Skip to main content

From Tribe to Nation: Iraqi Kurdistan on the Cusp of Statehood

There is growing recognition that after decades of dogged, if at times unorthodox, efforts to build their own state, the Iraqi Kurds are on the cusp of formally declaring independence. It is no longer a matter of “if” but “when.” And the United States, as much as Iraq’s neighbors—Iran, Turkey, and Syria, which have restive Kurdish populations of their own—needs to be ready when Iraqi Kurdistan, the first real Kurdish state in the modern sense, is born. Most importantly, so do the Kurds. Join us for the launch of Amberin Zaman’s latest paper “From Tribe to Nation: Iraqi Kurdistan on the Cusp of Statehood.”

Date & Time

Sep. 14, 2016
9:30am – 11:00am ET


6th Floor, Woodrow Wilson Center
Get Directions


Three experts offered analysis on the international and domestic implications of an independent Iraqi Kurdistan.

On September 14, 2016, the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center hosted the event “From Tribe to Nation: Iraqi Kurdistan on the Cusp of Statehood,” with Amberin Zaman, Public Policy Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center, columnist at Diken and Al-Monitor Pulse of the Middle East, and author of “From Tribe to Nation: Iraqi Kurdistan on the Cusp of Statehood”; Abbas Kadhim, Senior Foreign Policy Fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute, SAIS-Johns Hopkins University, and President of the Institute of Shia Studies; and Aliza Marcus, Author of Blood and Belief: The PKK and the Kurdish Fight for Independence. Henri J. Barkey, Director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center, moderated the event.

Zaman discussed how Saddam Hussein’s “follies”—such as the invasion of Kuwait—gave Iraqi Kurds the power to become increasingly autonomous. While Iraqi Kurds want independence, they also remain realistic about its current feasibility and accept that there are still numerous obstacles that must be overcome, two of which are that they are “landlocked” and “surrounded by hostile nations.” Without coasts, they have no maritime access to Western allies, and the surrounding “hostile” nations of Syria, Iran, and Turkey may not prove cooperative in granting them the access they would need. Zaman then argued that the current political atmosphere in Turkey, including the rise of the Islamist AKP party led by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has improved relations between the Iraqi Kurds and Turkey. Turkey might see Iraqi Kurdish independence as a way to stall Turkish Kurds from demanding their own independence because an established Kurdish “haven” in Iraq might give Turkey justification to insist on Turkish territorial integrity. Zaman also stressed the need for unity between the two main Kurdish political parties in Iraq, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). She said the PUK is rife with corruption, and in order for the PUK and KDP to successfully negotiate with each other, that corruption must be addressed. Zaman concluded her remarks stating the Kurds want to establish a refuge, a goal she believes groups like the Israelis and Armenians could understand.

Kadhim expanded on Zaman’s points by identifying four elements required for Iraqi Kurdish independence. First, the PUK and KDP must have unity. Second, the Iraqi Kurds need cooperation from the Iraqi government in Baghdad for the referendum vote on independence and would need to agree on what an independent Iraqi Kurdistan would mean for both states. Third, the Iraqi Kurds need regional cooperation from Syria, Turkey, and Iran, who might oppose independence because of the implications for their own Kurdish populations. Fourth, the Iraqi Kurds need international recognition, especially from the United Nations.

Marcus stated that the majority of Iraqi Kurds do not want immediate independence but consider independence to be a future goal. One of the major issues, she said, is there is no sense of nationalism uniting the Iraqi Kurdish people, which would rally the people to “nation build.” This is partly due to a poorly functioning parliament and a leaderless PUK. The divide between the PUK and KDP has resulted in two separate peshmerga militias, which, as Marcus suggests, might lead to further divisions if independence is achieved. In closing, Marcus disagreed with Zaman, saying Turkey has no desire to cooperate with Iraqi Kurds. Kurdish independence has nothing to do with Turkey, she argued, but rather depends on the strength of Kurdish institutions.

In the question and answer portion of the event, Barkey asked the panelists what the U.S. role is in the question of Iraqi Kurdish statehood. Zaman responded the Iraqi Kurds are heavily dependent on U.S. support. The panel was then asked about KDP leader Mustafa Barzani and why he has waited to hold a referendum. Zaman replied that Barzani was likely waiting until there is more Iraqi Kurdish unity and less corruption. When asked whether Barzani would propose the referendum first or conduct negotiations first, Zaman indicated that he would hold the referendum first, because that “puts the KRG in a bargaining position.” However, Kadhim argued that the referendum and negotiations with Baghdad had to be done in tandem, because the referendum was a promise to the people that outlined exactly what independence would mean for the Kurds. Thus, he said, if the referendum came first and subsequent negotiations strayed from what the referendum had promised, Barzani would lose credibility.

By Nathan Painter, Middle East Program

Thank you for your interest in this event. Please send any feedback or questions to our Events staff.