In support of an independent State of Kurdistan, the orphan of history

Robert A. Cohn is Editor-in-Chief Emeritus of the St. Louis Jewish Light.


Despite intense international pressure not to go forward with a referendum in support of independence, the Kurdish Regional government in northern Iraq went ahead with the vote, which won overwhelming approval in the election last week.  An estimated 73 percent of eligible voters supported the measure, and nearly 93 percent of voters supported leaving its alliance with Iraq.

Such an overwhelming degree of support for independence would normally receive significant support around the world and early admission to the United Nations. When the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1989, the 15 previously united USSR republics were allowed to proclaim their independence and were promptly recognized and admitted to the United Nations, along with the captured nations of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia.  This was also the case when the former Yugoslavia broke up into separate republics on ethnic lines—Serbia, Macedonia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro and Croatia — and were admitted to the United Nations after several bloody conflicts in the region.

In recent decades, the U.N. has recognized and admitted to membership Eritrea, which seceded from Ethiopia; South Sudan, which broke off from Sudan, and East Timor, which had been part of Indonesia.

There are some 35 million Kurds spread throughout the Middle East.  The Kurds have their own distinctive culture.  Most Kurds are Sunni Muslims, but among them are Christian, Shia and Jewish Kurds.  The Kurds have been an integral part of the Middle East since the 7th century.

There has always been a political and ideological kinship between Zionism and Kurdish nationalism.  Indeed, when the referendum was first proposed, the Israeli President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed support for recognition if the referendum passed — which it did.

Why then is the path to recognition of Kurdistan still blocked so vehemently?  In addition to the over 5 million Kurds living in the Kurdish Autonomous Region of northern Iraq, there are millions of Kurds living in Turkey, Iran and Syria.  The government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is especially fearful that the large Kurdish population in Turkey would want to break off from Turkey and become part of the new Kurdish State.

The Kurds for over a century have been the “orphans of the Middle East.”  They were promised a state of their own in the aftermath of World War I, when the major parties divided up the Middle East among the imperial powers at the time—Syria and Lebanon became a French Mandate, while Palestine was placed under a British Mandate. 

In 1920, then Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill, who had carved up pre-Israel Palestine, supported the Treaty of Sevres, which promised the Kurds a state of their own.  But that treaty was replaced by the Treaty of Lausanne, which was signed in 1923, in which independence for Kurdistan was abrogated in favor of dividing up the Kurds among Iraq, Turkey and Syria. 

Churchill would later express regret that he had been party to the betrayal of the Kurds, even as he became an early supporter of Zionism and a Jewish State in Palestine.

In 1946, the short-lived Mahabad Republic was set up by the Kurds with backing from the USSR.  The Kurdistan Democratic Party, led by Mustafa Barzani, was set up to fight for full Kurdish independence.

Numerous other Kurdish factions formed into rival political parties in the ensuing years. After Saddam Hussein was driven from Kuwait, Kurds staged an uprising in which Hussein used chemical weapons to ruthlessly crush the rebellion.

After Hussein lost the Iraq War and was executed, the Kurdish Autonomous Region of Northern Iraq was set up, and formed a stable, pro-American government. In the battle against Islamic State, the Kurdish Pesh Merga militias were by far the most effective fighters against


After nearly a century of being jerked abound, the Kurdish leadership decided the time to moved toward true independence is now.

Iraq and Turkey have vowed to crush the pro-independence Northern Iraq Kurdish entity.  Let us hope that their efforts to strangle Kurdistan in its crib once again meets the same fate as the efforts by five Arab armies to destroy Israel after it was proclaimed in 1948.  An independent Israel not only survives but thrives, and it is hoped that the Kurdish case for independence will at least receive the international support and recognition it has deserved for more than 100 years.

There is considerable—and reasonable—support for Palestine to become independent as part of an independent partner in a two-state solution.

Let us hope that the long and unfair isolation and betrayal of the proud Kurdish people will at last come to an end.