[N.B.: This is my long essay on the Kurdish question. See also my more recent, shorter post, titled “Shifting Alliances in the Kurdish Struggles.”]
The “Arab Spring” revolutions which began in early 2011 have transformed the Middle East, toppling authoritarian regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, and, probably soon, Syria—and sparking near civil war in Bahrain and demonstrations everywhere in the Arab world from Morocco to Saudi Arabia to Iraq, supporting pluralism, democracy, and liberalization. In many of these countries, religion has been a positive force: organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood have taken the lead in pushing for liberal reforms, and a shared experience with Islam has allowed one country’s successes to inspire uprising in others. But, from the beginning, the question for the world has been: how far will the Arab Spring spread?
So far, the revolutions seem, mostly, contained in the Arab world. They have not spread to Sahelian or sub-Saharan authoritarian states in Africa—other than a messy, not very ideological brief civil war in Côte d’Ivoire, some quickly squelched stirrings in Zimbabwe, and a Tuareg rebellion in northern Mali’s Azawad region waged mainly by decommissioned mercenaries from Libya’s civil war (that one still a volatile situation, having led to a coup; see my blog article on Mali’s civil war—and another on separatist faultlines in Muslim Africa). Muslim countries to the east, such as Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia, which surely could do with a little bit of street politics if that’s what it takes to liberalize their governments, have not had anything remotely like an Arab Spring–style awakening of civil society. And Iranians, remembering an invigorating but mostly failed uprising over a contested election in 2009, have not seemed eager to try such a thing again—at least not while they are waiting to see whether Israel bombs them or not. Nor, in Russia, have the so-called “Russian Winter” protests of late 2011 materialized into anything substantive; Vladimir Putin has just swindled his way back into power without much fear of anyone standing in his way.
But this month (March 2012), as the Kurdish New Year approached, the Arab Spring seemed poised to spread to one other nation—in fact, measured by population (perhaps between 30 or 40 million), the largest stateless nation in the world: Kurdistan. Turkey’s banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (P.K.K.), a nominally Communist militia, and its legal political wing, the Peace and Democracy Party (B.D.P.), called for a series of uprisings modeled on the Arab Spring. On March 18th, thousands of Kurds marched in rallies across Turkey, with the largest in Diyarbakir, Turkish Kurdistan’s symbolic capital, where 40,000 protesters faced down police riot hoses. One Kurd was killed in the street violence. A planned declaration of statehood by Turkey’s Kurds was planned for March 20th but is now postponed. There were simultaneous flare-ups of civil war in the mountains of southeastern Turkey, where a low level of warfare between federal and Kurdish fighters has been going on for decades, but which had been quiet recently. Almost simultaneously, the president of Iraq’s Kurds made a pivotal address, already being called his Enough Is Enough Speech, which some observers say amounts to a secession from Iraq (all these developments reported last week in this blog). In December, I wrote about Kurdistan as one of “Ten Separatist Movements to Watch in 2012.” Will the Arab Spring finally be the catalyst that frees the Kurds from the Turkish yoke—and from the Syrian, Iraqi, and Iranian ones too?
First, some geography and history. Kurdistan is the name for the areas where Kurds predominate: eastern, but mostly southeastern, Turkey (where Kurds form 20% of the population nationally), northwestern Iran (Kurds are 10% of Iran), northern Iraq (15-20%) and the fringes of northern Syria (9%). All of this is mountainous, difficult terrain, where Kurdish fighters have persisted for generations, fighting against regime after regime.
Kurds were not always stateless. They enjoyed independence in a cluster of sovereign emirates flourishing briefly, in the nineteenth century, in what is now western Iran and northern Iraq, until the Turkish-run Ottoman Empire reasserted control. When Ottoman possessions were distributed among western European victors at the end of the First World War, Kurds were made a minority in the newly created kingdoms of Syria and Iraq, their territory spilling over also into the newly created Turkish Republic, where the majority of the Kurdish nation still lives. Originally, both Kurds and Armenians were to be given generous homelands (with Kurdistan under partial French stewardship) under the Treaty of Sèvres. The treaty, crafted under League of Nations auspices, was vigorously supported by President Woodrow Wilson, but never implemented because of the establishment of the expansionist Turkish Republic (though in northern Iraq a Kingdom of Kurdistan was briefly established in the early 1920s). Kurds were a poor match with Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s fledgling republic. Whereas the “young Turks” who governed from Istanbul were secular, modern, urban, and ultranationalistic, Turkey’s Kurds were pious, traditional, and rural and had fit better into Turkey’s earlier incarnation as a vigorously multiethnic empire united by faith.
What the Treaty of Sèvres envisioned
Flag of the Republic of Ararat (1927-1930)
The Cold War kept Kurdish national ambitions submerged. Turkey, as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s frontline state—at that time the only member state bordering the Soviet Union—was able to do what it felt necessary to keep Kurds in their place without fear of United States or western European complaint. Its belligerence in places like Cyprus was treated gingerly by the West.
Iraq and Syria, during most of the Cold War, were both run by dictators belonging to the Arab-nationalist Ba’ath Party. In Iran, Kurds were briefly independent as the Kurdish Republic of Mahabad, a Soviet puppet state set up by Josef Stalin as a way of staying in control of northern Iran after officially withdrawing at the Second World War’s end, but when Stalin abandoned the Kurds they were quickly reabsorbed by the Western-friendly dictator installed by the United Kingdom, Shah Reza Pahlavi.
Flag of the Kurdish Republic of Mahabad (1945-46), also a commonly used flag for Kurdistan in general
After the fall of the Mahabad Republic, its president, Mustafa Barzani, decamped in 1958 to Iraq and founded the Kurdistan Democratic Party. At first, he was allied with Abd al-Karim Qasim, the pro-Soviet Sunni revolutionary who had overthrown the British-aligned Kingdom of Iraq and become the new republic’s first prime minister. But when the Ba’athists removed Qasim in a coup in 1963, Barzani became an enemy of the state, and throughout the rest of the 1960s and 1970s, he and his peshmerga fighters waged continuous war for independence against the Ba’athists running Iraq, taking support from the K.G.B., the C.I.A., or whoever was willing as geopolitics shifted over the years.
The new Ba’athist dictator who took power in 1968, Saddam Hussein, was even more virulently Arab-nationalist and ruled both northern Iraqi Kurds and southern Iraqi Shiites with an iron fist. In 1970, the multi-sectarian Ba’athists of Syria were replaced in a coup by the Assad dynasty which still runs the country today (but not for long). Hafez al-Assad—father of the current dictator, Bashar al-Assad—was from the Alawite branch of Shi’a Islam, a minority in Syria but one sympathetic, ultimately, to Iran. The Alawite takeover in Damascus left Syria’s Kurds, who were mostly Sunni and mostly recent (1920s) refugees from persecution in Turkey, fairly powerless and secluded in the northern mountains, most even officially stateless.
In Iran, the new Shiite revolutionary Islamist regime that overthrew the Shah in 1979 is more intolerant of Kurdish cultural rights than the Shah was: Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini declared a jihad against Kurdish separatism soon after taking power, and he regarded the mostly-Sunni Kurds as vulnerable to becoming tools of foreign Sunni governments hostile to the revolution. But Iranian Kurds never had it as bad as their Iraqi brethren. The Kurdish language is related to Persian, not to Arabic or Turkish, and, although Iran’s Kurds are Sunnis, they are mostly integrated into a society that is nominally pan-Islamist and theocratic, not ethnonationalistic.
Iran’s ethnic groups
In the 1980s, Kurds were caught between Iran and Iraq in their long, bloody war. Khomeini continued the Shah’s practice of supporting Kurdish rebels in Iraq, even while keeping Iran’s own Kurds in their place when it came to autonomy—just as Hussein stepped up efforts to incite an insurgency by the majority Sunni Arabs in Iran’s southwestern Khuzestan region, which he coveted. Hussein retaliated against northern Iraqi Kurds with a notorious massacre of civilians in 1988, using chemical weapons—illegal weapons that, ironically, had been clandestinely provided to Hussein by the U.S. in the hopes that they would be used against Iranian civilians, not Iraqi ones. Hypocritically, the U.S. used this massacre as evidence of Hussein’s brutality as it waged, with western European allies, the First Gulf War, in 1991, to repel Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. The U.S. hoped that Kurds and Shiites would use the opportunity of the war to rise up against Hussein, but they were insufficiently organized and supplied. Nor did President George H. W. Bush make any effort to help Iraqi Kurds secure independence—perhaps out of deference to Turkey, whose aid was crucial to Bush’s logistics.
Saddam Hussein’s Kurdish policy
Iraq’s no-fly zones (1991-2003)
The Turkish military polices the border with Iraq aggressively and makes forays into Iraq to root out separatists whenever it deems it necessary. The U.S. has tended to make sure Iraq’s Kurds never complain too much about this. In fact, the greatest threat to Turkish control of its Kurdistan region in the modern period has come from Syria. Hafez al-Assad began supplying and supporting Kurdish rebels in Turkey in the 1990s, and in 1998 this nearly brought Turkey and Syria to war. Turkey massed tanks and troops along the border until Assad backed down and withdrew his support for the P.K.K.
Post-Hussein Iraq, no longer a Sunni-dominated Ba’athist regime but now a shaky Shiite-majority democratic republic, is in some senses a client state of the U.S. but also diverges from the U.S. in its efforts to stay on Iran’s good side, not making enemies where it does not need to, so it too has been rather weak in its denunciations of Assad. Turkey, realizing that its cool but stable relationship with Damascus over the past decade had if nothing else kept its Kurdish problem from worsening, initially stood back too but has gradually come around to being one of the fiercest critics of Assad in the region.
Meanwhile, Kurds are strikingly absent from the Syrian opposition. Assad bought them off early on in the uprising by granting long-overdue citizenship rights, and Kurds, from their mountain retreats, have seemed to see the civil war as more of an Arab-on-Arab squabble. They would like their own autonomous region, like Iraq’s, but they seem to have no interest in joining any P.K.K.-envisioned independent Kurdistan. As for the P.K.K., their fighters along the Turkish-Syrian frontier are now capturing any members of the rebel Free Syrian Army (F.S.A.) that cross the border and turning them in to the Assad regime. Perhaps Turkey’s Kurds are doing this out of fear that a Sunni Arab majority regime in Damascus would be less Kurd-friendly than Assad’s, but mostly they seem to want to keep the border sealed and tidy so that Turkey will not feel the need to send troop reinforcements into Turkish Kurdistan to do that job itself. In any case, the Turkish government is now claiming intelligence confirming that Syria is once again supporting the P.K.K., supposedly as retaliation for Turkey’s turning publicly against Assad, and that P.K.K. fighters now move freely throughout Syria—although why Assad would spend his energies on helping Turkey’s Kurds when his very survival is at stake closer to home is not explained.
Members of the Free Syrian Army
Earlier this month, the Kurdish situation became more volatile on two fronts. First, the P.K.K. and the B.D.P. called explicitly for Arab Spring–style street protests throughout Turkey for the weekend of March 17-18 (as reported in this blog). The P.K.K.’s field commander, Murat Karayılan, announced, “From here on we must stop serving in the Turkish army, paying taxes, and using the Turkish language. A new phase has begun.” This rhetoric is not new, but for tens of thousands to heed it and take to the streets, as they did, was. 40,000 Kurds packed the streets of Diyarbakir alone. Clearly, they are emboldened by the courage of common people just over the border in Syria. The Turkish government responded with riot hoses, curfews (over 700 Kurds were arrested, and one killed), and, simultaneously, renewed attacks on rebel positions in the mountains, using cover from the Turkish air force. On March 20th, a Turkish court convicted, and threatened with heavy sentences, two intellectuals—Büşra Ersanlı, an economics professor, and Ragıp Zarakolu, a publisher and a candidate for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize—for inciting Kurdish rebellion through their (actually rather mild) academic activities, which are linked to the B.D.P. Ankara has also raided the offices of a major newspaper deemed too pro-Kurdish and shut it down. Turkey has never really had freedom of speech; but right now it seems to be in the mood to remind Kurds of this.
Kurds are working up their courage
The second front is in northern Iraq, where the Kurdish Regional Government has felt more and more isolated from Baghdad since elections placed the majority Shiite in power. (Iraqi Kurds are mostly Sunni.) Although, constitutionally, Kurds are part of Iraq’s power-sharing arrangement, the K.R.G.’s President Barzani is a leading critic of the authoritarian tendencies of Iraq’s Shiite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki. Iraq’s Shiites, now in power, are far less friendly to the idea of Kurdish autonomy than they were when both Shiites and Kurds were eager to get out from under the Sunni Arab Ba’athist thumb. Late last year, Maliki accused his Sunni Arab vice-president, Tariq al-Hashemi, of running his own death squads and put out an arrest warrant for him. Hashemi fled to Iraqi Kurdistan, where he is today, protected by Barzani, who refuses to extradite him, saying to do so would violate “Kurdish ethics.” Also, Barzani is trying to close lucrative development deals with the Exxon Mobil Corporation, which it asserts it can do without approval from Baghdad; Maliki disagrees. And Barzani has become more and more outspoken about the burden on K.R.G. social services of Arab refugees from Iraq’s sectarian fighting who have settled in Kurdistan, and about the too-small borders of his quasi-state, which he says should include the city of Kirkuk. Iraqi Kurdistan has a large share of Iraq’s oil compared to its share of the population; this has enabled it to wrangle a lot of concessions out of Baghdad, but now even those are not enough. On March 20th, Barzani threatened to pull out of the fragile coalition which rules Iraq, which, if he followed through, would plunge Shiite and Sunni Arabs back into political, maybe even violent, conflict. Iraqi Arabs are regarding Barzani’s announcement as a veritable declaration of independence.
Iran. As already mentioned, Iran’s Kurds are better integrated into the national society than those in Syria, Iraq, or Turkey. Although the Shah had his own brand of nationalism, Iran was relatively unaffected by the muscular nationalism of either Atatürk or Nasser. During the Hussein era in Iraq, Iran’s aid to Iraqi Kurdish rebels showed how unworried it was about its own Kurdish uprisings. Hussein had much less luck trying to incite rebellion in Iranian Kurdistan. Likewise, today, U.S. and Israeli intelligence agencies infiltrating Iran—using Azerbaijan and Iraqi Kurdistan as staging grounds—are focusing on inciting rebellion in Iran’s Balochistan and Khuzestan regions, knowing that they will not get very far trying to convince Kurds to rise up.
A Middle East divided between Sunnis and Shi’as
Turkey. Turkey’s primary domestic aim is to keep Kurds in line and within Turkey—something it may no longer, as of 2012, be able to be sure it can keep doing for long. That having been said, Ankara has very specific goals in Syria, Iran, and Iraq with respect to the Kurdish question. In Syria, it is finally exercising some payback to the Assad regime for supporting Turkey’s Kurds in the 1990s. Syrian Kurds would like their own autonomous region, not a separate state, but that would not suit Turkey at all since that is precisely the part of Syria Turkey would like to put back under a Sunni Arab thumb if possible, or at least under the thumb of a not particularly Kurd-friendly Arab regime after Assad. We have already seen that Turkey has no compunctions about militarizing the Syrian border and using force if necessary to hasten the end of what had been the only real Kurd-friendly foreign regime in the neighborhood. But whether Syria’s Kurds manage to establish an autonomy area for themselves will largely depend on whether they pursue it before or after Assad’s fall. If the opposition gains control before an autonomous region is in place, they may get nothing but violent payback for their having sided with Assad. Turkey would be happy to help with that.
A Kurdish anti-Assad rally in Syria—though there haven’t been as many of those as you’d think
Map showing different Kurdish claims over the years
The West. It is the West’s response to events that will be determinate. The big question here is whether the U.S., the European Union, NATO, and Israel will have the nerve to say to Turkey, essentially, “What have you done for us lately? Why should we continue to parrot your line on the evilness of all Kurds?”
In a sense, this divorce is already gradually occurring. Turkey has been so stung both by Cyprus’s admission to the E.U. and by continuing stonewalling in its efforts to join the E.U. (even Serbia has been fast-tracked in front of it!) that it has clearly stopped even pretending to reform its human-rights situation. NATO needs Turkey much less as a bulwark against Russia now that most of the Balkans are in NATO, with even Ukraine a likely eventual member. The U.S. wasn’t able to count on Saudi Arabian and Turkish bases during the Second (2003) Gulf War as it had in the first, but it is now using Iraqi Kurdistan and Azerbaijan as a staging ground for any possible future confrontations with Iran. So who really needs Turkey?
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Barack Obama
In many ways, the ball is in Turkey’s court. The Middle East is transforming beyond recognition, but Ankara is reacting to events with a 1920s geopolitical mentality. Kurdistan is rising. The world had better make room for it.
[For those who are wondering, yes, this blog is tied in with my forthcoming book, a sort of encyclopedic atlas to be published by Auslander and Fox under the title Let’s Split! A Complete Guide to Separatist Movements, Independence Struggles, Breakaway Republics, Rebel Provinces, Pseudostates, Puppet States, Tribal Fiefdoms, Micronations, and Do-It-Yourself Countries, from Chiapas to Chechnya and Tibet to Texas. The book is now in the layout phase and should be on shelves, and available on Amazon, by early fall 2014. I will be keeping readers posted of further publication news. Meanwhile, please “like” the book (even though you haven’t read it yet) on Facebook.]