Pictures of Kurdish women fighters alongside men surprised many in the West and the October withdrawal of American forces from northern Syria cast a spotlight on Kurdish self-determination. But how realistic is a state of Kurdistan, an egalitarian one, at that?
Kurdish majority areas include tracts of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. Of a total 30 million (mainly Sunni) Kurds in the Middle East, about half live in Turkey. Over the centuries, ‘Kurdistan’ consisted of autonomous and semi-autonomous emirates, the people united in language and culture. The Kurds have suffered second-class status, Arabisation, exploitation and betrayal, often exacerbated by tribalism and internecine conflict. Their complex story weaves a knotty carpet of shifting alliances, rivalry and intrigue.
Following World War I, a unified Kurdistan was endorsed in the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres but abandoned three years later in the Treaty of Lausanne, which granted Turkey borders that incorporated Kurdish-populated regions. An Iranian Kurdish republic in Mahabad lasted one year during 1946 but generally, Iranian Kurds have been an oppressed minority. In particular, the Islamic Republic has persecuted Iranian Kurds and pitted them against their Iraqi brethren.
Saddam Hussein supported a rebellion of Iranian Kurds to leverage his war effort during the Iran-Iraq War (1980 – 1988) but used chemical weapons against Iraqi Kurds in the genocidal Anfal campaign. During the first Gulf War of 1991, Iraqi Kurds responded to the call of US President George H. W. Bush urging a revolt against Saddam. Television images of fleeing Kurds later prompted coalition forces led by the US and UK to impose a no-fly zone over much of northern Iraq, effectively establishing an autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan. Following elections, a liberal unity government was formed in the region, with a power-sharing arrangement between the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) leader, Masoud Barzani, and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) leader Jalal Talabani. Both rulers, who were also leaders of major Kurdish tribes, eventually developed a sultanistic system, characterised by nepotism and cronyism.
KDP and PUK feuding culminated in the Iraqi Kurdish Civil War (1994 – 1997) in which Turkey and Iran exploited the two factions for their own objectives.Intra-Kurdish enmity resurged in 2017 when Barzani’s KDP pushed forward an independence referendum tantamount to secession. Fearing Iraq’s fracture, the US opposed the referendum. Baghdad split the Kurdish groups through a separate agreement with the PUK, enabling central government forces and Shiite militias to readily retake the oil-rich region of Kirkuk, indispensable for the financial sustainability of Iraqi Kurdistan.
In Syria, Hafiz al-Assad utilised Kurdish nationalist groups to pressure rivals Iraq and Turkey. Seeking to undermine Iraq, Hafiz supported the KDP and PUK; to subvert Turkey, he assisted the Marxist-oriented Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), designated a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the EU and US. PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan had conducted an insurgency in Turkey from his base in Syria. About 40,000 people died before an agreement between Syria and Turkey led the latter to capture Ocalan in 1999. From prison, Ocalan renounced the PKK’s Marxist doctrine; developing his ‘Democratic Confederalism’, inspired by American libertarian socialist Murray Bookchin. Ocalan’s order included women’s rights and citizen assemblies from grassroots to national levels.
During the Syrian civil war that followed the Arab Spring, Syrian government troops from the north were deployed south in 2012. The ensuing vacuum facilitated the rise of Rojava (Western Kurdistan), a self-proclaimed autonomous region in northeast Syria. This latest iteration of an independent Kurdish territory of 3.5 to 5 million people in three amalgamated enclaves included Turkmen, Christians and Yazidis. By 2014, Rojava had a constitution based on Ocalan’s doctrines.
Rojava’s women’s organisations achieved important reforms, facilitated by renouncing religious fundamentalism. Honour killings, violence against women, and gender discrimination became punishable crimes and child marriage, forced marriage, FGM and polygamy abolished. Sharia courts were dismantled, civil marriage contracts issued, and gender equality in court testimony and inheritance introduced. From its inception, Rojava had battled with jihadi groups. Finally, a US-led coalition against Islamic State intervened in 2014 with airpower, weapons and training for the Kurdish-led militias of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and their women’s division, the YPJ. When the US entered their military partnership with the YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), they chose to disregard YPG ties to the terrorist PKK.
By March 2019, IS had been driven out, and in mid-October, US troops began withdrawing from northeast Syria, making way for a Turkish military offensive. Syrian Kurds accused the Americans of betrayal and fearing a massacre were forced to cut a deal with Bashar al-Assad, even though his regime was bent on reconquering northern Syria.
Turkey’s incursion resulted in civilian deaths on both sides of the border and the displacement of more than 300,000 people. From Erdogan’s perspective, creating a ‘safe zone’ on the Syrian side would strengthen his domestic popularity, and distance both the YPG and Rojava’s dangerous model of secular autonomy that could inspire Turkish Kurds.
Major powers have scrambled to exploit the turbulent Syrian chequerboard, forging new geo-strategic realities in the Kurdish region. Iran continues a policy of ethnic cleansing, replacing Sunni Syrian refugees with a Shiite population. Turkey aims to forcibly resettle millions of refugees in the ‘safe zone’, and has threatened to flood Europe with refugees if the EU labels Operation Peace Spring an ‘invasion’. The US has re-entered the field to resume operations against remnants of IS and safeguard Syria’s Deir Ezzor oil fields, perhaps also foiling any Russian or Iranian schemes to fund proxies and mercenaries with oil revenue.
Although autonomous Kurdish regions such as Rojava and Iraqi Kurdistan have emerged, a coalesced Kurdistan looks remote. Kurdish leadership is deeply divided by rivalry and treachery, and the four countries with major Kurdish regions are unlikely to relinquish required territory. The US would not endorse such upheaval, let alone back a socialist entity. And support for a new nation-state might seem obsolete in a postmodern West where borders and sovereignty are considered increasingly irrelevant.
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