The Lausanne Treaty and the Kurdistan Region of Iraq’s Autonomy

It has now been 100 years since the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne, and by any objective assessment, the treaty created more problems than it solved. While it was only one of

The Lausanne Treaty and the Kurdistan Region of Iraq’s Autonomy
June 29, 2023

It has now been 100 years since the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne, and by any objective assessment, the treaty created more problems than it solved. While it was only one of many postwar agreements that delineated the national borders in the Middle East, it condemned the Kurds to exist as minorities in states rigidly defined by the identity of an ethnic majority. 

In all four of the states in which Kurds constitute a significant minority population, governments adopted a policy of coercive assimilation to “manage” its Kurdish problem. This took various forms from simply denying the existence of “Kurdishess,” nationality correction, ethnic cleansing, and others, until finally, with the Anfal campaigns of the late 1980s, assimilation became extermination. 

Some Kurds proved willing to discard their Kurdish identity and Turkify or Arabize themselves, but the vast majority have refused to be coercively assimilated. A century on from Lausanne, assimilation has clearly failed in all four countries, and a shared sense of Kurdish identity remains stronger than ever.

Division and self-sabotage

The second damaging legacy of Lausanne was to create, and then reinforce internal divisions among Kurds. In different parts of Kurdistan, different groups of Kurds have experienced different shared histories and political experiences and have adopted different modes of resistance to the treatment meted out by their respective governments. These are divisions than can be, and have been, ruthlessly exploited by the region’s major powers including the United States to turn Kurd against Kurd, further reinforcing internal divisions. 

At the same time, to blame Lausanne, Turkey, Saddam Hussein, or the United States entirely for the Kurds’ traumatic twentieth century is to ignore that Kurds are often their own worst enemies. For Western scholars and policymakers who admire and respect the Kurds and fully support their quest for self-determination, the KDP-PUK civil war during the 1990s is difficult to understand, and even more difficult to justify. 

A similar pattern of self-sabotage was evident in 2017 when the advisory referendum on independence was clearly not universally supported in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI). It is all too easy to characterize the subsequent loss of Kirkuk and the disputed territories to Iraqi government forces as yet another betrayal by the United States, but the Kurds mostly betrayed themselves, and the relevant question to ask is: why would, or should, the United States intervene to defend the Kurds, when the Kurdish parties themselves are unwilling to join forces in defense of the Kurds’ Jerusalem?

Preserving autonomy

On a more positive note, the achievements of the KRI fully deserve to be acknowledged and respected. There is now an officially recognized political entity that bears the name “Kurdistan” for the first time since Lausanne. 

While the KRI is obviously not without its share of problems, it is by far the most effectively governed and tolerant region of Iraq. The generosity of the Iraqi Kurds in welcoming and protecting refugees and internally displaced peoples of all religions, sects, and ethnicities from all parts of Iraq and the Middle East is an inspiring story that badly needs to reach a wider audience. 

Fundamentally, the KRI is a beacon of light and hope for all Kurds in the region and beyond, as well as for its many friends in the West. But with this comes grave responsibility. A KRI that self-destructs due to internal rivalries and political power struggles risks losing all that has been gained, and would set the Kurdish cause back another century. 

Moving forward, the international response to the events of 2017 made all too clear that the creation of an independent Iraqi Kurdistan, let alone a single Kurdish state that transcends existing state borders is a distant dream. There is a compelling moral case for a Kurdish state, but the basic currencies of international politics are power and interest, not morality, and this is the reality within which Kurdish leaders must operate. 

A series of speeches by President Barzani, referred to collectively as the “Roadmap to Peace,” are a valuable first step in this direction. With independence off the table, Kurdish autonomy within existing state borders is the next best option. Critically, it is an option that enjoys support in Western capitals including Washington D.C. For Kurds to achieve autonomy in Turkey, Iran and Syria will be a challenge; for Iraqi Kurds, the challenge is to preserve what they have. 

Two constructive suggestions

After working on these issues for more than twenty years, I would tentatively offer two constructive suggestions. 

Firstly, avoid use of the term “federalism.” In the minds of many Arabs, the word federalism is synonymous with “partition,” and is viewed as a Western device for dividing and weakening the Arab world. Opinion poll data from Iraq and Syria consistently indicate that “federalism” is opposed by large majorities outside the Kurdish-inhabited areas. 

Conversely, these same polls show that “decentralization” enjoys broad popular support among Arabs in both countries. This may seem like a trivial point, but it is not. Both Spain and South Africa function as federations, but intentionally chose not to use the word “federation” in their respective constitutions precisely because of internal opposition to the concept. 

Secondly, Iraq’s federal system currently consists of an autonomous KRI, and fifteen completely powerless governorates. It is, in fact, not a “system” at all, which means that on all disputes between Baghdad and Erbil over the issues of most concern to the Kurds – annual budgetary allocations, funding for the peshmerga, oil and gas resource management, and so on, the KRI stands alone without allies because it is the only autonomous entity in Iraq. 

For the Kurds to acquire allies in these fights requires that other regions emerge – via the Article 121 process – to fill out the system, and the Kurds are ideally placed to provide leadership in this regard. A good place to start is Basra, where a sizeable portion of the population supports transitioning from being a governorate to a region. The campaign for this in Basra is well-organized, popular, entirely peaceful, and non-sectarian. Its success will encourage others – Anbar, for example – to follow the same path. 

It is in the KRI’s interests to do whatever it can to promote this process, because each new region is a new ally for the KRI in its disputes with Baghdad. To reenergize interest in Article 121, the KRI should host a conference and invite not just Western officials and scholars, but also individuals and groups from across Iraq who have demonstrated an interest in regionalization. These people need support and guidance, and Kurdish leaders are ideally positioned to provide this.

The end result will not be the independent Kurdish state that the Kurds both desire and deserve, but it can be a functioning federal system within which the KRI’s considerable achievements can be protected. 

Liam Anderson is a Professor of Political Science at Wright State University in Ohio, USA.  He teaches classes on International and Comparative Politics and publishes on issues relating to federalism, ethnic conflict, and Iraq.

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