The Kurds’ place in the ‘Arab Spring’

Seen as a relatively safe haven in northern Iraq, considered a terrorist threat by Turkish authorities, and currently waiting in the wings in Syria, Kurdistan and its different interest groups constitute another question mark in the political exchequer of the Middle East.
Riccardo Dugulin
10 December 2011

The revolutions that started in Tunisia at the end of November 2010 are entering a new phase. On October 23 the first democratic elections to be held in decades led Tunisia’s El Nahda Islamic party to a landslide victory. Libya is now experiencing the aftershocks of a protracted rebellion and the shadows of civil war loom large.  To different extents, Yemen and Syria are both in a status quo of regular violence with no clear outcome which wouldn’t result in an internal conflict. Post-Mubarak Egypt continues to be rocked by persecution of its minorities and repression of demonstrations. In Bahrain unrest is ongoing and a solution does not appear to be possible in the near future. Morocco and Jordan are experiencing to lesser degrees the same kind of social protests against the ruling elite.

If the Middle East is in a state of convulsion, the terminology and focus dedicated to the matter is purely ‘Arab’. The concern over non-Arab Middle Eastern players - namely Turkey, Iran and Israel - focuses on the way the ‘Arab Spring’ impacts on their foreign policies. Little has been written over the role non-Arab minorities have in shaping the future of the Near East.

But if history teaches us anything, it is that in a period of great changes, non-Arab minorities may suffer most from the violence erupting in the Near East. The Armenian genocide of 1915 came in the dying days of the Ottoman Empire and the massacres committed by Saddam Hussein against the Kurds were a cyclical event, reappearing each time the Arab dictator felt like he was losing his grip on power. As the Iran-Iraq conflict was coming to an end in 1988, the Iraqi government unleashed a genocidal chemical attack in Halabja killing more than 15,000 Kurds. In 1991, as the last breath of Arab Nationalism was lost in the sands of the Kuwaiti defeat, more than 180,000 Kurds (Peshmerga and civilians) died as a result of a failed revolt against Saddam Hussein’s army.

As the Arab world is bracing for a protracted period of socio-political convulsions, a further part of the equation may be found in a non-Arab actor which developed its own enclave in the middle of one of the most strategic regions in the world: Kurdistan. At the crossroads between Southern Anatolia, Persia, Northern Mesopotamia and the Near East, the control of these fertile and energy-rich regions have been the cause of friction for centuries.

Seen as a relatively safe haven in northern Iraq, considered a terrorist threat by Turkish authorities and currently waiting in the wings regarding possibilities of successful revolutionary overthrow in Syria, Kurdistan and its different interest groups constitute another question mark in the political exchequer of the Middle East. So, can an overall Kurdish role in the Middle East be identified, or do the Kurds act according to the pragmatic interests of the region they find themselves living in? Can the relative success of the partially stable Iraqi Kurdistan serve as an example for the coming regime which will rise from the ashes of Al Assad’s fall, or is this the exclusive outcome of the Iraqi situation?

Partial answers to these questions come from a further investigation of the Kurds’ role in three crucial countries: Iraq, Turkey and Syria. Perhaps it is possible to draw on a set of conclusions regarding the Kurdish role in the Arab Spring by analyzing the similarities and divergences of these three situations.

Iraqi Kurdistan: a success story on moving sands

In August 2010, several prominent Iraqi Kurdish political personalities addressed a list of nineteen demands to the Baghdad central government, based on respect for the 2005 constitution which, as regards Kurds, calls for the incorporation of Kirkuk into the Kurdish Autonomous Region (KAR), a broader inclusion of Kurds in state institutions, a general reform of the central institutional system and clear legislation on the redistribution of wealth generated by hydrocarbons.

This situation reflects the ongoing power struggle between the two main Kurdish political parties (PUK and KPD) and the central government. It may not result in the near future in an all-out armed struggle: nevertheless rampant tensions exist between the two parts of Iraq.

The latest elections for the Kurdistan National assembly took place on July 25, 2009. The majority of seats went to the Kurdistan Alliance with the PUK and PDK dominating the list. Masoud Bazani, a direct descendent of the Barzani tribe (the origin of the PKD with a reputation built by fighting for the autonomy of Iraqi Kurdistan) has been re-elected president with a significant majority (70% of votes).

The main advantage of Iraqi Kurdistan is that it is an economically and politically stable region. Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, it has promoted itself as the safe place for investments in Iraq. Foreign investment is mainly attracted by the vast oil fields and infrastructure projects present in Kurdistan: companies from Norway, China, UK and France are beginning to obtain contracts in the region. Other parts of the market have been growing fast such as real estate and IT-related businesses.

Nonetheless it must be pointed out that the different militias controlling the oil sectors are engaged in a flourishing black market of smuggling oil to Iran, which has been denounced by the Iraqi central government and may in the long term prove to be a factor of instability in the region.

The wave of social unrest that hit the Middle East in the beginning of 2011 did not omit Kurdistan. In fact, on February 22, 2011, more than 3000 people marched in the streets of Sulaimaniyya and Erbil, protesting against corruption, bad governance and requesting more democracy.  These demonstrations left three people dead and more than a hundred wounded. This scenario was reproduced on April 19th. These demonstrations strongly damaged local businesses and sent a negative message to foreign investors. Kurdish spokespeople accused their own government of irresponsible reactions. The general feeling associated with these recent events can be summarized by the words of Fariq Rafiq, a prominent Kurdish intellectual: ““We are ruled by an unreasonable and an uncivilized force. We should teach them how to govern. We should be their teachers. They can't just kill whoever they want. They can't just arrest whoever they want”.

Kurdistan is considered the safest region in Iraq. Nevertheless key political and social issues may wreck this status quo. The Shi’a – Sunni divide in Kurdistan is not as strong as in other parts of Iraq; but there are rifts among different Sunni tribes.  In recent years, the administration of the city of Kirkuk has also been a subject of contention. The central government of Baghdad and its Kurdish counterpart are for the moment agreed on sharing sovereignty over the city. But this does not correspond does to Kurdish aspirations. Kirkuk is an unresolved issue that may lead to violence.

A final point concerning the overall security in Kurdistan is the role played by local militias. Peshmergas  and Asayesh make up the Kurds’ paramilitary and police forces which operate in KAR and outside the Iraqi green line. They are not integrated into the Iraqi military establishment and advance only Kurdish interests. If this situation continues a problem similar to the one involving Hezbollah in Lebanon might emerge, where a patronage network is formed around a local militia which is then seen to be acting against the interests of the state. 

Kurds in Syria: preserving the minority

Larger than the ruling Alawi minority, the Kurds in Syria represent between 15-20% of the total population. Over the last fifty years, as in other Arab countries, Syria’s Kurdistan has experienced discrimination through land expropriation, incarcerations and widespread intimidation at the hands of the government. Without the right to obtain any form of national identification or passport, the Kurds are de facto non-citizens in Al Assad’s Syria. It was this situation that led to the present uprising. In fact, the Syrian revolution started in the eastern city of Hasaka. On January 25, hundreds of thousands of Kurds marched to protests against their lack of rights. As the revolt spread, every city with a Kurd minority saw a clear mobilization by that community.

Nevertheless while participation in the Syrian uprising is bound to be a game-changer, in the long run key Kurdish figures are still very wary of joining the Syrian National Council. This is due to the heavy ‘Arab’ accent the SNC is giving to the revolution and to disputes concerning the number of seats the Kurds would be allowed to gain in the SNC.

If in Iraq the Kurds play an active role in shaping the country’s energy policies and constitutional reforms, in Syria the situation tends to be more nuanced. Wary of the role played by Sunni fundamentalists and the Arab-centrism expressed by the SNC, the Syrian Kurdish population have a tendency to protect the acquis and not risk an all out repression. Furthermore, the Turkish role in backing the Syrian SNC is creating discontent among Kurdish parties who are unsure how to position themselves with regard to their regional nemesis.

In the perceivable short-term future, non-Arabs will play a major role in Syria’s uprising, whether in the form of Turkey, Iran, Kurds or western states. Nevertheless, if in Iraq, Kurds have actively taken steps to support the American forces and to suppress extremists waging terrorist attacks in their region, in Syria the role the minority will play appears, for the moment, prone to far more caution and a strong sense of self-preservation. 

Kurds in Turkey: between political participation and terrorism

The place of the Kurdish minority in Turkey is probably the most problematic of all. With the Erdogan Government determined to be the deal maker of the Arab Spring, the ‘Kurdish question’ remains a constant thorn in Turkey’s regional ambitions.

As Turkish foreign policy is becoming more assertive in the Arab Middle East, a further escalation of Kurdish separatist violence is being met by military efforts to quell the growing low-intensity insurgency. Such a move has pushed Ankara to deploy its special forces to the Iraqi border and lead trans-border military strikes against Kurdish PKK targets in Iraq, thus overstepping the line with regard to its Arab neighbour’s national sovereignty. More than 9000 troops were dispatched by the Turkish government to respond to a growing threat by Kurds separatists. Between August and November, Kurdish militants have been escalating their terrorist attacks outside Kurdistan, and the number of engagements with Turkish military forces has grown in recent months.

Nevertheless, the role of Kurds in Turkey cannot be characterized only by the PKK attacks. The Peace and Democracy Party, a Kurdish separatist party, gained 36 (out of 550) seats at the national Parliament and is fully integrated in the national parliamentary process. Efforts by the central government to engage in peaceful relations with Kurdish moderate parties have stepped up in recent months and culminated in Erdogan’s recognition on November 24 of the Dersim massacre in the late 1930’s.

The Kurds: a hesitant player in an Arab game

This overview of the role played by Kurdish minorities in Iraq, Syria and Turkey offers two alternative scenarios for the future of the Near East Arab political and security situation.

On the one hand, Kurdish influence might be interpreted as a non-Arab and non-sectarian stability factor. In fact, internal fights between diverging interests in the Kurdish Autonomous Region of Iraq have not degenerated into any massive spillover of violence as they have in the rest of the country. As Syria is slowing descending into chaos, a Kurdish push may be seen as way to balance inter-Arab tribal and religious tensions. For this, the international community and relevant Arab players should look to the Kurdish role in Iraq and Syria as a way to enhance the stability in the Arab Middle East.

On the other hand, Kurds have been advancing since the late 1970’s a primarily self-centered national interest with the objective of gaining an independent state, even if the possibility of this outcome is very low. Such a vision is in direct contradiction with that of their Arab neighbours and will continue to prompt hesitation when Arabs deal with Kurds. The way the PKK is acting towards the Turkish central government, a non-Arab system which is otherwise highly praised for its role in the Arab Spring is only destroying the option of Kurds being seen as a stabilizing force in the Near East.

In the foreseeable future, the Kurdish regions of Iraq, Syria and Turkey will continue to react with a ‘minority’ mentality, protecting their interests and forging alliances with those most able to protect them. Such a perspective does not bode well for long-term stability in a region torn by internal conflicts and terrorism. But the Kurds remain nevertheless a non-radicalized non-Arab movement which may prove to be an essential broker for international interests in an essential area of the Middle East.  

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