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Meet the Kurds, a Historically Oppressed People Who Will Get Their Own State

While Hamas fires rockets, and ISIS beheads unbelievers, the Kurds build the second non-Arab state in the Middle East

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Kurdish soldiers with the Peshmerga keep guard near the frontline with Sunni militants on the outskirts of Kirkuk, an oil-rich Iraqi city, on June 25, 2014. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
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The month of June 2014 will be remembered as a turning point in the annals of the Middle East, as two new entities might emerge from the ruins of the century-old entity that was once modern Iraq. The trigger for the dramatic change was the melting down of the Iraqi army in its encounters with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the Kurdish army, the Peshmerga. In a matter of a few days ISIS captured important cities in the Sunni heartland including Mosul, the second-biggest city in Iraq. No less important was the success of ISIS in taking hold of strategic assets such as banks, oil and gas depots, refineries, airports, and American-made heavy weapons that the Iraqi army had abandoned without a fight. ISIS’ success was so swift that by the end of June it declared the establishment of the Islamic State encompassing parts of Syria and Iraq. In certain ways the ISIS onslaught reminds one of the Mongol attack in 1258, when the Abbasid army collapsed instantly and abandoned Baghdad.

For their part the Kurds managed within a few days to take control of the oil-rich Kirkuk region and start administering it. However, in spite of the simultaneity of the Kurdish and ISIS moves, the two entities are far apart from each other in nature, composition, and approach and are now engaging in border warfare. A comparison between the Kurds and ISIS will help define which course the international community might be advised to take in the region that was formerly known as Iraq.

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The Kurds in Iraq, who represent some 20 percent of the Iraqi population (6 million out of a population of 30 million), had already begun their state-building and nation-building process by the early 1990s, and by June 2014 they already had their de facto state. While conventional wisdom had it that a Kurdish entity in Iraq would be a source of instability for the entire region, reality on the ground has proved the opposite over the last decade, during which autonomous Kurdistan has proved to be the most stable, prosperous, peaceful, and democratic part of Iraq. By contrast, it was the Sunni-Shia divide that emerged as the major cause of instability for Iraq and the entire Middle East, with its latest incarnation in the war between the Shii government in Baghdad and the Sunni jihadists of ISIS. Accordingly, the declaration of an Islamic state in Syria and Iraq has caused panic among Arab and non-Arab Sunni states such as Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait, which are as wary of Iraq turning into ISIS-stan as much as into Shiistan.

By contrast, Kurdistan has played a positive role in the region. While paying the requisite lip service to the cause of Iraqi territorial integrity championed by the United States, many Arab countries as well as Turkey and Iran did not hesitate to turn Kurdistan into a major business and political partner. These states’ pragmatism and realism had told them that the specter of another non-Arab, non-Turkish, and non-Persian entity in the region pales against the real dangers emanating from their Arab and Sunni brethren. Paradoxically enough, the country that went the farthest in embracing the Kurdish entity was also the one that had been the most vociferous against it: Turkey, which has become the midwife for a Kurdish state in Iraq with oil and gas as foundations for a strategic partnership that Turkey seems to see as a stabilizing force on its own borders.

The most extraordinary Turkish move was the deal it cut with Iraqi Kurdistan for allowing the passage through its territories of two independent Kurdish oil pipelines and one gas pipeline that allow the export of oil independently of Baghdad. The 50-year term of this agreement was indeed revolutionary, and all three parties—Turkey, Iraq, and the Kurds—were aware of its far-reaching significance, namely to help define a pathway by which Kurdish economic independence could metamorphose into political independence. Baghdad’s attempts to stop Turkey from putting this project into effect were to no avail: The final blow came when the Kurds started last month to sell oil independently. It might not be mere coincidence that Turkey approved this Kurdish move almost simultaneously with the Kurdish takeover of Kirkuk. Indeed, according to an article by Soner Cagaptay published in al-Majalla in July, Turkey even went so far as to encourage the Kurds to take control of the oil capital.

History has taught us that when certain dynamics are set in motion it is very difficult to stop them: The Kurdish thrust toward independence seems to be a case in point in spite of the latest setback, which will be discussed below. The changing approach among Middle East experts and world media regarding such a possibility is also worth noting. Whereas for the greater part of the 20th century the Kurdish issue was  totally eclipsed by the Palestinian problem, at the turn of the 21st century things have changed, and there is now an explosion of studies and reports on the Kurds many of which express sympathy with the idea of an independent Kurdistan. This new approach is extremely important for encouraging Kurdish politicians to go the extra mile while also offering legitimacy to such a move if and when it takes place.

The international community too is moving slowly but surely toward accepting the reality of an independent Kurdish state. According to a report published by the Kurdish outlet Rudaw in July of this year, the United States, France, Italy, the United Kingdom, Turkey, Jordan, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates were among the countries that have told Kurdish officials they would show understanding in case the Kurds declare independence. In a recent development the European Parliament also gave a tacit nod to Kurdish independence. The Kurds’ inching toward independence received a further boost in early July when regional President Massoud Barzani called for a referendum on Kurdish independence to take place in the coming months.

However, the sudden attacks by ISIS, which started on Aug. 3, appeared to have checked Kurdish momentum. The Kurds now had to cope with multiple challenges: fighting ISIS with inferior military equipment along their new common 1,035-km-long border; struggling with Baghdad over various political, economic, and strategic issues; coping with an economic embargo imposed by Baghdad because of the oil dispute; and accommodating hundreds of thousands of Christian, Yezidi, Kurdish, and even Muslim Arab refugees fleeing nearby territories held by ISIS. Still this setback may turn to be another opportunity for strengthening Kurdish solidarity and national feelings and getting outside support. The U.S. bombings of the ISIS forces while raising Kurdish morale also sent home the message that if worse came to worst and Iraq cannot remain united the United States might give the green light to a Kurdish state.

At this point it is impossible to know if these developments have postponed or accelerated the goal of Kurdish independence. One thing is certain: With the Iraqi state having lost its common unofficial borders with Kurdistan when it relinquished them to ISIS, the world will now be better off if there is a strong Kurdish state to contain the jihadist danger, which has gone from strength to strength over the past six months. All in all, the war that the Kurds are conducting now against ISIS might turn to be their war of independence even as it also saves the region from falling even deeper into chaos and bloodshed.

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How should Israelis and Jews approach the idea of an independent Kurdish state? I argue that if there is one state that should support the idea of an independent Kurdistan in Iraq it is Israel, for various moral, political, economic, and strategic reasons. Morally speaking, the Kurds of Iraq were oppressed and persecuted by all Iraqi governments, culminating in the genocide campaign launched against them by Saddam Hussein at the end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988. No less than 180,000 Kurds perished in that campaign for the sole reason of being non-Arabs and for seeking to preserve their different identity and their right to self-determination. It is therefore only natural for Israel, whose founders had experienced similar traumatic experiences, to lend its support to a Kurdish state.

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Meet the Kurds, a Historically Oppressed People Who Will Get Their Own State

While Hamas fires rockets, and ISIS beheads unbelievers, the Kurds build the second non-Arab state in the Middle East