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The Kurds: A Historic Opportunity?

By Azadeh Pourzand and Venessa Parekh

With the political and ethnic fractures following the Arab Awakening, the historic dream for Kurdish nationhood is reemerging. In war-torn Syria, the Kurdish quest for autonomy has become a central goal of the conflict. Since July 2012, Syria’s armed Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) has taken over some of the country’s northeast, annexing the municipal offices in Afrin and Korbani in Aleppo Province in the north and Amude and Deirik in the east. The independent Kurdish flag now flies in these Kurdish towns.

Having taken over government buildings and infrastructure, the heavily armed PYD is reportedly providing security to the inhabitants of the Syrian northeast. At the same time, this militia is also fighting the anti-Assad opposition rebels, who are alarmed by the rapid Kurdish rise over the past three months. PYD’s success brings the Syrian Kurds one step closer to gaining a long-desired constitutional autonomy when peace finally reins in the country. Furthermore, if PYD can establish autonomy here and ally with their brethren in Iraq, Kurds across the region may have a shot at establishing their own nation for the first time in recent history.

Throughout the Arab Awakening and the subsequent eruption of conflict in Syria, both the Assad regime and the opposition rebels have tried to win the sympathies of Syria’s three million Kurds. Nevertheless, the Kurdish militia in Syria worries the opposition. A leader of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), Colonel Riad al-Assad, warned in July 2012 that the retreat of Bashar al-Assad’s regime from several Kurdish areas has enabled Syria’s PYD to take control and could be a strategy used by Assad to further challenge the opposition. Al-Assad emphasized that “preserving the unity of Syria” was one of the rebels’ primary goals, expressing concern that if one of Syria’s many ethnic groups were granted autonomy, others would demand the same, eventually leading to the country’s dissolution. Others suspect that the FSA—heavily supported by Turkey—is acting on behalf of their northern neighbors who are weary of a rising Kurdistan.

The Iraqi Kurds, who, in 2005, successfully created an autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq, have inspired the Syrian Kurds. After enduring decades of persecution under Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime, the Iraqi Kurds, who constitute 15 to 20 percent of the country’s population of 31 million, now enjoy autonomy in a flourishing, resource-rich region. As the Syrian Kurds pursue a similar dream, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq has taken on a supporting role. The KRG’s president, Masoud Barzani, has tried to broker an accord between the two main Kurdish fronts in Syria: the PYD and the Kurdish National Council (KNC), which includes 15 political Kurdish groups.

Negotiations are proving difficult. In spite of the Kurds’ recent successes in Syria, the fragile unity between these two main Syrian Kurdish groups has aggravated tensions. Additionally, regional complications including escalating tensions between Baghdad and Iraqi Kurdistan and Turkish political concerns place significant hurdles in the way. Gaining constitutional autonomy in Syria will depend on various shifting elements not only in Syria but also in its neighborhood. In particular, Turkey, Iraq, and Iran—which, along with Syria, are home to most of west Asia’s 30 million Kurds—will play an influential role in the political future of the Kurds in Syria, and of the Kurdish people at large.

Turkey is the Syrian Kurds’ most significant adversary. The Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has alleged ties with Syria’s PYD, has been warring with the Turkish army since the 1980s. Turkey and Syria previously clashed in the 1990s when Syria gave refuge to PKK founder, Abdullah Öcalan. Although relations improved after Öcalan was expelled in 1998, and Syria agreed to deter PKK’s terrorist activities, PKK’s presence and popularity had already been established in Syria.

Today, Turkey’s 14 million Kurds aren’t as repressed as they once were—the ban on their language has been lifted, among other measures. But PKK remains a threat to the country’s national security. Turkey suspects that with the rise of Kurdish militias along its borders, PKK has found a safe haven in war-torn Syria. Fearful of the increasing Kurdish power near the Syria-Turkey border, Turkey has threatened military action against Syria. Beyond Syria, Turkey is concerned about the cross-border alliances of the Kurds in the region, especially the military training offered by Iraq’s KRG to Syrian-Kurdish refugees.

Turkey is not alone. The Iraqi and Iranian governments fear separatist movements by their own Kurdish communities too. Already challenged by its inability to establish national stability, the Iraqi central government worries that the prosperous and stable Iraqi Kurdistan undermines its sovereignty—as made evident by their disagreements over Iraqi Kurdistans’s independent oil-trade relations with Turkey and other countries of the region. Encouraged by Iran, Baghdad has supported Assad in the Syrian uprising, creating more regional discord as Iraqi Kurdistan pursues its own individual policies in Syria’s Kurdish areas.

While the Iranian Kurds enjoy a degree of constitutional recognition, they too have been persecuted by the Iranian government. Often led by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), heavy security measures have been imposed in the Kurdish areas of Iran. Kurdish nationalist militias with bases in Iran such as the Party of Free Life of Kurdistan (PJAK) have also launched numerous counter attacks in these areas.

Still, Iran sees some opportunities in the rise of the Kurds in the region. While it is worried about uncertainty within Iraq, Iran is carefully watching the successful Iraqi Kurdistan, and it may ultimately seek closer relations with it. As the main regional supporter of Assad’s regime, Iran may implicitly welcome the rise of the Syrian Kurds if their struggle in the northeastern areas could indeed weaken the opposition rebels, in a calculated choice of lesser evils. 

Regardless of its regional pursuits, at home the Iranian government remains prepared to forcefully subdue even the slightest indication of anti-regime protests and separatist pursuits by its various ethnicities, including the Kurds and Azeris. Even though there are informal interactions among the Kurdish groups in Iran and the region, until the current Iranian government is ousted, Iran’s Kurds will not formally join the Kurds of the region in their quest for statehood.

So, domestic and regional politics severely hinder the goal of Kurdish statehood. Moreover, the region’s natural resources may spur interference from outside west Asia. For instance, one of the key reasons the U.S. supported the creation of Iraqi Kurdistan in 2005 was because it sits on an estimated 45 billion barrels of oil reserves. The U.S. government also had close ties with Massoud Barzani, the current president of Iraqi Kurdistan region. This is an advantage that the Syrian Kurds and the other Kurds in the region do not presently enjoy.

While Syria’s northeast is the country’s most resource-rich locale, the region only produces modest quantities of oil and gas. The country does, however, connect the oil fields of western Asia to Europe via its ports and was planning several possible transit routes before the conflict erupted last year. Countries with major investments in the region, such as the U.S. and China, will support the Kurds only if it means getting significant economic returns—something that could be possible given the geographic importance of the region. Russia, alternatively, will lose an important ally with Assad’s fall and may be keen to cultivate a friendly Kurdish territory to guarantee the protection of its regional interests.

Even if the external stimuli fall into place, a significant aspect of the Kurdish destiny remains in its own hands. Despite recent signs of empowerment, Kurdish populations across borders are still fragmented. The mountainous terrain of the Kurdish-majority regions has prevented the formation of a single identity and common written literature. The traditionally nomadic Kurds have typically settled in small groups and adapted to varying dialects and tribal norms. To ensure enduring success, the Kurds must unite and put an end to their own internal disputes.

Still, the task of Kurdish regional solidarity is easier today, thanks to increasing literacy and accessible modes of communication. Economically, an independent Kurdish nation could rely on its resource-rich environment and its strategic location for sustainability. Besides the resources of Iraqi Kurdistan, the Kurdish areas in southeast Turkey have untapped oil reserves of an estimated 270 million barrels, located mainly in the Hakkari basin. Less optimistically, a United Kurdistan will be landlocked by the very states from which it will gain independence (see map), making trade quite contentious.

Kurdish-inhabited area

There are still many obstacles for the Syrian Kurds to attain autonomy. Yet, if the Syrian Kurds successfully gain a degree of independence, they are likely to create a formal cross-border alliance with the Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government, paving the way for a regional Kurdish alliance inclusive of Kurds throughout the region.

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Azadeh Pourzand is a Senior Researcher at Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. Venessa Parekh is a Research Intern at Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations.

[Photo courtesy of homeros]

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