Kurds assert identity in changed environment
Dubai - History has fed political mistrust of Kurds at home as well as of the Kurdish diaspora outside national borders for Turks, Arabs and Persians. With their nomadic tribal roots, Kurds have never been at peace, and their aspirations for political freedom and self-determination have proven difficult to achieve.
Kurdish history is etched with rebellion and uprisings against reigning powers: The last century saw more than 20 Kurdish uprisings and revolts in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran — all countries in which Kurds have historically constituted the largest ethnic minority group.
Rather than resulting in political emancipation, these uprisings usually ended in even greater top-down enforced political isolation and repression. But circumstances may be changing as Kurds are propelled into the front line of developments in Syria and Turkey, as well as Iraq, where they have effectively carved out an autonomous island of stability in an increasingly polarised state.
Kurds have come to assume the role of a pro-Western, moderate ethnic minority whose motivation and reliability make them the partner of choice in the war against the Islamic State (ISIS) leading the United States to reverse its policy of banning direct arms transfers to the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq.
Alongside better arming the pershmerga against ISIS, the United States is also hoping to curtail opportunities for Iran to deepen its influence with Iraqi Kurdistan. Iran is known to have developed close relations with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the party of Iraqi Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani. Bypassing Baghdad altogether, the United States is supporting a multinational effort to arm and train the pershmerga.
The Iraqi central government has been unwilling to comply with KRG requests for weapons because it no longer trusts a leadership that cuts Baghdad out of oil receipts, continues to entertain the idea of state succession and has plans to grab disputed territories — such as Kirkuk — and absorb them into Iraqi Kurdistan.
Kurds in northern Syria are carving out an autonomous region modelled on the KRG in Iraq. Within months of the start of the uprising in Syria, government buildings in Kurdish-dominated areas hoisted the Kurdish flag and Kurdish parties formed committees to take over governmental functions.
It is unsurprising that Syrian Kurds are looking to emulate Iraqi Kurds: The Kurdish Supreme Committee and its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units came into being after Barzani brokered an agreement between the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a left-leaning Syrian Kurdish party affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey, and the Kurdish National Council, a coalition of Syrian Kurdish parties created with the backing of Barzani as a Kurdish response to the Syrian National Council.
Needless to say, Turkey is keeping a close eye on developments in Kurdish-dominated northern Syria that could threaten its peace process with the PKK, which warned Turkey against intervening in the Syrian Kurdish region, stating that it was prepared to join the fight alongside Syrian Kurds and spread the fight deep into Kurdish areas of Turkey.
Kurds in Turkey have been unhappy at the government policy of reportedly supporting Islamist groups such as al-Nusra Front, which have fought Kurdish groups, as well as not doing enough to support Kurdish fighters taking on ISIS close to the Syrian-Turkish border.
The targeting of PKK camps and positions near the Syria-Turkish border by the Turkish Air Force demonstrated that the ISIS threat will not alter the Turkish position vis-à-vis the PKK and its activities.
But the surprise ascension of the left-leaning Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which is essentially a Kurdish party, to the Turkish parliament with 80 seats will bolster the political position of Turkish Kurds.
While intra-Kurdish rivalries and disagreements on the future of the Kurdish people are unlikely to disappear, the emerging environment has provided Kurds a common rallying cause and an opportunity to position themselves in Iraq, Syria and Turkey to achieve as much of their political demands as possible locally and at the same time to support those of Kurds elsewhere.