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Talking Policy: Brendan O'Leary on Kurdistan

Once broken, can a country be put back together? As violence continues to ripple through Iraq, some have questioned whether or not it would have been best to partition the country on the basis of ethnic and religious divides. Brendan O’Leary, author of How to Get out of Iraq with Integrity and other works, is a renowned expert on the Northern Irish conflict and post-war reconstruction, and served as a consultant to the Kurdistan National Assembly. World Policy Journal editor emeritus David A. Andelman spoke with O’Leary about the comparisons between the Irish Troubles and the Kurdish struggle for autonomy, and what this means for the future of Kurdistan and the Middle East.

DAVID ANDELMAN: It seems to me your career has had two poles: Northern Ireland, where you were instrumental in establishing the framework that underpinned the successes of the independent commission on policing, and now Kurdistan, where you're an advisor to the Kurdistan National Parliament. Tell us a little bit about what these two conflicts might have in common that might suggest a path toward peace in Kurdistan, now that we've had one in Northern Ireland that's managed to last for a considerable time.

BRENDAN O’LEARY: It was because of my involvement in Northern Irish matters, both as an academic and as an advisor, that I was requested to become advisor to the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq in 2002. My work was known to a Danish academic who became a close personal advisor to the deputy prime minister and the prime minister of Kurdistan. His doctoral thesis had been on the military in Iraq and on power sharing in deeply divided places. The link between two places is partly responsible for my involvement. I'd like to emphasize I'm not currently an advisor to the Kurdistan Regional Government, though I may well be again. If and when they complete the drafting of their constitution.

What the conflicts have in common is that both involve rebellion, and peaceful protest against regimes that historically have oppressed the native and nationalist population. I don't want to suggest in any sense that the level of oppression in Ba'athist Iraq was equivalent to the level of repression that Irish nationalists experienced at the hands of British or Ulster Unionist governments. But there are analogies between the cases, and the plights of both of the relevant communities arose out of ill-considered and ill-implemented partition provisions.

In the case of Ireland, everybody is aware of the fact that Ulster Unionists wished to remain part of the United Kingdom, whereas Irish Nationalists wanted to establish an autonomous home rule parliament for the whole of Ireland. Or indeed, a sovereign independent republic. That clash was resolved by the British government, to its own satisfaction, by the arrangements made in 1920. The partition of 1920 was recognized as unjust in the subsequent 1921 treaty made by the British with Irish republicans. It was agreed that Northern Ireland could be adjusted by a future boundary commission. The widespread expectation was that the boundary commission would create a much reduced, more homogeneously Protestant Northern Ireland. That didn’t happen for a variety of reasons; the boundary commissions report was never published, so instead there was the creation of two polities. In the North there was a very large, alienated Nationalist minority, which believed it should be under the same jurisdiction as the national majority on the island, as well as a fearful local majority, afraid that Northern Nationalists were a permanent threat to their own security. In response to that, they established a control regime. One can interpret the 20th century history of Northern Ireland as a byproduct of a botched, ill-considered partition, and failures to resolve that ill-considered partition. 

In the case of Kurdistan, there had been no unified Kurdistan entity before World War I. Iranian Kurdistan, as we call it today, had already been separated from Ottoman Kurdistan since the time of the Safavid Empire. That line of partition across historically predominantly Kurdish areas has been in existence since roughly 1639. What does happen on a major and decisive scale for the Kurds after World War I is the partition of Ottoman Kurdistan. At that juncture, the allied powers envisioned creating a sovereign, unified Kurdistan. The British considered that a sovereign Kurdistan might become a useful buffer state against the Turks or any neo-Ottoman revival, facilitating their security. Its location mattered because the British Empire was preoccupied with its control of the Indian sub-continent.

The original plan envisioned a comprehensive dismemberment of Turkey. Under the Treaty of Sèvres what is today Turkish Kurdistan would have been allowed to join with what is today called Iraqi Kurdistan. That project was never completed—a by-product of the success of Kemal Atatürk's rebellion against Sèvres. At the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923 Turkey achieved its current jurisdiction, which meant that Turkish Kurdistan was entirely incorporated inside Turkey—with the cooperation, it should be said, of a significant number of Kurds. By contrast, the Kurds in Northern Syria and in Iraq were under the jurisdiction of two different empires, the British and the French. In the case of Iraqi Kurdistan, the Kurds were sufficiently large as to be incapable of being Arabized, and were sufficiently well-organized to achieve some early and significant nationalist mobilization—and were able to establish a legitimate claim to autonomy linked to what had been promised at Sèvres. However, they were land-locked, trapped inside a zone that was not of their making and in which they were a minority— and were contained if not always totally repressed by successive Iraqi states. The experience of partition and their maltreatment at the hands of Iraqi authorities made them interested, like Northern Nationalists, in straightforward independence as a way of getting rid of a discriminatory state.

Now, are there any other analogies between the cases? Let me go to difference first, before stressing any further commonalities.

Plainly, Kurdistan is partitioned among multiple powers in a way that is not true of Ireland. Second, Kurdistan was not under the jurisdiction of any democratic state up until the 1980s, and even then, Turkey's democratic status is highly questionable. The Kurds have experienced authoritarian regimes, whereas Northern Ireland’s Nationalists suffered under the consequences of majoritarian democracy, rather than outright autocracy. Northern Nationalists also did not experience genocide, though there were small episodes of ethnic expulsions in Belfast in the early 1920s. The scale of human rights abuses and oppression in the Kurdish cases are much deeper and much more profound. Nevertheless, the Kurdish leadership, disciplined both by success and by defeat, by the early part of the 21st century was not interested in a comprehensive, uncompromising victory—namely, creating a pan-Kurdish polity. 

DA: Some, of course, did want to see an independent Kurdistan, as I understand it. 

BOL: Absolutely, but interestingly, with the exception of the PKK [Kurdistan Workers’ Party], each Kurdish movement was largely focused inside the state in which it found itself, and was either autonomy- or independence-minded inside those entities, which Kurds call the four wolves (Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran). I don't want to suggest that the sentiment for independence wasn’t palpably strong. It was, but certainly in the case of the Kurds in Iraq, they were nevertheless interested in renegotiating their status to maximize their self-government inside Kurdistan, and to win for themselves significant, power-sharing influence within any new central or federal government. That interest in a realistic power-sharing settlement came out of decades of defeat and a judgment that it would be better to achieve something than to hold on to their most ambitious objectives. I had seen something like that in the Irish peace-process as well—in which Irish republicans tempered their demands for immediate Irish reunification in return for power-sharing within Northern Ireland.

One interesting comparison between the Kurdistan region of Iraq and Ireland is that, in the case of the Kurds, their nationalists had their key internal civil war before they negotiated a comprehensive settlement with their Arab adversaries. In the case of 1920s Ireland, by contrast, there was a civil war over the terms of the treaty settlement of 1921. So if one engages in comparative assessments of collective folly, one might argue that the Kurds did the right thing in having their civil war before the key negotiations of 2003-2005. Their own determination to present a unified front against their Arab Iraqi adversaries helped them consolidate the gains they made in the negotiations. By contrast, the Irish nationalists’ civil war over the treaty reached with Great Britain deeply weakened the position of Northern nationalists and have a dreadful start to Irish independence.

DA: Right. Let me raise a couple of the other potential differences. There were several important attributes absent in Northern Ireland that are present in Kurdistan. Kurdistan has substantial oil reserves that should be able to sustain it for several generations, it has an industrious and committed people, and its relatively homogeneous in terms of religion and ethnicity. It would seem to me that those factors would explain why a really formidable Kurdistan as an independent power is realistic now, particularly as the central government in Iraq begins to deteriorate. The internal situation had been stabilized many generations ago. 

BOL: You're quite right, but I would qualify what you've just suggested in the following ways. First of all, the Kurdistan region, in terms of the existing Kurdistan Regional Government, does contain significant pockets of minorities: Arabs, Turkmen, Christians, Yazidis, and other small micro-minorities. Most of those, with the exception of the Arab population and some of the Turkmen, have had historically good relations with either the Kurdistan Democratic Party or the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. But there is a deeply controversial question attached to the city and the government of Kirkuk. In that particular governorate (province) of Iraq, which is not part of the Kurdistan Regional Government, the Kurds constitute a bare demographic and electoral majority. They would, of course, constitute a much larger demographic electoral majority had Saddam [Hussein] not engaged in boundary manipulations and large scale ethnic expulsions.

Nevertheless, one can't characterize Kirkuk as homogeneous. And there is an argument to be made that a successful and independent South Kurdistan, if it were to materialize, would have to be one in which a distinct power-sharing arrangement was achieved in and over the city of Kirkuk. It would not be confined to the distribution of oil resources, but would also include the systematic representation of the Turkmen, the Arabs, the Kurds, and the Christians inside the city of Kirkuk. There are efforts being made by the Kurdish government to accomplish these objectives.

This part of Kurdistan looks more heterogeneous, like Northern Ireland, than the rest of Kurdistan. One of the strategic debates the Kurds basically have to resolve if they do go for independence whether they go with or without Kirkuk.  If they go without Kirkuk, they'll be more internally homogenous; there will be less difficulty in achieving recognition from Baghdad and they'll have less of a domestic minority question to manage. Broadly speaking, if minorities are smaller in proportion and size, it's easier to develop benign policies and to have good inter-ethnic accommodation. If you've got a larger minority linked to a bordering power, obviously you face much greater domestic security threats and greater difficulties in making concessions to minority interests. This particular question has yet to be resolved.

As for independence—and oil—there's an interesting and fundamental problem. If you want to be independent, the most important accomplishment is not simply having a secure territory that you patrol and having some evidence of your national self-determination; to be successful, you require external or international recognition. And you require the recognition, in particular, of the political entity from which you're seceding. Now, in the case of the Kurds of Iraq, quite aside from Baghdad, their problem is that Iran doesn't want to see Iraq broken up, at least not yet. Turkey doesn't want to see Iraq broken up, though Turkey has shifted its position significantly in a volatile way over the last two decades. It probably could live with an independent Kurdistan.

If you are Kurdish leaders, the successful export of your oil resources centrally depends on pipelines. And those have to go either through Baghdad, linking up the northern pipelines to the south, or through Turkey, or through the West—through the Syrian civil war zone—or to the East through Iran. There are no other options. So, unlike other potential places for independence, the landlocked geopolitics of Kurdistan creates a very serious diplomatic difficulty. If they're going to be successful, they require the consent of Turkey to run the new pipelines, which they have built. It’s uncertain what Turkey will do—one of the complicating factors being the repercussions of the Syrian civil war.

DA: To go back to Turkey, what seems interesting is that Turkey has been unwilling or unable to value the Kurdish homeland for its indigenous Kurds, who don't really want to be part of Turkey anyway. It would seem to me to be better in the long run for Turkey to carve off a bit of its territory and plaster it onto a free and liberated Kurdistan. For that matter, the Kurds might concur with this. To create Kurdistan, make it basically into a position not unlike that of Israel before 1948. You talked about Northern Ireland in 1920 to 1921, but in this case to make it a homeland for Kurds, wherever they might be. It would seem to me that if you did do that, Turkey would go along with it. I don't see why Turkey wouldn't want to just rid themselves of its Kurdish population—why that wouldn't smooth the situation over considerably. 

BOL: Well, let's retrace our steps a bit. Under Kemalism, Turkey engaged in a program of coercive assimilation. It tried to make all minorities into Turks. In the case of the Kurds, they're the largest minority, they're the ones who bore the brunt of that policy. Now, part of that policy has succeeded—in public life, and among the educated, Kurds speak Turkish. The central committee of the PKK conducted deliberations in Turkish because that's the language of educated people in Turkey. Jailed PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan is not particularly fluent in Kurdish. Even in his court case, he spoke in Turkish, not Kurdish. So, the Kurds of Turkey, as a result of nearly a century of coercive assimilation, are much more Turkified, more assimilated into the dominant ethnic culture than are the Kurds of Syria, Iraq, or Iran. In addition, the Turkish state since Atatürk, under both secular and Islamist leaders, has had a nightmarish fear of a repeat of the proposal of the Treaty of Sevres. They believe, rightly or wrongly—and of course it's mostly wrongly—that everybody is determined to carve up Turkey at some juncture. They don't believe that the process would stop with the departure of the southeast. So, even for an Islamist, one who isn't particularly preoccupied with ethnicity or nationality, the idea of seeing an independent Kurdish state established on sovereign Turkish soil is still unthinkable. Interestingly, however, they have been able to think through the idea of having an independent Kurdistan between them and Arab Iraq.

DA: Right, a buffer state basically, which would be very useful.

BOL: They’ve seen and still see the Kurdistan Democratic Party as a source of stability and as a source of cooperation with Turkey. One of the most remarkable features of the last decade has been a détente, which shifted into an alliance, between the Kurdistan Regional Government and Turkey. And that is the mechanism through which it might be conceivable that an independent Kurdistan would be recognized. But it would be recognized on the condition that there be no irredentist ambitions to unify with Turkish Kurdistan—or with Syrian Kurdistan.

One of the things that make that idea possible is the separate party organization of the Kurds across these jurisdictions. The PKK is very hostile to the KDP, and the feeling is mutual. And the Syrian Kurds are largely organized in the PKK, though they have a different set of noms de guerre and front organizations, which makes the idea of accepting an independent Kurdistan under KDP dominance a more feasible idea for Turks to think about rather than a fully independent, greater Kurdistan. 

DA: How essential do you feel it is for peace to return to Syria, that Assad be removed from office, and the Islamic State be destroyed, for a chance for a real peace for Kurdistan itself? If all three of these conditions were to be met, then would Iraq consider allowing Kurdistan its independence and really see a reason to have independence? 

BOL: It's a very good question. I think both the Syria and Iraq questions are interlinked. The defeat of the Islamic State is a crucial Western and Turkish priority, but the latter are at least as concerned to prevent the success of the PKK and its allies in Syria. I believe that the if conflict-resolution is successfully internationalized, that there's a certain logic to a three-state resolution within each of the Syrian and Iraqi spaces—with a Kurdistan in both cases, a Sunni-dominated place in both cases, possibly with the right to unify, and with a Shiite- and an Alawite-dominated place in both locations. It's a configuration, if it were to emerge, in which there would be two Kurdistans: one Syrian Kurdistan and one Iraqi Kurdistan. Each of these could either be in a confederation with the rest of Iraq, or the rest of Syria. Alternatively, they could be independent in those locations, but I don't think Turkey would accept any settlement that would accept a unification of Iraqi Kurdistan with Syrian Kurdistan. There are in fact two three-state resolutions: either a three-part Iraqi confederation with a matching Syrian confederation, or a harder partition, with various permutations of these possibilities. But we’re a long way from these scenarios, even on paper.

DA: Seven years ago you wrote your book, How to Get out of Iraq with Integrity, and declared that there was no reason why America's withdrawal from Iraq should be as dishonest as its intervention has been judged to be. So, has this proved to be the case? Donald Trump seems to suggest that Barack Obama's precipitous retreat was what caused all of our problems there. Is he right? Did we in fact get out in a way that was perhaps provoking many of these problems in Kurdistan and the surrounding region?

BOL: I certainly don't want to say that Donald Trump is right. I have, however, been told that I made a mistake in calling my book How to Get out of Iraq with Integrity because people weren’t interested in the integrity, they were only interesting in getting out of Iraq! I think it is fair to say that the administration was more concerned with ending the American commitment to Iraq than with thinking through the repercussions of what was required for stability. In my view, the major error in American policy, aside from questions of the initial intervention in 2003, was its decision that the best route forward for Iraq was its re-centralization. I don't think the project of recentralization was ever going to be successful, and both the Bush administration and the Obama administration failed to recognize that the constitution that Iraqis themselves had made would have given very significant opportunities, had it been properly implemented, for the Sunnis to have their own autonomous state, for the Shiite to have one large state or two—with Baghdad as separate entity—and for the Kurds to have had their own separate entity. There was a failure to think through how America could facilitate the implementation of the constitution, and subsequently on how to facilitate the emergence of a viable three-state resolution, federal or confederal. The failure to think through a feasible policy objective, and to tailor American support to achieve that objective, was a fundamental failure. The Kurds plainly wanted America to stay longer, until the security conditions were satisfactory for them. They felt left in the lurch, and that of course partly precipitated the rise of the Islamic State. I don't, however, want to blame Barack Obama or his administration for the development of the Islamic State. In my view, the Islamic State is the latest morphing of Ba'athism. It's a symptom of the Sunni Arab removal from power in Iraq after 2003 and their unwillingness, at least among large numbers of their community, to accept equality with the other peoples of Iraq. The Sunni Arabs of Iraq are an enraged, formerly dominant minority—not all of them, of course, but enough of them to matter. And they live beside the Sunni Arabs of Syria—an excluded majority. This is a lethal cocktail of majority and minority exclusion. I therefore suspect there would have been something like the Islamic State, existing on a significant scale, whatever American policymakers had tried to do, and the U.S. cannot be held culpable for how Shiite Arab politicians have abused their power. 

*****

*****

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Visit the Talking Policy archive page for more World Policy interviews!

[Photo courtesy of Brian O'Neill]

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