The fight against ISIL has taken another complicating turn, with direct fighting between two of America’s most important regional allies, Turkey and the Syrian Kurds (YPG).
There is, however, something that can be done to address each sides concerns and uphold their interests. That something is abandoning the supremacy of Syrian and Iraqi territorial integrity, and carving a Kurdistan out of parts of Syria and Iraq.
This step, accompanied by the right conditions, can help resolve the longstanding feud between the Turks and Kurds and get the fights against ISIL and Assad back on track.
Take Land From Those Who Have Proven They Cannot Govern It
The Syrian and Iraqi governments have both lost their ability to govern the entirety of their respective country’s. These are not my opinions, they are the facts on the ground.
In Syria, Assad has committed numerous war crimes against his people in an attempt to squash a popular uprising against him. Even these violations of human decency and humanitarian law alone would not have kept him in power, as he has relied heavily on support from Russia and Iran.
The Iraqi military melted away in the face of ISIL advances in 2014, and the government has proven unable to address the underlying social and sectarian grievances that enabled this advance. Iraq as we know it would no longer exist without the support of America and its allies.
This is not to say there should be no Syria or no Iraq, but neither country’s government has done anything in recent years to suggest the idea of partitioning should not at least be on the table. The other countries with major Kurdish populations, Turkey and Iran, are still functioning states despite their varying degrees of poor governance.
The argument for creating Kurdistan out of parts of Iraq and Syria is strengthened when considering the strong arguments for Kurdish statehood. These arguments include justice for a large, stateless population, and a reward for bravery in fighting ISIL on the world’s behalf.
By giving the Kurds what they want in Syria and Iraq, it should ease pressure to create a Turkish Kurdistan. Some people may argue the opposite, saying such a development would only fuel Kurdish desires to expand into Turkey. But I think the Kurds, realizing how difficult statehood is to sustain in what is currently Iraq and Syria, would be content with the territory they are allotted. Of course my beliefs cannot be taken on faith–certain conditions would need to be put in place to ensure peaceful coexistence between Kurdistan and its neighbors.
Conditionality is Key
Kurdistan’s founding would be based on a set of conditions. Should these conditions fail to hold Kurdistan would loose international backing, which would basically be a death-blow to the newly formed state.
The main condition needed to make this plan work is the explicit understanding that the Kurds would lose support if they expand beyond originally agreed upon borders, unless it is in response to armed conflict initiated by another country or one of it’s proxy’s (such as Hezbollah for Iran). This condition would ensure two things:
- The Kurds will not try to expand, as international support would be needed to sustain a new Kurdistan.
- Kurdistan will not be invaded by its neighbors (at least by a national army, non-state actors such as ISIL are always wildcards). Both Turkey and Iran share the same primary concern with respect to Kurdish statehood–the effect it would have on their own Kurdish populations and ultimately their territorial integrity. Since invasion would be the one thing that could result in internationally recognized Kurdish expansion, it should act as a strong deterrent against invasion.
The Benefits of Bold Behavior
People will say such a solution is untenable–Turkey will never “allow it”, Russia will never go for it, and the current American administration is opposed to it. Iran, for its part, will play the spoiler at ever turn.
First of all, America’s stance could well change in the following months with a new administration on its way. But more importantly, it is not the decision of any one country–not the U.S., not Russia, not Turkey or Iran–to “allow” something or not. Issues of global concern, such as armed conflicts and their resulting boundary-less extremism and refugee crises, must be resolved by the international community through the United Nations.
Much could be achieved by taking land from countries that have proven themselves unable to govern it (and were based on arbitrarily drawn borders to begin with) and giving it to the Kurds. It would:
- Reward a large, stateless people who have a commitment to democratic principles and have fought bravely against ISIL.
- Remove Turkey’s (and to a lesser extent Iran’s) fear of Kurdish expansion into its own territory.
- Refocus the fight against ISIL.
- Allow Turkish and Kurdish forces to focus their efforts against Assad, altering the calculus of the Syrian Stalemate.
Bold ideas that challenge the current balance of power tend to be met with skepticism and condemnation at first. But the current balance of power in the Middle East empowers extremist organizations and totalitarian governments–it should be challenged.