What Kurdistan Will Probably Look Like

In my previous post, I posited that Kurdistan as an independent state is inevitable.  There’s basically two reasons for that:

1). When regions fall into anarchy, oppressed groups get shots they wouldn’t otherwise have

As the Middle East slides into a more or less permanent state of chaos, Kurdistan will have a chance in two key states – Iraq and Syria – to establish control and independence.  They’re already done as much in Iraq and are now doing so in Syria.

2). The new American-led world order allows minority groups to carve out spaces for themselves

From Israel to Slovakia to Yugoslavia, the United States has historically allowed minorities to carve up larger states.  That process doesn’t threaten the power of the United States or its ability to manipulate other states worldwide.  In fact, such a process concentrates more power in the hands of the U.S. by diluting it elsewhere.

3). These two conditions are now in place to allow a free Kurdistan to come about

But what will it look like and how will it probably function?  We have ways of knowing such things, and none of them involve time travel.

Geographically, it will be a landlocked, cold, mountainous state, and it won’t include much Turkish or Iranian territory

Both Turkey and Iran remain organized, centralized states with the power to keep ethnic groups in check.  Iran, especially, continues to have the ability to oppress and intimidate on the scale necessary to keep their restive Kurds in line.  So when Kurdistan comes along, it won’t include parts of Turkey or Iran, at least initially.  Of the two, Turkey’s the most likely to have to give up territory to a free Kurdistan, as pressure from the European Union and other Western allies will grow over time to accommodate the Kurds.

Give or take a few borders, this might be just about right.

Without access to the sea, Kurdistan will be entirely dependent on the goodwill of neighbors for trade, which will be another reason why Kurdistan won’t push for taking more territory.

But the pressure to expand will be there, since being cold and mountainous will make it hard for just the Iraqi and Syrian territories to support the entire Kurdish nation.  Keeping that one balance will be the knowledge that Kurdistan will always be militarily inferior to both Turkey and Iran and won’t be able to challenge either.  Starting a war will be a bad idea, since any state that gets aggressive loses the moral upper hand and thereby Western support.  Georgia learned that to its peril in 2008 when it challenged Russia over a breakaway region.

The state will suffer from the dysfunction of tribalism and the resource curse

Kurdistan is still a tribal based culture, and the ugliness of that system of organization will rear its head more than a few times as the state sets itself up.  Corruption will be rife and civil wars far from impossible – although these will typically be pretty quick and fought only between elites and their private militias, since the united Kurdish nation won’t feel the need to engage in mass slaughter or ethnic cleansing.  Meanwhile, if democracy does get set up, it will function badly, as tribal flunkies get plum posts and entrench themselves in power.  Such ingredients will hardly favor peaceful transfers of power.

Making a state involves a lot of marching.

Then there comes the resource curse – with plentiful oil reserves, Kurdish politicians will be tempted to dip their hands in the honey pot and promise their people lavish spending promises to stay in charge.  Such an effect will impede development and will be made worse by the fact that Kurdistan will really only be able to offer oil as an export.  Kurdistan will have too many people for the government to just throw luxuries at, but roads will be built, airports set up, and malls constructed for no other reason than to give temporary jobs to workers.  With easy cash and a burning fire to set up a modern state immediately, money will be wasted.

Pinning the entire enterprise together, however, will be the Kurdish common identity, which gives Kurdistan an advantage many other similar states do not have.  Over a generation, tribalism and the resource curse will lessen in damage as Kurds culturally globalize.

Kurdistan will need outside support to exist

The U.S. will guarantee the borders as it does everyone else’s.  Attempts by ally Turkey or rival Iran to smack down the Kurds will result in American reprisal.  By the time Kurdistan is free, it’s likely Iran will be, if not an outright ally, at least a tolerated member of the American-led Middle East.  Regardless of anything else, U.S. support is critical.  If America loses interest, or is unable to provide protection, Kurdistan will return to the position it’s always had – as occupied territory.

Independence will create shockwaves 

This will be the first state to come into existence in the Middle East since the end of colonialism in the Gulf in 1971, and the precedent will be enormous.  Other oppressed groups will agitate for autonomy, independence, or unification with their brethren in already-existing states.  Sunnis in Iraq and Syria will push for one state; Shi’a in Iraq will be happy to see them go and will seek greater cooperation with Shi’a in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.  Yemen, unstable as always, will see its own minorities strive to autonomy at a frenetic pace, and if there’s no Palestine by this time, that condition won’t last much longer.  This will be a sign it’s time to redraw the borders at long last and let the geopolitically natural states of the Middle East take shape.

No part of building this future will be quick or easy

Kurdistan as a free state will require a lot of work and won’t finish the process of modernization for at least a generation.  But it’s got a shot now to do just that.

Landlocked and in less than an amazing position, it will have to cooperate with its neighbors to avoid the conflicts its destined to lose.  Still tribal and stuck with the resource curse, it’ll have to navigate out of these bad habits and learn the hard way several times, perhaps fighting a few civil wars to thoroughly purge itself.  As a major border changer, it will set the tone for a half century dedicated to undoing the damage of the post-Ottoman era.  if all goes well, it’ll help create a stabler, more gentle Middle East.  But before that day comes, there will be birthing pains.

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