Through cooperation in the European Union, Estonia could be the midwife of an independent Kurdistan.
“And when the oppressed and marginalized die because they are oppressed and marginalized, the powerful are at fault.” — John Green, US writer, on the migration crisis.1
Demonising the Middle East has become a habit. Torn apart by conflicts, with no end in sight. A tragedy seemingly fated to last forever. The whole region tends to be viewed as a nest of failed states. Treating the Middle East as a glass half empty is justified to some extent, but could the optimistic “glass half full” view be considered as well?
Yes, it could—because the pessimists are ignoring the role and potential of the Kurds. The peshmerga, which operates in the northern region of Iraq, owes its fighting capacity primarily to the democratically elected Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). The latter became possible after Saddam Hussein’s regime was overthrown with the support of the US and its allies. Tiny Estonia also had a part to play in this.
It is easier to define Kurdistan by trying to summarise what it is not. It is not, nor has it ever been, an internationally recognised country. The region has no ethnic, religious or linguistic unity. There is no common political administration. There is no common economy, due to existing state borders as well as geographical and cultural divisions. The territory is undefined, although the core region is very clear. Kurdistan’s importance lies not in its existence as a geopolitical region or zone, but rather in its potential.2
Marking the ethos and geopolitical area of Kurdistan as a dotted line on the timeline is a prerequisite for understanding this article. My line begins with a statement by Mehrdad Izady, a graduate of Columbia University who teaches at Harvard: “The history of the Kurds began about 50,000 years ago. These people were the locus of the Neolithic revolution!”3 Of course, this statement is an attempt to create a Kurdish identity and not so much a part of history—a scientifically verifiable discipline. Other authors of the Kurdish story and narrative, for example Wadie Jwadieh, devote only 26 pages in their voluminous book to the region’s history prior to Islam. According to him, everything began with the Arabs, who introduced the “true doctrine” to the Kurds when defeating the Sassanian dynasty at the Battle of al-Qādisiyyah in 642. Incidentally, it was the Sunni doctrine, which today is dominated by the most reformed, i.e. the most secular, school—Sufism. The Mongol invasion must be mentioned, because in 1258 Mongol forces completely ravaged Kurdistan to the extent that annual tax revenue paid to the central government dropped by a factor of ten—from two million dinars to 200,000 dinars.
The first entity bearing the name of Kurdistan was established by Sultan Sanjar in 1157 in the course of his administrative reforms and, despite the province being peripheral, it played its part in trade relations between Europe and Asia. However, Vasco da Gama’s expedition of 1497 decisively moved trade routes to the seas and the mountainous Kurdistan lost a lucrative way of making money.
The most famous Kurdish person is undoubtedly Saladin, who drove the crusaders out of Jerusalem—and, indeed, out of all of Palestine and Syria—although his self-image was more about being a soldier of Allah and less about developing the Kurdish identity. For many centuries, Kurdistan served as a buffer zone in the rivalry between the Ottoman and Persian empires, where both tried to use the Kurds to their own advantage.
The Kurdish people are the world’s largest ethnic community whose independence has so far remained unattained due to international relations. According to different censuses, there are 25–30 million Kurdish citizens in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. In addition, there are millions as refugees in the US, Europe and Arab countries. There is even a small number in Russia and Transcaucasia.
However, the Kurds could have had their chance at about the same time Estonia, Finland, Poland and Czechoslovakia managed to establish statehood on the ruins of the empires that were crumbling in the turmoil of the First World War. Unfortunately, the planners of Entente and its practitioners lagged behind the declared goals of the policy of values, and even the last fragments of the principles brought up at the Paris Peace Conference were washed into oblivion with the Treaty of Lausanne. Because of this, the Kurds argue (just as Estonians consider the Tartu Peace Treaty sacred) that the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres did foresee their independence. In reality, the treaty only has a footnote referring to their autonomy, written in relation to the independence of Armenia. The final seal on the French–British dispute over dominance in the region was placed by the League of Nations with the resolution of the so-called Mosul Question in 1926. The mission was led by none other than Estonian general Johan Laidoner, and information was presented that the Kurds did not want to be subjects of Turkey or Iraq. Because of this, perhaps Estonians have an even more special responsibility to be the midwife of Kurdish independence.4
16 May 2016 marks the centenary of the signing of the Sykes–Picot Agreement, and as events in Syria, Iraq and Turkey are currently in everyone’s daily newsfeed, there is reason to analyse the unique possibility of a solution. The Sykes–Picot Agreement is viewed in the Arab world and Turkey as the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact is viewed in the Baltics. Sir Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot were tasked by their governments to carve out spheres of influence in the territory of the dissolving Turkish Empire, while keeping in mind their ally, Russia. Foreign minister Sazonov had asked that Russia be given control of the Dardanelles, Istanbul and the Armenian areas of northern Turkey. But the Bolshevik coup removed Russia from the game. Paradoxically, we know about the deal thanks to the Bolsheviks, who selectively published confidential foreign-policy documents under the leadership of Lev Trotsky, solely to create the impression that the Bolsheviks were not ruthless imperialists. On 23 November 1917, the newspapers Pravda and Izvestia published confidential documents that embarrassed the British and French governments and their diplomacy. To this day, France has not wished those aspects of its history to be published in too much detail. This might be because the diplomat Picot was the great-uncle of Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, president from 1974 to 1981. It is even more likely that the French position is due to the part the region played in the Second World War, when the Vichy government operated there as Hitler’s ally. The situation was rather different for the British—just three days after the information from the Bolsheviks, the material was also published by The Manchester Guardian newspaper.
It is no wonder that such a division of spheres of influence remains a hot topic today. Just two years ago, when armed groups of ISIS broke through the border between Syria and Iraq, they declared, with bulldozers working in the background, that the “Sykes–Picot border” was with a thing of the past.
There are enough countries, nations, groups and religious sects operating on the landscape—or even theatre of war—to describe it as a true Babel. These include the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), founded by Abdullah Öcalan, whose arrival in Tallinn was at one time dreaded because the US and many other countries considered (and still do) the PKK primarily a terrorist group. The People’s Protection Units (YPG) operate in Syria and are successfully fighting the al-Nusra Front, the local branch of al-Qaeda. The peshmerga are the Kurdish armed forces, whose name can be translated as “those who defy death” or “daredevils”. Iranian Kurd Haji Ahmadi leads the Free Life Party of Kurdistan (PJAK) from Cologne and, being a German citizen, he has not been turned over to the Iranian government, which naturally considers him a terrorist. The Kurdish political movement and party-political landscape are fractured. Paradoxically, the most important is the Turkey-based left-liberal People’s Democratic Party, whose co-chairs are Fingen Yüksekdag and Selhattin Dimirtas, the latter a Zaza from eastern Anatolia. This party’s electoral success foiled Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s first attempt to establish a presidential constitution. Iraqi Kurdistan is dominated by the Kurdistan Democratic Party, which is legally the only legitimate Kurdish political organisation.
Kurdish organisations in Iraq and Syria are naturally trying to take advantage of the anniversary of the Sykes–Picot Agreement to promote Kurdish autonomy in federal Syria as well as in Iraq. Ibrahim Ibrahim, the European spokesperson of the leading Kurdish political organisation in Syria, the Democratic Union Party, stresses that there is undoubtedly readiness to discuss the details of federalisation at the Geneva Peace Conference. But apparently it is impossible to back down from the principle itself. KRG president Barzani said on 3 February this year that the time for a referendum on Kurdish independence had come.
The US has tentatively supported Kurdish autonomy as an end result of the Syrian civil war—through Secretary of State John Kerry and also former employees of the Obama administration Philip Gordon and James Dobbins, who have not excluded this idea from the federal constitution they are promoting.5 On the other hand, support has been shown by the Kremlin, in President Vladimir Putin’s cryptic messages. There is a slight dilemma here for Estonia and the European Union—are the Moscow cynics planning to follow their diplomatic traditions again and link these matters to the problems of Crimea and eastern Ukraine?
This was naturally followed by poisonously allergic reactions from Baghdad and, especially, Ankara. Turkey—once the object of the Sykes–Picot Agreement and now a member of NATO and the European Union’s most important partner in regulating the migration crisis—is of key importance in establishing a Kurdish state. But how to make the key open the lock and not try to close it forever?
As is known, Turkey considers the Kurds living in its territory “mountain Turks”, and their more radical members—the ones who demand independence and have gathered in the military wings of the PKK (the People’s Defence Forces and the all-female YJA-Star)—are considered terrorists. President Erdoğan has repeatedly had his own citizens bombed and military attacks carried out against them, because he instinctively sees Kurdistan as a much bigger threat than ISIS. Characteristic of an autocratic ruler, he ignores Dimirtas’ party as the inevitable partner in the further democratisation of the country. Turkish forces did not even help the Kurdish army in Syria defend the city of Homs.
Ankara’s allergy to any Kurds is probably the reason the Kremlin has slowly begun to encourage the Syrian Kurds and get at least some payback for the downing of a Russian fighter. Putin is certainly not a sincere supporter of the Kurdish cause, but since he believes that it is currently in Russia’s interest, sincerity does not matter from the Kurdish point of view. What matters most is that the major nuclear powers come to a mutual understanding.
What could a future Kurdish state look like? Presumably, it would first be necessary to break up the political entity called Iraq. The areas north and east of Mosul should be internationally recognised as an independent Kurdistan. The Kurds in the north-eastern part of Syria need a clear signal that they will have a chance in the future to decide democratically whether they want to remain a federal territory of Syria or leave and join an independent Kurdistan. At the same time, Turkey needs to be convinced that the new state would be beneficial for it as well, not a threat with a domino effect and a source of endless irredentism. If the independent Kurdistan is an economic and democratic success, we might expect not the division of Turkey but an effect like the German Democratic Republic. Just as occupied eastern Germans took to their heels and escaped to the West, PKK fighters would lay down their guns and perhaps prefer a peaceful life in a country with their mother tongue. (The Kurdish language issue is rather complicated, because a large part of the population is still illiterate, and of those who have acquired literacy, some use the Arabic alphabet, some Latin and others Cyrillic.) The Russian and Iranian governments should allow permanent residencefor the Kurds living in their territories, although it can be assumed that this option will not be used widely at first. But with a centuries-long time horizon, the western border of Persia (i.e. Iran) is not necessarily unalterable and enabling a referendum should not be a cherished dream for the local Kurds but instead an international norm.
The annual gross national product of Iraqi Kurdistan is US$23 billion, even with low oil prices. It is estimated that the economy of the entire area inhabited by Kurds could be as much as $133 billion, equal to the GDP of Hungary. Stable political order and citizen-centricity is clearly more progressive than the process of chaos in Syria and decay in Iraq.
Kurdish attitudes towards religion are not influenced by Wahhabi or Shiite fever, but are like a Reformed Islam. Among other things, other religions are tolerated, including Christianity and Yazidism (a very old and unique religious group which is sometimes mistakenly linked to Zoroastrianism). Since 2014, members of this group have been escaping the atrocities of ISIS/Daesh to the Kurds, and there is also a large community of Yazidis living in Germany—nearly 50,000 in Bremen, for example.
This article is, of course, simplified and schematic and does not consider the myriad of cultural, religious, linguistic and geopolitical nuances on the landscape, such as the feelings of Armenians. But it could be the basis of a meaningful action plan. Indeed, such an action plan could be created if the Estonian government tasked the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to work on the plan in the background. The aim would be to call an international forum at which the main participants agree on the details in a spirit of goodwill. Sometimes a small country like Estonia has the moral credit to undertake such a diplomatic initiative. (In the framework of the European Union’s common foreign policy, Estonia has already taken the first correct steps, which have gone relatively unnoticed by the general public: together with Germany, Denmark, the UK and Croatia, Estonia is among EU countries that have supported the peshmerga fighters with weaponry.6)
This could be compared with Norway’s efforts through the Oslo Accords on the Israel–Palestine conflict, or even Finland’s role in the Helsinki Accords of 1975. Comunità di Sant’Edigio, an NGO founded by Italian Andrea Riccardi, would be a potential partner. If a start were made today, Estonia would have a great opportunity to develop something with its partners in the course of preparations for taking the rotating EU presidency in 2018. The much-acclaimed and longed-for common foreign and security policy must not remain mere cosseting in the Estonian post-Soviet space; Estonia has the capacity to initiate a much more interesting game with higher stakes. If used correctly, being the midwife of Kurdish independence is the kind of initiative which could avoid criticism of Estonia not having any ideas for the EU presidency agenda. Sven Mikser’s and Marko Mihkelson’s talents could be put to use and their time at the centre of power on Toompea (Estonian parliament and government) would be given new meaning. “Owning” this kind of process would make Estonia a very credible candidate for membership of the UN Security Council.
Establishing an entirely new state on the territories of Mesopotamia and Syria would have a stabilising effect with potential reaching beyond the modernisation and pacification of the Arab lands. Core Kurdistan, even if not Greater Kurdistan, might no longer remain a cultural abstraction. It has the potential to take up the position that Kurds use to describe themselves: “the heart of the Middle East”. This would indirectly support European policy to reduce migration flows. Moreover, it would indirectly help resolve the “mother conflict” in Israel—regardless of Sykes and Picot’s unrealised ideas on this front.
The best-known Kurdish proverb is “Kurds have no friends but the mountains”. Ideally, a new proverb could be added in half a century’s time: “Kurds have no friends but the mountains and Estonians”.
1 John Green addresses the migration crisis in a video for UNICEF.
2 Maria T. O’Shea, Trapped Between the Map and Reality: Geography and Perceptions of Kurdistan, 2012
3 Mehrdad R. Izady, The Kurds: A Concise History and Fact Book, 1993
4 See also: I. Tarand, Missioonist. Mitte vaid missioonidest — Eesti Ekspress, 25 October 2007 (in Estonian)
5 International New York Times, 17 March 2016
6 Eerik-Niiles Kross, Reetmine nr 8 — Postimees, 31 July 2015