Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW)/日本からの意見

The Kurdish Dream of Independence
HIRAYAMA Kentaro / Journalist

November 28, 2017
The independence referendum for Iraqi Kurdistan, conducted by the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government in September 2017, led to a sweeping 90-percent-plus majority of voters opting for an independent Kurdish state apart from Iraq.

The Kurdish diaspora is currently spread across numerous countries, including Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Armenia. Its population is estimated to be around 30 million. Wedged between three major ethnic groups—Turks, Arabs, and Persians (Iranians)—the Kurds are the largest ethnic group without a state of its own.

For a moment in history, the Kurdish people came within inches of establishing an independent state. After World War I spelled an end to the Ottoman Empire in the early twentieth century, the various ethnic groups in the empire aspired to gain independence, due in part to the call for self-determination by President Woodrow Wilson of the United States, which had sided with the victors of the war. The Treaty of Sèvres of 1920 partitioned the empire and stipulated the creation of independent Kurdish and Armenian states.

But the Turks, whose territory had been divided into pieces, launched a war in the name of restoring their homeland under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and drove out the Allied forces consisting of British, French, Greek, and other troops. The present-day boundaries of the Republic of Turkey were recognized in the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne. Kurdish independence thus vanished into thin air, and the Kurds were given no more than a limited degree of self-government within Iraqi territory under British protection.

The tragedy of the Kurdish people is that tugs-of-war among themselves have prevented them from forming a united front. This is due in large part to their being exploited and caught up in political games by countries that host Kurdish populations—repressing the Kurds within their borders while backing those in neighboring countries.

In the final days of the Iran-Iraq War, the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein attacked the Kurdish city of Halabja in northern Iran with chemical weapons, killing several thousand people. I am still haunted by the memory of the girl who told me imploringly that Halabja “is the Hiroshima of the Kurds,” drawing a parallel with the Japanese city whose name also begins with H.

What turned this situation around was the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. In the ensuing period of chaos, Kurdish militants provided the US Armed Forces with an airbase, fought against Sunni militant groups with arms aid from the United States, and became a dominant power in postwar Iraq alongside Iran-backed Shiites. They were also a leading force in the battle to recapture Mosul from Islamic State control. A number of Kurdish figures have held key posts in state politics, including President Jalal Talabani (2005–2014) and Foreign Minister Naji Sabri (2003–2014). The three northern governorates of Iraqi Kurdistan have attained a high degree of autonomy. Moreover, Kurdish forces have seized control of the Kirkuk oil fields.

Faced with a referendum verdict overwhelmingly in favor of independence, the central government of Iraq has refused to take part in negotiations premised on Kurdish independence. Neighboring Turkey and Iran, wary of the referendum’s effect on their own Kurdish populations, are exerting pressure by conducting military exercises in areas bordering Iraqi Kurdistan. The United Nations and the United States—the latter of which has built cooperative ties with the Kurds—are treading cautiously, as independence could spark new conflict.

There is no question that the Kurds in Iraq are leading the charge toward realizing the long-cherished goal of Kurdish independence. But trying to strong-arm their way through will only lead to intervention from neighboring countries and to bloodshed, potentially undermining the foothold that they have built in Iraq. Looking at the bigger picture, the key will be for the Iraqi Kurds, as the linchpin of the Kurdish liberation movement, to keep engaging in inventive efforts for the long haul toward further solidifying Iraqi Kurdistan in diverse areas, from politics to culture. It is also imperative that they work to gain broader understanding and empathy from the international community.

The international community, for its part, should quietly root for the Kurds in these efforts. Having their dreams crushed will drive people to terrorism. As for myself, I would like to send my cheers from here in Japan as I keep a long-term eye on the Kurds and their quest for independence.

Kentaro Hirano is a former Executive Commentator of the NHK.
The English-Speaking Union of Japan

平山健太郎 / ジャーナリスト

2017年 11月 28日









一般社団法人 日本英語交流連盟