A Snapshot in Time: The Kurdish Struggle and National Ambitions

Grant Welby, JHU:

In the dark, turbulent and unpredictable fight against ISIS, a bright spot appears on the horizon: the perseverance and inspiring courage of the Kurds. Against overwhelming odds in places like Kobani and Tel Abyad, the Kurds have succeeded where so many others, including the Free Syrian Army, and Iraqi Government, have lost traction and floundered. In the battle against ISIS, it seems the Kurds are one of the few allies, the United States can depend on to roll back the tide of the Islamic State, and are by far the most successful of all U.S allies in the fight against ISIS. They are a people that generally advocates for tolerance, equal rights for women, and secular governance.

But what has motivated the Kurds to fight so hard? What has given them the drive and conviction? In large part, it is their cultural identity that has brought them together, and perhaps the dream of finally achieving a Kurdish state. The Kurds have long been one of the world’s largest nationless ethnicities. With a population of nearly 30 million people spread out over “Kurdistan,” territory situated within the borders of modern day Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. The largest part of this population lies within Southeastern Turkey, approximately 14.2 million people strong. Iraq, Iran, and Syria have Kurdish populations of 6 million, 8 million, and 2 million respectively. Sadly, the dream of a Kurdish State will likely not happen, at least for the time being.  Although the Kurds are perhaps at the apex of their power and influence in the region, geopolitics and political realities, specifically divisions within the Kurdish Government, and associations with parties Iran and Turkey consider terrorist organizations, will likely prevent them from forming their own state. In order to understand why this is the case, it is necessary to delve into the history of the Kurds in each country.

Historically, each of these populations has been repressed in different ways. In Turkey, where the Kurds first attempted to form their own state post World War I, the Turks were denied recognition of their ethnicity and culture, being designated “Mountain Turks” by Mustafa Kemal’s regime, and forced to give up their language and dress. In the decades following, the Turkish Kurds would formed an armed resistance to the Turkish Government, founding the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) in 1978 in response to continued Turkish military presence in primarily Kurdish areas. The group’s founder, Abdullah Öcalan, would lead the PKK into open conflict with the government starting in 1984, when the PKK launched attacks and entered into guerilla-styled warfare, operating out of bases in Iraq and Syria. The PKK initially experienced great success, and by the 1990s the PKK operated freely in large areas of Southeastern Turkey with an estimated 15,000 fighters in the region. The tide turned in the late 1990s, when Ocalan was forced to flee his base of operations in Damascus, and was captured in Kenya in 1999. Öcalan would be handed over to the Turkish government and sentenced to life in prison. The PKK would briefly turn away from violence and attempt to rebrand itself, but when talks with the government failed in 2011, they would again to turn violence. Öcalan stayed in prison, he was able to negotiate a ceasefire in 2013. In total, the conflict cost some 400,000 lives and led to the destruction of thousands of Kurdish villages. Turkey, the United States, and the European Union have officially recognized the PKK as a terrorist organization. Despite this it remains a large influence in the national struggle, turning somewhat away from its Marxist roots and more towards nationalism. Progress was made in 2015, when a pro-Kurd party, the HDP received 13 percent of the vote, and was awarded seats in parliament. The PKK has emerged as one of the leading militias in the fight against ISIS, fighting alongside the other major political groups. This has given Turkey grounds to attempt to restrict these groups for their association with the PKK, and it is hard to believe the Turkish government would react kindly to a Kurdish state that associated with the PKK.

In Iraq, the struggle is also linked back to the post-World War I era. When the British discovered oil in what is today Iraqi Kurdistan, they flexed their imperial muscles and established control over the region. The Kurds rebelled against the British several times, but the insurrections were subsequently quashed. After the colonial era in Iraq ended, the Kurds pushed for the creation of a semi-autonomous region and recognition of their culture and heritage, the latter of which they were granted in 1970. They fought in a series of bloody rebellions in the 1970s, supported largely by Iran, but these rebellions would fail. When Saddam Hussein fought Iran from 1980 to 1988, the Kurds sympathized with Iran. Because of this, Hussein instituted a series of oppressive and violent policies, including relocated thousands of Kurds from border regions, and gassing entire villages with Mustard Gas. In total, the reprisals killed between 50-100,000 Kurds. Out of the violence and chaos, two main Iraqi Kurdish political parties emerged.  The first, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, had its origins in an uprising in Iran in 1946. It was then revived in Iraq, under the leadership Mustafa Barzani and Ibrahim Ahmad in 1951. The KDP was the party that would rebel against Iraq and push to be granted autonomy, which the region would eventually be granted in. In 1975 the second party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), formed out of the KDP as a splinter group led by Jalal Talabani. After Saddam’s atrocities during the Iran-Iraq war, and the subsequent Gulf War in Kuwait, the Kurds were given their first chance at self-governance. Unfortunately, the KDP and PUK would split the loyalty of the Iraqi Kurds almost 50-50, and the tension would result in a civil war between the two groups between 1994 and 1998. Eventually this would be resolved, and a unity government would form in 2002. Since that time, the KRG has been the most stable region of Iraq, maintaining order even during the chaos surrounding the 2003 invasion by the United States. PUK leader Jalal Talabani would even be elected the Interim President of Iraq in 2005. However, tensions would flare between the KRG and other countries, with Turkey conducting air strikes against alleged PKK bases located in Iraqi Kurdistan and Iran shelling border area on occasion. In the 2000s The KDP and PUK seem not to have maintained close political ties with the PKK, even if the PKK has operated in the area. Upon the destabilization of Iraq and the rise of the Islamic State, both parties have fought strongly, at first suffering some major defeats, but upon receiving air support from the U.S and coalition allies, have seen many important victories. Some in the KRG, namely the leader of the Gorran (Change) Movement, Mohammed Ali, have even gone so far as to call for an integration of the PKK into the KRG.

The history of Kurdish nationalism in Iran stretches back to 1946, when the first ever Kurdish state was established. Referred to by historians as “The Republic of Mahabad,” due its capital of Mahabad, the country was supported for a brief time by the Soviet Union. After the Soviet Union withdrew their support later that year the Iranian government was quick to re-conquer the land. The political party responsible for the creation of the Republic was the Democratic Party of Kurdistan in Iran (the PDKI).  The PDKI went underground after 1946, but participated in the overthrow of the Shah in 1970. When Ayatollah Khomeni took power in 1979 he declared war a holy war on the Kurds, resulting in 10,000 deaths, and the Iranian regime would be brutal to the PDKI, assassinating their leaders during a “peace negotiation” in the 1990s. Today the PDKI is a shadow of its former self. It has renounced the idea of an armed struggle, and only has weak influence in the Kurdish areas of Iran. The true power is The Party of the Free Life of Kurdistan (PJAK). The PJAK consider themselves a sister group of the PKK, even sharing resources with them. They operate in a similar manner as the PKK, targeting Iranian military outposts and patrols for attack. They are considered a terrorist group in Iran, and are relentlessly pursued by the government. PJAK has joined the fight against ISIS, contributing many fighters to the cause.

In Syria, the first prominent Kurdish political party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party in Syria (KDPS) was established in 1957 as a sister party to Barzani’s KDP in Iraq. The KDPS was never recognized in Syria, because of the ban on opposition parties, and is considered the second most powerful Syrian Kurdish party, but noticeably lacking a military wing. The other major political player in modern Kurdish Syria is the Democratic Union Party (PYD). The PYD is a sister organization to the PKK, and was founded in 2003. Its militant wing, the YPG constitutes the main military force in the region, with an estimated 20,000 fighters (half of which are female). Like its sister organization the PKK, the PYD advocates for the creation of an autonomous federal region in Syria. Unfortunately for the PYD, its close association with the PKK has spelled trouble for it, and Turkey has called for the PYD to distance itself from the PKK. Historically, the Kurdish Nationalist movement has been swallowed up by the Arab Nationalist Movement, and many in Syria still refuse to recognize Kurdish claims. The PYG even had conflict with the Free Syrian Army, the rebel group most favored by the United States, though the two groups have since agreed to join forces against ISIS. In 2011, the Kurdish National Council (KNC) walked out of meetings with other rebel groups when their demands for Kurdish recognition were not met. Despite this, the Kurds have declared the creation of an autonomous federal state, Rojava, to be ruled in the model of the KRG in Iraq, despite the protests of both Syrian Arab Nationalists and Turkey.

The Kurds have faced tremendous odds and have emerged strong, but they seem unlikely to achieve anything more than continuance of their autonomous federal republic at the moment. The Iraqi government is weak, incredibly so, and the KRG looks stronger in comparison. This does not necessarily mean that they have the ability to form a stable sovereign state in the post-ISIS world. The most troubling aspect of the conflict for the KRG is the lack of control by the central government of the Peshmerga forces. The militias that are fighting against the Islamic State are by in large controlled by their respective political parties, the PUK and KDP. The conflict has shown that there still exists rivalry between these groups. Early in the war when ISIS pushed close to Mt. Sinjar, the KDP militias were unable to hold. This served as a rallying point for PUK militias, who with U.S support were able to push ISIS back. Opportunistic political parties controlling military forces seems like a recipe for disaster in an uncertain world after the fall of ISIS.

Although the KDP and PUK do not have strong ties with the PKK, even their current association with them could prove problematic. Turkey is increasingly worried about the possibility of the PKK gaining a territorial foothold in the area. So much so, that Turkey was actually willing to prevent supplies from crossing the border to aid the Syrian PYD struggling to hold the border town of Kobani. Turkey fears that PKK presence in the region might provide them with staging areas and training camps in the future, which they can use to continue to attack Turkey. It is also reasonable to postulate that if the PKK achieved some form of integration with the KRG, that Turkey would either refuse to recognize a Kurdish State, or institute reprisals. These reprisals could take the form of nullifying KRG-Turkey oil agreements, which currently permit the KRG to pump pipe oil through Turkey, and serves as an important revenue source. It also seems unlikely that the United States would be willing to support a Kurdish state at the end of the war. The United States has little to gain by the creation of a “Kurdistan” and a lot to lose if the creation of such a state destabilizes or even draws the ire of Turkey. With American political capital in the region being stretched thin by constant drone strikes and military involvement, it seems ill advised for the U.S to risk alienating an ally.

Historically, it might be expected that Iran would support a new Kurdish state. However, with millions of Kurds of their own right on the border, it would be a risky move. Furthermore, the PJAK have also fought long and hard beside the other militant Kurds against ISIS. The PJAK of course is considered a terrorist group, and has recently attacked members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. A nationalist Kurdish movement in Iraq could reasonably strengthen the federalist movement in Iran, and cause no end to the headache.

Thus, a potential sovereign state of Kurdistan could reasonably expect to be surrounded on all sides by enemies: Turkey, Iran, and a none-too happy Iraq (after all, no state would want to lose one of its most prosperous, oil rich, regions). It would remain land-locked, and possibly have difficulty even exporting its oil. Although the Peshmerga have fought valiantly against ISIS, it is hard to imagine that they could stand up to the might of either Iran or Turkey’s military in a straight fight. This would leave them at the mercy of these two nations, unable to prevent them from striking inside of the borders of Kurdistan to fight the “terrorist” PKK and PJAK, which they have already done. Such a position is untenable. The KRG would benefit most from trying to retain its privileged status as an autonomous region. In their time as an autonomous region that have prospered greatly, and they can prosper again when the conflict ends.

But all hope is not lost for the Kurdish people. Even if they do not gain the state they hope for, they stand to make significant gains in the aftermath of the conflict. In Syria, a call for a federal region could find its mark, especially if military victories against ISIS continue. This recognition would lead to expanded rights for the Kurds, in stark contrast to the oppression they faced under Assad. In Turkey, a budding pro-Kurdish movement could finally lift the status of the 14 million Kurds after decades of conflict, and mold them into a significant force in Turkish politics. While this is not the dawn of Kurdish Nationalist politics, it is also not its sunset. Only time will reveal the final fate of Kurdistan.

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