A people with a complicated destiny is fighting for a decent life in a conflict-torn region. They have been subject to their neighbours’ policies throughout their long history.
In recent years, the Kurdish question has been one of the key components of the Middle East crisis. The Kurds, whose numbers exceed 30 million, are one of the largest ethnic groups in the world without statehood.
For at least the last hundred years, the Kurds have encountered oppression in every country they have lived in – Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria alike. Several attempts to create a Kurdish state in the first half of the twentieth century failed. However, attempts to assimilate the Kurds, undertaken especially actively in Turkey, were not successful either.
The Kurds’ main problem in the territories they have historically inhabited is that their rights have in no way been guaranteed, so they have constantly lived under the threat of oppression.
The presence of oil in Kurdish areas in Iraq and Syria creates additional interest for foreign actors within the region, and makes the situation even more intricate.
In the last few years, the Kurds have gained credibility and international recognition for their active participation in the fight against Daesh. The Kurdish Self-Defence Forces are one of the most prominent actors in the Syrian civil war, while the Peshmerga forces play an extremely important role in Iraq. Due to successes in these activities, the Kurds have gained strong US support.
The deep crisis of the Iraqi state and the civil war in Syria have led to the emergence of autonomous Kurdish regions in the north of these countries. In the Syrian case, this refers to a region that is not formally recognised internationally, but exists as de facto autonomous. The Kurds themselves call it Rojava (which can be translated as Western Kurdistan).
At the same time, the Kurds suffer from the lack of internal unity. Considerable linguistic and religious differences exist among different groups of Kurds, and there is also a political struggle between Kurdish factions. For example, two leading forces in Iraqi Kurdistan – the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan – are in fierce competition, which even led to an armed conflict between them in the 1990s. This lack of unity among the Kurds is traditionally exploited by those who oppose Kurdish national aspirations.
The current state of intra-Kurdish relations is characterised by a variety of trends. On the one hand, observers have noted that the emergence of Daesh has contributed to a greater consolidation of Kurdish groups. On the other hand, the events of the last few years demonstrate that different Kurdish regions are moving in independent directions: while Iraqi Kurdistan is gaining ever more in terms of actual independence, the dynamic of the relationship between the Turkish Kurds and the government in Ankara, in spite of all the difficulties between them, does imply their mutual readiness to compromise. Conciliatory statements made in recent years by the famous leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Abdullah Öcalan, attest to this. In addition, Ankara’s Kurdish policy is influenced by the European factor, since the Kurdish issue is one of the elements affecting negotiations on Turkey’s accession to the EU.
In recent years the socio-economic situation of Iraqi Kurdistan has improved, but the overall situation, in Iraq and in the wider region, is fraught with multiple risks for the Iraqi Kurds. To some degree, their success has been a consequence of the profound crisis of the Iraqi state. Development of the region will become problematic, however, if the Sunni and Shia Arabs in Iraq overcome their differences and a general stabilisation of the situation begins. In this case it is hard to imagine that they would tolerate a strong and independent Kurdish area in their neighbourhood. The Saddam Hussein epoch is notorious in this regard and gives cause for serious concern. Premises for the realisation of such a scenario are visible even today. For the US, after all, the Kurds are primarily important as a tool in the fight against Daesh, and as a force independent of the Assad government in Syria. If the situation in the region stabilises, the US could easily end its support for the Kurds.
In Syria, Kurds have been systematically left outside the peace process, not being allowed to attend either the Geneva meeting under the auspices of the UN, or the talks recently held in Astana. In part, this can be explained by pragmatic considerations: the emergence of this new actor and the need to take more interests into account would inevitably complicate the negotiation process. In the long-term however, these tactics can do more harm than good to a potential peace settlement.
The idea of Greater Kurdistan as an area comprising all the territories densely populated by Kurds remains quite an abstract ideal, and it is hardly possible to talk of its political relevance today.
There are no reasons to expect the emergence of a Kurdish state, at least in the immediate future. In the case of a declaration of independence by the Kurdish regions of Iraq (which are the most prepared for this), the new state would inevitably become a centre of attraction for Kurds from other areas and the subject of intense and malevolent attention from Turkey and Iran. The very idea of a Kurdish state, no matter the borders, would be rejected by Ankara, Tehran, Baghdad, and Damascus alike. The emergence of an independent Kurdish actor in international relations would lead to major changes in the balance of power in West Asia and would, with a high degree of probability, become a trigger for further changes of borders, representing a precedent for ethnic minorities in other regions, too.
In these circumstances, the major issue for the Kurds is ensuring their security and rights to national development. Meanwhile, for the international community, the major issue is how to improve the position of the Kurds and to guarantee their rights, without antagonising the states where they live.
Although from time to time voices are heard calling for a redrawing of the map and the creation a Kurdish state, they should be characterised as not taking into account the realities of the Middle East. In Syria, for instance, even the idea of the federalisation of the country, strongly advocated by the Syrian Kurds, finds no support either in Damascus, or Ankara, or apparently in Washington. Even the recent Russian proposals concerning the future Syrian Constitution only tentatively mentioned the possibility of Kurdish autonomy, while not a word was said of federalisation.
At the same time, in both Syria and Iraq, the possibility of returning to the status quo on the Kurdish question is extremely small. Having achieved visible success in the fight against terrorists, the Kurds have gained the right to expect that their interests will be respected in any emerging Middle East settlement. Whenever the crisis in Syria and Iraq ends, the Syrian and Iraqi Kurds are likely to realise at least some of their aspirations. This, in turn, will inevitably impact the attitude of authorities in Turkey and Iran towards the Kurds. From then on, the settlement of the Kurdish question will largely be defined by the reaction of Ankara and Tehran.