By Murat Yetkin
The map of the Middle East was radically changed almost 100 years ago at the end of the First World War.
In fact it was not only the Middle East that was affected: The First World War marked the end of three important dynasties ruling three land empires of the old world: The Romanovs in the Russian Empire, the Habsburgs in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the Ottomans in the Ottoman Empire. So it was actually the maps of Central and Eastern Europe, Caucasia, Central Asia and the Middle East that all changed a century ago.
The map of the Caucasus and the Central Asia also changed once again after the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1992. Changes to the map of Central and Eastern Europe followed that, with the dramatic disintegration of Yugoslavia and the division of Czechoslovakia into two.
Today, there are many conspiracy theories circulating about the possibility of a new wave of map changes in the Middle East. And when people talk about a map change, the possibility of an independent Kurdish state is always debated.
There have been a number of developments in the last 15 years that strengthen this thesis. For example, the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 helped the establishment of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq, led by Masoud Barzani, the head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP).
A more recent example is the U.S. Central Command using the People’s Protection Units (YPG) as its ground troops against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), or DAESH, in Syria. The YPG is the Syrian extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations. The PKK was secretly founded in Turkey in 1978, with the aim of carving out territory from four neighbouring states - Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria - for an independent Kurdistan.
Will the PKK’s efforts in defeating ISIL now bring it autonomy in Syria, in a stretch of land that has a border of hundreds of kilometres with Turkey? What will happen to the competition between the PKK and the KDP over the Kurdish-populated areas of Iraq, which neighbor both Turkey and Iran?
It was mainly that competition which forced Barzani to recently announce plans for a referendum for independence from Iraq scheduled for Sept. 25. The timing of the announcement was rather unfortunate, as right after it the diplomatic crisis broke out between Saudi Arabia (and its allies) and Qatar. Western governments saw that a Kurdish state in Iraq would immediately lead to a pro-Iran Shiite state in the south of Iraq, including the oil and gas rich Basra region, which could put additional pressure on Kuwait and Saudi Arabia while also further disturbing Israel.
There are two additional factors that also make a Kurdish state difficult.
The first one is the presence of thousands of Iranian Revolutionary Guards in the Iraqi and Syrian theatre in support of the non-Sunni regimes in Baghdad and Damascus.
The second one is the fact that Turkish Republic is still live and kicking, despite a number of attempts in the last 15 years to weaken its military.
Any change in the map of the current Middle East could lead to a chain reaction, and no one can guess how or where that would stop.
So the answer to the question in the title is “not very likely.” But unfortunately that is only likely to be understood after yet more bloodshed and pain.