North Africa, West Asia

Kurds in Iraq: from Sykes-Picot to no-fly zones and beyond

Will the approaching referendum on independence open up a new phase for the Kurds, abrogating the Sykes-Picot Agreement?

Francis Owtram
18 September 2017

Masoud Barzani has exceeded his allowed term as president of the Iraqi Kurdistan region. Kay Nietfeld/ Press Association. All rights reserved.The situation of the Kurds in a drastically changing Middle East has received little attention in academe and less in the media despite their growing impact on regional and international politics. The biggest stateless people living in the Middle East are on the verge of a new status, not only in Iraqi Kurdistan, where a referendum for independence takes place on September 25, 2017, but also in Syria and Turkey. In Syria, Kurds have fought an organised and effective struggle against the IS. In Turkey, they have suffered a massive destruction of Kurdish cities, displacement of half a million Kurds and eradication of all forms of legal entity by the Turkish state. Then there is Iran. This week’s short series looks at current political struggles of the Kurds in four neighbouring countries. Mehmet Kurt, series editor.

Since the 2011 ‘Arab Spring’ revolutions sent a seismic shock wave through the Middle East the suffering of Kurds such as Alan Kurdi and the fight of the peshmerga (Kurdish militia) against the Islamic State has catapulted the Kurds’ plight as a ‘stateless nation’ to the world’s attention. 

On the liberation of Sinjar from the Islamic State, Masoud Barzani, the President of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, called for the international community to move beyond the ‘Sykes-Picot borders’. This phrase is a shorthand for the artificial and arbitrary frontiers imposed at the end of the First World War by Britain and France which locked the Kurds into the Turkish, Syrian and Iraqi states where they have experienced sustained attempts at assimilation, denial of identity and human rights, and genocidal attack.

To emphasize his intent, Barzani announced in 2016 his intention to hold a referendum on independence for the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, now confirmed for 25 September 2017.  How did it come about that such suffering should befall the Kurds in the states they found themselves and what are the prospects for Kurdish independence as a result of this referendum?

The Kurds and ‘post-colonial sequestration’

The Kurds’ quest for independence is partly the product of geography: their ancestral homeland around the Taurus mountains occupies a peripheral border region at the intersection of the historic empires of the Turks, Persians and Arabs.

Under these empires the Kurdish tribes attempted to carve out high levels of autonomy and were often in conflict with the central authority and other rival tribes. Following the demise of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War, they found themselves divided between three successor states: Iraq, Syria and Turkey where they became regionally concentrated ‘non-assimilating minorities’. This underlying sense of malaise finds conceptual framing in the ‘syndrome of post-colonial sequestration’, a term coined by the late Professor Fred Halliday in a succinct and incisive openDemocracy article in 2008 to explain the experience of peoples such as the Kurds and Palestinians. This underlying sense of malaise finds conceptual framing in the ‘syndrome of post-colonial sequestration’, a term coined by the late Professor Fred Halliday.

Halliday noted that various peoples have found, during moments of momentous historic change (the end of WW1, WW2, colonial withdraw) that if they were not able (due to bad luck, poor leadership or other circumstances) to obtain a state, then they may remain trapped until the next moment of opportunity. To understand their plight, he argued, it is important to be aware that the division of the world into today’s ‘nation states’ does not correspond to any fundamental principles of natural justice or historic entitlement. It is rather arbitrary and haphazard – the result of power politics, accidents, wars, state crises and hegemonic or colonial intervention.

By way of moving beyond post-colonial sequestration, Halliday recommended these peoples to seek to establish democratic forms including federalism, which once consolidated could lead to discussion of all issues, including independence. Halliday focussed on the Palestinians and the Tibetans, making only passing reference to the Kurds, which I expand here with my primary focus on the Kurds in Iraq.

The Kurds in Iraq

The imposition of  European-style ‘nation-states’ on the Middle East led to deeply divided societies due to the straight lines drawn across tribal lands on the map enclosed with the 1916 Asia Minor Agreement signed between Britain and France – otherwise known as the Sykes-Picot agreement.


Map of Sykes–Picot Agreement showing areas of control and influence agreed between the British and the French. Royal Geographical Society, 1910-15. Signed by Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot, 8 May 1916. Wikicommons/public domain.In 1916 the British Navy converted from coal to oil, immediately elevating the Middle East into a new strategic scenario. Oil had been discovered in Persia in 1909 by the Anglo-Persian Oil Company and it was thought that the lands of Turkish Arabia also held promise. Following the invasion of Basra, occupation of Baghdad, and demise of the Ottoman Empire, the British took on the League of Nations Mandate for Iraq. 

The Kurds seemed poised to obtain a homeland as stated in the Treaty of Sèvres (1920). However, with Turkey resurgent under the leadership of Kemal Ataturk, the subsequent Treaty of Lausanne (1923) omitted any reference to a Kurdish homeland. Instead the Kurds became constituted as a concentrated geographic minority in the three Ottoman successor states of Turkey, Iraq and Syria, as well as incorporated into the new dynasty of Pahlavi Iran.

The Hashemite Kingdom of Iraq was given independence in 1932 with its potentially vast oil resources discovered in Kirkuk in 1927 under the control of the British controlled ‘Iraq Petroleum Company’. In their occupation of Iraq the British encountered major resistance from the Kurds in the north, both after the First World War and then during the Second World War when forces led by Mustafa Barzani (1903-1979) gained control of large parts of Erbil. RAF bombers were deployed causing the rebels to flee over the border into Iran. The Anglo-Soviet invasion and occupation of Iran in 1941 presented an opportunity for the Kurds to found the Mahabad Republic in 1946 under the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP).

Mustafa Barzani was a prominent general in this and thus his son, Masoud Barzani, was born under the Kurdish flag. However, the newly installed pro-British Shah crushed the nascent Kurdish republic causing Barzani and his followers to retreat over snow-covered mountains to the Soviet Union where they found sanctuary. Following the overthrow of the Iraqi monarch in 1958 Mustafa Barzani returned to Iraq following promises of Kurdish autonomy. But these did not materialize, and this led to the Iraqi-Kurdish war, 1961-70. The Ba’ath Party came to power in 1968 with Saddam Hussein the driving force. The 1970 Iraqi-Kurdish Autonomy Agreement offered meaningful autonomy on paper but it was not possible to find a solution to sharing oil revenues or resolving the status of Kirkuk, so it was never implemented. Instead, an Arabization programme around Kirkuk was instigated and Barzani and his peshmerga took up armed rebellion against the Baghdad government. 

A further aspect of the dynamic set in motion is that the state system created by external powers after the First World War provides ample opportunity for the regional states to play the Kurds in neighbouring states as a card against the state in which they reside. The Kurds also try and play one regional state off against each other. Different tribes or factions of Kurds (tribes, the KDP and PUK) will also do the same. On top of this, the Kurds are used as a pawn in the game of the external powers as they attempt to manipulate the Middle East to their advantage. On top of this, the Kurds are used as a pawn in the game of the external powers as they attempt to manipulate the Middle East to their advantage.

A prime example of this was the mid-1970s when the Kurds were literally ‘sold down the river’ as part of a deal between Iraq and Iran on the Shatt al Arab waterway (the 1975 Algiers Agreement). Having played his Kurdish card, Saddam then proceeded to easily crush the Kurdish rebellion in the north of Iraq. Mustafa Barzani escaped to the United States where he died in 1979. During this time, based on differences in ideology and strategy, Jalal Talabani split off from Mustafa Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party and formed the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) in 1975. Thus, an intense and sometimes blood rivalry was inaugurated within the Kurds of Iraq, with rival peshmerga forces bidding for exclusive control of territory in order to control resources and establish and maintain networks of patronage.

Following Saddam’s invasion of Iran in 1980, Iraqi Kurds again found support in Iran under Khomeini to attack the military forces of the Ba’athist regime. There followed Saddam’s genocidal Anfal campaign in which thousands of Kurdish villages were destroyed and Barzani males aged 7-70 were killed in retribution. This culminated in the sarin and mustard gas attack on Halabja by Saddam’s cousin, Ali Hassan Al Majid, leaving 5000 dead. After Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the 1991 Gulf War, George H. Bush encouraged the Shia in the south and the Kurds in the north to rise up. When they did so, Saddam attacked them and the Kurds fled to the highest points of the peaks of the Zagros in affirmation of their enduring refrain, ‘no friends but the mountains’.

No-fly zones, de facto autonomy and the Iraqi-Kurdish civil war

Images in western media of Kurdish families huddled on the mountains to escape Saddam’s helicopter gunships led to the creation of a ‘no-fly zone’ in the northern part of Iraq. Saddam withdrew all governmental services from the Kurdistan Region and this erosion of the sovereignty of the Iraqi state allowed the Kurds to create two Kurdistan Regional Governments (KRG) formed by the KDP in Erbil and the PUK in Sulaimainiyah.

This mirrored the dominance of the two main families and their associated political parties: the Barzanis and KDP in Erbil and Dohuk, and the Talibani and PUK in Sulaimaniyah and Kirkuk. The intense rivalry between these two families with their associated political parties and accompanying patronage networks over UN ‘oil-for-food’ revenues led to the Kurdish civil war in Iraq in the mid-1990s.

In another twist of the ‘Kurdish card’ the KDP, facing defeat at the hands of the PUK, requested Saddam’s forces to enter Erbil to evict the militias of the PUK. Iraqi army tanks rolled in and in a couple of hours eliminated the Iraqi opposition which had been taking refuge there. The signing of the 1998 Washington Agreement committed Kurdish political parties to resolve their differences and act in a unified manner against Saddam. The September 11 attacks gave the perfect opportunity to implement regime change in Iraq, a long desired neo-con objective, which would allow access to the vast Iraqi oil reserves. Just as the British had eighty years earlier, the Americans then faced the task of building an administration that would cope with the fissiparous tendencies of Iraq’s deeply divided society.

The Kurdistan region in federal Iraq

For the Kurds, the US-led invasion was undoubtedly a liberation, as it sent their oppressor Saddam Hussein to the gallows and provided an opportunity to further develop their autonomy enshrined as a federal region in the 2005 constitution. A key question for the place of Kurdistan in federal Iraq is that posed by the ‘paradox of federalism’: that is, the paradox that the various measures of federal systems designed to alleviate tensions in deeply divided societies through allowing autonomy and facilitating power sharing – namely, regional government and control of resources – can at the same time serve as a ‘stepping stone’ to secession.

The Iraqi Constitution contained a number of articles which addressed the highly contentious issue of the management of oil, many of which were contradictory and deliberately vague in order to allow the fractious negotiating parties to sign it. This included Articles 140 and 143 on Kirkuk which allowed for a referendum on its place in the new federal Iraq as well as including a mechanism to handle the process of Arabization that had taken place there. However, these measures were never implemented by the Baghdad government.

As US combat forces withdrew from Iraq at the end of 2011, the unresolved issues in Iraq’s federal polity erupted in the warrant issued by the increasingly authoritarian Prime Minster Nouri al-Maliki for the arrest of the Sunni Iraqi Vice-President, Tariq al-Hashimi, who fled to the Kurdistan Region. This was only the first indication of the approaching storm. The division of the world into today’s ‘nation states’ does not correspond to any fundamental principles of natural justice or historic entitlement.

In 2014 the ‘perfect storm’ hit the Kurdistan Region: global oil prices collapsed, the central government ceased payments to the KRG due to disputes over oil exports, and the Islamic State launched an offensive on the Kurdistan Region’s capital of Erbil , and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were given refuge in the Kurdistan Region. As they swept back into Iraq from Syria to occupy Mosul in June 2014, Islamic State celebrated their removal of the Sykes-Picot borders by dismantling the frontier checkpoints and declaring a new Caliphate.  


ISIS celebrates takeover of Nineveh Province, saying the 'Sykes-Picot Borders' have been removed, June 11, 2014. Memri TV/Wikicommons.Some rights reserved. Masoud Barzani reflected ruefully on how six divisions of the Iraqi army had ‘melted like snow’  in the face of 1,500 fighters in pick-up trucks, stripping off their uniforms and abandoning state-of-the-art US military equipment to the Islamic State. In August 2014 the IS advance on Erbil was only stopped by Iranian and US airstrikes giving the Kurds time to regroup. As the Iraqi army crumbled Maliki asked Barzani to occupy oil-rich Kirkuk province and other disputed territories to prevent their capture by IS. Accordingly, Barzani’s KDP Peshmerga moved in, creating ‘facts-on-the-ground’ and occupying 95% of the so-called ‘disputed territories’.  The Iraqi Security Forces reorganised under US tuition, recaptured Mosul in 2017 and reinstated the berm denoting the Syria-Iraq border. The question was would this also be the end of any chance for the Kurds of Iraq to redraw the Sykes-Picot borders?

The international community has a ‘low appetite’ for secession as most states in the world are made up of different ethnic, religious or linguistic groups, so too frequent secession threatens the majority of the world’s states.

As Ephraim Nimni points out, ‘nations that have states are only a small fraction of all nations, but we insist in associating nations with states and in regarding the majority of nations that are stateless as problematic or lacking something.’ The international community has instead preferred self-determination and autonomy to take place within existing state structures – through constitutional arrangements such as federalism, devolution, autonomy and other forms of power sharing.

As a result, since 1945 there have been very few cases of secession. South Sudan is only the second state (after Eritrea) to complete secession in post-colonial Africa, gaining sovereignty with the consent of its former parent state, though only after a long and violent struggle. It has gone onto experience civil war and occupy the no.1 ranking in the failed states index.

The 2008 recognition of Kosovo by mostly western states shows the political nature of upholding self-determination of peoples over the territorial integrity of states. For the western states, Kosovo’s recognition was partly based on earned ‘sovereignty’ by conforming to EU and US foreign policy agendas promoting democratic principles. This suggested that recognition could be awarded to entities that succeed in building effective democratic institutions. In 2006 Montenegro seceded from the Federation of Serbia and Montenegro in a peaceful, negotiated process following a referendum. Could a similar development happen in Iraq to end the curse of the Sykes-Picot borders for the Kurds?

The rise of IS drew attention to the inability of the federal state of Iraq to protect its citizens, a powerful indication of failure. But looking back, the decade 2003-2013 is now seen almost as a ‘golden decade’ of high oil receipts for the Kurdistan Regional Government and an opportunity that was squandered through lack of accountability and rumoured corruption. 

Furthermore, the Kurdistan Region has a political and economic crisis. Masoud Barzani has exceeded his allowed term as President and the Kurdistan Region’s Parliament has been suspended for many months, although moves are afoot to reconvene it. The Gorran party’s position is that these issues must be resolved before any referendum on independence takes place.

Economically, the KRG is billions of dollars in debt and unable to pay civil servants who make up 80% of the work force. For many Kurds, the struggle to make a living and have access to clean water and electricity is their most pressing concern. In this context, the charge has been made that President Barzani’s referendum is designed to distract from these issues and garner nationalist legitimacy.

Whilst there is a ‘no’ campaign the result is likely to be a ‘yes vote’ as, whilst they may not even be that impressed with the current Kurdish political elite, it seems the vast majority of Kurds in Iraq dream of an independent Kurdish state and to be able to hold a Kurdish passport as a symbol of identity. The Kurdistan Regional Government seeks to cut a deal with other groups living in Kurdistan – Arabs, Turkmen and Assyrian Christians –  to persuade them they will be better off with the KRG than the Baghdad government.

Farewell to Sykes-Picot?

The Kurdistan Regional Government has made clear that with this referendum there is no intention to redraw all the border lines of the Middle East to create a Kurdish state, merely to define a border within the state of Iraq.

Unsurprisingly, it has not won much in the way of overt international support or from the government of Iraq in Baghdad. The Iraqi Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, argued that it was not the time for a referendum on independence and has received authorisation from Parliament to use all measures to prevent the referendum taking place.  The Iranian government expressed opposition  and the Turkish government has said that there ‘will be a price to pay’ for holding the referendum.  Concerned that it would detract from the fight against IS, US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, called President Barzani to ask him to postpone the referendum which he declined to do. Furthermore, the United Nations and the European Union have made clear that they are unable to support the referendum unless invited by a sovereign state, that is the federal government in Baghdad.  Only Israel has openly supported the idea of the KRG becoming an independent state.

Given the absence of overt support either from the international or parent state level (the federal government in Baghdad) for an agreed secession from Iraq, the most likely outcome of the referendum is that a ‘yes vote’ will be used by the KRG in an attempt to leverage further autonomy and greater control of oil revenues through a greater degree of ‘asymmetric federalism’ for the Kurdistan Region or some form of confederal arrangement. 

If this course is followed, then by pressing for the consolidation of their democratic rights within a federal or confederal constitution the Kurds would be following Halliday’s injunction to press for human rights and democracy within the states they find themselves.  Similarly, the attempt of the Kurds in Syria to build new forms of democratic practice also represent an attempt to transcend the constraints of the centrally controlled ‘nation-states’ of the dominant Turkish, Arab or Persian ethnic group.

Until now the Kurdish experience of the state in the modern Middle East has been largely one of authoritarian assimilation, denial of identity, military force and genocide. It is hardly surprising then that the Kurds in the states of Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran should be at the forefront of exploring new forms of democratic experiment, including ones which seek to go beyond the unitary, centralized authoritarian states which have hitherto been dominant in the modern Middle East. 

The Kurds have without doubt suffered the pernicious effects of ‘the syndrome of post-colonial sequestration’. Perhaps the silver lining if there is one, is that, in the current period of momentous regional change in the Middle East, if the concept has analytical weight, the Kurds have the best opportunity for a long time to transcend the Sykes-Picot borders. Either in new forms of autonomy or an independent sovereign state, the Kurds could then attest to the world that the ‘syndrome of post-colonial sequestration’ is not after all incurable.


Further reading:

Michael Gunter, A Modern History of the Kurds (Markus Wiener, 2016)

Francis Owtram, ‘The State We’re In: Post Colonial Sequestration and the Kurdish Quest for Independence Since the First World War’. In Michael Gunter (ed) Routledge Handbook of Kurdish Studies (Routledge, 2018)

Francis Owtram, ‘Oil, the Kurds, and the Drive for Independence: an Ace in the Hole or Joker in the pack? In Alex Danilovich (ed) Iraqi Kurdistan in Middle Eastern Politics (Routledge, 2017)

Francis Owtram, ‘The Kurdistan Region of Iraq and the Federal Constitution: A Perimeter Plinth of State Territorial Integrity or a Stepping Stone to Secession?’. In Gareth Stansfield and Mohammed Shareef (eds) The Kurdish Question Revisited (Hurst, 2017)

Denise Natali, The Kurds and the State: Evolving National Identity in Iraq, Turkey and Iran (Syracuse University Press, 2005)

Ephraim Nimni, 'Stateless nations in a world of nation-states'. In Karl Cordell and Stefan Wolff (eds) Routledge Handbook of Ethnic Conflict (Routledge, 2013)

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