September 16, 2003
The Ahmed Foundation For Kurdish Studies
404 N. Main Street, Sharon, Massachusetts 02067
CONFERENCE CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
A conference was organized by the Ahmed Foundation for Kurdish Studies in the greater Boston area of Massachusetts to assess the implications of the Iraqi war for the Kurdish question. The participants analyzed the present status of the Kurds and their future prospects in Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. Some 76 people of diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds from across the United States, Europe, and the Middle East took part in the conference. Fourteen well-documented research papers were presented at the conference by renowned scholars and practitioners over a two-day conference on September 6 and 7, 2003. The topics covered by the conference ranged from the American Middle East policy and the Kurdish question to political prospects of the Kurds, grounds for self-determination by Kurds, obstacles to the Kurdish question in Iran, aspiration of the Iranian Kurds, the Kurdish question in Turkey, Turkey’s constitutional reform and the Kurdish question, reframing of the Kurdish question in Turkey, the Kurdish question in the post-Saddam era, media and the Kurdish question, political consequences of ethnic cleansing in Iraqi Kurdistan, and durable solutions to internally displaced Iraqi Kurds. The presenters of these topics included Ambassador Peter Galbraith, David McDowall, Carole O’Leary, Kamal Mirawdeli, Farideh Koohi-Kamali, Nader Entessar, Hamit Bozarslan, Gulistan Gurbey, Hakan Yavuz, Michael Gunter, Rebwar Fatah, Mohammed Ahmed, and David Fisher.
The debate revealed that Kemalism in Turkey, Arab Nationalism in Iraq and Syria, and Persian nationalism in Iran are on the decline in the Middle East, giving hope for greater tolerance, moderation, and understanding among different ethnic groups in the region. However, it was noted that the pace of the ongoing change is too slow to provide sufficient comfort to the Kurdish people regarding their future prospects. Some asserted that since the long-term prosperity of the Kurds is tied to those of their neighbors, they should make concerted efforts to build a bridge of trust between them in order to settle their disputes in a peaceful manner. Others argued that such a bridge can be built only when the neighboring countries, who are in a stronger position, exercise more moderation and tolerance towards the Kurds. This kind of rapprochement would necessitate the replacement of the concept of ethnic domination and iron-fist rule from the center by more decentralized, democratic, and pluralistic systems of government, which would facilitate political representation at local, regional and central levels on an equal basis.
It was stressed that the repressive policies of the neighboring countries against the Kurds have accomplished nothing but destruction and waste of resources ever since WWI. The billions of dollars spent on military hardware to suppress the Kurdish struggle for self-rule could have been better spent to improve the living conditions of all ethnic groups in the region. The paranoia about the Kurdish threat to the unity and the territorial integrity of Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran has harmed not only the Kurdish population but the entire region. The Kurdish policies of these states have been socially and economically regressive.
It was also noted that the intolerance of Kurdish political parties, which has been inherited from governments ruling them, tends to hinder the evolution of democratic ideals in Kurdistan. The slowly dwindling Kemalist ideology and the acceptance of Turkey into the European Community might enable the Kurds to attain their perceived national goals through dialogue and peaceful means. However, the ongoing slow change is unlikely to address the Kurdish question in Turkey in the foreseeable future. The constitutional reform in Turkey is yet to explicitly acknowledge the existence of the ethnic Kurds, let alone addressing their special needs. It is therefore incumbent upon the European Union to pressure Turkey to make more drastic changes in its constitution with a view to facilitating equal participation of all ethnic groups in its political processes. The ongoing constitutional reforms touch on the Kurdish question only on its fringes. It is time that the old Turkish guards relax their hold on power, discard the outmoded Kemalist ideology, and embrace a true democratic and pluralistic system of government which ensures the civil and political liberties of all ethnic groups, including the Kurdish people.
Though the recent Iraqi war has turned into considerable chaos and disorder, it has created opportunities and risks for its Kurdish population. In the absence of a clear vision and unity of ranks, the Kurds have in the past missed a number of opportunities to consolidate their power-base for achieving their national goals. Fragmentation of the Ottoman-controlled Kurdistan was a major blow to the aspiration of the Kurdish people and enabled the newly-created states of Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran to cannibalize their cultural heritage. To justify their repressive rule, Arabs, Turks, and Persians have projected the Kurds as an uncivilized and violent bunch of people who are unworthy of self-government. However, the accomplishment of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq since 1991 has proven beyond the shadow of a doubt that the Kurds are capable and ready to rule themselves.
Notwithstanding the benefits of the 1991 Gulf war, the Kurds lost a big chunk of Southern Kurdistan to the former Iraqi regime. Some 40 percent of Southern Kurdistan was ethnically cleansed and Arabized by the former regime. The reversal of the consequences of ethnic cleansing and Arabization of the lost territories should become the paramount objective of the Kurdish leadership.
For Iraqi Kurds, and maybe for those in the neighboring countries, the post-Saddam Hussein era is considered to be the most significant opportunity since 1919 to shape their own future and the future of Kurds in the neighboring states. However, the achievement of the Kurds of Iraq will depend on their ability to forge a genuine trust with other Iraqi groups and with their neighbors. Though the Iraqi Kurds have closely cooperated with the occupation force to bring down the former regime, there is no tangible evidence to indicate that their demand for a democratic, pluralistic, and federal system of government, with checks and balances, will be approved by the majority of the Iraqi population (80 percent ), who are Arabs. It is doubtful that the perceived federal system of government for Iraq will be approved as proposed by the Kurds without the United States intervention. However, since the United States is driven by its own national interests in its foreign policy, one must ask himself why it should support the Kurdish cause in the Middle East. Do the Kurds have something to offer the United States in exchange for its support and protection? Would the United States betray the Kurds once again by subordinating their interests to those of Turkey? Answers to these questions are often molded vaguely and clouded with suspicions. Turkey’s participation in the peace keeping force in Iraq is expected to erode the United States support for the Kurds. The Kurds should not be too trusting of the United States, only to discover that its promises are as worthless as those of Henry Kissinger 30 years ago.
The participation of the Kurdish leadership in the Iraqi Governing Council and the ministerial cabinet has diverted their attention from Southern Kurdistan to Baghdad. It is imperative that the leadership refocuses attention on Kurdistan with a view to redrawing its administrative boundaries (political map) and addressing the issue of Arab settlers and the internally displaced Kurds. The presence of large numbers of Arab settlers in the region have a direct impact on the outcome of future elections/referendum, and ultimately, the political status of the region. Because of its strategic location, Kirkuk should be made the capital city of Kurdistan. The importance of these issues cannot be underestimated since they have a direct bearing on the future status of the Kurds not only in Iraq, but also in Turkey, Syria, and Iran.
The close cooperation of Kurds with the Americans and Iraqi political groupings should become conditional upon the approval of their demands for a federal system of government with adequate checks and balances. The rejection of their demands should entitle them for self-determination. The United Nations Security Council members should be made aware of this condition. Those politicians who have left Kurdistan to Baghdad should be replaced with high caliber professionals, who would fight nepotism and corruption, which have had a decaying impact on the neighboring states. The continued brain drain from the Kurdish region to Baghdad would have an adverse impact upon the future of the region.
The Kurds of Syria have been denied ethnic recognition and deprived of the freedom of association and press, and equal education and economic opportunities. The Arab-belt policy of the Syrian government resulted in the dislocation of thousands of Kurds and their deprivation of property ownership rights. The denial of citizenship of some 250,000 Kurds and the restricted employment opportunities in Syria have forced them to seek refuge in Lebanon and elsewhere. The Syrian government has denied not only its own Kurdish population of their civil and human rights, but has also helped the neighboring states to suppress their Kurdish population. The Syrian government is called upon to recognize the ethnic identity of its Kurdish population and grant them their full civil and political rights. Many Kurdish immigrants from Syria and Turkey continue to suffer economic hardships and political discrimination in Lebanon. The Kurds of Syria are awaiting the demise of a bankrupt government and its dilapidated economy.
Severe economic neglect and discrimination against non-Shiites and Kurds in the neighboring Iran is a cause for major concern. Iran’s successive authoritarian and repressive regimes have not only restricted the freedom of its Kurdish population within its borders, but have often assassinated their leaders abroad.
The conference asserted that it is difficult to argue against the large body of international laws, including the Twelfth of President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points for World Peace, for self-determination by the Kurds. Many are puzzled to note that Nauru, a small Pacific island of 9 square miles with a total population of 12,000, has gained independence and not the Kurds, who have over 30 million people. The Kurds have yet to capitalize on the wide measure of sympathy they enjoy among the world’s most powerful states for bringing the Kurdish question to the fore. Much dedication and hard work will be needed to overcome the unanimous opposition of the neighboring states to the emergence of a Kurdish state. The Kurds of Southern Kurdistan do not seem to be much better prepared for independence now than they were in 1919.
Under present conditions, the Kurds have a limited number of options to choose from for their future. One option is to accept the status-quo, another is to remain within the boundaries of the present states, provided that the neighboring states become truly pluralistic democracies, and the third would be to declare independence. While the status-quo is considered unacceptable to the Kurds, the concept of local autonomy and regional self-government within the boundaries of the present states was considered a reasonable option to work for. Though an independent Kurdistan is the aspiration of all Kurds, it seems that it has to await a more opportune time, when the Kurds are better prepared. It was stressed that remaining within the boundaries of the present states with dignity and self-respect might offer the Kurds greater economic opportunities and regional prosperity.
However, it was stressed that the prosperity of an independent Kurdistan should not be constrained solely by a limited access to open seas as much as by its good relations with its neighbors and the quality and quantity of its natural and human resources. The landlocked nature of Kurdistan can be overcome by its comparative economic advantages in the production of goods and services needed by its neighbors and beyond. Aside from industrial products, the Kurdish region could become a major center for agribusiness and the export of cheaper food products to the neighboring countries and Europe. A real democracy and a free market economy could polish and unleash the raw entrepreneur talents of the Kurdish people. However, chaos, instability, and lack of security are expected to endanger their future prospects. The deterioration of the security in the region and the withdrawal of the American forces could result in the subdivision of Southern Kurdistan between Turkey, Iran, and Syria.
The Kurdistan Regional Government has so far achieved a measure of representative government, a semi-autonomous press and judiciary systems, and has brought more accountable government than the region has seen before. However, in order to be able to consolidate the political power-base in the region, militias and security forces should be made to owe their loyalty to an abstract concept of the Kurdish state or nation rather than to political parties. The judiciary and media should become genuinely independent, people should be able to express their views freely without reprisal, women should be made aware that the judiciary system will treat all citizens as equals, wealth creation should be in the hands of private individuals and not the state, the state should be accountable to those who create wealth, the oil industry should be placed in private hands, and the patron-client relationship should be abolished. Patronage power, which remains the basis of the two sectors of the autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan, is undemocratic, a major source of instability, and a weak link in the Kurdish movement. Transition from a patronage power to an accountable government is considered to be a major challenge facing the Kurds.
Since the reality on the ground does not permit creation of a separate Kurdish state at this juncture, it might be prudent for the Kurds to focus their energy and limited resources on establishing autonomous regions in different parts of Kurdistan, using Southern Kurdistan as a model. While the Kurds of each country should endeavor to gain a maximum local autonomy, they should also lend a helping hand to their brethren next door with a view to refining and consolidating their language and cultural heritage. This would require close cooperation among the Kurds of different parts of Kurdistan to iron out their ideological differences and harmonize their agendas. Democratic principles and values, greater tolerance, respect for individual dignity and women‘s rights, and avoidance of corruption and nepotism should guide the Kurdish people to their ultimate objectives.