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The rise of Kurdistan

By Jed Lea-Henry - posted Wednesday, 8 October 2014

On par with the shock value of racism, one of the most immediately apparent public faux pas today is an expressed retroactive support for the 2003 Iraq war. With all that hindsight offers, such a position appears thoroughly incomprehensible to the point that it appears to indicate a moral failing on behalf of the individual expressing it. However, the most understated news story coming out of the Middle-East in the past few months illustrates just how misguided this pervasive sentiment is – that is, the steps taken toward Kurdish statehood.

4,000 years of Kurdish national self-determination was first broken by the Ottoman Empire, and sustained upon its collapse, by the rise of arbitrary, modern state divisions in the aftermath of the First World War.

From the idealism of Woodrow Wilson, and the emerging international norm of the national self-determination as a model for global structuring, the Kurds were axiomatically promised a state to encompass their long-standing nation. However, betrayed implicitly in the lead up to the Treaty of Versailles, and later explicitly at Lerves 1920 and Lausanne 1923, the Kurds found themselves denied access to the singular modern expression of national legitimacy, and with it the full protection of international law. The realpolitik considerations of geopolitical stability, regional alliances, and international commodity access outweighed the empirical, and indeed, moral right of Kurdish self-determination. The Kurds came to represent the world's largest nation without a corresponding state.


To make this injustice all the more intolerable, the four predominant states in which Kurdistan found itself sub-divided, Syria, Turkey, Iran, and Iraq, developed national identities of a self-promoting and deeply expansionist nature, resulting in unimaginable and unrelenting human suffering for the Kurdish people.

The predominant intention of much of this suffering amounted to cultural suppression and violent assimilation. While not seeking to diminish the harm such policies caused, nor their long-term criminal intent, they did intrinsically did have an attenuated focus on international law and basic human rights, insofar as they sought to degrade Kurdish nationalism without unnecessarily (where possible) violating such principles. The Iraqi Kurds were at no point afforded such minimal grace - the Iraqi state under Saddam Hussein sought nothing less than the complete extermination or expulsion of Kurdish ethnicity from Iraq.

Kanan Makiya's ground breaking account of Saddam's Iraq aptly referred to Iraq as "the Republic of Fear", as a virtual slave-state whereby each individual citizen existed as the private property of the Ba'athist leadership. Yet, even within this environment, the Kurds found themselves uniquely targeted.

Seen from Baghdad as an intolerable risk to the territorial integrity of the Iraqi state, the Kurds found themselves under immediate and sustained existential threat from their own state. From the onset of Ba'athists rule, yet appreciably more so following an assassination attempt on Saddam in Dujail, Kurdish support for Iran in the Iran-Iraq war, and support for the international coalition after Saddam's invasion of Kuwait, the Kurds were subject to systematic and genocidal operations from the Iraqi state – amounting to an attempt to kill or expel almost a quarter of the entire Iraqi population.

The Dujail incident resulted in a retributive series of massacres of the local population. In 1983, the Barzani Abductions saw the disappearance of 5,000 men and boys. Yet, it was the Anfal Campaign in 1988 that came to define the true horror and pathological intent of Saddam's regime. This highly coordinated campaign razed 4000 villages and killed 180,000 Kurds. Such figures would have been considerably higher, were it not for a mass exodus of refugees into neighbouring countries.

The horror of the Anfal Campaign was punctuated by the tactical deployment of chemical weapons. In Halabja, a single attack resulted in the 5,000 deaths and 10,000 injuries categorised as 'lifelong disabilities', and where the chemical residue is still present today. It was from this moment in history that Ali Hassan Abd al-Majid earned the ignominious synonym 'Chemical Ali'.


From these campaigns, mass graves of abducted Kurds are continuously being discovered and excavated across Iraq today – the Iraqi desert is literally littered with Kurdish bodies.

As a result, the Kurds of Iraq have survived the last two decades only due to, though belated in its application, western intervention and sustained protection. Despite the relative security this has provided, for the Kurds this has been two decades of perpetual fear concerning the continuing longevity of that protection. Their very existence balanced upon the collective conscience of international actors – a collective conscience that historically has proven capricious and short-lived.

Considering this, following the 2003 invasion and subsequent fall of Saddam and the Ba'athist party, one would have forgiven the Kurds for immediately abandoning the then crippled Iraqi state. Rather, the Kurdish nation bought into the formation of a new democratic Iraq. Operating from within an implicit framework protecting the Iraqi Presidency for ethnic Kurds, Fouad Massoum recently replaced Jalal Talabani, both members of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party, in the first democratic and peaceful transition of executive power in Iraqi history.

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About the Author

Jed Lea-Henry is a writer, academic, and the host of the Korea Now Podcast. You can follow Jed's work, or contact him directly at Jed Lea-Henry and on Twitter @JedLeaHenry.

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