mead cohen berger shevtsova garfinkle michta grygiel blankenhorn
Is a Kurdish Spring on the Way?

The world has been mesmerized by the revolutionary upsurge across the Arab Spring as longstanding dictatorships fell under popular pressure. But are the Arabs the only people in the Middle East to get a spring?

Via Meadia was early to the story of rising tensions between Turkey and Syria, spurred on by a spate of bold new terrorist provocations by the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) inside Turkey. This week’s Economist fills in some details of what’s been going on:

The spike in terrorist activity may be linked to the August 15th anniversary of its 28-year-old armed campaign for Kurdish independence (the PKK says it would now settle for autonomy). Yet Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, puts the blame on Syria’s president, Bashar Assad. Mr Erdogan says Mr Assad has resumed the support for the PKK that ended when Turkey threatened to go to war against his father in 1998. Mr Erdogan’s critics retort that he is himself to blame. Turkey’s firm support for Syria’s rebels has won Mr Assad’s enmity along with that of Iran, home to several PKK camps.

Last month Mr Assad ceded control of a string of mainly Kurdish towns, prompting Turkey to send more troops to the border. Whether he acted out of spite or necessity, the effect has been the same. The Democratic Union Party (PYD), a PKK offshoot, promptly established control, hoisting the Kurdish flag over Syrian government buildings along with large posters of the imprisoned PKK leader, Abdullah Ocalan. Perhaps a third of the PKK’s fighters are Syrian Kurds, whose hawkish commander, code-named Bahoz Erdal, is thought to have masterminded the recent attacks.

Of course, Kurdish separatism is nothing knew, and has been a focal point of Turkish, Syrian and Iraqi policy for decades. Yet it seems that things have changed a bit in recent months; surely the Kurds are closely watching the success uprisings of the Arabs living among them:

If Turkey would only grant its 14m Kurds some of the rights enjoyed by their cousins in Iraq, the PKK’s terrorist tactics and antediluvian Marxist doctrine would surely lose its appeal. The trouble is that, buoyed by the Arab spring, the region’s 30m Kurds are increasingly looking beyond their own borders towards an independent state uniting them all.

Increasingly, what’s happening in the Middle East begins to look like a challenge to the territorial order that followed the Sykes-Picot agreement between Britain and France in 1915. That agreement, as refined in the early 1920s, divided the Middle East according to boundary lines that persist today, dividing formerly Ottoman territory into such countries as Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, and drawing modern Turkey’s frontiers.

That 90 year old political settlement was a mess from the beginning. The Kurdish hope for self determination was denied, leading to intermittent rounds of guerrilla warfare and confrontation ever since. Lebanon was an artificial entity that became increasingly war torn and fragile. Israel, the Palestinian territories and Jordan have all had tumultuous and often unhappy histories. Syria resented the loss of Lebanon and its mix of religious and ethnic groups never generated a healthy political or civil society. Iraq — is what we see.

Incoherent societies within artificial borders held together by authoritarian rule — either by colonial powers or by local despots: this has been the formula that held the Levant together for much of the last 90 years. Now that formula doesn’t seem to work anymore. Foreign powers lost the ability to prop up local governments in the 1950s, and now the domestic despots have failed. (The king in Jordan, the least despotic of the bunch, presides gingerly over a fragile polity, hoping that events in the neighborhood won’t destroy the delicate equilibrium the dynasty has painstakingly built.)

Now the question is whether the Sykes-Picot states (Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq) can long survive in their present boundaries. During this time of uncertainty, the sectarian divisions among the Arabs in the general political crisis have allowed Kurds to grasp unprecedented autonomy — in Iraq and now in Syria. Kurds cannot help but hope that the crisis of the Sykes-Picot states (and the equally profound changes in Turkey) offer them new hope for a state of their own — if not the full Greater Kurdistan of which they dream, at least a small state with ties to Turkey in northern Iraq and Syria. Then, who knows, the confrontation between Iran and the West offers hope for expansion into Iranian Kurdistan.

The Kurds have been disappointed many times before, but they will surely hope that this time will be different. The experience of self government in northern Iraq, where first the no-fly zone and then the weakness of central government in Iraq since 2003 have given Kurds their longest and most successful experience with power in modern times, has increased Kurdish capacity for political action and whetted the appetite of many Kurds for freedom.

Nobody knows where the Middle East is heading today, but even if the Kurds are ultimately disappointed once again, their quest for a state of their own will play a significant role in the quest for a new system in the lands between the Mediterranean and Iran.

Features Icon
show comments
  • Yves Miedzianogora

    Kurdish self-determination would be a game changer,particularly in view of the fact that Israel maintains good relations with the Kurds in Iraq.Imagine an alliance between Israel and 30million Kurds.An attack against Iran would make even more sense inasmuch as the axis Iran- Syria- shite Lebanon could then be more easily defeated if the Kurds were properly armed.

  • Alex Scipio

    If a Kurdish “Spring” is to be reminiscent of the Egyptian “Spring,” Kurdish women had better hope it’s not coming.

  • Micha

    What’s the situation of Kurds in Iran anyway?

  • Cunctator

    I think the West ought to encourage the Kurds demands for self-determination. It will light a fire under Turkey that will quickly reveal that country to be anything but a moderate-minded ally. It would also impact quite heavily on Syria, and effectively weaken Iran’s hold on Iraq. The enemy of my enemy…

  • dearieme

    This sort of writing isn’t much good unless it tells the reader who is arming and funding the Brave Freedom Fighters in question.

  • J R Yankovic

    Oh the exquisite irony of it all. To say nothing of the manifold injustice. To think those irrepressible Kurds are still with us. I mean, by now you’d think they’d have had the progressive-minded (or productive-minded; I’m appealing to the best of both Left and Right here) decency to relegate THEMSELVES to the dustbin of history. To get with the 21st-century program: to subordinate and fracture their common ethnic identity along the lines of some overarching, globalizing religious loyalty – Shias to join the global Shiite movement, Sunnis the global Sunni, Avedis to the global Avedi, etc. The very fact that the great bulk of Kurds still accept some common notion of fellowship among themselves – worst of all, one that mostly OVERRIDES confessional differences? – I mean, to paraphrase a popular reality TV show, who DOES that anymore? Next thing you’ll be telling me they’re actually prepared, in ALL their various host countries, to organize themselves along lines of prosperous autonomy and moderately secular self-governance (a trend in which the Iraqis among them have already shown disturbing signs of progress). No wonder Turks, Syrians, Iraqis and Iranians alike are terrified of even the mildest expressions of Kurdish self-determination; they’re nothing short of a knife-thrust at the heart of all these countries’ decent moves towards greater history-trampling, local culture-annihilating Sunni and Shia fanaticism. Make no mistake, folks: For the sake of the peace and progress of all the neighboring countries – er, peoples – um, religions – oh, well, militant sectarians (c’mon, you know what I mean) – we all need to work, hope and pray for the soonest possible demise of Kurdish national identity. In ALL its villainous forms.

    Meanwhile those Kurds seriously need to get a life. A life full of hyper-politicized, self-righteous, puritanical, Muslimer-than-thou religiosity, in which every moment not given to praying (for the damnation of one’s enemies) and conspiracy-mongering is spent chained to the wheel of the all-seeing, all-knowing, omnicompetent Global Economy. A life in which there’ll be no more of this nonsense about shrine-centered mysticism, heroic ballads, mixed-gender dancing, harvest celebrations, unveiled women and erotic poetry. God AND GOLD, I tell you!

    Seriously, people, what’s it going to take to drag these retrograde/reprobates into the 21st century?

  • WigWag

    Can someone please explain to me why if Europe refuses to conclude that Hezbollah is a terrorist organization and Turkey refuses to concede that Hamas is a terrorist organization the United States should label the PKK as a terrorist organization?

  • Kris

    One factor that has frustrated Kurdish aspirations is their infighting. Conversely, a major factor in the recent Kurdish success in Iraq is that the two main factions have reconciled. It is thus heartening that in this window of opportunity, the Kurds of Syria have reportedly set aside their differences and joined together to establish a form of autonomous government.

  • X Ram

    Viva Kurdistan!

  • Genco Cavus

    Biji Kurd u Kurdistan

  • Frank Arden

    Hey, Wig-Wag@7, good to find you again.

    By the way, we enjoyed our usual, 450-year old traditional Anglican Morning Prayer service today at St. Johns Savannah without interference from Madame Shori.

    So now,

    “Can someone please explain to me why if Europe refuses to conclude that Hezbollah is a terrorist organization and Turkey refuses to concede that Hamas is a terrorist organization the United States should label the PKK as a terrorist organization?”

    That’s a fine question, but don’t look to me for an answer. It’s not that I don’t care to have one, but rather for the same reason for not having an answer that a famous US president claimed it was “above my pay scale.”

    And I don’t expect any pay raises soon as my learning curve about all this is not very steep, but I’m trying.

    Although they’re many differences, the status quo of the Kurds has several parallels to pre-1948 Israel.

    The Kurds are without a nation in the sense of a recognized national state. They have been abused. They are diasporic. They have no border for their cultural and religious affinities. There is no such thing as Kurdistan today not any more than Israel was a similar thing in 1905 when the mere idea of Zion made its appeal to the world.

    Kurdistan is a historically cultural and religious idea that finds it ancient home in a place, an area not recognized by international law. Before 1948, Israel might have been described as exactly the same.

    The PKK/PYD rather reminds me of the Likud Party drawn to extremism (read terrorism) from years of frustration after the Holocaust and even well before that when the concept of Zionism was conceived to provide for a Jewish homeland in the Eastern Mediterranean.

    Likud (just as the KKP/PYD) might have drawn the world’s political attention to the frustrations of the Zionists who wanted, and deserved, a Jewish state built upon a Jewish ancient homeland of common antiquities and culture, but it tactics were obnoxious to the international community and much less effective.

    At the same time we find Oxford educated lawyer Mohandas Gandhi enunciated to the world as the Mahatma of Hindi India seeking independence from the British just when David Ben-Gurion emerges as the westernized George Washington sort of spiritual leader of the future state of Israel to be provided by the British and blessed by international law.

    Without doubt, the mahatma’s success for Indian freedom left baggage behind in Pakistan and in the disputed Kashmir to this day, but is this not unlike the unfinished and frustrated business of a reconciliation of Palestinian/Israeli differences with neighboring Islamic states?

    True, Israel and India have unfinished history when it comes to national security, but not in national identity. The Kurds have both security and identity issues with no concept of national identity recognized by international law.

    It might be simplistic (and it probably is) to say that the Kurds need a westernized leader to unify them and find a coherent policy from Europe and especially from the United States.

    The Kurds are without the institutions enjoyed by the international legal protectorates from British and from the French invention of the Levant after WWI that remained until shortly after WWII.

    Kurds need the sort of man today who can and will communicate the interests of all to post-Assad Syria, post-US Iraq, post- Syria Iran, and Turkey that a Kurdish state is desirable.

    And it is desirable to US and European interests, but Turkey is the key.

    Up to now, it appears that Syria’s Assad, under duress, has found it convenient to give the Kurds de facto control of Kurdish cities in the east. Yes, he needs allies, but this is not a way for the Kurds to make a nation.

    What they need is a westernized David Ben-Gurion to unify and lead them, but men like that hard to find. They always have been.

    I have more to say, but I’m going to stop now. Hope to hear from you about this business.

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2016 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service