Scattered across several countries by post-World War I state engineering – Kurdistan is a notable omission of the Sykes-Picot agreement. The Kurd’s occupy a contiguous region amongst the borders of Northern Syria, Iraq, north-west Iran and south-east Turkey. Consistently faced with cultural genocide, history has been unkind to the Kurds.
However, developments in the Syrian conflict may pave the way for a Kurdish renaissance – an era of political and cultural identity – denied to the Kurdish people for almost a century.
Some 30 million Kurds are estimated to live in Iran, Turkey, Iraq and Syria. They have suffered oppression and forced demographic convergence for decades. In Turkey, Erdogan’s government has waged a brutal conflict against the Kurdish population in the country’s south-east regions since the 1980s. Saddam, in Iraq persistently persecuted the Kurds for their claims of ethnic distinction, amounting to the use of poisonous gas. The Kurds faired no better in Syria, under Bashar and his father before him, the Kurds were relegated to 2nd class citizenship, and underwent violent oppression.
Things began to change in 2011. Firstly with the Sunni uprising, Syrian Kurds in the oil-rich northeast have had de facto autonomy since the early days of the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad. They declared autonomy in November 2013, and again in January 2014. This is similar to their kin in Iraq, who enjoyed prosperity and political sovereignty since the overthrow of Saddam. The Kurdish region in Iraq was a haven of stability and nominalisation amongst the tumultuous adjacent regions, until, of course, the advent of ISIS.
Victims of the Ghouta, Syria Attack, 21 August 2013
The Syrian Kurdish military group – the YPG (the military wing of Democratic Union Party – PYD) – have proven themselves to be an effective, if not the only effective ground force fighting ISIS. Most of ISIS’s lost territory has been through the efforts of the YPG. America has long supported the YPG ground forces and American airstrikes were indispensable to the victorious YPG defence of Kobani against ISIS. Now, the YPG are enjoying another de facto alliance with Syria’s big players. Russian and Assad-regime forces are co-ordinating military manoeuvres with the YPG in the north of Syria.
Much to the chagrin of Turkey, the YPG are surging across the Syria/Turkey border, under cover of Russian aircraft, capturing rebel-occupied territory and suffocating the remnants of rebel defence in Aleppo. The Turkey/Syria border has long been known as the major conduit for rebel forces moving into Syria. Turkey is shelling the Kurdish positions along their border with artillery and even violated the ceasefire to do so. Turkey has done everything it can to make life difficult for the Kurds in Syria/Iraq. The government in Turkey views the PYD/YPG as an indistinguishable subsidiary of the Turkey-Kurdish PKK (Kurdish Workers party) group, and nothing more than a terrorist organisation. The ceasefire in Syria exempts terrorist groups, and for Turkey, this includes the PYD/YPG.
Erdogan’s government find themselves in a bit of a predicament, beset by an incongruous logic – the ally of our ally is our enemy, because they are at war with America’s ally. Washington maintains the fiction that the PYD/YPG and the PKK are indeed separate entities, however, this isn’t fooling anyone.
Erdogan has lambasted the American alliance with the Kurds, and similarly, America has criticised Turkey for attacking the YPG. All the while Putin smiles on with satisfied glee. No doubt, Putin is enjoying the situation facing Turkey. Erdogan has long feared an autonomous Kurdistan to his southern borders, as he fears this will augment Turkey’s Kurdish population’s demands for autonomy. It’s not hard to imagine the gratification Putin would receive from Turkey’s dismay at an emerging Kurdistan, as he seemingly positions himself as the architect. A Russian friendly canton in this area hardly requires geo-political elucidation.
These developments have put Turkey in direct confrontation with regional protagonists. The Kurds say they will fight back against any Turkish aggression. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose own forces are inching their way toward Turkey’s border, says he will do the same. And few doubt that Russia, with vindictive reflection at last year’s downing by Turkish pilots of its Sukhoi SU-24 jet, would deliver the biggest whacking of all. Turkey has been amassing forces at their border, threatening decisive action against threats to Turkey’s national interest, whether this is a continued advance toward Turkey’s border or an emergent Kurdistan.
A Russian Sukhoi SU-24 Jet was shot down in disputed circumstances in 2015
Think about what Erdogan is saying here for a second. He will amass his army on the border to attack a US ally but failed to take similar action towards ISIS.
It seems Turkey’s failed policy chickens are coming home to roost, as they say. The current Turkish administration has yet to find a suitable method of engaging and addressing Kurdish civil and cultural demands, nor has it been able to convincingly counter or contain the ideological and often violent insistence on secession. In Syria, Erdogan’s unbridled compulsion to overthrow Assad drove him to imprudent and unscrupulous arming and aiding of jihadist groups. These rebel groups can not be vindicated as legitimate ethical forces. Now they are being pushed back, the Kurds seem set to gauge their new found territory as their own.
For genuine, fruitful reconciliation to blossom between the competing groups in Iraq/Syria, the sectarian and ethnic divides need to be placated. The marginalisation and discontent between ethnic groups in Syria and Iraq were a major advantage for ISIS to thrive. A rapprochement is needed to prevent the re-emergence of ISIS-like groups. This should be a primary goal of all parties involved; Kurds, Baghdad, Russia and the West. Yet, it seems that the prospect of peace relies on the wisdom and grace of Putin and Erdogan – an unsettling forecast.