As before, Kurds find themselves on the outside

Friday 05/02/2016
Supporters of Syrian Kurds protesting in front of United Nations offices during Syrian peace talks

LONDON - The UN-sponsored Syr­ian peace talks got off to a late and shaky start in Geneva on January 29th in the absence of one of the key parties to the 5-year-old, multisided conflict, the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD).
The PYD and its People’s Protec­tion Units (YPG) militia have be­come the dominant political and military forces in much of northern Syria bordering Turkey and Iraq.
Despite that, a Turkish threat to boycott the Geneva talks if the PYD attended won the day. Ankara makes no distinction between the Syrian Kurdish movement and its banned ally, the Kurdistan Work­ers’ Party (PKK) against which the Turks are waging a renewed war.
PYD Co-President Salih Muslim had hoped to attend but he cannot have been too surprised to have been left out. The position of the Kurds at international gatherings to decide their fate has tradition­ally been outside the conference hall.
As he cooled his heels in the Swiss lakeside town of Lausanne awaiting an invitation, Muslim must have recalled that it was there that the infamous 1924 treaty was signed that spelled the end of Kurdish aspirations for statehood as the Ottoman empire broke up af­ter the first world war.
The victorious allies went back on promises of independence in the carve-up of territory between emergent Arab states and Kemalist Turkey. Whenever Kurds refused to accept this new reality they faced suppression. In Iraq, Syria, Iran and most notably Turkey, there have been attempts to write the Kurds out of the historical script.
In the Arab states, the failure of the Kurds to be subsumed into Ar­ab-dominated polities has earned them a reputation for being unreli­able, duplicitous and even treach­erous as well as underdeveloped, even where such underdevelop­ment has been deliberately engi­neered by the governments under which they have had to live, such as the Syrian “Arab” Republic.
As far back as 1930, a high-hand­ed British government memoran­dum summed up a view of the Kurds that persisted among some of their regional neighbours: “Their mode of life is primitive and for the most part they are illiterate and un­tutored, resentful of authority and lacking in sense of discipline and responsibility.”
The Kurds did not fit into the narrative of Arab and Turkish na­tionalism that emerged in the post-colonial era. To a greater or lesser extent their numbers were under­estimated and their culture and language suppressed.
In the past, successive Iraqi gov­ernments paid lip service to the theory of Kurdish autonomy with­out allowing it in practice. Saddam Hussein had his own units of Kurd­ish tribal militia to combat their more rebellious fellow Kurds.
Such in-fighting and divisions, both across and within national borders, have been a recurring curse among the Kurds since be­fore the modern era. Yet when they have combined to fight for specifically Kurdish rights, they are invariably accused of putting their own interests first.
In the Syrian context, this has encouraged distrust among poten­tial Arab allies and prompted the Turkish accusation that the PYD is in league with Damascus. It is true Syria’s Kurds have taken ad­vantage of the chaos in the coun­try to pursue their own agenda, filling a security vacuum in areas vacated by government forces and establishing de facto autonomy in predominantly Kurdish cantons while successfully fighting off the Islamic State (ISIS) and other jihad­ists seeking to annihilate them.
But to cast the Kurds as stooges of Syrian President Bashar Assad is to ignore a history of rebellion against the regime, as in 2004 when a short-lived revolt was met with disdain and even hostility from potential allies in the Arab opposition.
The same prejudice exists in the current conflict. In March 2012, a year into the war, Kurdish del­egates walked out of opposition unity talks in Istanbul because would-be Arab partners refused to acknowledge any Kurdish au­tonomous rights or even mention the word Kurd in a putative agree­ment. As usual, the Kurds were expected to fight but not await any reward for doing so.
The Kurds know that the meas­ure of de facto self-rule they have gained in Syria and more formally in Iraq is fragile. As the Kurdish Re­gional Government in Erbil is once again talking of possible independ­ence, it remains aware that it could face conflict with Baghdad if it seeks to extend its control beyond those areas of Kurdistan narrowly defined in the Saddam era.
In Syria the Kurds are similarly aware that they can count only on themselves if they are to preserve and enhance the steps already tak­en towards self-rule.
Speaking before a second abor­tive round of Geneva talks in 2013, Salih Muslim demanded sepa­rate representation for the Kurds and told an interviewer: “We will not allow for a second Lausanne. They’re trying to play the same game but Kurds will not be de­ceived as in 1923… The Kurdish people are obliged to none but themselves. While there still re­mains one Kurd in Kurdistan we will fight for our freedom.”