Solving the puzzle of the Kurds in the Syrian conflict

“After historic victories against ISIS, it’s time to bring our great young people home!” wrote Donald Trump, President of the United States of America, on Twitter on 20 December 2018.

A barrage of fear, presumptions, and confusion resulted from the evening tweet, as the 55-kilometer-radius security zone in Syria where the US troops are based is a temporary retreat for at least 50 thousand internally displaced people (IDP) in the country. The tweet not only has international importance due to the number of IDPs living there, with the Syrian conflict raging on since 2011; the conflict has also created a refugee crisis unseen since the Second World War and has caused a rise in xenophobia and radical right populism in some EU member states, like Hungary and Slovakia.

The main reason why the tweet caused such a sensation on the international level is the possibility of changing power lines in the region, where Syria, Russia, Iran, Turkey, the US, and some other countries have their own concerns and are interested in their own dominance.

Currently, some areas in the northern part of Syria are under the control of Syrian Kurdish forces called the Syrian Democratic Forces, where American troops are working and fighting alongside the Kurds and Arabs engaged. What will happen with areas inhabited mainly by the Kurds, when the US pulls out its forces, in light of Russian forces helping the Kurds to patrol the area since the end of January? Where do the US troops stand
politically on this question and how much will the Kurds influence the division of the power lines in the region?

Who are the Kurds?

In order to answer the questions previously asked, we first have to understand who the Kurds are,and how do they relate to other ethnicities, nations, and states in the region.

The Kurds, an ethnicity of 25-30 million, have been living in the Middle East for centuries. They have been a part of several empires, such as the Ottoman and Sasanian. In the era of nation states, the Kurds remain divided between Turkey, Iran, Syria, and Iraq, where they are presently closest to self-governing in the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (so-called Iraqi Kurdistan).

I talked to Hille Hanso, an Estonian freelance researcher and Middle East commentator, currently based in Istanbul in connection with her studies at Istanbul Bilgi University. She has focused among other subjects on the relations between central governments of the region and the Kurds. Hanso stressed that we must keep in mind that the Kurds are not a monolithic nation:

You can find several languages, different, often competing political views, and ever-changing alliances among the Kurds. So first of all, which Kurdish groups are we talking about and in relation to whom?
The Kurds have lived in the borderlands of powerful Ottoman and Persian empires, where they acted to some extent as a buffer zone. In cleverly balancing the rivalries between the empires, they maintained semi-autonomous emirates between 15th and 19th centuries, led by the local notables.

With the collapse of the empires, followed by colonial power struggles and the birth of nation states in the Middle East, the Kurds found themselves distributed between the centralized nation states of Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and Iran, without their own state, although in the Sevres Treaty the possibility was mentioned. It was largely due to the views and interests of the global powers that the later Lausanne Treaty, which drew the modern border of Turkey and replaced the Sevres Treaty, did not mention a Kurdish state anymore.

Kurdish State = Kurdistan Regional Government?

A Kurd at the meeting. Image credit: Hille Hanso

The topic of location, different languages, and volatility towards central administrations leads us to the next question: what is the Kurdistan Regional Government and its role for the Kurdish people and the region?

The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is a body that has governed the Kurdistan Region in northern Iraq from 1992. Despite popular belief in the West, the KRG represents the Kurds living in Iraq, not the whole ethnicity, located in neighboring countries. Furthermore, the KRG independence referendum in 2017, which claimed that 92% of participants supported the independence of the region, is about KRG, not the whole Kurdish nation.

A family in Iraq’s Kurdistan. Image credit: Hille Hanso

Although the referendum shows the wish for independence, we must be reserved in assessing the results.

Hille Hanso has travelled the Kurdish areas in the region extensively and spent a week in KRG prior to the referendum, actively observing the developments and interviewing different stakeholders, Peshmerga leaders, and high-level stakeholders and officials. She says:

Generally, Kurds as individuals yearn for their own state. It is The Dream, regardless of the country they live in. The issues arise, however, when we start talking about implementation. What are the means to achieve it? Who could be the leader and how should the state be governed? What type of a state should it be? There are as many answers as there are Kurdish groups. 

The independence referendum of the Kurdistan Regional Government was led by President of the KRG Masoud Barzani and his powerful family, with many of his relatives in key political and security-related positions.

Other political powers, seeing this as a mere attempt to strengthen the Barzani family’s political leverage and its position in relation to the negotiations with Baghdad, passively opposed the referendum in actions, not as much in words. The Not For Now movement was initiated, and other powerful families started secret negotiations with Baghdad to oppose Barzani’s initiative.

Indeed, the referendum was immediately declared unconstitutional by Baghdad and the international community and did not bring anything apart from price hikes, loss of revenues from oil and its logistics, and an even more limited number of international allies to the ordinary citizens of the KRG.

There is no international support or enough consolidation among Kurdish groups to have any form of peaceful and consolidated  independent state.

The Kurds, Turkey, and the Syrian Conflict

Hille Hanso with the locals. Image credit: Hille Hanso

To answer the question of what will happen with Syria if the US pulls its forces from the international coalition in Syria and leaves the Kurds on their own, it is important to understand the relations between the Kurds and the Turks.

Hanso continues:

Growing nationalism in the beginning of the 20th century influenced Turks just like any other nation at that time. M.K. Atatürk, founder of the modern Turkish state, had a military background and created a country, where a new identity, “Turkishness”, was to be the unifying concept instead of the Ottoman identity.

Although “Turkishness” is a concept which we see constantly changing depending on the views of those in power, it has pretty much excluded other identities. For example, according to one of the most influential ideologues of Turkish nationalism, Ziya Gökalp (himself a Kurd), anyone can become a Turk if they take up the language and culture and assimilate. Not becoming a Turk may be problematic.

The current situation between the Turkish state and ethnic Kurds in the country is multidimensional. From the individual point of view, life for some Kurds has never been better. In the past it was prohibited to say “Kurdistan” out loud, and Kurdish nationalists were assassinated for their views. Some political powers denied the existence of the Kurds as a nation, calling them Mountain Turks who had mistakenly lost their “Turkishness”. Today, people can use their Kurdish names, talk in their own languages, celebrate ethnic holidays, and wear traditional clothes, with no one debating their existence.

Turkish National Broadcasting opened a TV station and radio channels in the Kurmanji language. Also, a member of a Kurdish political party is represented in the Parliament. Furthermore, their candidate for the presidential election in 2018, Selahattin Demirtas, came third in the elections, although campaigning from jail.

So many things have improved, when compared to the past, but the struggle for a solution is far from an end. Turkey is involved in an ongoing fight against what they view as terrorism, mainly related to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party and its offshoots.

A large number of Kurdish politicians and opinion leaders are in prisons, accused of supporting separatism. The conflict has been going on since the end of 1970s and taken tens of thousands of lives in Turkey. It has created two generations of people who have suffered from violence and has resulted in fiercely opposing views, which are difficult to reconcile.

Recently, inflamed Kurdish nationalism and feared separatism in Iraq and Syria (both partly empowered by the international coalition led by the USA) has again elevated the old fears in Turkey. In addition to this, the fight against the perceived Kurdish separatism is something that mobilizes the voters and is therefore used by most populist political parties as a political tool. Some argue that the standoff is useful to everyone.  

The unsolved problems of the Kurds living in Turkey play an important role in the development of the Syrian Conflict.

Hasankeyf, Turkey. Image credit: Hille Hanso

Power lines and the Kurdish problematic

Kurdish fighters, among them women, have caught the attention of Western media with their battles against the terror organization ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The motivation to fight against ISIS was to protect their region from horror, and it was highly supported by Western countries, especially the US. Currently, the Syrian Democratic Forces are controlling the area in the northeast of Syria, on the eastern shore of the Euphrates River, working together with the international coalition led by the US to defeat ISIS in Syria.

Hille Hanso comments:

If the US decides to withdraw the troops promptly, it would leave a significant power vacuum in the region, and would leave Kurds under the Syrian Democratic Forces without the leverage, both in military and political terms, in talks of a future political solution for Syria. Turkey has announced their readiness to take over the areas under the US troops’ control, creating a buffer zone. Russia, however, sees the area under Damascus’ control, which is preferred by the SDF. As the negotiation process is still ongoing, we might see new agreements and alliances, twists and turns in the situation.

Kurdish women. Image credit: Hille Hanso

The Kurds are not a monolithic ethnicity, and they are historically divided between several countries with different languages and cultures. It is difficult to predict who will have control over the area of international coalition led by the US when they pull out their forces, as several regional powers are interested in it.

It is also difficult to say what the Kurds’ role will be in the future governance in Syria. Meanwhile, they will still remain an important group in the region and therefore should have a say as a minority. For example, representation in the democratization process and a right to exercise their culture and language should be universal. Perhaps there could even be an autonomous government in Syria, as with the example of KGR in Iraq.

Withdrawal of the US troops will change the ongoing power struggle in the region and will affect Kurds and the dynamics of regional international relations.    

In case you are interested in learning more about Kurds, the Middle East, religion, politics and history, University of Tartu’s new curriculum, “Contemporary Asian and Middle Eastern Studies”, might be of interest to you.

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