and population and no other power – external or internal – has the legal right to contest its sovereignty.

Likewise, such a zero-sum mindset on sovereignty has formed the cornerstone of Kemalist state doctrine ever since the founding of the Turkish Republic. For ninety years the Turkish political establishment has stubbornly held on to the belief that Turkish society is comprised of only one nation; for to acknowledge the existence of a second (Kurdish) nation, in their eyes, would inevitably open the door to their territorial demands.

In its view on sovereignty, the international system regulated by international law has proven only marginally more flexible than Turkish state doctrine. While there are, as always, exceptions to the rule – think of the independence of Kosovo or various instances of so called “humanitarian intervention” – here too, the general principle holds that who and what is a state today and what is not is cast in stone.

Since not all nations in the world have yet become states, these two principles, national self-determination and sovereign statehood, are inherently contradictory and consequently often at odds – an immanent systemic conflict of principles international law has yet to satisfactorily address. And until it has been addressed satisfactorily this contradiction that on the one hand claims to espouse the self-determination of nations yet on the other hand holds existing states sacrosanct, effectively contributes to protracting countless ethno-nationalist conflicts around the world.

Three discourses on national self-determination


A young Massoud Barzani with Iraqi Prime Minister, Abd al-Karim Qasim. Is Massoud Barzani a medieval emir or post-modernist? And has he a new competitor? Wikimedia/Public domain.

Before ISIS took Mosul in June and fundamentally altered the political landscape in the entire region, one could have observed three parallel discourses on national self-determination in Kurdistan. In line with the modernist linear trajectory of nations ‘naturally’ progressing into sovereign nation states, young Kurds in Iraq oppose Kurdistan being denied its supposedly organic development towards becoming a full-fledged member of the international community of independent states. Bashdar Pusho Ismaeel argues on openDemocracy in a similar vein when declaring, the Kurds “can ill-afford to be passengers as the evolutionary train darts past this time around … outright independence remains the only real option.”

A good number of Kurdish youth perceive the Kurdish leadership of President Massoud Barzani of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and former Iraqi President Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) as an old boys club, whose stalling tactics and tendency to fall in line with western and Turkish interests are more dictated by personal gain than political caution.

To be sure, one could read Barzani’s brinksmanship into the merely tactical terms of only attaining what is realistically feasible in the present. He knows that a Kurdish unilateral pursuit of independence that would break up Iraq is not only vehemently opposed by Baghdad and the KRG’s regional partners such as Turkey and Iran, but also by an international system that considers the sanctity of borders and the territorial integrity of existing states as dogma.

At the same time though, Barzani’s power and authority depend on holding out the prospect of independence to his own constituency, at a juncture of his choosing, while, by the same token, using the threat of independence as leverage via Baghdad and the international community to get ever wider concessions on regional autonomy. Consequently, in early July, for the umpteenth time, he threatened to hold a referendum on independence if his nemesis, Nouri al-Maliki, clung to the premiership in Baghdad.

However, Barzani’s tactical maneuvering should not only be seen in terms of realpolitik. It can also be interpreted as an alternative view to the above hegemonic discourse on nation- and statehood that in system-immanent contradiction portrays nations as bound to develop into sovereign nation states yet at the same time imposes insurmountable restrictions on new states to emerge from the debris of existing ones.

Arguably, he may adhere to a more historic understanding of sovereignty, not as an indivisable absolute but as a fluctuating expression of relative power and authority that needs to be constantly adapted and re-negotiated, and where several forms of sovereignty can overlap.

Historically, this was the case in late medieval times when the Kurdish emirs, nominally part of the Ottoman Empire in a heavily contested border region, shifted their allegiance between Constantinople and Safavid Persia to maximize their autonomy via the former. As I have written elsewhere, the same patterns are at play today, where the Kurdistan Region is nominally part of Iraq and Iraqi Kurds hold important offices in the central government, yet for all intents and purposes Iraqi Kurdistan acts as a quasi-independent country, controlling its own natural resources in direct negotiations with oil giants like Exxon Mobil, maintaining its own armed forces – the legendary peshmerga – and conducting its own foreign policy.

For this reason many of his critics accuse Barzani of a medieval understanding of national self-determination, in which he, like a traditional tribal leader, seeks the patronage of a benevolent suzerain and contents himself with the larger share of a smaller pie, i.e. autonomy, rather than antagonizing the suzerain by unilaterally pursuing the smaller share of a larger pie, i.e. independence.

Alternatively, his ideology can be described as post-modern, where several layers of sovereignty overlap and complement each other, in which the temporality of commanding full internal but only limited external sovereignty identified for so called “de facto states” is extended into perpetuity, and where relations with powerful non-state actors like Exxon Mobil count for at least as much as the recognition of Abkhazia, another so called de facto state, by the likes of Nicaragua and Belarus.

In other words, Barzani may be quite content with indefinitely preserving the status quo - ‘his’ state-like polity remaining within but at the same time apart from Iraq. Thus, while de jure not independent, the KRG deals with the Iraqi central government and to some extent even external powers as equals.

It goes without saying that this approach, very much shaped by Weberian charismatic leadership at the expense of democratic accountability, is inherently autocratic – which is another critique routinely and justifiably leveled at Barzani’s leadership in Iraqi Kurdistan.

A theoretically more democratic discourse on national self-determination is propagated by the PKK. Their understanding of national self-determination is grounded in nineteenth century anarchist political theory that refutes the international order of centralising sovereign nation states, which, it holds, suppresses the true democratic will of the masses.

According to leading anarchist thinkers, Peter Kropotkin and Mikhail Bakunin, the modern sovereign nation state is a majority-sanctioned despotism of elites promoting ever more comprehensive homogenisation of society in order to maximize their control over it. In contrast, they envisioned a federalism that is rooted in an individualist and regionalist conceptualisation of society, resulting in a bottom-up and voluntary collectivisation of people, goods, and means of production into communes, and, in the long run, into a global confederation.

These political associations though, whether communes or global confederations, are strictly voluntary and can be as easily abandoned and dissolved as they have been entered into. In other words, unlike the current hegemonic discourse on nation- and statehood, here secession is an inherent right of every individual and group. Individuals and larger communities are free to join and leave any political collective, irrespective of ethnicity, nationality or religion.  The PKK’s discourse on national self-determination exists in Iraqi Kurdistan only at the margins, yet it is more pronounced in neighbouring Turkey Syria.

The ISIS advance in Iraq as a watershed moment

When in June, ISIS took Mosul, Iraq’s second biggest city, and advanced on Baghdad, the political system in Iraq was shaken to its very foundations; KRG PM Nechirvan Barzani, Massoud’s nephew, declared with confidence that it would be impossible to return to the Iraq of before the fall of Mosul.

The Kurds quickly moved into the positions the Iraqi army had abandoned and occupied all territories contested between the KRG and the central government, most prominently the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. To the masses in the streets of Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Region, and to the Kurdish diaspora across Europe, for a brief moment, the hour of independence seemed to have come; Kurdish and international media abounded with calls for the Kurds to realize their dream of national self-determination, and some international leaders like Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu even openly endorsed the prospect of a Kurdish state.

All appeared to be set in the Kurds’ favor: the Iraqi army had been defeated, in Baghdad PM Nouri al-Maliki, whose divisive leadership had antagonized Kurds for years, was clinging to power and was consequently shunned by the international community, and the US and her allies relied on the Kurdish peshmerga to confront ISIS.

Consequently, President Barzani felt increasing public pressure to finally walk the talk, to seize the moment and unilaterally break with Baghdad in a bid for Kurdish statehood. How in such auspicious circumstances could he not go after independence as he had promised his constituency in speech after speech?

Less than six weeks later any such demands fell silent in Kurdistan. The referendum on independence has been postponed indefinitely, and instead the KRG promise to fully cooperate with the new Iraqi government of PM Haider al-Abadi. The main reason for the Kurdish excitement for independence to die down so quickly was the defeat of the Kurdish peshmerga at the hands of ISIS in early August. That it took US fighter jets to stop the Islamist militants’ advance just 25 kilometers east of Erbil demonstrated two very painful facts to all Iraqi Kurds: first, that their revered peshmerga were not up to scratch in defending the Kurdish polity, be it as an autonomous region or an independent state; and second, that the Kurds could not dare risk going it alone.

On the contrary, the dividends of cooperation with the international community were made immediately evident. As soon as the KRG agreed to cooperate with the new government in Baghdad, they received US air support as well as NATO weaponry and training. With these developments in Iraqi Kurdistan, Barzani’s discourse on national self-determination appears to have prevailed at the expense of those demanding independence. Contrary to western fears then, the support in weaponry and training the peshmerga receive from NATO countries have ensured the KRG’s compliance with the norms of the international system and, begrudgingly, its cooperation with Baghdad, rather than undermined it.

The battle for Kobane as a defining moment in the Kurdish nationalist narrative

With the advance of ISIS temporarily checked in Iraq, international attention turned to Syria, where for more than a month now the fighters of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) hold the strategic border town of Kobane against superior ISIS forces. At one time ISIS had been on the verge of conquering the city, and CENTCOM had written it off with US officials cynically remarking that to save Kobane, its remaining civilian population and about 2,000 YPG fighters was not a “strategic priority”.

Even more objectionable in light of the human tragedy in Kobane is Turkey’s behaviour. After at first admitting 180,000 refugees from Kobane, Turkish security closed the border, preventing Kurds from Turkey joining their fellow Kurds in the defence of the city, and its army, which could have easily beaten ISIS back, idly kept watch from a safe distance as the Kurds were fighting for their lives. Turkey’s callous inaction can be explained by the fact that the majority of YPG fighters are members of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Syrian Kurdish affiliate of the PKK, who for the past two years has successfully run a Kurdish self-governed autonomous zone in Syria. Ankara fears that western support for the YPG would strengthen the PKK and in the long run could bolster attempts by the PYD to break away from Syria.  Despite an on-and-off peace process since 2009, the PKK remains listed by the US and EU as a terrorist organization.

The endurance of the YPG together with international media coverage, though, has turned the tide in the last week. Against Turkish objections the US has intensified its air campaign and dropped weapons and ammunition for the YPG, realizing not only that the Kurdish fighters are the only ground force in Syria capable of holding ISIS at bay, but also that the battle presents them with a strategic opportunity to tie down and eliminate thousands of ISIS insurgents. What is more, Kobane has become “a defining moment for nationhood and identity” for Kurds everywhere and has often been referred to as the “Kurdish Alamo”. Across Turkey and Europe Kurds took to the streets in the tens of thousands to protest Turkey’s cynical game with Kurdish lives. Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of the PKK, threatened that if Turkey allowed Kobane to fall the peace process with the PKK would be dead in the water. And Massoud Barzani negotiated with Turkey the free passage of a contingent of peshmerga through Turkish territory to aid the defence of Kobane.

Such display of pan-Kurdish solidarity, however, may prove short-lived. While it is true that the PKK had distinguished itself earlier in the defence of Erbil when the Iraqi Kurdish capital was threatened by ISIS in August, the PKK and Barzani are decades-long rivals for supremacy in the Kurdish nationalist discourse. They come from opposite ends of the ideological spectrum and, as outlined above, have widely differing views on the nature and future of Kurdish national self-determination.

In the 1990s they fought a bloody civil war over control of Iraqi Kurdistan, in Turkey Barzani has forged an alliance with President Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) against the PKK and the Kurdish Democratic Regions Party (BDP) – often alleged to be the moderate poster child for the PKK – and in Syria the PYD and Barzani’s affiliates are facing each other off in a cold war standoff over who is to determine the future of Syrian Kurdistan: Barzani’s conservative, pro-western brand of nationalism or the PKK’s more radical, although no longer separatist, ideology. In this context Barzani’s intervention to aid the YPG in Kobane, rather than altruistic, is to be understood as an attempt not to lose control of developments in Syria.

Yet Barzani’s eleventh hour activism cannot hide the fact that for the man who has dominated the Kurdish discourse on national self-determination for a decade, with the PYD/YPG heroes of Kobane, a strong competitor has arisen. Irrespective of whether the city falls or prevails in the end, the symbolic power of Kobane has become branded on Kurdish hearts and minds everywhere. For the US-led, anti-ISIS alliance, on the other hand, this development should not be seen as a threat but as an opportunity. Rather than allowing their Syria-policy to be dictated by Turkish obstructionism, they should take the experience with Iraqi Kurdistan in August as an example. They should seek to engage the PYD/YPG, making them a full-fledged partner in the war against ISIS, as well as holding out the prospect of them becoming a partner in the post-war order for Syria.

Such a genuine partnership does not have to be reflected in one or two independent Kurdish states but in giving the Kurds of Syria, Iraq, and Turkey a real say in their future, allowing them their democratic right for national self-determination in acknowledgement of the fact that there are a diversity of authentic Kurdish discourses beyond the zero-sum game mentality of sovereignty as an absolute; home grown concepts that envision alternatives to the western, essentialist nationhood-statehood equation that has brought decades of bloody conflict to the entire region.

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