Kurdish aspirations could spark wars in region
DUBAI - The Kurds have emerged as major players in the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, increasing the concerns of neighbouring countries over Kurdish aspirations for self-determination within their own territories.
The Kurds make up the largest ethnic group in north-eastern Syria, south-eastern Turkey, northern Iraq and in parts of western Iran.
Their dreams of an independent Kurdistan have been repeatedly crushed by regimes and governments that ruled the land before and after the Sykes-Picot agreement divided Ottoman empire territory after World War I. The agreement divided Ottoman Kurdish populations between Turkey, Iraq and Syria.
Kurdish liberation movements appeared in the 20th century and struggled via violent and non-violent means to achieve some sort of self-rule in their respective countries. Their efforts were crushed, often brutally, by the ruling regimes and failed to receive the attention of the international community.
However, major geopolitical changes sweeping the Middle East since the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, have presented the Kurds with a major opportunity to achieve self-rule.
A post-invasion Iraqi constitution turned the country into a federal state with an autonomous region for the Kurds, who gained a strong representation in the federal government, including the position of president.
The uprisings that swept the Arab world reached Syria in 2011, where revolution turned into a violent sectarian war that weakened the central government, allowing the Kurds to control provinces in the north-east.
The rise of the Islamic State (ISIS), its takeover of vast territory in Iraq and Syria and the targeting of Kurdish Yazidis in Iraq gained the Kurds strong international sympathy and support for their cause.
The United States, Russia and European powers provided Syrian and Iraqi Kurds with military training and weapons to help them fight ISIS and evict its radical gunmen from Kurdish towns and villages, especially along the borders with Turkey.
Syrian Kurds, especially the Democratic Union Party (PYD), carved out a large chunk of the country, especially the provinces of Hasakah and Qamishli, and are trying to gain more territory in Aleppo province.
Turkey, which has the largest number of Kurds, an estimated 15-million-strong community (about 15% of the population), has been fighting a guerrilla warfare with the gunmen of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) — a group branded as terrorist by a large part of the international community.
The showdown with the PKK has escalated in recent months and the Turkish government has blamed recent bombings in Ankara on the group and its affiliates in Syria, especially the PYD.
Turkish warplanes have repeatedly raided PKK positions in northern Iraq and its artillery pounded PYD positions in northern Syria.
Turkey has massed tens of thousands of troops along the borders with Syria, raising fears that it could mount a campaign to limit Kurdish control and destroy their military capabilities.
Ankara has grown increasingly concerned over Washington’s and Moscow’s strong support to the Kurds in Syria and has warned against giving the 2.5-million Kurdish community in Syria any autonomy.
A surprise visit by Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu to Tehran on March 8th to improve relations strained by Iran’s support to the Syrian regime and Turkey’s support for the Syrian opposition highlighted the importance both countries give to keeping the Kurds in check and their willingness to unify efforts against Kurdish self-rule aspirations.
The PYD, along with other Kurdish political parties in Syria, on March 18th proclaimed self-rule under a Syrian federation. Both the Syrian regime and opposition were quick to respond from peace talks in Geneva, rejecting the Kurdish federation declaration.
The Kurds appear to be trying to establish a status quo similar to the one the 6.5 million Kurds in Iraq had from 1991 before they gained autonomy within an Iraqi federation.
Russian and US officials have spoken about the possibility of Syria becoming a federation, which would eventually give the Kurds autonomy. Ankara and Tehran will likely oppose Syria turning into a federation because, they say, the Kurdish population in their own countries would demand autonomy.
Iraqi Kurdish officials recently started calling for their own full independence of Iraq due to the deterioration of political and security conditions in the country.
President of the Iraqi Kurdistan Masoud Barzani has called for a referendum on the independence of the region.
Such a move would likely prompt Iran and Turkey to react politically and possibly militarily because they fear that it would only be a matter of time before Kurds in their own countries seek autonomy.
The Kurdish question will be a thorny issue in the international community’s efforts to resolve the crisis in Iraq and Syria because the stakes for Turkey and Iran are high. One miscalculated move could prompt either of them — or both — to seek a military option to protect national interests.