Regarding the Still Pending Kurdish Question

16.03.2017 Author: Viktor Mikhin

23423123123President of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, Masoud Barzani, has recently stated that even without the approval of Baghdad, the autonomy shall eventually have to hold a referendum on independence. According to him, the people of Iraqi Kurdistan have a “natural right” to hold a referendum on independence. In this regard, it should be pointed out that, despite the persuasions of the West, Iraqi Kurdistan has in recent years repeatedly stated its intention to hold a plebiscite on independence. In particular, when Masoud Barzani recently gave a speech in Washington, he noted that the plebiscite would be held after successfully completing combat operations against the terrorist group DAISH. He also quite clearly stated, “Even though we have failed to effectively cooperate with Iraq, I still hope that we will become good neighbors.” (Interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, January 2017).

It is no coincidence that the Kurdish President emphasized the disagreements between Erbil and Baghdad, which have continued for a long time. And presently, as Nechirvan Barzani, the Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), noted, despite the fact that no progress has been made in settling disputes with Baghdad, military coordination between the KRG and the federal government remains at a high level. Incidentally, N. Barzani made this statement during a meeting with a delegation of the US Congress headed by Joe Wilson, who recently visited Kurdistan. This clearly demonstrates the interest of the new US administration in Washington to maintain friendly relations not only with Baghdad, but also with Erbil.

Interestingly, a letter by the former Secretary of State John Kerry, which he prepared pending the termination of his tenure, was recently published in the Kurdish Autonomy. In it, the American diplomat called Masoud Barzani “a strong ally and loyal friend,” and, speaking of the Peshmerga forces, he said that the troops were bravely and honorably fulfilling their duty in the ongoing struggle against DAISH. Kerry also highly appreciated the efforts of the people of Kurdistan in providing protection to almost 2 million refugees and displaced people, as well as in their commitment to the peaceful coexistence of diverse ethnic groups and religions. In other words, the old US administration gave over its old friends to Donald Trump and the new administration, who are expected to continue providing the assistance.

Meanwhile, in neighboring Syria, the Kurds, who make up only 9% of the population, did not go as far as their Iraqi brothers. So far, their goal is only aimed at expanding their political and cultural rights in the governance of the country. “We want Syria to belong to everyone!” Hawas Khalil, representative of the Kurdish National Council (KNC), told to a correspondent of Euronews, on the background of the inter-Syrian talks taking place in Geneva. It is worth recalling that, among the various groups opposed to the Bashar Assad regime, the Kurdish opposition groups occupy a special place. At the same time, the goal of the Syrian Kurds is to expand their political and cultural rights while remaining an integral part of Syria. By the way, the consolidation of the Syrian Kurds has recently intensified, and it was no accident that in 2011, the KNC, comprising of 16 Kurdish parties, was established in Erbil. Hawas Khalil is still rather cautious: “We want Syria to be a neutral country, we want it to be a country for all of us. We also hope that Syria remains a secular state in the future, and that this will be directly enshrined in its constitution.”

Following the fighting with the government forces of Bashar Assad, the forces of the Syrian “moderate opposition” and DAISH, Syrian Kurds took control of the vast areas along the Syrian-Turkish border. They created three provinces (Jazira, Kobani and Afrin) and announced the creation of the Rojava Autonomy, with its capital in the city of El Kamishli. We shall recall that, although the Syrian Kurds now control two-thirds of the north of the country, their representatives were not included in the Geneva negotiations that were conducted at the request of Ankara. In March last year, a congress of Kurdish representatives and representatives of the other ethnicities inhabiting the region proclaimed an autonomy consisting of three parts in the north of Syria. At the same time, an announcement that Syrian Kurdistan was in favor of the federalization of the country was immediately spoken out against by Damascus and Ankara, which considers the Democratic Union Party of the Syrian Kurds to be a “terrorist organization.”

On its part, Washington demagogically stated that it viewed Syria as a single country and did not recognize semi-autonomous zones as sovereign. However, this has not deterred the Americans from continuing to assist the Syrian Kurds in their fight against the terrorists and turning a blind eye to the Kurds’ attack on the “moderate opposition” factions, which the United States still heavily support. At present, the Syrian Democratic Forces formation, with the support of the American coalition, is driving out militants from the territories bordering with Turkey, and have already won a number of towns and villages in the north-east of the province of Aleppo. Thus, the Kurds are trying to unite all their three cantons, after which they will control up to 90% of the Turkish-Syrian border. Ankara is fiercely and actively opposing this, threatening with a military response and fighting.

Moscow, however, has diplomatically reacted to the Kurdish autonomy in Syria by stating that the internal workings and structure of the country is the business of the Syrian people themselves. Currently, the most important thing is to defeat DAISH and drive out the militants and other rabble from Syrian territory.

On the other hand, the Turkish government, and personally President Erdogan himself, is taking quite the opposite stance in relation to the Kurds. President Erdogan is particularly very concerned that after the US enlisted the support of the Syrian Kurds, it has de facto become the official ally of the Kurdish Democratic Union party, while the Turks recognize it as a “terrorist organization.” The government officials in Ankara have desperately tried to pressure the United States to recognize the so-called ‘Democratic Union’ as a terrorist group, but so far, these efforts have been demonstrably futile. Turkey is very much afraid that the creation of a Kurdish autonomy in Syria will become a snowball that will doubtlessly entail additional problems, least of which is the possibility that the population in the southeast of Turkey will begin demanding the same. Nevertheless, Ankara has simultaneously maintained a dialogue with the official leadership of the Iraqi Kurds, and cooperation in the field of energy transportation is developing. Despite this, relations with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which is based in the mountains of northern Iraq and in some parts of Turkey, is quite a different matter for the Turkish authorities.

Beyond that, Turkey has painfully been trying to assimilate the fact that the US has enlisted the support of the Kurds in the fight against DAISH. It is apparent that even though the US and Turkey both agree that it is necessary to solve the problem of DAISH, the two countries have different ways of viewing the problem. And despite the fact that Turkey is a member of NATO and an American ally in the Middle East in the fight against the DAISH terrorists, the bottleneck issue of the details of US-Turkish cooperation in the military operation in Syria has not yet been completely resolved.

Ankara regards the Kurds as one of the main threats to its national security, and thus cannot allow them to have a strong foothold in Syria. In particular, President Erdogan expects to prevent the Kurdish Democratic Union detachments from participating in the storming of Raqqa. This issue has even become a matter of dispute between Ankara and Washington, with the Turkish side flatly rejecting the Americans’ proposal to join forces with the Kurdish detachments to liberate the city. Which is understandable: after all, earlier, the Kurdish leaders had announced their intention to include Raqqa as a part of the new Kurdish autonomy after the DAISH terrorists have been kicked out of the city.

It is abundantly obvious that eventually, the militants will be driven from the territories of Syria and Iraq by force, and then, the so-called Kurdish Question, which the international community has dismally failed to solve for a whole century, will arise again. It is common knowledge that following the results of the First World War, when the Ottoman Empire was defeated and Arab lands were liberated, a number of Arab states were created and mandated to Great Britain and France. At the same time, the territories, on which the Kurds had consistently lived for centuries, were divided. For example, the southern part (the Mosul Vilayet) was included as a part of Iraq, mandated to England on behalf of the League of Nations; the southwestern part (the strip along the Turkish-Syrian border) was incorporated as a part of Syria as French mandated territory. This further doubled the partitioning of Kurdistan, thus significantly complicating the Kurds’ struggle for self-determination, and made the geopolitical position of the newly created states more vulnerable, due to the intensification of the intervention of the western colonial powers in the affairs of the Kurdish region. Moreover, the discovery of the largest reserves of oil, first in Southern Kurdistan, and the beginning of its extraction there in the 1930s, and soon also in other nearby regions of the Arab East, further actualized the significance of the Kurdish Question for the imperialist powers, especially in connection with the rapid rise of national liberation movements throughout Kurdistan.

The Kurdish people who, according to official figures, number up to 40 million people currently inhabit a single territory that is owned by four countries – Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. The Kurds have never reconciled themselves to a subordinate position, and have constantly been organizing a series of uprisings in the Ottoman Empire and Persia, actively continuing to rebel in Turkey, Iraq and now in Syria. Iran is the only country, in which the Kurds have not yet raised an insurrection and resolutely announced their decision to create a separate state. But this, as they say, is only a question of time.

The international community shall eventually have to get to grips and start dealing with the problem of the Kurdish people, who see their future in their own separate state. This is precisely why the Kurds are actively fighting against terrorists in Syria and Iraq, after having for many years raised the question of Kurdish national identity in Turkey. Together with their leaders, the Kurds strongly believe that they, right now, can fully raise the issue of their legal rights, including the right to create their own state, for consideration by the wider international community.

Viktor Mikhin, a member of the Russian Academy of Natural Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.