A Fait Accompli for the Heirs of Saladin: The Advent of an Independent Kurdistan

POST WRITTEN BY: Jake B. Sher (’16), Pace Law School

The declaration of an “Islamic Caliphate” by ISIS (The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) which has risen to the top of headlines this week has eclipsed some subtler, more important activity: the move toward the creation of another independent state in Mesopotamia has begun. The Prime Minister of Israel has called for the creation of a Kurdish state. Benjamin Netanyahu’s landmark statement that the Kurds “are a nation of fighters and have proved political commitment and are worthy of independence,” at first glance a mere footnote in world news coverage of ISIS’ declaration, is in fact a culmination of decades’ sweat equity towards sovereignty by the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) — a goal which, thanks to the backing of Mr. Netanyahu’s statement, is now within reach.

While theories on sovereignty have evolved throughout history, current theories support it on the aspects of territory, population, authority and recognition. See, e.g., Thomas Biersteker & Cynthia Weber, State Sovereignty as Social Construct 46 (1996). A sovereign nation requires a defined territory coupled with the will to defend that territory. When Kurdish Peshmerga forces drove ISIS from Kirkuk in June after the Iraqi army withdrew from the city, they secured more than a tactical victory. Kirkuk is a bastion of Kurdish identity; many historic maps (including Ottoman ones) acknowledge its historical importance to the Kurdish people. The city has been a consistent target of Iraqi regimes ever since the establishment of the Iraqi state after World War I, and Kurds in Kirkuk suffered much under Saddam Hussein’s regime. The Iraqi government was supposed to solve the issue of Kirkuk’s governance — as part of Iraqi Kurdistan or otherwise — democratically and peacefully under Article 140 of Iraq’s Constitution.

After the Saddam Hussein’s regime fell, however, the Al-Maliki government effectively left Kirkuk’s status in a holding pattern. While Kurds, Turkmen and Arabs share the city today, Kirkuk’s Turkmen recently acknowledged their reliance on the Peshmerga in the struggle against ISIS. Victories by the Peshmerga in Kirkuk and other historically Kurdish cities meant for referendum under Article 140 evince a well-prepared sovereign military in traditionally Kurdish territory. Kurdish President Massoud Barzani declared that with regards to Kirkuk, “things have changed … and the Iraqi government must deal with the new reality.”

While Kurdistan’s government and its armed forces have constructed secure borders and near-complete autonomy from Iraq within them, it is Netanyahu’s declaration that is the real game-changer. While U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry engaged President Barzani in an attempt to hold a sovereign Iraq together, Israel’s Foreign Minister stopped short of official recognition while paradoxically describing Kurdish independence as a fait accompli. An Israeli push for recognition of an independent Kurdistan behind the scenes could build traction for US recognition, particularly if ISIS’ successes in fighting Iraqi advances on Tikrit continue.

Kurdish patience and perseverance are legendary. Of Saladin, perhaps the best known Kurdish hero, the historian Rene Grousset noted that

his generosity, his piety, devoid of fanaticism, that flower of liberality and courtesy, which had been the model of our old chroniclers, won him no less popularity in Frankish Syria than in the lands of Islam.

In this respect, the modern KRG has assumed a similar role.  In the wake of Iraq’s civil war, the KRG’s assertion of full independence may be nearer than the international community currently expects.

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