Kurds move on as regional alliances change

By: Vicken Cheter­ian


The Kur­dish region of north­ern Iraq is a boom zone with con­sid­er­able eco­nomic and mil­i­tary clout; this has changed the alliances and expec­ta­tions of Kurds in Turkey, Syria and Iran. How far can this go?

Erbil, cap­i­tal of the Kur­dis­tan Autonomous Region, in the north of Iraq, is boom­ing. Brick houses are giv­ing way to shop­ping malls, hotels and apart­ment build­ings, while in the sub­urbs, there are vil­lages newly built or under con­struc­tion to house the new Kur­dish mid­dle class.

Most shops sell con­struc­tion mate­ri­als, fur­ni­ture and elec­tric appli­ances. Four-​wheel dri­ves jam the wide streets. Iraqis from other regions come to the Kur­dish areas to shop or for recre­ation, while Lebanese man­agers, Turk­ish mer­chants and Indian hotel work­ers are there to make their for­tune. Secu­rity and oil money have turned Iraqi Kur­dis­tan into the place to be, although inequal­i­ties are grow­ing and agri­cul­ture has been neglected (most food is now imported).

The Kurds were treated badly by his­tory (1). After the col­lapse of the Ottoman Empire, they were divided between four states carved out by the Euro­pean pow­ers, and at a dis­tance from the new cap­i­tals. Kur­dish nation­al­ism was weak, but grew with mar­gin­al­i­sa­tion, dis­crim­i­na­tion and repres­sion, though with some reverses. “The past is the fault of the Kurds,” says his­to­rian Jabar Kadir. “Inter­nal divi­sions reflect for­mer emi­rates based on clan/​tribal divi­sions, which in mod­ern times took the form of polit­i­cal parties.”

But now, “for the first time, his­tory is giv­ing the Kurds a chance,” says Kadir. “It started with the Iraqi inva­sion of Kuwait in 1990 and the Kur­dish intifada that fol­lowed. The impo­si­tion of a no-​fly zone by the Amer­i­cans cre­ated a Kur­dish safe haven” pro­tected from Sad­dam Hussein’s régime, and allowed the “set­ting up of a par­lia­ment through elec­tions under dif­fi­cult con­di­tions.” In 1991 the Iraqi Kurds had a new kind of ally, a super­power from out­side the region.

The US inva­sion of Iraq in 2003 led to the advance of the Pesh­merga (Kur­dish com­bat­ants) south­wards, where they took over part of Saddam’s mil­i­tary hard­ware. The cre­ation of autonomous sta­tus for the Kurds in north­ern Iraq through the 2005 Iraqi con­sti­tu­tion led to demands by Kurds in Iran, Turkey and Syria. The for­ma­tion of the Kur­dish Regional Gov­ern­ment (KRG), with its auton­omy and the Pesh­merga legally recog­nised, has made the KRG the cen­tre of Kur­dish pol­i­tics and a new polit­i­cal actor in the Mid­dle East.

When the US over­threw Sad­dam, the Iraqi Kurds were the only organ­ised political/​military force, and played a cen­tral role in sup­port­ing the occu­py­ing forces, form­ing the nucleus of the new Iraqi army. That is why many high-​level Iraqi offi­cials are from a Kur­dish back­ground, such as the pres­i­dent Jalal Tal­a­bani, the for­eign min­is­ter Hosh­yar Zebari and the army chief of staff Babaker Zibari.

Con­tro­versy over Kirkuk

But these high-​level posts did not trans­late into real polit­i­cal influ­ence. This was made clear by the cri­sis between Iraq’s prime min­is­ter Nuri al-​Maliki and the KRG in Novem­ber 2012. Last July, Al-​Maliki formed a new mil­i­tary force called Dijla (Tigris) Oper­a­tions Com­mand. At its head, Gen­eral Abde­lamir Zaydi intro­duced infantry and tank units into the regions south of Kirkuk, and then this March into Sin­jar Province, where the pop­u­la­tion is mostly Kur­dish and Yezidi. This alarmed the KRG lead­er­ship, which dis­patched thou­sands of Pesh­mer­gas to the area. There is a very real fear of armed con­flict erupt­ing, and nego­ti­a­tions have in no way solved the problem.

Iraqi Kur­dish politi­cians like to present their region as a safe haven for minori­ties, some­thing of an idyl­lic vision (although in the Ainkawa neigh­bour­hood of Erbil, Chris­tians have main­tained their tra­di­tions). While in the past the Pesh­mer­gas fought Chris­t­ian com­mu­ni­ties, repres­sion under Ba’ath Party rule cre­ated a feel­ing of shared des­tiny between Kurds, Assyr­i­ans and Yezidis (2). How­ever, in Kirkuk, ten­sions per­sist between the Kurdish-​dominated admin­is­tra­tion and police, and the Turk­men, and espe­cially Arab, population.

The Kirkuk con­tro­versy is a legacy of Ba’athist poli­cies. Under Ba’ath rule, Iraq adopted a pol­icy of Ara­bi­sa­tion in this strate­gic region, which has 10% of Iraq’s hydro­car­bon resources. As a result, 300,000 eth­nic Kurds — as well as Assyro-​Chaldeans and Yezidis — were chased out of their homes and Arab tribes were set­tled. Some set­tlers were from Anbar; oth­ers were Shia Arabs from south­ern Iraq. After the US inva­sion, the Pesh­mer­gas took con­trol of these areas, now known as “dis­puted regions”. Arti­cle 140 of the Iraqi con­sti­tu­tion rec­om­mends “cor­rec­tion” by encour­ag­ing Arab set­tlers to return to their area of their ori­gin, with com­pen­sa­tion and aid. When this process has been com­pleted, there is to be a cen­sus to decide the demar­ca­tion line between KRG and the rest of Iraq, fol­lowed by a ref­er­en­dum to deter­mine if the region should be included within Kur­dis­tan. The ref­er­en­dum was ini­tially planned for 2007, but no new date has been fixed.

The sit­u­a­tion in Kirkuk illus­trates the strug­gle between Arabs and Kurds, Bagh­dad and Erbil (3). The city is part of dis­puted ter­ri­to­ries that stretch south to Salahud­din and Diyala provinces. The police are in the con­trol of Kur­dish forces, and the region is under the polit­i­cal con­trol of the Patri­otic Union of Kur­dis­tan (PUK), with Tal­a­bani at its head; although Iraqi army units are also present. Any army move­ments in these areas are met by protests from Erbil, where there is con­cern at the billion-​dollar arms con­tracts Bagh­dad is cur­rently nego­ti­at­ing with Moscow (4).

Mean­while the KRG is in dis­pute with the Iraqi gov­ern­ment over the sta­tus of the Pesh­mer­gas. The KRG insists these com­bat­ants should be con­sid­ered part of Iraq’s national defence forces, and should there­fore receive fund­ing and heavy arma­ments from the cen­tral bud­get, but main­tain their auton­omy. Bagh­dad argues that the Pesh­mer­gas should come under cen­tral com­mand and not behave as an inde­pen­dent army.

The dis­pute extends to oil and gas. Accord­ing to the con­sti­tu­tion, the KRG should receive 17% of the state bud­get (5), which is mainly based on oil — the major source of KRG pros­per­ity and also the link between the Kur­dish regions and the Arab part of the coun­try. But Bagh­dad accuses Erbil of not play­ing by the rules, and inde­pen­dently export­ing hydro­car­bons through Turkey with­out putting the rev­enue into the cen­tral bud­get (6).

‘A fac­tory for pro­duc­ing problems’

What makes it hard to find a solu­tion is the per­sonal ani­mos­ity between the Iraqi prime min­is­ter, Nuri al-​Maliki, and the KRG pres­i­dent, Masoud Barzani. Barzani played a key role in mobil­is­ing the Iraqi oppo­si­tion in an attempt to oust Al-​Maliki, which failed and led to per­sonal clashes. In Erbil, offi­cials openly crit­i­cise the prime min­is­ter. Fal­lah Mustafa, the KRG for­eign min­is­ter, claims that “Al-​Maliki was not elected directly by the Iraqi peo­ple.” Fouad Hus­sein, the KRG chief of staff and close to Barzani, goes fur­ther: “The office of prime min­is­ter Al-​Maliki is a fac­tory for pro­duc­ing problems.”

Mil­i­tary pres­sure by the Iraqi army can cre­ate real fears in the Kur­dish psy­che. For decades after the for­ma­tion of the Iraqi state, the Kur­dish minor­ity suf­fered from the author­i­tar­ian poli­cies of the Bagh­dad rulers. The repres­sion wors­ened from 1963 with the for­ma­tion of the Ba’ath Party and its intran­si­gent Arab nation­al­ist ide­ol­ogy, which acquired a geno­ci­dal dimen­sion dur­ing the Iraq-​Iran war (198088). These mem­o­ries are still alive in Kur­dis­tan: no one has for­got­ten the gassing of 5,000 Kurds at Halabja.

The Kurds have new fears: any armed con­flict in the Kirkuk area could cause eco­nomic harm to the KRG, end­ing invest­ment and scar­ing for­eign multi­na­tion­als. “Bagh­dad looks envi­ously at us, at our secu­rity and our pros­per­ity,” said Hus­sein. “But there is also sta­bil­ity in Basra and Nasiriya; why don’t they fix its elec­tric­ity and water prob­lems, and build hos­pi­tals and schools, instead of buy­ing F-​16 mil­i­tary jets?”

At least the pres­sure from the cen­tral gov­ern­ment has uni­fied the divided Iraqi Kur­dish polit­i­cal for­ma­tions: even Pres­i­dent Tal­a­bani, always ready to nego­ti­ate with the Arab par­ties, could not fail to join Barzani and crit­i­cise Baghdad’s behav­iour, demand­ing that troops be with­drawn and the Dijla Oper­a­tions Com­mand dis­solved. Pres­sure from Bagh­dad has helped unify soci­ety (even if oil income has cre­ated divi­sions between the extremely rich rul­ing class and every­body else). In March 2011, as the Arab world was ris­ing against the old regimes, there were protests against KRG build­ings in Kut and Sulaimaniya.

Ten­sions with the cen­tral gov­ern­ment have unex­pect­edly brought Erbil closer to Ankara. In 2003 Turkey opposed the US inva­sion of Iraq and did not allow its ter­ri­tory to be used for the allied ground attack. It feared that the over­throw of Saddam’s régime would lead to Kur­dish state­hood in the north of Iraq, inspir­ing Turkey’s own large Kur­dish pop­u­la­tion, which had been restive since the start of the Kur­dis­tan Work­ers Party (PKK)’s insur­rec­tion in 1984. Now Turkey’s rela­tions with the KRG have dra­mat­i­cally improved.

The KRG’s for­eign trade passes through Turkey, and Turk­ish com­pa­nies are invest­ing in Kur­dis­tan, poised to profit from any poten­tial oil exports from the Kirkuk area, which despite the pres­ence of Iraqi cen­tral army units, is under Kur­dish con­trol (7). Turkey has taken account of the sit­u­a­tion and Barzani has become a trusted inter­me­di­ary. Turkey, which has tra­di­tion­ally sup­ported Iraq’s Turk­men com­mu­nity, now sees itself as a cham­pion of auton­omy for the Iraqi Kurds. Though media atten­tion is focussed on Iran­ian influ­ence in Iraq, the Bagh­dad gov­ern­ment is wor­ried about Turkey’s influ­ence over polit­i­cal actors. (For­mer vice-​president Tarek Hashemi, accused of hav­ing links to ter­ror­ism, has been granted asy­lum in Turkey.)

Ten­sions between Bagh­dad and the KRG have put Iraqi pres­i­dent Jalal Tal­a­bani and his party in a dif­fi­cult posi­tion. Talabani’s dete­ri­o­rat­ing health may not allow him to be the fire­man of Iraqi pol­i­tics but his Patri­otic Union of Kur­dis­tan (PUK) is the sec­ond biggest Iraqi Kur­dish party (after the Kur­dis­tan Demo­c­ra­tic Party, KDP) and has enjoyed good rela­tions with Iran. It has there­fore found itself in the new Tehran-​Baghdad alliance, while the KDP grav­i­tates towards Turkey.

Fruits of Syria’s revolution

But the future of the Iraqi Kurds also depends on the bat­tle in Syria. “We have a golden oppor­tu­nity,” said Behjet Bashir, the Erbil rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the Kur­dish Demo­c­ra­tic Party of Syria. “We must be ready for it, as it is unlikely such an oppor­tu­nity will repeat itself… There are dif­fer­ent pos­si­ble sce­nar­ios in Syria but even in the worst case, the Kurds will be win­ners. At least they will run their own regions themselves.”

Syria’s Kurds are poised to profit from the Syr­ian rev­o­lu­tion. Syria’s Ba’athist régime was rough on its Kur­dish pop­u­la­tion. Inspired by Arab nation­al­ism, it did not recog­nise Kur­dish iden­tity and mar­gin­alised the Kurds polit­i­cally and eco­nom­i­cally, with­draw­ing cit­i­zen­ship from 100,000, and set­tling the Kur­dish regions with Arab tribes. When a revolt broke out in 2004 in Deir al-​Zor after a fight between Kur­dish and Arab foot­ball sup­port­ers, the repres­sion became fierce. The Kurds were for­bid­den from teach­ing their own lan­guage, unlike eth­nic minori­ties such as the Arme­ni­ans and Assyr­i­ans who had the right to have their own schools. The author­i­ties banned the pub­lic cel­e­bra­tion of Nowruz, the Kur­dish New Year. Names of towns and vil­lages were Ara­bised and ref­er­ences to Kur­dish iden­tity removed from offi­cial text­books (8).

Yet the Syr­ian régime was happy to give sanc­tu­ary to Kur­dish armed groups from neigh­bour­ing coun­tries to increase its lever­age against Iraq and Turkey. Tal­a­bani, for instance, lived in Dam­as­cus for many years and founded his PUK there in 1975. But it was another party, from the north, that grew the deep­est roots among the Syr­ian Kurds — the PKK.

Syria’s Kur­dish regions have not been hotbeds of rev­o­lu­tion. Although there were large demon­stra­tions in Qamishli, the biggest Kur­dish town, they did not join the armed Syr­ian rev­o­lu­tion. In August 2011, when the Syr­ian National Coun­cil (SNC) was formed, Kur­dish mil­i­tants asked for spe­cific recog­ni­tion of their past suf­fer­ing and future guar­an­tees for their cul­tural iden­tity and polit­i­cal self-​rule. SNC activists took such demands as a sign of chau­vin­ism, and invited them to join the rev­o­lu­tion, leav­ing their own prob­lems to be addressed in a future demo­c­ra­tic Syria. The for­ma­tion of the SNC was announced from Istan­bul, and the Free Syr­ian Army was based in Turkey’s Hatay Province, so pro-​PKK Syr­ian Kurds saw Ankara behind Syria’s opposition.

The Syr­ian author­i­ties have been care­ful not to open a new front in the north­east. In 2011 they dis­trib­uted 300,000 cit­i­zen­ship doc­u­ments to eth­nic Kurds and released a num­ber of Syr­ian Kur­dish polit­i­cal pris­on­ers. (Though this did not stop the repres­sion of activists, such as the assas­si­na­tion of Mashaal Tammo in Octo­ber 2011.) Syria’s Kurds, who were quite dis­persed, have never demanded auton­omy or self-​rule, so they were attracted by the more pow­er­ful Kur­dish polit­i­cal move­ments, in Turkey to the north and Iraq to the east. The first to affirm a Kur­dish iden­tity was the PKK-​affiliated Demo­c­ra­tic Union Party (PYD) (9).

Armed strug­gle against Turkey

The PKK, founded in 1978 by Kur­dish stu­dents in Ankara, turned to armed strug­gle against Turkey after the mil­i­tary coup of 1980. The move­ment had sup­port from the Syr­ian régime and its leader Abdul­lah Ocalan was based in Dam­as­cus for years. It was able to set up mil­i­tary train­ing camps in the Bekaa Val­ley in Lebanon, then under Syr­ian con­trol, and could recruit among Syr­ian Kurds: young Kur­dish men who joined the PKK were spared com­pul­sory mil­i­tary ser­vice. Though esti­mates vary, 7,000 – 10,000 Syr­ian Kurds are believed to have died fight­ing under the PKK ban­ner (10), and even now a third of the PKK guer­ril­las in the high moun­tains of north­ern Iraq are of Syr­ian origin.

In 1998, under threat of war with Turkey, Syria closed down the PKK bases and expelled Ocalan, who was arrested by Turk­ish secu­rity agents in Kenya. But then the tide then turned. The Syr­ian gov­ern­ment devel­oped good rela­tions with Turkey and sent hun­dreds of PKK mil­i­tants to prison. The PKK, iso­lated after Ocalan’s cap­ture, pulled back to the Kandil Moun­tains in the north­east, and its mil­i­tants were hunted down by neigh­bour­ing states, as if to prove the say­ing “The Kurd has no friend but the mountain”.

Effects of the Arab Spring

But the Arab rev­o­lu­tions changed regional alliances. In 2011 hun­dreds of PKK-​PYD mil­i­tants left their moun­tain sanc­tu­ar­ies and took up posi­tions in Syria’s north­ern areas, which they call “West­ern Kur­dis­tan”. When the bat­tles for Dam­as­cus and Aleppo erupted last sum­mer, the Assad régime was no longer able to hold the entire coun­try, and with­drew its forces from some Kur­dish towns. In June 2012 PYD activists took con­trol of Malekiyeh, Ayn al-​Arab, Amuda and Afrin. “The régime is fin­ished, its pres­ence is dis­ap­pear­ing day by day. There­fore, we can­not enter into an alliance with them,” said Hus­sein Kojer, a PYD spokesman. He said accu­sa­tions of PYD-​Damascus coop­er­a­tion came “from Turkey. We have hun­dreds of mar­tyrs who died in prison under tor­ture by the Ba’ath.”

The PYD show of force has cre­ated sus­pi­cion among other par­ties, and alarm in Ankara. The 16 Syr­ian Kur­dish par­ties who founded the Kur­dish National Coun­cil (KNC) began prepar­ing their own mil­i­tary forces, recruit­ing young Syr­ian Kurds who had deserted from the Syr­ian army and found refuge in the Domiz camp in north­ern Iraq. Pesh­merga offi­cers recruited 1,600 desert­ers inside the camp to train them so they can “play a role in Syria once the sit­u­a­tion col­lapses and there’s a vac­uum,” in the words of Barzani (11). With fears of clashes between the PYD and its rivals, the KRG pres­i­dent medi­ated at meet­ings in Erbil, in June and Novem­ber 2012. This led to the cre­ation of mech­a­nisms for mil­i­tary and polit­i­cal coor­di­na­tion between the PYD and KNC (which groups 15 organ­i­sa­tions not linked to the PKK). Although there have been no major inter-​Kurdish clashes inside Syria, ten­sions remain high.

There is another dan­ger: a war between Kur­dish fight­ers and Syr­ian rebels. There have been clashes in Afrin, and in the Ashrafiyeh neigh­bour­hood of Aleppo. The most seri­ous involved three days of fight­ing in Ras al-​Ayn in Novem­ber 2012 between Kur­dish mil­i­tants and rebel Islamist forces linked to Ghuraba al-​Sham and the Al-​Nusra Front. The cease­fire that fol­lowed did not hold, and there were more vio­lent clashes this Jan­u­ary. A new cease­fire has been agreed, under the aus­pices, notably, of Syr­ian oppo­si­tion fig­ure Michel Kilo.

If Syria’s Kur­dish regions were to fall under PKK-​PYD influ­ence, they would be caught between oppos­ing pow­ers: Turkey and the Syr­ian rebels. The Kur­dish regions within Syria are on a long strip of flat land, not suit­able for guer­rilla war­fare. The Syr­ian Kurds need to make a choice, which could be made eas­ier by the renewed nego­ti­a­tions between the Turk­ish author­i­ties and the PKK.

On 1 Jan­u­ary 2013 the Turk­ish media revealed nego­ti­a­tions between Ocalan and Turk­ish intel­li­gence ser­vices, which seemed advanced; Turk­ish Kur­dish MPs were invited to visit Ocalan in prison to con­firm Ankara’s will­ing­ness to nego­ti­ate. A week later, three PKK mem­bers were assas­si­nated in Paris, includ­ing Sakine Can­siz, a found­ing mem­ber of the party. This was seen by Kur­dish sources as a pro­fes­sional hit ordered by a group aim­ing to derail the nego­ti­a­tions. The funeral of the three was held in the large Kur­dish city of Diyarbakır, in south­east­ern Turkey, and attracted large crowds who car­ried slo­gans — not for revenge but peace.

The Turk­ish author­i­ties’ nego­ti­a­tions with Ocalan con­tin­ued. On 21 March, Kur­dish New Year’s Day, a let­ter from Ocalan announc­ing “the end of armed strug­gle” was read out to a huge crowd in Diyarbakır. Ocalan asked the PKK fight­ers to leave Turkey and give up their arms. The PKK’s lead­ers in the Kandil Moun­tains imme­di­ately announced that their com­bat­ants, esti­mated at 3,500, would start to withdraw.

These events were all the more unex­pected since PKK offen­sives had esca­lated in 2012. Some say the dis­cus­sions are linked to the elec­toral ambi­tions of the Turk­ish prime min­is­ter, Recep Tayyip Erdo­gan, who aims to become pres­i­dent (chang­ing the country’s con­sti­tu­tion to intro­duce a strong pres­i­den­tial sys­tem). Whether the nego­ti­a­tions will over­come the many obsta­cles, not least an absence of mutual trust, is hard to pre­dict. What­ever their out­come, they will also have con­se­quences for the future of Syria.

Source: Le Monde Diplomatique

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