While the Charter of the United Nations enshrines a right to the “self-determination of peoples,” many peoples lack a state of their own, including the roughly 33 million Kurds of the Middle East. Divided up primarily among the states of Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria, Kurds have fought a decades-long battle for political independence and unity, using both non-violent and violent means. In the process, these groups were met with intense – and largely successful – repression, including atrocities bordering on genocide. At the turn of the millennium, a State of Kurdistan, stretching roughly from the Zagros Mountains in eastern Iran to the Taurus Mountains in southern Turkey and northwestern Syria, was a faint dream for Kurdish nationalists.
In the past decade however, beginning with the US-led invasion of Iraq and now with the Syrian Civil War, Kurdish nationalists have gained power across the region. Northern Iraq’s Kurdish regions, once ravaged by Saddam Hussein’s genocide of 200 000 people, have gained effective autonomy from the central government in Baghdad, due to Kurdish support for the American war effort in 2003, the pivotal role played by Kurdish parties in the federal parliament, and the relatively competent and stable administration of the region. While international relations and the exploitation of oil and gas are constitutionally the Iraqi federal government’s responsibility, the Kurdistan Regional Government has often effectively acted independently on the international stage, and has clashed repeatedly with the federal government over control of petroleum reserves. This, and the independence and strength of the Peshmerga, the former rebel army-cum security force, have left Iraqi Kurdistan with de facto autonomy.
In Syria, Kurds were also persecuted. They were often discriminated against by the ethnic Arab majority, subject to political repression, and even stripped of citizenship. However, large-scale massacres and ethnic cleansing were never embraced by the Assad regime. Yet since the beginning of the Syrian revolution, Kurdish militias, principally those affiliated with the Democratic Union Party (PYD), have seized control of the sparsely populated mountains of Syrian Kurdistan. There they have established an independent government, aligning themselves with neither side of the Syrian civil war; the Kurds distrust the fragmented, Arab-dominated opposition almost as much as the Assad regime. Kurdish militias, as opposed to the soldiers of the Free Syrian Army or Syrian military, control roads and provide security to the region.
Turkey is home to both the largest Kurdish population in the world, and the most radical Kurdish separatist group, the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK). Successive Turkish regimes, both civilian and military, have met Kurdish nationalism and the Kurdish civilian population with military repression and forced assimilation, suppressing the use of the Kurdish language and declaring that Kurds were instead “Mountain Turks.” The election in 2002 of a mildly Islamist government in the Justice and Development Party (AKP) signaled a change though. The AKP’s platform included granting increased cultural and civil rights to Kurds, and ending repressive governance of Kurdish provinces. This initially led to a decrease in the amount of rebel violence, even though relations between Turks and Kurds remain tense, reconciliation has slowed or reversed in recent years following nationalist backlash, and violence has seen an upsurge in the past year.
Despite years of struggle, the Kurdish nationalist movement remains internally fractured. Clan and family politics often play a significant role in this, with the KDP dominated by the powerful Barzani clan for example. Additionally, ideological differences have caused much conflict, particularly in Syria. The party in charge, the PYD, is linked to the PKK, whose members often took shelter in Syrian Kurdistan during the height of the PKK’s war with the Turkish state. The Turks, who broadly support the Syrian opposition however, are hostile to this group, and have worked with the Iraqi Kurdish regional government to prop up a rival organization, the Kurdish National Council, even as Massound Barzani, the Kurdish regional president, has mediated talks between the different Syrian factions.
The rise of largely autonomous statelets in Iraq and Syria has worrying implications for regional stability. While Turkey’s economy continues to grow, Kurds remain marginalized. As well, due to an increasing reliance on nationalist voters, the AKP has rolled back many of its Kurd-friendly policies. With the existence of examples of quasi-independent Kurdish states, safe havens in these regions for militant Kurdish separatist groups like the PKK, and a populace ripe for possible radicalization, Turkey is at risk of real destabilization. In Syria, any effort to reconstruct the country after the war will need to take into account the substantial leverage held by the Kurdish groups in charge. This could lead to demands for greater autonomy from Iraqi Kurds, which could further destabilize the shaky and fragile Iraqi political system. The international community should exert pressure on Kurdish groups and governments to find a solution based on a mutually agreed upon accommodation and integration for Kurdish populations within their states. This would be based on cultural, political and civil autonomy for Kurds without secession. Without a coherent policy, Kurdistan could face political turmoil for years to come.
– Alex Langer
(Featured photo (Kurdistan Photo كوردستان , Flickr Creative Commons
Photo 1: james_gordon_losangeles, Creative Commons, Flickr)