How Not to Create a State: Lessons from South Sudan to Kurdistan

As the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) prepares to hold a long awaited independence referendum on September 25 of this year, it's wise to look at South Sudan to prevent dangerous scenarios regarding a future Kurdish state.


South Sudan is the world's youngest nation, established in 2011, when it finally broke away from Sudan.  Similar to the KRI, it is a landlocked region surrounded by Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, the Central African Republic, and of course Sudan.  Before gaining statehood, the region experienced two civil wars, the first in 1955 and the second in 1983, which ended in 2005 and led to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement.  This agreement allowed for an autonomous region, separate from the central government in Khartoum.

The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) was established in 1992 with the implementation of a no-fly zone (NFZ) with the backing of the United States after the first Gulf War in 1991.  The NFZ allowed for an autonomous Kurdish region with its own borders, security, flag, constitution, parliament, and president – everything except a universally recognized border on a physical map.

South Sudan held a referendum as well, with a 98.83% success rate, similar to the unofficial Kurdish referendum in 2005, with a majority voting in favor of autonomy at 98%.  

It's been six years since South Sudan began to enjoy its sovereignty.  Despite this, South Sudan is considered the number-one failed state, surpassing Somalia, according to the Fragile States Index.  Nearly half the country is in dire need of food aid and is currently facing extreme hunger, one million have already fled as refugees, and 2 million are considered internally displaced.  The population of South Sudan is double that of the KRI at over 12 million, but 7.5 million people in the country are in need of humanitarian assistance.

The Cause

In short, what precipitated South Sudan's predicament was a civil war ignited between the government of Salva Kiir and Vice President Riek Machar.  The conflict quickly developed an ethnic characteristic. The Dinka ethnic group aligned with the president, and the Nuer ethnic group, the larger of the two, supported Vice President Kier.  The conflict also contained oil disputes between Juba, capital of South Sudan, and Khartoum.

If we focus on the KRI, it too has oil disputes with Baghdad and disputed territories such as Kirkuk with an abundant quantity of oil.  This has the possibility to trigger a larger war than that against the Islamic State (ISIS).  To make matters worse, Kirkuk also includes the ethnic aspect: the city is majority-Kurdish with Arab and Turkoman minorities, which may force neighboring Turkey and Iraq to battle over the territory.  Another dangerous possibility is the split between the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), both in control of large powerful armed forces.  The KRG has experienced a civil war as well, between the KDP and PUK, which took the lives of 5,000 Kurdish fighters and civilians in 1994.

The Lesson

To prevent a similar disastrous entrance to the international stage, the KRG must first and foremost establish a sense of unity among all those living in its territory, Kurds and non-Kurds alike.  This will not only prevent a civil war, but establish stronger ties with neighbors, since the state is also landlocked by Iraq, Iran, Turkey and what is left of Syria.  A united Kurdistan can also be used as leverage against Turkey and Iran, the KRG's strongest neighbors.  Today, the KDP has close ties with Turkey and the PUK with Iran.  Such conflicting relations must end.

Second, the KRG must distance itself from tribal politics.  The ruling families of KDP-Barzani and PUK-Talabani can no longer believe they are entitled to certain positions; Kurdistan will not survive with a monarchy.  An active democratic and transparent parliament must be functioning at all times despite disagreements among top parties.  (The parliament has been inactive since 2015.)  

Third, the unity of the forces, both PUK and KDP, have separate Peshmerga groups numbering over 50,000 each, with only 42,000 under the official government.  The conversion of the Peshmerga into a national army is a necessity if the Kurds are keen on surviving to become a powerful and viable force in the region.

Lastly, the KRG must not rely on the United States for unlimited military support.  South Sudan's push for statehood was backed by the U.S. and still failed. 

State-building is a challenging task, but not impossible.  The KRG and the leadership must shy away from the thought that internal issues will be "automatically" solved once a state is declared.  This immature belief has proven disastrous in South Sudan.  The Kurdistan Regional Government is not immune to failure and should always prepare for the worst with its geographically hostile environment.