The question of Kurdish independence

The question of Kurdish independence

The Kurds have been playing a vital role in the geopolitical situation in the Middle East. However, nationalization and the establishment of a new state remains an unrealized goal for many Kurds who have been engaged in the fight for these things for years. Having played an effective role in the fight against ISIS, the Kurds have begun a renewed push to establish an independent state. Kurdish regions include:



The Kurds in Iraq number about six million, who comprise about 15% of its population. The majority of them are nationalists (independence seekers) and have been able to persuade the central Iraqi government to agree to their autonomy since 1991.

The Kurds live in northern Iraq. The economy of the Kurdistan Region is based on oil sales. The current President of the Kurdistan Region is Nechirvan Barzani.



Syrian Kurds are in the same situation as Iraqi Kurds. They have a population of about four million people, comprising 10% of the Syrian population, and most of them are separatists.

The Kurdish-controlled area is located in northern Syria and contains three cantons, namely Jazira, Kobani, and Afrin. However, the Syrian Kurds have now shifted their geographic segmentation from Canton to Region and changed the Three Cantons to Seven Regions. Nevertheless, in general, international communities still consider the areas under the control of the “Syrian Kurds” to include the Three Cantons.

Syrian Kurdistan lacks a unified and formal leadership. However, according to opinion polls, Salih Muslim is the most influential figure among them. Syrian Kurdistan has had autonomy since 2013, which has not been recognized by the Syrian government.

Their economy is based on oil sales, agriculture, and aquatic products.



With a population of about 8 million, Kurds make up 10% of Iran’s population and have widespread influence in Iran. Unlike the Kurds in Syria and Iraq, the Iranian Kurds are not secessionists; however, a small minority have been struggling for autonomy since 1945, which has faced a backlash from the Iranian government.

Iranian Kurds generally reside in the western parts of the country, and their economy relies on the central Iranian government.

Iranian separatist efforts lack formal leadership and are generally guided outside its borders.



The Kurds in Turkey are in the same situation as the Kurds in Iran; the majority of them are not separatists. With a population of over 22 million, they make up about 26% of the population and have a vast influence in Turkey.

They lack a formal leader. However, according to the parliamentary seats, it can be claimed that Selahattin Demirtaş is the informal leader of the Kurds in Turkey. The Kurdish effort to achieve autonomy following World War I was faced with an intense backlash from the Turkish government. The Kurds in Turkey generally reside in the eastern and southeastern regions with an economy based on Turkey’s central government.


After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the Kurdish question became one of the most critical issues in the Middle East. Mutual understanding of Kurds in Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran, plus efforts to build their identity while operating in the international arena have complicated the Kurdish question.

When it comes to Kurdish identification, they had two choices:

  •  Assimilating themselves to the central governments

  • Emphasizing ethnicism and Kurdish nationalism

Iranian Kurds are very close to other ethnicities in the country, so they have chosen the first choice. However, due to their differences with Turks and Arabs, Kurds residing in other countries chose the second choice.

Although the Kurds’ demand for autonomy from countries with substantial historical and ethnic differences with them may not be illegitimate, the efforts of Kurdish nationalist supporters represent a significant conspiracy to change the map of the Middle East.

The United States is the primary supporter of the Kurds to achieve independence from their own countries; however, Washington is displaying contradictory behavior in dealing with this issue.

The United States supports the independence of Kurds in Iran, Syria, and Iraq, but has remained silent about Kurdish independence in Turkey. Turkey is a US strategic partner in the Middle East and one of the most important NATO members. Accordingly, the United States is dealing with the Syrian Kurdish issue with some caution.

Israel is the second major supporter of Kurdish independence in the Middle East.

Tel Aviv’s support for the Kurds should be seen as part of Israel’s defensive strategy as they seek to reduce the security of rival countries by creating new territories in their geopolitical realm. An Israeli attempt to infiltrate South Sudan and dominate the newly established state also follows this theory. With the breakup (secession) of Sudan, Israel could weaken one of the most important Muslim countries in the East African region. Meanwhile, by striving for South Sudan’s independence and trying to gain influence there, Israel managed to control a significant amount of African oil.

Israel intends to replicate a plan similar to South Sudan’s in the Middle East, this time establishing a state called Kurdistan in four countries, namely Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. It should be noted that all four countries have a very tense relationship with Israel.

Accordingly, with 250,000 Kurds inhabiting it, Israel essentially intends to use the question of Kurdish independence as a bargaining chip against its opposing states.



If the Kurds succeed in forming an independent state, whether in Turkey, Syria, Iraq, or Iran, some key questions will arise:

  • How will the relationship between this newly-established state and other Kurdish regions be? Will it have a peaceful relationship with them, or will it try to dominate them? Or will it go to war with the Kurdish populations seeking to achieve Kurdish independence?
  • How will the countries with a Kurdish population react to the newly-established Kurdish state? Will they engage in political or economic relations with this state, or will they impose sanctions on it?
  • Since the Kurdish regions in the Middle East do not have access to free waters, how will the newly-established Kurdish state manage its economy with four countries opposed to the establishment of a Kurdish state?

The most important question would be,

What will be the fate of Kurdish terrorist groups with their bold presence in the Kurdish regions of the Middle East look like? Will they come to terms with the central government of the newly-established Kurdish state, or will they fight for power?

The answer to these questions shows that the question of Kurdish independence is far more complex than analysts imagine!

Mani Mehrabi
Senior international affairs analyst, Faculty member at the Think tank of International Relations (Tehran, Iran)

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April 2024