Recent developments in the increasingly fragile Iraqi and Syrian states have ignited long-held Kurdish national aspirations.
The Kurdish push for independence, dating back decades, probably doesn’t attract the international headlines it deserves, perhaps somewhat shadowed by the Palestinian plight for nationhood. However, according to Turkish commentator Nihat Ali Özcan, the past fortnight has seen a landmark shift in the hopes of many Kurdish people.
The Kurdish people, bound by ethnicity, tradition, religion and language, mostly inhabit the volatile region where Turkey meets Syria, Iraq and Iran. They number approximately 30 million and are considered the world’s largest ethnic group without a homeland.
Modern Kurdish nationalism has its roots in the Ottoman Empire, particularly after it was dissolved and the map of the Middle East was redrawn. But it was in the second half of the 20th century that the movement captured worldwide attention.
In Turkey in the 1970s, the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) took up arms against the state. After 33 years of fighting, with casualties exceeding 40,000 according to some estimates, the PKK is considered a terrorist group by the EU and many governments including the US and Australia. In Syria and Iraq, Kurds were long oppressed by the ruling Baathist regimes in both countries, under Hafez al-Assad (father of Bashar) and Saddam Hussein respectively.
Forms of oppression included: martial law, deportation, detention camps, mass-killing (including the use of chemical weapons), and policies denying the existence of Kurdish ethnicity and banning the Kurdish language — to name a few.
In 2003, following the US-led invasion (among other things), Kurdish freedoms have increased in northern Iraq. The democratically elected Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), led by Massoud Barzani, now governs what is called a “semi-autonomous” zone, based in Irbil.
Here the threads get very complicated. Viewed simply: there is the outlawed PKK in Turkey; in Syria, the Democratic Union Party of Kurdistan (PYD), established in 1996 and thought to be an affiliate of the PKK; and the KRG in northern Iraq. To highlight the confusion, Turkey is constantly fighting the PKK (and therefore views the PYD dimly), but has established amiable relations with Irbil. These relations include trade agreements struck directly with the KRG, much to the chagrin of Baghdad.
Now, as Assad has more or less withdrawn from the northern areas of Syria (where it borders Turkey) to focus on defending Damascus, Turkey fears that the unification of Kurdish groups could lead to increased Kurdish militancy, and a concentrated effort to establish “greater Kurdistan”.
The leader of Turkey’s opposition Republican People’s Party, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, said that a Kurdish state was in the works. Turkish newspapers are awash with opinion articles indicating the same. A few headlines: “Arab Spring transforms into Kurdish Spring”, “A mega Kurdish state is being founded”, and “Islamists at odds, Kurds side by side”.
The fears are not completely unfounded. Hurriyet, the leading daily newspaper in Turkey, posted footage of thousands of Kurdish soldiers marching into Syria from Iraq on July 24.
Massoud Barzani, president of the KRG in Irbil, confirmed in a rare interview with Al-Jazeera that the KRG had trained these soldiers, who had defected from the Syrian Army. He also oversaw an agreement between Kurdish opposition groups in Syria and the mainstream Kurdish National Council. “The best and the biggest support that we could provide is to have a united position and in this we were successful,” Barzani told Al-Jazeera.
In response, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Prime Minister of Turkey, has avowed to do everything possible to prevent cooperation between the PYD in Syria and the PKK. Among other possibilities, a military security-zone on the Turkish-Syrian border has been proposed.
“We won’t allow a terrorist organisation to [set up] bases in northern Syria … It’s a wrong approach to set up a Syrian Kurdish National Council,” Erdoğan told reporters.
In regards to Barzani and the KRG/PYD co-operation, the Turkish prime minister has sent his foreign minister, Professor Ahmet Davutoğlu, to northern Iraq to “share Turkey’s sensitivities and determination” with Kurdish officials.
I contacted Özcan, a commentator on Turkish foreign affairs. He described Barzani as “a symbol of unity for Kurds”. He went on to say, “History is providing a window of opportunity space for Kurds” in the politically unstable Syrian north.
However, despite how significant the recent developments have proven for Kurds, Özcan stopped short of saying that an independent Kurdish state was a possibility in the foreseeable future.
“There are a lot of obstacles … Erdoğan’s expectation was that Barzani cut the support with the PKK … Erdoğan is very unhappy. There is the possibility of breakdown in the relations between Turkey and Irbil. And Barzani uses his relations with Turkey to connect to the world,” he said. Furthermore, Özcan predicts that a push to establish a Kurdish state would draw the entire region into war.
In the confusion of the Arab Spring, it is possible that an opportunity has formed for the Kurdish people to achieve their nearly century-old national aspirations. But, characteristically, this opportunity is most uncertain and fraught with danger.