Kurdish territories in Syria and Iraq have expanded dramatically as a consequence of wars forced upon the Kurds and they have demonstrated a knack for both political representation and the participation of women in political and military affairs. This is a far cry from their status under the Syria of Hafez al-Assad, where they were barely recognised, and the brutality of their repression in Iraq during the time of Saddam Hussein, who gassed them. Kurdish fortunes in Iran and Turkey are not much better, with an on-off insurgency in Iran barely heard of and the PKK insurgency in Turkey rarely making it into the headlines of the mainstream western media. The latter had de-escalated but reignited in 2015 and relations between the Kurds and Turks deteriorated further after the failed coup in Turkey brought an immediate crackdown on all the opponents of the government.
The separatist Turkish PKK is designated as a terrorist organisation by the EU and the US, yet the Syrian YPG and Iraqi wing of the PKK are important allies to the West. During the Iran-Iraq war both sides were happy to encourage the Kurds in the other country to take up arms. Much as the colonial powers of the early Twentieth Century were happy to promise the Arab tribes nations but then hang onto them through mandates, the contemporary regional powers have little trouble in recognising the Kurds as a people but do not want to see a Kurdistan emerge in any country, less territory be carved off from their own countries. The international powers are little better and are notably reticent over acknowledging Kurdish calls for autonomy and independence. They had also said little when chemical warfare was used against the Kurds in Iraq prior until Hussein’s occupation of Kuwait turned the international community against him and the plight of the Kurds in Iraq was recognised by the UN in 1991. Campaigning for the Kurds is limited, as is often the case in such situations, to the Kurds themselves, human rights groups, journalists, and earnest activists.
Much of the resistance to Kurdish independence is emanating from Ankara, Baghdad, and Tehran, whom have manoeuvred in an aggressive manner politically and the movement of ground forces has already begun. Ankara has also sent its forces into Syria’s Irbil region, ostensibly to impose a de-escalation zone agreed by Iran, Russia and Turkey as an outcome of the Astana Talks over Syria. A more driving goal is likely to be the determination not to have a contiguous Kurdish border between Turkey and Syria. Ankara does not distinguish between the PKK in Turkey and Iraq and the YPG in Syria, so is also concerned with developments in Iraq. Here the Iraqi government has a weak hold of the country and has been dependent on the Kurds, Iranian backed militias and the US led coalition during its war against ISIS. For its part, Damascus has been receptive to the idea of Kurdish autonomy in northern Syria but is unlikely to make any concrete commitment while the Syrian War continues and there may well be a change of mood should the regime be freed up from its battles elsewhere.
This is a short review, but even the uninitiated in Middle-East politics or conflict analysis will see the storm on the horizon. Syria’s ordeal is rightly acknowledged as hideously complex, while Iraq has seen its own sectarian civil war, and both have been in the frontline of an overlapping war against ISIS. A declaration of Kurdish independence in Iraq is highly likely to provoke a military response that will result in an additional conflagration that neither of the Kurds or Iraq need. This is in addition to the existing Turkey-Kurdish conflict that has resulted in a reported 3,132 casualties since July 2015 alone. Nor can the possibility of a trans-border war across Iraqi, Syrian, and Turkish territories be ruled out. This is a worst-case scenario that does not need to happen and is avoidable but requires cool heads dedicated to the peaceful resolution of the Kurdish question, and which still awaits an answer. It is not simply political and economic interests that gives the democrats of the West pause for thought but also the fear of what it will cost the Kurds and its impact on an Iraq that some argue is heading towards disintegration.
Nevertheless, the wishes of the Kurds in Iraq and Syria are unmistakable and the argument that this is not a good time is one that could have been applied many times before and raises the question: ‘If not now, then when?’ The Kurds in Iraq and Syria have reached a position of autonomy previously unseen and are able to maintain functioning governments at the same time as fighting on the ground. They have been backed by the US led coalition in their wars against ISIS and, in the case of the Iraqi Kurds, have fought at the behest of a government that now says it is ready to battle them. While there is a hope that the messages emanating from Ankara and Baghdad in particular are bluster and will not be backed by force, the history of the Kurdish struggles for independence suggests otherwise.
There is one thing that the West in particular can do immediately in order to prevent an unnecessary war that no one wants but all seem willing to fight, which is to wield its diplomatic prowess in its full force and maintain it as the situation develops. This would involve the EU and its individual political powerhouses (which include France, Germany, and the UK), the United States and Canada, and Western influence in the UN Security Council. This should be accompanied by mediation and negotiation as a preventative measure without a predetermined outcome towards Kurdish independence, but as a channel though which it can be discussed. Ultimately, the recognition of an independent Kurdish state is the responsibility of the United Nations as an organisation encompassing all countries, not simply those which are the most powerful or occupy UNSC seats.
Next week: Ukraine
For more information regarding this week’s blog see:
Dr Carl Turner, Site Coordinator