There’s awareness in Scotland about Catalonia’s looming independence referendum. Or at least there’s awareness if you don’t confine yourself to BBC Scotland news. The Catalan vote is due to be held a week on Sunday, 1 October. However there’s another nation which is going to hold an independence referendum even sooner. On Monday Iraqi Kurdistan will hold a referendum to decide whether the region’s future is as the first independent Kurdish state.
The Kurds have been described as the world’s largest stateless nation. Split between Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and Iran, there are between 30 and 45 million people who regard themselves as Kurdish. The numbers are uncertain because the countries concerned do not ask census questions about command of a Kurdish language or about ethnic identity. There is no single Kurdish language, rather Kurdish comprises a grouping of closely related languages which as a whole are related to the Baluchi language of Pakistan and Afghanistan, and somewhat more distantly to the Farsi language which is the state language of Iran. Most Iraqi Kurds speak Sorani Kurdish, which is written in a form of the Arabic alphabet. Most Syrian and Turkish Kurds speak Kurmanji Kurdish, which is written in the Latin script.
The Kurds have been present in their historic homelands for thousands of years. They claim descent from the Medians, one of the ancient civilisations of the Middle East. Over the centuries they have adapted and adopted aspects of neighbouring cultures. Although a large majority of Kurds are Muslim, many Kurdish speakers still preserve pre-Islamic and pre-Christian religions, of which the Yazidis are the best known. Other minority ethnic groups are also present within the Kurdish region, most notably the Assyrians and the Turkmen. The Assyrians are Christians who traditionally speak varieties of modern Aramaic – which was once widespread throughout the Middle East before the spread of Arabic and a dialect of which was the native language of Jesus Christ. The Turkmen speak dialects closely related to Turkish.
Before the Ottoman Empire committed the Armenian genocide of the First World War, there were also large Armenian speaking communities living side by side with the Kurds. The Kurds were also victims of the Ottoman authorities, who deported hundreds of thousands of Kurds into the south east. Untold thousands died.
Following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the First World War, as the British and French carved the Middle East up into areas of influence, the Kurds were promised an independent homeland of their own. The British and French reneged on their promise, and the Kurdish lands were divided between British occupied Iraq, French occupied Syria, with a large area to the north remaining under the control of the newly established Turkish Republic. British and French officials sat down with maps and pencils and drew lines through the centre of Kurdish lands. The interests of the Kurds themselves didn’t even register.
With the loss of the multi-ethnic Ottoman Empire, the new Turkey was concerned to reshape itself as an ethnic state for Turks, and the Turkish state refused to recognise the the Kurds as a national minority. Officially the Kurds in Turkey became “Mountain Turks”, and the public use of their language was prohibited. Even the very existence of the Kurdish language was denied. Rather similarly to certain Daily Mail journalists who opine about Scots, the Turkish state did not regard Kurdish as a real language. The Kurds responded to the violent repression by turning to violence themselves.
In Syria and Iraq the situation was little better. As these countries achieved full independence they became dominated by their Arabic speaking majorities. The dictatorships in Iraq and Syria severely repressed the Kurds. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein’s regime embarked on a campaign of oppression which can only be described as attempted genocide. The Al-Anfal campaign of the late 1980s killed an estimated 180,000 Kurds. Hundreds of thousands were interned in camps, their villages systematically destroyed or repopulated by Arabs from the south. It’s believed that as many as 1 million Iraqi Kurds were displaced. Some Kurdish villages were victims of chemical warfare. A gas attack on the village of Halabja in Iraqi Kurdistan in 1988 killed an estimated 5000 and injured as many as 10,000 more.
Given this history, the Iraqi Kurds enthusiastically supported the Western overthrow of Saddam Hussein and seized the opportunity to take control of their own territories in Iraq. Ever since the Second Iraq War which led to the downfall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, the Kurdish areas of Iraq have de-facto governed themselves with a parliament and government based in the city of Erbil. The region was and remains the most peaceful and securely governed part of that unfortunate country. The constitution of post- Saddam Iraq recognises the autonomy of the Kurds, and defines Iraq as a federal state with Kurdistan as one of its constituents.
The Kurds have taken advantage of the insecurity and instability of Iraq to extend the territories under the control of the autonomous Kurdish administration, most notably taking over the multi-ethnic city of Kirkuk, which was outside the boundaries of the Kurdish region as agreed with the Iraqi government in Baghdad. Kirkuk is where vast oil reserves are located. The non-Kurdish population of the area, predominantly Arabic and Turkmen speaking, have accused the Kurdish administration of favouring ethnic Kurds and of promoting Kurdish settlement in the city in order to secure Kurdish rule. The Kurds reply that they have always regarded Kirkuk as the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. A referendum is supposed to be held in order to determine the final status of Kirkuk. A vote was originally due to be held in 2007 but was postponed repeatedly. As yet there is no date for a referendum to settle the question of Kirkuk. As the Kurdish administration is in full control it is in no hurry to organise the vote.
Iraqi Kurdistan held an independence referendum in 2004 which the Kurdish administration considered informal and advisory. The referendum produced a vote of 98.8% in favour of independence, but was widely boycotted by the non-Kurdish population. The Kurds had repeatedly stated their intention to hold a formal and binding referendum, but faced the impaccable opposition of the Iraqi government, the other regional powers, the Western powers, and China and Russia. The on-going war in Iraq and the rise of the so-called Islamic State caused the Kurdish government to put its plans for a binding referendum on hold. However following the recent defeat of IS in Iraq and their being driven from the city of Mosul, the eastern outskirts of which are held by Kurdish forces, the Kurdish government of Masoud Barzani announced its intention of holding a unilateral independence referendum. The vote will also take place in the Kirkuk, Sinjar, and other regions controlled by Kurdish forces but which are claimed by the Iraqi government to be outside the Kurdish autonomous region.
The referendum due on Monday enjoys the support of all the main Kurdish political parties with the exception of the centre left Gorran party, but it is also supported by some of the parties representing minorities within Kurdistan. Some of the Arab tribal leaders in the region have come out in favour of independence. One of the two main Assyrian parties, and one of the Turkmen parties support a yes vote in the referendum, and another Turkmen party has said that it will support a yes vote providing certain guarantees are given to protect the rights of the Turkmen minority. However one of the major Turkmen parties remains opposed to the vote.
The Iraqi government remains vehemently opposed to the referendum being held, but since it has no effective power in Kurdish regions has no means to block the vote. The government in Baghdad has threatened that a declaration of independence by the Kurdish government in Erbil will be seen by Baghdad as a declaration of war, and it is determined to resist Kurdish independence by force. The Kurds are gambling that they have the strongest army in the country, and the weakened Iraqi government will be in no position to act on its threats. Turkey and Iran are likewise strongly opposed to Kurdish independence, having an eye on their own restive Kurdish populations. The West, as well as Russia and China, are also strongly opposed to a Kurdish declaration of independence, seeing it as a source of yet more instability in an already unstable region.
The Kurds in Syria support the independence of the Kurds in Iraq, but have no current intentions of seeking independence themselves. The official position of the Syrian Kurds is to seek self-government for Rojava (meaning West in Kurmanji Kurdish, the Kurdish name of Syrian Kurdistan) within a federal and secular Syria.
The vote on Monday will almost certainly produce a majority for indepencence. However any declaration of independence on the part of Iraqi Kurdistan will equally likely not be recognised by Iraq or by the wider international community. Even so, it will represent an important step in the long Kurdish campaign for self-determination and a state of their own. One day, one way or another, the Kurds are determined that they will have an independent nation to call their own. The Kurds will give their own answer to the Kurdish question, and that answer is independence.
The Wee Ginger Dug has got a new domain name, thanks to Indy Poster Boy, Colin Dunn @Zarkwan. http://www.indyposterboy.scot/ You can now access this blog simply by typing www.weegingerdug.scot into the address bar of your browser, the old address continues to function, the new one redirects to the blog. The advantage of the new address is that it’s a lot easier to remember if you want to include a link to the blog in leaflets, posters, or simply to tell a friend about it. Many thanks to Colin.
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