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Kurds in the Changing Middle East:
Opportunities and Challenges

By Mehmet Gurses
April 25, 2016

Who are they and why do they matter?

The Kurds, the fourth largest ethnic group in the Middle East, are often referred to as the largest “stateless nation” in the world. Despite their large size, an estimated 30 to 40 million worldwide, they were geographically divided after World War I which made them ethnic minorities in modern Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. Today, they make up roughly 20% of the total populations in Turkey and Iraq and 10% of the total populations in Iran and Syria.

Despite promises for autonomy during upheavals, wars of independence, or regime changes, the new states of Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran have historically resorted to repression and aggressive assimilationist policies toward their Kurdish minorities. In Turkey, for instance, where an estimated half of the total Kurdish population lives, the new elites embarked on an ambitious nation building project of which Turkification constituted a center piece. Efforts to forge a mono-cultural and mono-lingual Turkish society resulted in forced assimilationist policies and rabidly anti-Kurdish state practices. These policies included, but were not limited to, the outright denial of Kurds as a distinct ethnic group, criminalizing the Kurdish language, and a migration policy aimed at diluting the Kurdish-populated provinces. These repressive and assimilationist policies resulted in a century of revolt marked by numerous Kurdish uprisings, including but not limited to, the 1920 Barzinji revolt in Iraq; the 1925 Sheikh Said uprising in Turkey; the 1927-1930 Mount Ararat uprising in Turkey; the 1937-1938 Dersim revolt in Turkey; the 1946 Republic of Mahabad in Iran; the 1968-1970 rebellion in Iraq; the 1979 rebellion in Iran; and the 1984-present PKK conflict in Turkey.

The rise of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in the late 1970s and subsequent armed conflict in 1984, however, has been a game changer. The PKK that started with a few college students in the 1970s has managed to survive, evolve, and grow into the most serious challenge to the state’s order over the course of nearly four decades. The PKK insurgency has been transformative. It has engendered a number of non-violent organizations at both the local and national levels. It has given rise to a number of political organizations including the Democratic Society Congress, an umbrella organization for pro-Kurdish groups, the Democratic Regions Party (DBP), and the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). The latter has been successful in receiving support from millions of Kurds as well as a minority of Turkish liberals and leftists who lent their support in an effort to check the excessive power of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). It has also stimulated a number of women’s groups with radical feminist agendas, and laid the groundwork for local committees to be formed and effectively participate in their localities. Further, through its allies or the organizations it has inspired in neighboring Syria and Iraq, the PKK, despite being listed as a terrorist organization by the United States, has emerged as a key partner in the fight against the Islamic State.

The Changing Middle East:

As the Middle East is undergoing monumental changes, many have pointed to the demise of the Sykes-Picot agreement that brought about modern Middle Eastern states with shaky foundations a century ago. The possibility of rearranging internationally recognized territorial borders in the region is no longer just a fantasy. Iraq and Syria, two states that were carved out of the Ottoman Empire and include significant Kurdish minorities are fractured along ethnic and sectarian lines. These countries have failed to control their borders and are seriously challenged by sub-state actors. Of these sub-state actors, the Kurds and the Islamic State (IS, also known as ISIS or ISIL) have managed to carve out large areas of Iraq and Syria and function like de facto states.

These two sub-state actors represent diametrically opposite views and ideals and have confronted each other in both Iraq and Syria. While the IS aspires to revive the Islamic caliphate and return to the seventh-century Muslim life style, the Kurds have proven to be the most effective force in the fight against such a brutal form of Islamism. The advance of the IS and its horrific acts have generated a wave of refugees and internally displaced people. The Kurds in Iraq and Syria have become home to many of these escapees, especially religious minorities whom the IS consider legitimate targets for killing as well as enslaving.

The Kurdish autonomous region in northern Iraq, which gained official recognition in Iraq’s 2005 constitution, has been described as an island of stability, a trusted ally of the US, and a fledgling democracy in a region marred by violence, instability, and gross human rights violations. The Democratic Union Party (PYD), the largest and most influential Kurdish group in northern Syria that has been credited for destroying the IS’s aura of invincibility, calls for a secular and democratic coexistence between different ethnic and religious groups in Syria. While the IS relegates women to second class citizens and treats them as sex slaves, the PYD calls for gender equality.

Thus, one would argue that such a potentially progressive force should have been a natural ally of the West, particularly the United States. Nevertheless, the trans-border spread of the Kurds in Iran, Iraq, and Syria, but particularly in Turkey complicates the US-Kurdish partnership. Turkey, a NATO member and a strategic ally of the US, is home to nearly half of the total estimated 30-40 million Kurds worldwide. Thus, Turkey’s approach to the Syrian conflict should be examined in the broader context of its Kurdish policy. Turkey considers the PYD, the US’ most effective on-the-ground partner in the fight against IS, a Syrian branch of the PKK. Turkish president Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly criticized the US for its recognition and support for the PYD. After the Kurds gained control of Tal Abyad in June 2015, which lay on a key supply route to its de facto capital of Raqqa, a pro-government Turkish newspaper warned that “the PYD is more dangerous than IS.” As such, the Kurdish issue has become a hurdle in the 60-year Turkish-American alliance.

What do we know about civil war?

Some insights gained from the vast literature on civil war can help better understand the prospect for a sustainable peace in Turkey, Syria and Iraq. First, research shows that decisive military victories usually occur early and long wars tend to end in peace agreements. Second, and relatedly, inconclusive and costly wars lead warring parties to seek a negotiated settlement from which a more inclusive and democratic system can emerge. A post-conflict environment, one would think, is not conducive to the emergence of democratic institutions or civic culture but several studies have pointed out that the majority of civil wars that occurred in the post-World War II era resulted in an improvement in the level of democracy, provided that protagonists can agree on a comprehensive peace deal. Third, research also shows that transnational or trans-border links do not only contribute to conflict but also can facilitate a negotiated peace agreement.

What can be done?

In light of findings from the extensive literature on how civil wars end and a century-long Kurdish struggle for equal rights, several policy recommendations are in order.

1-    The failure of Turkey to eliminate the threat posed by the PKK in the last three decades and its failure to prevent the rise of a de-facto Kurdish entity in northern Syria casts serious doubts over the efficacy of a military solution to the Kurdish conflict.
2-    The complexities of the Syrian civil war, the number of state and non-state actors involved and the failure of the government to win a decisive military victory necessitate a diplomatic solution to the conflict. Turkey, as a key ally of the US and arguably the most powerful country in the region, can play a constructive role in formulating a lasting solution to the ongoing conflict in its southern neighbor. To play such a key role, however, it is imperative that Turkey makes peace with its own Kurds and recognizes Kurdish reality across its borders. Such reconciliation is likely to facilitate a solution to the broader conflict in Turkey, Syria, and Iraq.
3-    Meaningful democratization can address Kurdish demands for greater autonomy and help strengthen existing democratic institutions in Turkey. Addressing key Kurdish demands such as recognition and safeguarding the Kurdish language, a new definition of citizenship with equality for all ethnic identities, and the empowerment of local administrations can bolster democracy in Turkey. Such reformation of the system can also be adopted to reconcile ethnic and sectarian differences in Syria and Iraq.    
4-    Without a solution to the conflict in Turkey there is no lasting peace in Syria. The Turkish position toward Syria is primarily shaped by policies toward its own large Kurdish minority bordering Syria. A negotiated peace agreement between the PKK and the Turkish government facilitated by the US has the potential to stabilize the region.
5-    The US’ current policy of preserving the territorial integrity of Syria and Iraq coupled with its opposition to a federal system of governance is not realistic. Repressive, exclusionary, and centralized state structures account for the tragic outcomes in these two countries. A federal system in both Syria and Iraq can potentially address legitimate Sunni Arab and Kurdish grievances and serve as a check against ruling groups’ domination. Thus, insisting on keeping these two states intact without power-sharing institutions is a recipe for continued repression, instability, and bloodshed.
6-    Turkish opposition to the PYD and its assessment of the threat posed by the emerging Kurdish reality in Syria is unsubstantiated and counterproductive. Clearly, both the PKK and PYD are Kurdish and the latter is inspired by the PKK’s ideology. Given the historical, ethnic, and cultural affinity between the Kurds in Syria and Turkey such an outcome is not surprising. Nonetheless, the PYD was founded by Kurds in Syria and is engaged in a fight against the Islamic State, not Turkey. Furthermore, it has long been an advocate of a federal, democratic, and secular Syria. The exclusion of the PYD, arguably the most progressive and effective force, from the Syrian peace talks is counter to the US’ primary objective of creating a unified democratic Syria.

To conclude, dramatic changes both at the national and regional levels have shown that the Kurdish question left unresolved can further destabilize the region and become an issue between Turkey and the US. Thus, Turkey’s approach to the Kurdish question can greatly shape the prospects for peace as well as war in the region. While Turkey’s ability to exert political influence in the region is greatly shaped by its approach to the festering Kurdish question, Kurds can help stabilize and democratize war-torn Syria and Iraq, serve as a bulwark against radical Islamism, and contribute to existing democratic institutions in Turkey.

Professor Mehmet Gurses is an associate professor of political science at Florida Atlantic University. His research interests include ethnic and religious conflict, post-civil war peace building, post-civil war democratization, and Islamist parties in the Middle East. His articles have appeared in such journals as International Interactions, Social Science Quarterly, Civil Wars, Defense and Peace Economics, International Studies Perspectives, Conflict Management and Peace Science, and Political Research Quarterly. He has recently coedited the book entitled Conflict, Democratization and the Kurds in the Middle East.


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