Iran, Iraq, Kurdistan, Syria, Turkey

The Hour of the Kurds

Manuel Martorell is a Spanish journalist and one of the founders of the national daily El Mundo, where he held the posts of Editor-in-Chief and Foreign Editor. He has been covering the Kurds since 1983 and has published three books on the subject and produced a number of television documentaries.

8 February 2015. This will remain a historic day for the Kurdish people. On that day, French president François Hollande hosted an official reception at the Élysée Palace for two women from Kobani, the Syrian city where Islamic State (IS) had met defeat. One was Asya Abdullah, co-president of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the main Kurdish party in Syria. The other was Nesrin Abdullah, who attended the meeting in combat uniform as commander of the Popular Defence Units (YPG), a powerful armed force composed of thousands of men and women under the direction of PYD.

The photo widely circulated by social and press media showing Hollande, Asya and Nesrin talking in the luxurious salon of the Élysée Palace had a three-fold symbolism. First it demonstrated that women in the Middle East were prepared to organise and combat radical Islam. Moreover, both women represented the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), an organisation considered by the European Union and the United States to be a terrorist group. This was especially significant because for months American warplanes were supporting Kobani fighters in full view of Turkey, the US’s closest Middle-East ally, whose government favoured an Islamist victory over the Kurds in that city. France and the United States were providing most of the military and economic support to Kurdish groups in Syria and Iraq, but so were the UK, Germany, the rest of the European Union and other major countries, including Canada and Australia. This represented, in practice as well as theory, a strengthening of the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq and the PKK in Turkey and Syria, because both movements were bearing the brunt of the struggle against jihadism on the ground.

But above all, that meeting with Hollande symbolised a moment in which the world’s largest group of stateless people, in their 3,000 year history, found major international support. Kurdistan, a mountainous territory as large as the whole of France, but split between Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria, had lived other major historical events, but never with so far-reaching a political projection. In 612 BC the Medes, ancestors of the Kurds, led the grand alliance that ended the Assyrian Empire. At the beginning of the thirteenth century, the Kurdish territories returned to be unified under the leadership of Saladin, although in this case from a religious point of view, in the context of the Crusades. In 1920, the Treaty of Sevres also recognised the Kurds’ right to create a state uniting the Kurdish regions from the disintegrated Ottoman Empire. However, the subsequent Treaty of Lausanne (1926) and the founding of the Republic of Turkey by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, frustrated that hope.

Finally, at the end of the Second World War, the Soviet Union supported the so-called Republic of Mahabad in north-western Iran. This lasted only one year, but from it emerged the main components of today’s Kurdish national identity: the red, white and green flag with a central sun, the national anthem and the first political organisation, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which ultimately engendered other political groups. Since then, various organisations have been fighting non-stop for a form of self-government that recognises the political, cultural and linguistic rights of the Kurdish people.

From Indo-European origin and with a large internal religious diversity, more than 20 million Kurds living in Turkey and Syria are represented mainly by the PKK, founded in 1978, while approximately six million Iraqi Kurds support the KDP of Masoud Barzani, the socialist PUK of Jalal Talabani (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan), and Goran, a new party with a mainly youth base. Finally, in Iran, with nearly 10 million Kurds, the dominant parties are the KDP-I (KDP of Iran), Komala (communist) and the Party of Free Life of Kurdistan (PJAK), an organisation with closelinks to the PKK.

In the past 50 years, these four Kurdish regions have been victims of brutal crackdowns and collective extermination. This fact needs to be taken into account to understand the political role of the Kurdish people, because such campaigns have only succeeded in strengthening the powerful national liberation movement. For example, in the 1960s, Hafez al-Assad, father of the current Syrian president, launched the so-called ‘Arab Belt’ in order to depopulate the Kurdish northern region of Syria. Meanwhile, Ayatollah Khomeini declared a ‘Holy War’ against the Kurds after the Iranian Revolution of 1979, while Saddam Hussein in the 1980s unleashed a genocide under the euphemism of ‘Anfal Campaign’. As for Turkey, in the mid-1990s the army launched several ethnic cleansing operations to weaken the popular support that the PKK guerrillas had in the south-eastern corner of the country.

In these circumstances and until the emergence of IS in Iraq and Syria, international and regional powers preferred to support, directly or indirectly, authoritarian, religious or politically monolithic regimes to ensure the stability of the Middle East. Indeed, the grave security crisis caused by the jihadist Caliphate founded in Mosul and Raqqa has brought to light the Kurds’ pluralist system which, until now, had been hidden by authoritarian regimes. For this religion-cultural conglomerate, the Islamist (Sunni or Shiite) alternative supported by Western countries, Gulf monarchies or even by the Islamic Republic of Iran, pose a serious threat. This is especially true if, as is the case with Al Qaeda and IS, they espouse an even more radical agenda than the Afghan Taliban. For the first time in all these millennia of co-existence, the current situation threatens the Kurds with extinction.

The extermination policies of IS against various minorities – Kurds, Christians, Alawites, Yezidis, Turkomen Shiite, Shabacks, Kakais, along with the systematic destruction of the historical and artistic heritage of Mesopotamia and its expansion to other continents – has caused the EU and US to re-think their policies of alliances in Syria and Iraq. This is so because they are now supporting minorities who can effectively combat this new international threat. In this sense, few of these minorities have such large territorial and demographic dimensions as do the 40 million Kurds, who comprise the fourth largest people in the Middle East, after the Turks, Arabs and Persians. The Kurds have two other advantages that make them key players in the fight against IS. Contrary to the geographical dispersion of the Christians, Yezidis, Shabacks, Turkmen or Kakais, they inhabit large, demographically homogeneous regions, with political-military organisations that enjoy strong popular support, and with extensive experience in armed struggle.

For example, in Turkey, thirty years after launch of guerrilla warfare, the PKK and its numerous political and social organisations have carved out a large social base. Having abandoned the demand for an independent Kurdistan, the Democratic People’s (HDP) and Democratic Regions’ (DBP) parties, considered political branches of the PKK, presented an alternative model of local self-government in thousands of villages, towns and cities where they have repeatedly won the local elections, with particular emphasis on the participation of women in the public sphere. Meanwhile, in Rojava (Western Kurdistan, Syria), the PYD had established in autonomous cantons Kobani, Jazeera and Afrin, on the northern border with Turkey, a federal system that Abdullah Ocalan, leader and founder of the PKK, has put forward for the entire Middle East. In Iraq, the Kurdistan Regional Government, with links to the rest of the country, has for two decades maintained de facto independence, with a level of economic development and political pluralism which can also serve as a reference not only to their Iranian neighbours, but also to the rest of Iraq. In fact, Sunni movements in the provinces of Nineveh and Anbar, and Shiites in the Basra oil producing zone, are now demanding autonomy based on the Kurdish model.

It was inevitable that this project would clash with the emergent Islamic State. For jihadist fundamentalism, the compatibility of Islam, democracy and respect for minorities, as practised by the Kurds, is incompatible with the political project of the Caliphate. For IS, Sharia law is above any legal or constitutional structure. In contrast, for Kurdish organisations, the implementation of a retrograde and monolithic Islam is anathema to their core ideology, according to which national, cultural and linguistic values take precedence over religion. In short, a Kurd’s first priority is the defence of a cultural, linguistic and political system. Being a Muslim, Christian or atheist is of secondary importance.

Today disparate communities like Assyro-Chaldeans, Armenians, Turkmen and Arabs, Shiites, Sunnis, leftist organisations and even former ‘enemies’ of the Baath Party, are supporting the Kurds in a united fight against a common enemy. This can be seen in the Syrian Democratic Coordination opposition alliance or in co-operation between former Baathist leaders from Mosul and the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government. It is often said until the Kurdish problem is resolved there will be no peace in the Middle East. But following the emergence and repercussions of IS, it is difficult to envisage political solutions for Syria, Iraq, and even Turkey or Iran, that fails to include a Kurdish settlement. Even the Government of Tayyip Erdogan was forced to negotiate a peace deal with the ‘terrorists’ of the PKK after trying all kinds of measures to halt their political consolidation. This included promoting Kurdish Islamist parties in the last local elections and trying to push the PKK once again into open hostilities to discourage potential new voters from other parts of Turkey in the legislative elections of June.

The PKK is aware of this scheme and on 21 March, Newruz Day (Kurdish New Year) their leader, Abdullah Ocalan, reiterated the call for a political solution to the conflict and offered to seek solutions for the entire Middle East. Many Western diplomats who supported the PKK’s political initiatives fell foul of Erdogan’s government because pressure from the West, as symbolised by the press pictures of Hollande with Asya and Nesrin in the Élysée Palace, showed that we must listen the Kurdish people if we want to resolve the crisis in this geo-strategic and economically crucial part of the World.

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