The Middle East Channel

The Kurds in a new Middle East

For the first time in their modern history, the Kurds can look beyond the mountains for friends. This was not the case just a short time ago. The failure to negotiate statehood, largely due to an inability to present a united front following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the post-World War I new ...

MARWAN IBRAHIM/AFP/Getty Images
MARWAN IBRAHIM/AFP/Getty Images

For the first time in their modern history, the Kurds can look beyond the mountains for friends. This was not the case just a short time ago. The failure to negotiate statehood, largely due to an inability to present a united front following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the post-World War I new regional order, isolated their communities into four separate states (Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and Iran) and silenced their voice on the international stage for much of the 20th century. During this time, as minorities at the behest of Arab, Turkish, and Persian nationalisms, they were subjected to discrimination, segregation, and at times, genocide.

Today, however, the situation of the Middle East’s largest ethnic group without a state has improved and the 40 million or so Kurds are again confronted with an opportunity to take charge of their own affairs. In Iraq, the Kurds have experienced autonomy since the United States, Britain, and France established a safe haven in 1991 that led to the creation of a Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). This lasted through the 2003 Iraq war and the Kurdistan Region has developed into a semi-autonomous and economically thriving de facto state with a national force, the peshmerga (literally meaning "those who face death"), that maintains sovereignty over its territory and a crafty diplomatic corps that frames a Kurd-friendly Iraqi state-building process and wins allies in the strategic cities of Ankara and Washington. 

In Syria, since the uprisings against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Damascus, the Kurds have taken control of their lands in the northeast, including the cities of Kobane (Ayn al-Arab) and Afrin, among others. Kurdish groups are establishing autonomous governance whilst fighting both pro- and anti-government forces. Battles against Sunni Islamist groups have recently escalated, the most notorious of which involved attacks from al Qaeda linked forces, namely Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, seeking to create their own autonomous entity in the same area. This offensive has incited a sense of unity within the Kurdish ranks in the region, and forces from across borders are being sent to help maintain and extend the newfound autonomy of the Kurds in Syria.

In Turkey, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is still considered a terrorist group by the United States, EU, and Turkey, and its jailed leader Abdullah Ocalan have shifted policies and engaged in meaningful negotiations, beginning with the withdrawal of militants from the Qandil Mountains, on the border of Turkey and Iraq. As negotiations for greater freedoms and autonomy arrangements move forward in what Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has termed "the democratization package," Ocalan is likely to gain a louder voice in Turkey. The EU has even called for his retrial.

In Iran, the Kurds voted for incoming Iranian President Hassan Rowhani, who promised greater rights during his election bid. In his inauguration, Rowhani not only invited KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani to attend, but he addressed the Kurdistan Region separately, signaling a major shift. Now in office, Rowhani’s ability to ease the Islamic leadership’s anti-Kurd policies, which includes executions of political prisoners, is still a question.

Considering uncertainties in the future of the unitary state in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere, the Kurdish leaderships have regained their voices and as a result, are inching toward the chance to negotiate their affairs, in a period akin to that of post-World War I. Realizing the opportunity, Kurdistan Region President Masoud Barzani, supported by his counterparts, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan’s (PUK) Jalal Talabani and the PKK’s Abdullah Ocalan, two previous foes, has taken the initiative to bring Kurds from all four states together for a historic Kurdish National Conference scheduled for August 24. In this new round of Kurdish autonomy negotiations, the national leadership is looking to ensure that the same mistakes that cost the Kurds self-government and statehood at the beginning of the 20th century do not repeat themselves as the Middle East is again being reshaped at the beginning of this century.

After unification between the KDP and PUK facilitated stability and development in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, its leadership is now seeking to shape the regional order. The question, then, is whether Barzani et al have learned from the legacies of the past, that genuine unity across borders is the best defense to the traditional divide-and-rule tactics of the region’s powers. With this conference, an old idea discussed yet unsuccessfully attempted by various Kurdish groups in the last 50 years, the message is clear: Arab, Persian, and Turkish nationalists can no longer play one Kurdish group off the other.

The question of "why now" becomes clear when looking at different areas of cooperation. Politically, the big three of Kurdish politics at the moment, Barzani, Ocalan, and Talabani, are on the same page. Internal relations between the Kurdish parties stretching across the four states are at an all-time high. Former head of Kurdistan’s Parliament, Kamal Kirkuki, said this conference seeks to prohibit, and even criminalize, infighting among Kurdish political parties to protect the Kurdish people. There are outliers. The Change Movement (Goran), which challenges the KDP-PUK hold on power in the capital of the Kurdish Region, Erbil, initially indicated that it would not participate in the conference. To address this, the head of the PKK’s External Relations Ahmed Deniz visited Goran’s leader Nawshirwan Mustafa and the two agreed to resolve the internal dispute before the conference commences. The PKK is helping the KDP reach out to Goran, indicating an improvement in pan-Kurdish political cohesion.

Geopolitically, the political balance in the Middle East along with the nature and understanding of the central governments has created the necessary conditions to allow the Kurds to pursue unification. Part of this stems from uncertainties with the future of the British-installed unitary state, as traditionally powerful central governments, such as Damascus or Baghdad, have transformed into decentralized federal entities. No longer are strongmen like former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad or former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in power. This has created the environment for minorities, such as the Kurds, to pursue autonomy against weaker central governments.

Militarily, cooperation between the KRG’s peshmerga forces and the other Kurdish armed groups is also being negotiated. Kurds from Iraq, Turkey, and Iran have united to support the Kurds in Syria battle against Arab forces. Syrian Kurdish fighters are trained in Iraqi Kurdistan by the Zeravani, a special force administered by the KRG, and then sent back to protect their territory from pro-and anti-government fighters in Syria. Similarly, the Party of Free Life of Kurdistan (PJAK), an Iranian Kurd militant group, has deployed 6,000 forces to Syria to support the PYD. The PKK is also fighting side-by-side Syrian Kurd forces. KRG Deputy Minister for Peshmerga Affairs Anwar Haji Osman said that his peshmerga are waiting for instructions from the Kurdish Nationalist leadership to direct their future strategies, after Barzani officially vowed to defend the Kurds in Syria. 

One explanation for Barzani’s motivations behind this conference is his ambition to become the nationalist leader of the Kurds, particularly vis-à-vis a potential power struggle with PKK leader Ocalan. The latter has traditionally held greater popular support among the Kurdish street for his unconditional stance on the independence of a Greater Kurdistan, whereas the former has been criticized for his narrower-focused "federalism within Iraq" approach, which also favored increasing political and economic ties with Turkey, a government traditionally hostile to Kurdish nationalism.

Current developments in the KRG’s unprecedented position are shifting this equation. Barzani guides peace talks between Ocalan and Turkey, by convincing the PKK leader to remove his fighters and appreciate the merits of negotiations. He is exporting the successful image of the KRG-model, of non-antagonistically moving toward statehood in all but name, and enticing neighboring Kurds to scale back on secessionist undertones and to follow suit. KDP foreign relations head Hemin Hawrami noted "Barzani does not want to copy/paste [the Iraqi Kurd model] but rather, each side must agree on a formula to suit their own capabilities and situation." Nonetheless, the Kurdistan Region’s president uses his role as the creator of the first successful Kurdish model of governance in modern history, a template to be pursued, to ensure that those neighboring Kurdish administrations are friendly to Erbil. Falah Mustafa, who heads the KRG’s department of foreign relations, reaffirms that "the conference is being held in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq because of the experience and institutions we have, and to share these experiences." For Kurds across the borders, such as Abdul Basit Sieda, former leader of the Syrian National Council and a top Syrian Kurd official, Barzani represents a "marjaiya," meaning a revered national authority with which to consult.

When introducing the conference, Barzani spoke of his desire to see Ocalan freed in Turkey, and KRG Prime Minister Nechirwan Barzani indicated his wish to visit Ocalan during his previous trip to Turkey, to discuss both the conference and peaceful coexistence with Turkey. President Barzani is playing the bargaining chip, of his position as the mediator between Ankara or Tehran and the Kurdish groups in Turkey, Syria, and Iran, to pave a new path for the Kurdish nationalist project, under his leadership. The big question that still remains is whether this role can be maintained if and when Ocalan is freed. While the answer remains uncertain, what is clear is that any future settlement scenario will have been crafted, in part, by Barzani.

Stability is also critical for addressing the troubles of a developing landlocked economy in a precarious neighborhood. Erbil-Ankara relations have now become interdependent in nature. The KRG is set to overtake Germany as Turkey’s largest trading partner, and more critically, the anticipated oil and gas pipelines will allow the landlocked Kurdistan Region to export its vast oil reserves via Turkey much more efficiently than the current "trucker trade."

The two ironic partners are also politically linked. When Assad granted his Kurds autonomy to destabilize Turkey in late 2011, Barzani calmed the situation by brokering the Erbil Agreement in July 2012. In it, the PKK-linked PYD reached an understanding with the Kurdish National Council (KNC), an umbrella group of Syrian Kurdish political parties backed by the KDP. This was Barzani’s gesture of good faith to Ankara, which was anxious and feared the linkages between the PYD in Syria and the PKK within its territories. The Erbil Agreement has subdued the dominant PYD, which is now fighting together with the KNC to defend areas, such as Darbasiyah, on the Syrian-Turkish border. PYD head Salih Muslim even traveled to Ankara to discuss arrangements with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in August.

Although it rests on a shaky compromise, the KRG now holds considerable influence in Syrian Kurdistan, and the PYD is moving closer to the KDP. Abdul Hakim Bashar, leader of the KNC, pointed out that "the majority of the Kurdish people in Syria see him [Barzani] as a national symbol." The upcoming conference, then, is another maneuver to cement his influence among Kurdish parties in Syria, Turkey, and Iran, to ensure that conflict stemming from the internal affairs of neighboring Kurdish politics borders, namely the Erbil versus Qandil dispute, is minimized.

This conference has reignited the old fear of irredentism in the region. Such anxieties, held by the central governments of Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran, are being used to remind the Kurds that infighting only strengthens external forces. Rather than a "Greater Kurdistan," however, the Kurdish issue will be addressed separately in each jurisdiction. Barzani hopes that from this new regional equation of several Kurdish autonomy projects on his borders, a friendlier neighborhood for the Kurds will emerge, producing with it the regional stability that the KRG requires for security and continued economic development. While a pan-Kurdish contest for leadership may emerge in the future, at the moment, there is a general understanding among most Kurdish parties that during this pivotal time marred with uncertainties in the future map of the Middle East, their voice is louder when united.

Renad Mansour (@renadmansour) is a fellow at the Iraq Institute for Strategic Studies in Beirut and a PhD Student at the University of Cambridge. Irfan Azeez Azeez was formerly Secretary-General of the Kurdistan Students Union.

Renad Mansour is Research Fellow in the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House.

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