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What ISIS Must Mean for Kurdish Statehood

15/10/2014 11:43 BST | Updated 14/12/2014 10:59 GMT

Yesterday, British MPs voted overwhelmingly in favour of recognising Palestine as a state. This followed the earlier declaration by Swedish Prime Minister, Stefan Lofven that Sweden would do the same. These gestures demonstrated that international attention would not easily be diverted from the tragic events of Israel's 50-day war on Gaza - not even by the terrible threat to civilization that is ISIS.

In the case of the Kurds, the battle against ISIS has served to draw their plight to the world's attention once again. Let us hope that they will not return to obscurity once ISIS has been defeated.

In his 2001 documentary Good Kurds, Bad Kurds, No friends but the mountains, American journalist and film-maker Kevin McKiernan interviewed ordinary Americans passing him and his camera on the street. He asked them if they knew who the Kurds were to which one passer-by responded "Is that a musical group?"

In speaking against yesterday's motion to recognise Palestine as a state, former Conservative Foreign Secretary, Sir Malcolm Rifkind said that it had been British policy not to recognise a state until the territory in question has a government, an army and military capability. Putting to one side whether this is an apt definition of a people worthy of statehood (after all, the West can help anyone it chooses to create any and/or all of these supposed prerequisites to statehood), surely by this definition, Kurdistan is worthy of recognition as a state?

As for a government, the 5.2 million Kurds of Iraq have been governed by their own people in the form of the Kurdistan Regional Government since 1992, following the creation of a no-fly zone in Northern Iraq. Since June 2014, the Government has been led by Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani. It consists of a unicameral parliament comprising 111 seats.

In Turkey, which is home to more than 14 million Kurds, all attempts at establishing political autonomy for the south-east have been actively thwarted by the Turkish state and its Western allies. It would be hypocritical to say the least, for those who apply Sir Malcolm's definition of a people ready for statehood, to hold this against the Kurds themselves. Even more so given that despite the historical denial on the part of the Turkish state of the very existence of Kurds, the Kurdish region has produced MPs such as Leyla Zana who was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment in 2012 for raising the plight of her people in Turkish Parliament.

As for an army and military capability, since the outset of the global battle against ISIS, the Kurdish peshmerga - meaning "those who face death" - have fought valiantly against this threat and have kept ISIS at bay in a number of crucial towns, where Iraqi and Syrian forces have failed. Western air strikes have been characterised as the provision of "assistance" to the peshmerga. While those effecting the air strikes complain of the desert dust making it difficult to perceive and strike ISIS targets, the Kurds are fighting ISIS on the ground. Obviously, they fight to protect themselves and their homeland. But happily for the West, this coincides with its fight against the establishment of an ISIS styled 'caliphate' - arguably the West's worst nightmare.

So not only do the Kurds meet Sir Malcolm's definition of statehood readiness, by any measure they have also earned it.

Indeed, Kurds have been awaiting international recognition of Kurdistan since the signing by the Allies and Turkey of the Treaty of Sevres on 10 August 1920. Aimed at preventing the atrocities of World War I from recurring, the Treaty required Britain, France and Italy to, among other things, draft a scheme of local autonomy for Kurdistan. Article 62 required this to be done within 6 months from the coming into force of the Treaty. Article 63 required Turkey to accept the scheme. Article 64 permitted Kurds living pursuant to the scheme to seek independence from Turkey and if they did so, it required Turkey to "renounce all rights and title" over the Kurdish areas.

No such scheme was ever drafted by Britain, France and/or Italy and to this day the Kurds remain the largest ethnic group without a state. If some real good comes of the battle against ISIS it will be that the world finally openly recognises that the Kurds are more than simply the West's warriors against extremist Islam.