Tuesday,21 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1308, (18 -24 August 2016)
Tuesday,21 November, 2017
Issue 1308, (18 -24 August 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Kurdish statehood a distant dream

While the project for a Kurdish state in Syria, as well as Iraq, Turkey and Iran, may look promising, independence is still a long way off, writes Lars Hauch

PKK
PKK
Al-Ahram Weekly

In late June, after the approval of a long-debated constitution for a future federal system in northern Syria, the Syrian Kurds and their allies declared the north-eastern Syrian town of Qamishli to be the capital of the new Kurdish region in Syria.

Even though semantically at least federalism is different from statehood, the fact that the constitution includes a flag, diplomatic relations with foreign countries, and compulsory military service should leave no doubt of the extent of independence envisioned for the system.

However, despite the de facto autonomy that the Kurds have established in northern Syria, true independence remains a utopian dream. And this is true not only for Rojava – the term the Kurds use for the Syrian cantons under their control – but also for Iraqi Kurdistan, not to mention the Kurdish areas in Turkey and Iran. There are at least three reasons why.

The first has to do with ideological clashes. The dominant Kurdish political organisations follow the ideologies of Marxism, nationalism and Islamism. But the Turkish Kurdish Workers Party’s (PKK) model neglects nationalism and follows the idea of establishing a democratic confederation to bring all Kurds together within the “Group of Communities in Kurdistan,” an organisation founded by the PKK in the early 2000s.

In contrast, the Kurdish nationalists who are the strongest power in northern Iraq pursue their aim of nation-building. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), which is dominated by the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), has tried to expand its independence from the Iraqi capital Baghdad, although the recent economic crisis in the country caused by diminishing revenues from oil sales in particular has limited these efforts.

Last but not least, there is also a Kurdish Islamic Movement which is not as influential as the PKK, the KDP and their affiliates, but has regularly held seats in the Iraqi Kurdistan Parliament. This clash between the ideologies of the various Kurdish groups has manifested itself politically and has so far hindered unity.

The second reason is political. With Kurdish areas spread out across Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey, Kurdish politics are deeply influenced by their respective nation states. Kurdish politics have developed into a permanent state of struggle not only between the Kurds themselves, but also with regard to regional power plays.

The Iraqi Kurdish civil war from 1994 to 1997 between the KDP and PUK is a perfect example: while the KDP allied itself with former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, the PUK established an alliance with Iran. To further complicate matters, Turkey, seeing the potential to crush the PUK-allied PKK, engaged in the war on the KDP’s side.

As a result, political influence in Kurdish settlement areas is directly connected to control over armed groups. The emerging challenges can be seen in northern Syria where the de facto autonomous region of Rojava is completely dominated by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), an affiliate of the PKK. Based on the power of its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the PYD sets the tone of events and oppresses its opponents.

Ultimately, even though various countries have developed working relations with the Kurdish parties – the PYD has even opened an office in Moscow – no one appears to support the idea of true Kurdish autonomy or even independence in the form of a state.

The third reason is the regional power squeeze. In the face of the raging conflicts in Syria and Iraq, the Kurds find themselves caught between various fronts once again.

Beginning in late 2014, the US began to shift its support from the Sunni opposition in Syria to the Kurds, namely the YPG. As a result of this military and political support, the YPG, and likewise the PYD, the political group of which the YPG is an armed wing, was able to increase its power and achieved a reputation as the most reliable partner in the fight against the Islamic State (IS) group.

With the creation of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a coalition of Kurdish and Syrian Arab rebel groups supported by US-led Coalition air strikes, the PYD and YPG finally tried to remove the “Kurdish label” and establish itself as a multi-ethnic movement.

However, the Turkish government is alarmed by Kurdish power and will likely thwart any move towards independence. For Turkey, the Rojava project in Syria cannot be detached from the war it is waging with the PKK. This is not only because the PYD is directly affiliated with the PKK politically, but also because there is a flow of fighters between the groups and the PKK can rely on Kurdish-controlled northern Syria as a safe haven.

At the same time, Iraq is unlikely to disintegrate any time soon as a nation state, which is why Iraqi Kurdistan likely will remain in its semi-autonomous position and will continue to depend on Baghdad’s purse.


The writer was head of editorial content at the German media outlet Commentarist.

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