Whither the Kurds?
This story was originally published in Europa Ethnica, Vol. ½, 2018
By James M. Dorsey
Palestinians have long been known for a history of missing opportunities. By contrast, Kurds spread across several Middle Eastern nations appeared to have a keener understanding of geopolitics and were seemingly willing to embrace the art of the possible. All of that has changed in the past year with both Palestinians and Kurds seemingly further away from achieving their long-standing goal of statehood.
A combination of the rise of US President Donald J. Trump, the emergence of the Islamic State, the wars in Iraq and Syria, Turkey’s turn towards authoritarianism, and the fallout of failed policies by Palestinian and Kurdish leaders have rendered both nations struggling to salvage what can be salvaged.
To be sure, circumstances that shape the struggle to achieve the two peoples’ national aspirations could not be more different. Yet, while Iraqi Kurds may have destroyed in the short-term what they built in almost three decades of autonomy with an ill-advised referendum on independence in September 2017,[i] at least Iraqi and Syrian Kurds could in the middle-term be closer to some form of sustainable self-rule, if not independence, than immediately meets the eye.
By contrast, with Trump backing Israel to the hilt, symbolized by his unilateral recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish state, Palestinians are groping for an alternative framework for peace negotiations[ii] and tiptoeing around the possibility of a new uprising or Intifada[iii] that the last time round at the turn from the 20th to the 21st century had a devastating effect on them.[iv]
A region in transition
Working in the favour of both Kurds and Palestinians is the fact that they live in a region that has been in volatile and violent transition since the Arab popular revolts of 2011. That transition is likely to continue for years, if not a quarter of a century, before the battles between forces of change and counterrevolution and complicating regional rivalries have battled it out and the fallout of the outcome of those struggles settles in.
As Kurds contemplate the future, they have the advantage in contrast to the Palestinians, that the transition calls into question the future political structure of Syria and Iraq, if not their existence as nation-states within their post-colonial borders. Similarly, the nature of the regime in Syria is likely to change with the contested future of President Bashar al-Assad while the prospects of Iraq’s democratically elected, Shiite-dominated government are in flux as it struggles to ensure that the country’s Sunni minority maintains a stake in a unified Iraq and address Kurdish aspirations. In Turkey, too, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ambition to remain in power at least until his country celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2023 is certain to encounter headwinds.
Kurdish hopes are often vested in predictions articulated by former CIA and National Security Agency director Michael Hayden that “Iraq no longer exists, Syria no longer exists”[v] as well as the disintegration of Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia in the wake of the demise of communist rule. That remains a possibility but more realistic is the fact, at least in the immediate future, the Syrian and Iraqi states as they existed in the past are more likely to change rather than dissolve. The lesson of the 2017 Iraqi Kurdish referendum and the fact that the Iraqi state has already demonstrated resilience in surviving and its Syrian counterpart may well do so too, means that Kurds will have to strive for some autonomous accommodation within a federal structure.
Another lesson the referendum and the wars in Syria and Iraq have taught the Kurds is that, despite having been close allies of the United States in multiple battles, including the fight against former Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein and the Islamic State, they cannot count on the kind of support Washington has extended to Israel. That, however, may be less of a disadvantage than the obstacles Palestinians face as they counter a strong and entrenched Israeli state that despite widespread condemnation of its annexationist policies enjoys a network of strong international relationships even with those, like the Gulf states, who are unwilling to recognize it and establish formal diplomatic ties.[vi]
With the future of Syria and Iraq as nation states in question, Kurds ironically benefit from the fact that Turkish, Iraqi and Syrian constituencies are not striving for a unitary state carved out of Turkish, Syrian and Iraqi territory unlike the Palestinians who despite the split between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestine Authority on the West Bank and Hamas in the Gaza Strip are seeking an independent entity that would encompass both territories. One consequence of that is the fact that Kurdish leaders in the various territories are less stymied by their differences than are the Palestinians whose leverage in potential negotiations and ability to marshal more than symbolic international support has been undermined by their inability to form a united front.
It has also made them more vulnerable to the machinations and manipulations of external players such as Iran, Qatar, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates. Encouraged by the UAE and Egypt controversial Abu Dhabi-based former security chief Mohammed Dahlan is weighing a return to Palestinian politics and challenge to Abbas either by forming a party of his own or joining Hamas in governing Gaza as part of national salvation government.[vii]
Playing ball with Syria
Syrian Kurds are likely to benefit from the fact that decentralization will probably be Syria’s best bet to ensure its territorial integrity once the guns fall silent. That would enable Kurds to claim enhanced powers in purely Kurdish areas, strengthen their demand that Syria identify itself as a republic rather than an Arab republic, create the basis for the children of minorities to be educate in their mother tongue in both Kurdish-majority regions as well as in Kurdish neighbourhoods of major Syrian cities, and allow for an equitable distribution of oil export revenues.[viii] Syrian Kurds stressed the centrality of the revenues by declaring in 2016 their autonomous federal region at a gathering in Rumeilan, the oil capital of northeast Syria, rather than Qamishli, their de-facto capital.[ix]
In some ways, the building blocks for autonomy are starker in Syrian Kurdish areas than in Iraqi Kurdistan. The differences in law enforcement, the administration of utilities and social services, and economic policy in Kurdish areas and those parts of Syria controlled by the Assad government are greater than in Iraq.
The regional Kurdish authority has promulgated laws, including a quasi-constitution dubbed ‘Rojava’s social contract;’ created agencies to license and administer investments, education, and media; founded the region’s first university;[x] created a system for the sharing of economic resources;[xi] laid plans for an independent central bank,[xii] and witnessed the emergence of a broad network of non-governmental associations. Notionally Damascus retained a presence in the regional area by maintaining its monopoly on the issuing of civil record documents such as birth, marriage, and death certificates, the paying of civil servant salaries, and its control of Qamishli Airport, the area’s main gateway.
Nevertheless, a generation of Syrian Kurdish children is being educated exclusively in Kurdish rather than also in Arabic. They are growing up with a notion of Syria as a hostile, foreign forces, that they have never visited. Kurdish children in Afrin are likely to have had their first encounter with Syrians in early 2018 when Syrian government forces entered the region in support of Kurdish forces fighting off military intervention by the Turkish military and Ankara-backed rebels. Ironically, Kurdish agreement to the Syrian entry could strengthen their bid for autonomy in a future federal arrangement. The agreement reportedly involves the declaration of a no-fly zone over Afrin, the establishment of Syrian military base, and put maintenance of a local administration in northern Syria and sharing natural resources and services on the table. Critics assert that those are conditions that the Assad government is likely to walk away from in the longer term.[xiii]
To succeed in achieving sustainable autonomy, Syrian Kurds will have to endorse some combination involving and/or the relinquishing of non-Kurdish territory, particularly in areas once occupied by the Islamic state; loosen the ties of the US-backed People’s Protection Units (YPG) with the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) that Turkey labels a terrorist organization; and align its local governance structures with those of Syria. This will likely involve a balancing of Kurdish, Turkish, and Syrian interests.
That could prove easier said than done particularly with Assad seeing the survival of his regime as well as that of his Alawite minority in Syria’s continued embrace of pan Arabism as a concept that includes “all ethnic groups, religions, and communities” and recognizes their contribution to the notion’s development. Assad see his country’s brutal war as an attempt to force Syria to abandon its own identity and kowtow to foreign powers or to become a society of “communities in conflict.”
Speaking in late 2017, Assad asserted that "Arabism and national thinking have continuously been accused by their enemies of backwardness and of being old-fashioned in an age overwhelmed by globalization in order to turn us into tools to serve the interests of huge financial institutions led by the United States."[xiv]
Returning from the abyss
The Iraqi Kurds wasted their moment in history by falsely assuming that the United States would back their quest for independence based on the September 2017 referendum. Instead it will take the Iraqi Kurds time to heal their internal divisions stemming from one faction allowing the Iraqi military to take unopposed control of the strategic city of Kirkuk and crawl back the degree of self-rule they had achieved under the umbrella of the United States. Iraqi Kurds are still trying to come “to grips with the trauma caused by the abrupt change from a quasi-state status to that of an entity under threat of annihilation… If Iraq’s history as a nation-state can be taken as a proof then the possibility of peaceful coexistence seems quite unrealistic.,” said scholar Ofra Bengio.[xv]
Negotiations are nevertheless likely to be the only way to achieve that. Both sides have incentives to engage in talks. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s military is weak despite its recapture of territory controlled by the Islamic State as well as Kirkuk and has a poor track record in retaining control of territories it has conquered. The threat of a military confrontation with the Kurds will moreover continue to exist as long the two sides fail to reach an agreement that is based on the country’s that recognized Kurdistan’s regional status and gave it a far-reaching degree of self-rule.
Similarly, Iraqi Kurdish leaders have little other choice given the fallout of the mis-guided referendum.[xvi] External players like Turkey and Iran that were crucial in thwarting Iraqi Kurdish aspirations of independence would likely be supportive as long as Kurdistan remains an integral part of Iraq and Iraqi territorial integrity is guaranteed.
The key to successful negotiations is the elephant in the room: the future of what the constitution terms “disputed territories” that are rich in hydrocarbon resources, which in effect means agreement on the boundaries that separate the Kurdish region from the rest of Iraq.
Iraqi Kurdish leverage in negotiations is likely to be in part determined on whether the potential revival of Sunni-Shiite tensions will erase the sense of national urgency that existed in the three-year struggle against the Islamic State. The jury is still out on whether the local administration that controls Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, will succeed in taking into full account the interests of the Sunnis and ending their sense of alienation. To do so, the government in Baghdad will have to secure the resources to rebuild the shattered city and help its traumatised population – something it has failed to effectively do in the past.
To be sure, Abadi, unlike Assad in Syria, has shown himself to be more sensitive and inclusive. Yet, crucial to the Kurds, is the underlying question of whether Abadi’s inclusiveness will succeed in putting the Iraqi nation state’s core problem, the inability to create a deeply rooted national identity, behind it.
Nonetheless, while it remains likely that the Kurdish-Iraqi standoff will continue without a renewed eruption of hostilities for some time to come, the question is for how long,” “The fractious nature of Iraqi politics inherently works against compromise. In Baghdad, a united front for compromise is almost impossible to achieve. As such, brave or original ideas are easily undercut by opponents who will resort to the lowest common denominator: a unitary Iraqi nationalism. This is the surest way to discredit any conciliatory move on the Kurdish issue… Even if (the current crisis) ends with a return to a mildly reshuffled form of the status quo ante, Arab Iraqis would be sorely mistaken if they celebrate this as an Iraqi triumph: it would be a completely Pyrrhic victory that merely intensifies the mutual mistrust and delays confrontation,” warned Iraq scholar Fanar Haddad.[xvii]
The various Kurdish struggles risk becoming pawns in the Middle East fundamental rivalries between Saudi Arabia and Iran and the Gulf crisis that pits a UAE-Saudi-led alliance against Qatar that is backed by Turkey and Iran. Turkey has already alleged that the Emirates, the kingdom and Egypt are supporting the PKK. Yeni Safak, a newspaper closely aligned with Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), charged that a $1 billion Saudi contribution to the reconstruction of Raqqa, the now partly Syrian Kurdish-controlled former capital of the Islamic State, was evidence of the kingdom’s involvement in what it termed a “dirty game.” [xviii]
Similarly, Iran reported increased insurgent activity in majority-Kurdish region, asserting that Saudi Arabia was supporting it as part of a bid to destabilize the Islamic republic.[xix] Iran’s Intelligence Ministry said it had recently seized two large caches of weapons and explosives in separate operations in Kurdish areas in the west of the country and a Baloch region on the eastern border with Pakistan. It said the Kurdish cache seized in the town of Marivan included bomb-making material, electronic detonators, and rocket propelled grenades while the one in the east contained two dozen remote-controlled bombs.[xx] Saudi Arabia’s powerful crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman vowed last year that the battle between his kingdom and the Islamic republic would be fought "inside Iran, not in Saudi Arabia."[xxi]
Compared to the Kurds, Palestinians have the advantage that they confront one rather than multiple states even if stability in Israel and US backing for hard-line Israeli positions is beyond doubt. The Kurds may however discover that the greater complexity of their struggle could turn out to be an advantage provided they are able to play their cards right.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the Institute of Fan Culture of the University of Wuerzburg, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog.
[i] Joost Hiltermann and Maria Fantappie, Twilight of the Kurds: Kurdish officials once dreamed of forging their own state out of the ashes of the war against the Islamic State. Now they are fighting for their very survival. Foreign Policy, 16 January 2018, https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/01/16/twilight-of-the-kurds-iraq-syria-kurdistan/ [ii] Dov Lieber, Abbas sends envoys to China, Russia to seek replacement for US in peace process, The Times of Israel, 19 December 2017, https://www.timesofisrael.com/abbas-sends-envoys-to-china-russia-to-seek-replacement-for-us-in-peace-process/ [iii] Anshel Pfeffer, Three Reasons We Aren't Seeing a Third Intifada, Haaretz, 13 December 2017, https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/three-reasons-we-aren-t-seeing-a-third-intifada-1.5628267 [iv] Seth Freedman, The second intifada, 10 years on, The Guardian, 1 October 2010, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2010/oct/01/israel-palestine-intifada-10-years-on [v] Tal Kopan, Ex-CIA, NSA chief Michael Hayden: 2016 rhetoric 'scares me,' CNN, 26 February 2016, https://edition.cnn.com/2016/02/25/politics/michael-hayden-2016-campaign-rhetoric/index.html [vi] Raphael Ahren, In Netanyahu’s new illustrated world, Israel has just five enemies, The Times of Israel, 27 July 2016, https://www.timesofisrael.com/in-netanyahus-new-illustrated-world-israel-has-just-five-enemies/ [vii] Adnan Abu Amer, Dahlan encouraged to form Palestinian party outside Fatah, Al-Monitor, 1 March 2018, https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2018/03/uae-request-dahlan-form-new-party-dissociated-from-fatah.html [viii] Jihad Yazigi, No going back: Why decentralisation is the future for Syria, European Council on Foreign Relation, 16 September 2016, http://www.ecfr.eu/publications/summary/no_going_back_why_decentralisation_is_the_future_for_syria7107 [ix] PYD Capitalises on Territorial Gains, Oil Fields, U.S Statements to Move Towards Quasi-partition, The Syria Report, 22 March 2016, http://syria-report.com/news/economy/pyd-capitalises-territorial-gains-oil-fields-us-statements-move-towards-quasi-partition [x] Ekurd Daily, Kurds open first university in Syrian Kurdistan, 13 October 2015, http://ekurd.net/first-university-in-syrian-kurdistan-2015-10-13 [xi] Janet Biehl, Rojava’s Threefold Economy, Ecology or Catastrophe, 25 February 2015, http://www.biehlonbookchin.com/rojavas-threefold-economy [xii] Syria: direct, A Central Bank for Rojava: A sign of prudence or posturing?”, , 28 March 2016, http://syriadirect.org/news/a-central-bank-for-rojava-a-sign-of-prudence-or-posturing [xiii] Wladimir van Wilgenburg, Syrian army in Afrin - Kurdish lifeline or deal with the devil?, Middle East Eye, 19 February 2018, http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/syrian-and-kurds-ally-against-turkey-what-are-regional-implications-1086700184 [xiv] The Syria Times, President Al-Assad: Hitting National Belongingness Weakens Defense Line against Cultural Invasion Attempts, 14 November 2017, http://syriatimes.sy/index.php/speeches/33511-president-al-assad-hitting-national-belongingness-weakens-defense-line-against-cultural-invasion-attempts [xv] Ofra Bengio, Contextualizing the Kurdish national project: the failed Iraqi nation-state thesis, British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, 19 February 2019, https://www-tandfonline-com.ezlibproxy1.ntu.edu.sg/doi/full/10.1080/13530194.2018.1430532?scroll=top&needAccess=true [xvi] International Crisis Group, Oil and Borders: How to Fix Iraq’s Kurdish Crisis, Briefing No. 55, 17 October 2017, https://www.crisisgroup.org/middle-east-north-africa/gulf-and-arabian-peninsula/iraq/55-settling-iraqi-kurdistans-boundaries-will-help-defuse-post-referendum-tensions [xvii] Fanar Haddad, Iraq, Kurdistan and Kirkuk: Untying the Knot, Insight 174, Middle East Institute, 16 October 2017, https://mei.nus.edu.sg/publication/insight-174-developments-in-the-middle-east-insight-series-iraq-kurdistan-and-kirkuk-untying-the-knot/ [xviii] Yeni Safak, PKK hopeful of Egypt, UAE’s support amid Turkey’s Afrin operation, 22 January 2018, https://www.yenisafak.com/en/news/pkk-hopeful-of-egypt-uaes-support-amid-turkeys-afrin-operation-3003045 [xix] Ahmad Majidyar, Iran’s border regions seeing an upsurge in militant activity, The Middle East Institute, 25 January 2018, http://www.mei.edu/content/io/iran-s-border-regions-seeing-upsurge-militant-activity [xx] Tasmin News, The discovery of two large explosive shipments in the east and west of the country by the Ministry of Intelligence (ف دو محموله بزرگ انفجاری در شرق و غرب کشور توسط وزارت اطلاعات کش), 24 January 2018, https://www.tasnimnews.com/fa/news/1396/11/04/1637453/کشف-دو-محموله-بزرگ-انفجاری-در-شرق-و-غرب-کشور-توسط-وزارت-اطلاعات [xxi] Reuters, Iran says ready for Saudi talks despite 'unlawful, inflammatory' remarks, 5 May 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-iran-saudi-relations/iran-says-ready-for-saudi-talks-despite-unlawful-inflammatory-remarks-idUSKBN1802J5