As before, Kurds find themselves on the outside
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.”