While fighting in Syria and Iraq weaken central governments, a long-suffering minority group is quietly seizing territories and an opportunity to undo a century of subjugation. Calls are going out for the international community to diplomatically recognize the fledgling autonomous regions now controlled by the Kurdish people. As Kurds eye building a nation for themselves out of the rubble of civil wars and internal strife, political divisions threaten to unravel tentative gains.
“Independence is an aspiration in the heart of every Kurd,” said a high-level Kurdish Iraqi official, who wished to remain anonymous, told The Washington Post. “But we need to be strategic.”
Kurdish militias have captured many towns across northeastern Syria, where Kurds represent much of the population, reports Reuters. According to Al Jazeera, after successfully driving out al-Qaeda-aligned groups from several villages in early November, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) announced plans to set up a government and create an autonomous Kurdish region in Syria.
The Kurds are, by some measures, the largest stateless ethnicity in the world, with a population of 30 million people divided between Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran. The Kurds were split up by “deal-making and nation-building that followed the Great War,” reports the BBC. Following World War I, colonial powers carved up the Middle East into the countries that exist today. The Sykes-Picot Agreement between England and France, which divided up their holdings, left no place on the map for a Kurdish state.
The political turmoil of the past two years, including the Syrian civil war and the American withdrawal from Iraq, now present Kurds with a fresh opportunity for self-governance.
“For all intents and purposes, they have their own state in Northern Iraq and they’re likely to have some kind of autonomous zone in Syria,” says political scientist Soli Ozel, according to the BBC. “Therefore the Kurds as a nationality have now re-appeared on the world stage. They’re undoing Sykes-Picot for themselves.”
Syrian Kurds in particular are looking to their Iraqi counterparts for inspiration. In Iraq, Kurds have enjoyed relative autonomy since 1991. They have been steadily drifting away from Baghdad since the withdrawal of American troops in 2011. Kurds in Iraq have greatly benefitted from the oil wealth of the northern region, says Reuters.
In Syria and Turkey, Kurds have struggled against oppressive governments for decades. They, too, are now pushing to create independent states as longstanding governments in the Middle East struggle for survival. However, deep political differences between the historically allied Syrian and Turkish groups and the more affluent Iraqi Kurds will probably prevent all of the groups from uniting under one flag.
Tensions are also high because of Iraqi Kurdistan’s agreement with Turkey to export oil. Officials in Baghdad are balking over revenue it claims is owed to the federal government; Turkish Kurds accuse their Iraqi neighbors of collaborating with their enemy.
The pipeline into Turkey, expected to pump 300,000 barrels per day across the border, is a windfall for Iraqi Kurds, who probably stand the best chance of establishing their own nation state. Oil is expected to start flowing through the pipeline before the end of the year.
The dream of an independent Kurdistan (or multiple Kurdish states) is not without its share of detractors. Officials in Iraq and Turkey, as well as some outside analysts, worry that autonomy for the Kurds could further destabilize countries already in a precarious position.
“Kurdistan’s strategy is to pursue this path in a peaceful way,” Hemin Hawrami, a Kurdish legislator, told the BBC. “We don’t want to be the reason for the break-up of Iraq.”
Splintered Kurdish groups could also spell doom for the nationalist movement in Syria. The PYD is seen as a hardline group by some Kurds who resent their aspirations for establishing their own government in captured territory. Infighting among Kurds could derail the process entirely. Still, generations of oppression have forged a strong cultural identity.
“We Kurds don’t care what country we’re in. We are together and we support each other wherever we are,” Naif Dundar, who has lost four members of his family in the uprising in Turkey, told The Christian Science Monitor. “We have to be strong at every moment. They are trying to exterminate us, if we are not always awake and alert they will destroy us.”
By Jonny Eberle – Grey Cell Staff Writer