Say It Again. Kurdish Independence Now

Jonathan Spyer

Jonathan Spyer

Senior Fellow at the Inter-Disciplinary Center at Herzliya.

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~ Also in this issue ~

~ Also by Jonathan Spyer ~

From the Blog

Half a century of misery in Syria and Iraq have come to a head. But one people—proud, self-sufficient, and surprisingly pro-Western—has waited far too long for their place at the table of nations.

The civil war in Syria and the increasing fragility of Iraq have thrown the long-term future of these states into question. For years, they were ruled by brutal regimes that held power in the name of Arab nationalism; as a result, they failed to knit together the populations they ruled into a coherent national identity. With the decline of repressive centralized authority in Syria and Iraq, however, older nationalities and identities are reemerging. Chief among them are the Kurds. Indeed, current regional developments make Kurdish statehood a realistic possibility for the first time in living memory.

I have reported on a number of occasions from both Iraqi and Syrian Kurdistan. I last visited these areas four months ago, and have an extensive network of friends and contacts there and in the wider Kurdish world. And it has become overwhelmingly clear to me that Kurdish sovereignty would be of benefit to the Kurds, the region as a whole, and Western interests in the Middle East. I find it unfortunate that the emerging Kurdish success story receives so little attention in the West—both among policymakers and the general public.

Kurdish statehood is good for the Kurds. It’s also good for the West.

The Kurds number around 30 million, and are generally considered to be the world’s largest stateless nation. A non-Semitic, non-Turkic people native to the Middle East, the Kurds believe themselves to be descendants of ancient Iranian tribes that predated the Turkish and Arab invasions.

When the Western powers carved up the remains of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, they promised the Kurds autonomy in the 1920 Treaty of Sevres. Subsequent resistance to the treaty by the Turkish nationalist movement led by Mustafa Kemal led to its renegotiation at Lausanne in 1923, where the West recognized the borders of the new Turkish republic. As a result, the Kurds found themselves divided between the post-Ottoman states of Turkey, Iraq, and Syria, with a small population in Iran.

Kurdish politics have been labyrinthine and divided ever since. No single, united pan-Kurdish national movement exists or has ever existed. Instead, the separated Kurdish populations each developed political movements of their own.

A Kurdish elder shows off his English to American troops in a village near Kirkuk, Iraq. Photo: US Department of Defense.

A Kurdish elder shows off his English to American troops in a village near Kirkuk, Iraq. Photo: US Department of Defense.

Unsurprisingly, the Kurds have developed a long tradition of heroic defeat over the course of the 20th century. Modern Kurdish nationalists like to trace the origins of their movement to the short-lived Mahabad Republic, the first attempt at Kurdish statehood. Officially known as the Republic of Kurdistan, it was declared in the Iranian city of Mahabad in early 1946, and was crushed by the Iranian army several months later.

The leader of the fleeting republic’s armed forces was Mulla Mustafa Barzani, an Iraqi Kurd and father of Massoud Barzani, the current president of Iraq’s Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). Kurdish agitation and uprisings continued under Barzani family leadership for years afterward. Most significantly, Mustafa Barzani led an unsuccessful military campaign in northern Iraq from 1961-70.

In 1983, the Iraqi Kurds rose up yet again, now led by Massoud Barzani and his Kurdish Democratic Party, in alliance with the younger Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, led by Jalal Talabani. This uprising was brutally crushed by Saddam Hussein in the infamous “Anfal” campaign, during which Hussein used poison gas against the civilians of the village Halabja in 1988, killing 3-5,000 people.

After the First Gulf War in 1991, a Kurdish autonomous zone was created in northern Iraq. Since the 2003 US invasion, this zone has emerged as a quasi-sovereign entity, with its own armed forces, political system, and economic interests. Traveling there today is to witness a little-known Mideast success story in the midst of regional chaos and meltdown. The autonomous zone is the most peaceful part of Iraq, and the absence of political violence is encouraging investment. Erbil, the capital city, feels like a boom town. There are construction cranes everywhere and brand new SUVs on the streets. Exxon Mobil has signed an agreement with the KRG to search for oil and develop an energy industry in the zone. The US, France, and a number of other countries now have consulates in the capital.

But Kurdish politics don’t start and finish in northern Iraq. The second major nationalist movement began with a 1984 uprising led by the Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan (the Kurdish Workers Party or PKK) in southeast Turkey, with the goal of founding a Kurdish state. The rebellion and the Turkish response to it went on to claim more than 40,000 lives. But this year, a ceasefire was declared and a peace process begun in hopes of ending the conflict.

Meanwhile, the Syrian civil war has led to the emergence of a Kurdish-ruled enclave in the northeast of the country. This area is controlled by the Kurdish Democratic Party (PYD), an offshoot of the PKK. This embryonic autonomous zone is poorer and more fragile than its Iraqi counterpart. But it too is the quietest and most peaceful part of that war-torn country. PYD-imposed authority is ubiquitous. The Yekîneyên Parastina Gel (People’s Protection Units or YPG) militia does as much as possible to prevent the entry of both Islamist rebels and Assad regime soldiers. The militia and the Kurdish security service, the Asayish, maintain an extensive presence and a firm grip on the area.

It is very telling that the Kurdish areas in both Syria and Iraq have become destinations for Arab refugees from elsewhere in these countries. There is a simple reason for this: Generally speaking, where the Kurds are in control, things stay quiet.

Kurdish fighters in Syria. Photo: Jonathan Spyer

Kurdish fighters in Syria. Photo: Jonathan Spyer

The turbulent events of the last decade have brought an unexpected bonanza for the Kurds. Two powerful—if very different—Kurdish autonomous zones have emerged out of the collapsing societies of Iraq and Syria, while Turkey’s Kurds are engaged in negotiations to advance their rights. Only the Kurds of Iran remain firmly behind prison walls.

The question before the Kurds today is how to consolidate these gains and build on them. It is rarely discussed openly, but looming above it all is the question of Kurdish statehood and what it would mean for both the Kurds and the region in general. Will the Kurds continue to develop their quasi-states while avoiding a direct push toward sovereignty? Or are events leading inexorably toward Kurdish independence, with the resulting partition of Iraq and Syria?

The road to sovereignty for the Kurds remains strewn with obstacles. Not least among them is the absence of a united Kurdish national movement. As outlined above, there are two main forces in Kurdish politics today. One of them derives from the Iraqi Kurdish experience, the other from that of Turkey. In recent years, each of these factions has made considerable progress toward forming rival “pan-Kurdish” movements.

The first of these is Massoud Barzani’s Kurdish Democratic Party in Iraq. While the KDP is based in northern Iraq, it maintains smaller offshoots and sister parties in both Syria and Iran. The second is the PKK, still officially headed by its jailed founder Abdullah Ocalan. Until recently, it was for all practical purposes led by Murat Karayilan, its commander in the Qandil mountains area, and is now headed by movement veteran Cemil Bayek. This movement and its various front organizations are the dominant force among both the Kurds of Turkey and the Kurdish autonomous zone in Syria. The PKK also has sister organizations among the Kurds of Iran and northern Iraq.

The KDP and the PKK have very different visions of the Kurdish future. The KDP is a traditional, conservative organization; it is pro-Western, pro-business, and pro-American in outlook, rooted in the clan and tribal structures of Iraqi Kurdish life. Its leader, after all, is a scion of the most prominent family in Iraqi Kurdish politics.

The PKK, by contrast, is a leftist organization, with its roots in the radical ferment of Turkey in the 1970s. Ocalan, its founder, is from a poor rural family. Although the movement has come a long way from its early days, it still represents a distinct, secular leftist nationalism of a type rarely found in today’s Middle East.

This is reflected in its very progressive approach to the role of women in society and politics, which is in stark contrast to the surrounding culture. Women, for example, serve in frontline units of PKK militias. This is not the case with the Pesh Merga, the armed forces of Iraq’s Kurdish autonomous zone.

Both of these movements are political-military organizations, and suffer from the authoritarian tendencies inherent in such groups. There have been verified instances of political repression in both the Kurdish zones of northern Iraq and northeast Syria.

Israelis show their support for the Kurdish people in a Tel Aviv demonstration. Photo: Gili Yaari / Flash90

Israelis show their support for the Kurdish people in a Tel Aviv demonstration. Photo: Gili Yaari / Flash90

The PKK remains on US and EU lists of terrorist organizations. But this designation is more a concession to Turkish sensibilities and interests than an objective assessment of the group’s current modus operandi. Whatever may have been the case in the past, the PKK today is a guerrilla organization at war with Turkish security forces, not a group that deliberately targets civilians.

Neither the KDP nor the PKK is openly committed to the achievement of Kurdish statehood, albeit for very different reasons. Iraqi Kurdish officials will privately concede that an independent Kurdish state is their goal, but stress the difficulties of achieving it and the need for a pragmatic, cautious strategy. Some PKK members speak in similar terms, but others stress the views of their leader Ocalan, who is opposed to very idea of the nation-state and advocates a system of “democratic autonomy” or “radical democracy” for the entire Middle East.

These two very different movements are set to dominate the next and possibly decisive chapter in the modern political history of the Kurds.

Neither of these movements is going to replace or defeat the other; so the future of the Kurds is likely to depend on whether they can find a way to cooperate. This will probably be difficult, however, because of the KRG’s burgeoning strategic relationship with Turkey.

For decades, the Turks have seen Kurdish national aspirations as an anathema, but this is no longer entirely the case. Over the last few years, Turkey and the Iraqi Kurdish government have been building a close relationship based on mutual interests. Turkey currently relies on Russia and Iran for its oil supplies, and has deteriorating strategic relations with both. At the same time, the Kurdish zone is rich in oil and borders on Turkey. As a result, Turkey has recently been making private agreements with the Iraqi Kurds for the purchase of crude oil supplies. This is despite vocal objections from the US—which is opposed to any attempt by the Kurdish autonomous zone to secede from Iraq—and, of course, opposition from the central government in Baghdad.

The main obstacles to the burgeoning alliance between Turkey and the Iraqi Kurds are the future status of Turkey’s Kurds and the Kurdish enclave in northeast Syria, which shares a long border with Turkey. The situation is even more complex because the PKK uses the Qandil Mountains, which are under the control of the Iraqi Kurds, as a base for its insurgency against Turkey. Although the Kurdish zone’s government does not officially sanction the presence of the PKK, it does nothing to prevent it.

The emergence of a Kurdish enclave in northeast Syria helped push Turkey toward resolving its long conflict with the PKK. Should open hostilities resume, however, there is a real possibility that the long border controlled by the Syrian Kurdish zone and the Assad regime will be used as a base for attacks on Turkey. Partly as a result, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has entered into peace negotiations with the PKK’s jailed leader Abdullah Ocalan; but talks have rapidly run aground. In mid-July, with the peace process frozen, the Kurdish leadership in northeast Syria declared an “interim administrative body” in the area under its control, alarming the Turkish government.

Turkish Kurdistan. Photo: evdoha / 123rf

Turkish Kurdistan. Photo: evdoha / 123rf

Relations between the Iraqi autonomous zone and its Syrian counterpart are similarly fraught; partly because of their differing relationships with Turkey. The Iraqi Kurds control the border between their own territory and that of the Syrian Kurds. When I crossed this border in March 2013 with a group of Syrian Kurdish fighters, it was necessary to avoid Iraqi Kurdish forces deployed along the border. At the same time, however, it was clear that a sort of ambiguous live-and-let-live attitude existed between the two groups, with each doing its best to ignore the other.

There is no likelihood of armed confrontation between these two nascent Kurdistans. But because of the role played by Turkey, unification seems equally elusive. The Iraqi Kurds needs their flourishing relationship with Turkey in order to continue on its path toward greater autonomy and possible independence. The PKK, however, has been at war with Turkey since 1984. For the Syrian and Iraqi Kurdish zones to unify, the PKK must move toward rapprochement with Turkey. This means that Turkey has an effective veto over Kurdish unity and possible independence. To achieve their goals, the PKK and the Iraqi Kurds must find a way to neutralize it.

One way to do so would be for the US and other Western powers to support Kurdish sovereignty as a legitimate goal. This would pave the way for greater Western investment and diplomatic support for Kurdish goals and weaken Turkey’s ability to snuff out a Kurdish bid for independence. A second way is, of course, Kurdish unity. The establishment of a single “national congress”-type organization could defeat Turkey’s strategy of divide and rule. An upcoming conference in Erbil is intended to lay the foundation for such an organization. It remains to be seen if it will succeed.

If Kurdish unity and a strategy for statehood cannot be achieved, the most likely result is two Kurdish quasi-states, existing on adjoining territories but unable to maintain good relations with each other or achieve complete sovereignty. Such quasi-states have become a familiar feature of the Middle East and the post-Cold War world in general. They combine de facto sovereignty with an absence of international recognition. Hamas has been running such an entity in the Gaza Strip since 2007. The Hezbollah state-within-a-state in southern Lebanon is arguably another example—though in that case the quasi-state appears to have largely devoured the legitimate state.

Female Kurdish fighters in Syria. Photo: Jonathan Spyer

Female Kurdish fighters in Syria. Photo: Jonathan Spyer

The problem with such entities is that while they can survive on the basis of their monopoly on the use of force, they cannot thrive. Their uncertain status precludes the development of their economies or their civil and political institutions. As a result, they also tend to become centers of paramilitary and criminal activity, such as Gaza and Lebanon, as well as Kosovo, Bosnian Serbia, and Transnistria.

The Middle East remains beset by deeply problematic political trends that undermine political stability and economic development. Extremist political Islam, deeply rooted anti-Western sentiment, widespread and pervasive anti-Semitism, and hostility to non-Muslim minorities are all on the rise across the Arab world, Iran, and Turkey.

In this context, the Kurds represent an anomaly. There is no need to romanticize either the Iraqi zone’s government or the PKK in order to see this. Each of these entities has their own problems. They show certain authoritarian tendencies and the enclaves they rule are unlikely to resemble US or EU-style democracies any time in the near future. But Kurdish political culture is largely free of the kind of extreme dysfunction noted above.

Political Islam exists among the Kurds, but because of the predominance of ethnic identification, it has demonstrably less appeal than among other Mideast peoples. That the two primary rivals in Kurdish politics are both secular nationalist movements is proof of this. In the Iraqi zone, Islamist parties support the Gorran movement, a reformist party that does not even profess political Islam; which testifies to the relative weakness of the area’s Islamic movement. In Syrian Kurdistan, there is no identifiable Islamist movement, and the its militia has been actively engaged in combat with Syrian rebel groups associated with Al Qaeda.

The Kurds are also notably less hostile to the West than many others in the region. For the most part, their grievances are directed not against the US or Europe, but the local oppressors of the Kurds. Indeed, other than Israel, the KRG in northern Iraq is the most pro-Western of all the non-monarchical governments in the region. The ruling KDP is openly and outspokenly pro-Western and pro-American. And unlike the Arab monarchies, its pro-Western orientation is deeply rooted in popular sentiment.

Kurds in Turkey celebrate their holiday of Newroz. Photo: homeros / 123rf

Kurds in Turkey celebrate their holiday of Newroz. Photo: homeros / 123rf

The PKK, however, is more of a question mark. Due to Turkey’s de facto veto over Kurdish independence and the lack of Western support for the Kurdish cause, the PKK might turn toward Turkey’s main rival for support—Iran. This would be a disaster, and an entirely unnecessary one. Western support for Kurdish national aspirations would almost certainly prevent it.

The moral and strategic case for Kurdish sovereignty is therefore a strong one. Western endorsement of the principle of Kurdish statehood, removal of the PKK from lists of terror organizations, and the development of closer relations with the Iraqi and Syrian Kurdish enclaves could help break the current stalemate on the issue.

There is neither benefit nor justice in a situation where the legitimate national aspirations of a largely pro-Western people are subject to the veto of the Islamist prime minister of Turkey. This is particularly the case given that Prime Minister Erdogan is adopting an increasingly problematic stance vis-a-vis the West and more and more repressive domestic policies.

Other opponents of Kurdish statehood include the Maliki government in Iraq, the Assad regime in Syria, and Islamist groups among the Syrian rebels. Maliki and Assad are both clients of Iran, and the former is actively aiding the latter in his fight for survival. The Syrian rebels are Islamists and Arab nationalists who are determined to maintain the unity of the Syrian state. All of these forces are hostile to the West, and acquiescence to their rejection of Kurdish rights makes little or no sense.

The Middle East is in the midst of enormous historic changes, and the Kurds stand to be one of the main beneficiaries. Kurdish sovereignty would mean the establishment of a strong, pro-Western state in Middle East that is likely to be characterized by pragmatism, stable governance, and a pro-Western strategic outlook. It would also possess substantial natural resources and a mobilized populace willing to defend it. A Kurdish state in northern Iraq, moreover, would likely absorb the Kurdish enclave in northeast Syria, effectively breaking up Iraq and Syria—two failed states that have been a byword for war, repression, and terrorism for most of the last fifty years.

flag kurdistan photo flickr not big enough

The Kurdish flag. Photo: jan sefti / flickr

In order for this to happen, however, the US must adopt Kurdish sovereignty as a strategic goal. At the moment, caution, timidity, and the desire to withdraw from the region make this unlikely. The last of these is probably the most difficult to overcome. After all, if the US and other Western nations do not want to be involved in the Middle East, then there is no point in supporting the emergence of a pro-Western ally in the region. But recent events in Syria and Egypt have shown what happens when the West fails to cultivate allies or abandons reliable clients in the region: Chaos.

Moreover, the forces ready and willing to replace the US as the region’s strategic hegemon—above all, Iran and Russia—do not intend to manage it as custodians of order and stability. Their interest is in the promotion of movements and regimes aligned with them and hostile to the West. At the same time, the rise of the anti-Western Sunni Islamism of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic extremists with the support of Turkey and Qatar is leading to war and disorder across the eastern Mediterranean.

A sovereign Kurdish state could be a powerful bulwark against such disorder and a solid, pro-Western ally in this most troubled of regions. It would also realize the Kurds’ desire for long-delayed historic justice. It is an idea whose time has come.

Banner Photo: kurdistan photo / flickr