Sovereignty is part of the problem, not the solution

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by Hans Dembowski

Why I find Kurdish independence aspirations worrisome

A referendum on national independence was held in Iraq’s Kurdish region this week. Masoud Barzani, the leader of the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq, announced victory before all votes were properly counted. This is peculiar, but participation in the referendum was strong, and few observers seem to doubt that most of Iraq’s Kurds want a sovereign state – as do masses of Kurds who live in Turkey, Syria or Iran.

I understand why Kurds want to form a nation of their own. They are one people who share a distinct language and live in four different countries. In each country, they are a marginalised and historically suppressed community. Nonetheless, I am not comfortable with the idea of an independent Kurdistan, even if it only extends to Iraqi Kurdistan for the time being. Let me explain:

  • First of all, I do not think humanity needs more sovereign governments. We are actually suffering because of too much sovereignty. The major challenges we are facing exceed national borders and require international cooperation. Examples include global warming, the loss of biodiversity, food security, peace, organised crime, terrorism, trade, financial stability. To rise to these challenges we need better global governance and better supranational governance of world regions. Adding more national governments will hardly help. Catalonia’s striving for independence is particularly absurd. It is one of Spain’s richest regions, enjoys some regional autonomy and is definitely not marginalised. As an independent nation, it would not longer belong to the EU. There is no reason to believe that Catalonia would be better off after breaking away from Spain. The idea of sovereignty is outdated. It was useful for terminating religious wars in Europe in the 16th century.
  • Examples of countries that became independent after bloody wars in recent decades are not encouraging. Eritrea is probably Africa’s most brutal dictatorship today, and it fought a second devastating war with Ethiopia from 1998 to 2000 after breaking away from that country in 1993 after massive bloodshed. South Sudan is now drowning in a civil war, and some even speak of genocide. The situation is at least as bad as it was during decades in which the independence movement fought Sudan’s army.  
  • It will prove extremely difficult to keep an independent Kurdistan viable given that its neighbours do not want to accept it as a sovereign state. It is a landlocked area with no access to the sea, so international trade will be a challenge. Oil is Kurdistan’s most important commodity, and shipments may prove impossible.
  • Ethnic and religious communities tend to live interspresed. Slicing a country in two always means that minorities end up on the wrong side of the border. Tensions are inevitable, and likely to esacalate, as majority communities all too often take revenge on the minorities on their side of the border for the perceived suffering of their own people on the other side. Declaring Iraqi Kurdistan to be a sovereign nation, therefore, means to play with fire.
  • Making matters even worse, the world region is already on fire. Syria collapsed into civil war in 2011. Iraq is a fragile state. The Turkish government restarted its military campaign in Kurdistan two years ago, when President Recep Tayyip Erdogan figured out that his truce with Kurds had not made them his electoral allies. Iran is deeply involved in Iraqi politics and Syria’s civil war. Kurdish militias have played a decisive role in fighting ISIS terrorism in both Syria and Iraq, proving at least as efficient as Iraq’s regular military.

To most Kurds, the lesson of recent and current strife is that they need a state of their own – and that now is a good moment to establish it. That may be true, but it could also be a huge mistake. It is not difficult to imagine regional warfare escalating once more and Kurds becoming ever more isolated. Neither the USA nor the EU support the idea of Kurdish independence today, and Russia has kept silent on the matter.

It would be far better to negotiate solutions that all regional players find acceptable. Basically, that would mean a large degree of autonomy for Kurdish regions and open borders. Yes, I know, such thinking is unrealistic at this point in time. Utopian thinking, however, makes sense in times when the only realistic options seem to be various kinds of warfare.

It needs to be pointed out, moreover, that authoritarian populists like Erdogan pretend to be realists, but their arguments are profoundly utopian. They promise to bring about peace and security by military force and sovereign action. In fact, Turkey’s escalating anti-Kurdish campaign is one reason why Iraq’s Kurds now demand independence. Nationalistic arrogance and grandstanding do not lead to stability and peace; they cause ever more provocations and violence. In today’s world, sovereignty is not the solution. It is the problem.


This post was last modified on 29 September at 10 am Central European Time.

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