Dreams of Kurdistan: the Kurdish Issue in the Context of the Syrian Civil War

The Syrian Civil War will soon be entering its tenth year. As with so many of the world’s seemingly unending crises, people have become inured to the misery and the bloodshed. Yet despite the Assad regime’s recovery in recent years – aided with characteristic mercilessness by the Russians – this particular conflict is far from over.

In the north of the country fighting rages on in Idlib Province, as government forces seek to seal their reconquest. Barring their progress is a mixture of rebel and jihadist groups backed by Turkish troops who launched an invasion at the end of last year in a supposed bid to create a ‘buffer zone’ for displaced refugees along the country’s southern border. An additional  -perhaps primary – motive for the Turkish offensive is the ubiquitous presence of the Kurds in northern Syria, a formidable coterie of warriors long-perceived as a national security threat by Ankara.

Kurdish forces are still in control of swaths of territory in northern Syria

One fact may be disposed of at the outset. The Kurds can present a better claim to “race purity,” meaning ethnic unity, and to a continuity of their cultural pattern for a much longer  period than can any people now living in Europe. The culture pattern is essentially of the nomad-herdsman type, of course; but the claim, in that particular pattern, is quite justified. Since about 2400 B.C., originally under the name of Guti, they are known to have lived in the central part of the area over which they are now scattered.

So wrote William Linn Westermann in 1946, in reference to a Kurdish independence delegation at the San Francisco Conference of April 1945. Westermann was a history professor and had served as Adviser on Turkish Affairs and Chief of the Division of Western Asia, American Commission to Negotiate Peace at the Versailles Conference after the First World War. He suffered from the inherent racism of his day, seeing in the Kurds of southeastern Turkey, northern Syria, northern Iraq and northwestern Iran a backwardness typical of all stateless people. Yet he clearly felt some sympathy towards this ‘ethnically united’ people seeking the backing of international powers for the creation of an independent Kurdistan.

Of course there is a degree of contention about the origin of a distinct Kurdish people, yet the ‘land of the Kurds’ is mentioned in Christian Assyrian documents of late antiquity and a number of Kurdish principalities and fiefdoms existed at various periods during the Middle Ages. However, these all disintegrated or were subsumed during the rise of the Ottoman and Safavid Empires.

A map dating from 1074 showing the ‘land of the Kurds’ between present day Syria and Iraq

Since then it has been a long and unsuccessful struggle for an independent Kurdistan. In the aftermath of the First World War, provisions were put in place for the inception of such a state in the Treaty of Sevres. Yet this was never ratified and the new republican Turkey under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk) was quick to move into contested areas to prevent the emergence of a Kurdish state. As Westermann wrote more than two decades later:

The Turks claimed practically the whole province…They pointed out that there are thousands of Kurds within the borders of Turkey, and that the Turk and the Kurd are really one: give Turkey, therefore, the whole of Kurdistan.

Outline plans for an independent Kurdistan (shaded at centre-right) in a draft of the Treaty of Sevres

These ‘Mountain Turks’ as the Kemalist regime defined the Kurds were unable to maintain the support of the weary Western powers and the Treaty of Lausanne that ultimately replaced the Treaty of Sevres dropped the call for an independent Kurdistan. The San Francisco Conference of 1945 proved equally fruitless and the energy for a diplomatic resolution to the Kurdish dream dissipated, to be replaced in some quarters by revolt and armed struggle.

It is this phase of the independence movement that has set the Turks on edge, particularly the violent actions of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which has waged an almost continuous insurgency against Ankara since the early 1980s. For the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, any armed Kurd is a threat. It matters little to them that the Kurds have been one of the most effective forces in taking the battle to the Assad regime in Syria, not to mention reversing the rapid spread of ISIS.

The PKK is designated a terrorist organization in the USA, Europe and Turkey. Many Kurds disagree with the nature of its insurgency

Ironically, this perceived Kurdish terrorist threat has actually protected Turkey from the worst excesses of the ISIS terrorists, who are now on the comeback trail thanks to the Turkish offensive in northern Syria against the Kurds! As confusing and nonsensical as the Middle East always is.

Whilst it is not a simple matter for the global powers to just create an independent Kurdistan from scratch, carving apart the boundaries of four sovereign states, the Kurds’ service in the fight against repression and terrorism in the Middle East surely at least warrants re-consideration of their position. Greater Kurdish autonomy – as is the case in Iraq – should be a pre-requisite for any post-conflict settlement in Syria and this should extend to Turkey and Iran too. Yes it is extremely unlikely that Ankara and Tehran will accept such demands but is that not preferable to having an angry, well-armed and battle-hardened army on their borders?

For the Kurds have never been a unified people. They have no national tradition, no background of unity and no experience of self-rule. But even though the idea of a unified Kurdish state is completely unfeasible, the Kurdish movement for Khoiboun [independence] is the most dangerous of all the troubles which now beset the Middle East.

Not a ringing endorsement by the unflinching Westermann but certainly a recognition that the ‘Kurdish issue’ was going to remain at the forefront of geopolitical concerns in the Middle East in the post-war era. This has not and will not change, regardless of when the horrific Syrian Civil War finally ends. To fail to engage with this crucial regional actor – whose members would surely deny Westermann’s dismissive tone about their lack of a national tradition – is to light yet another powder keg in an area already engulfed in a blazing inferno.

In light of this America and its allies should reassess their commitments to regional allies whose treatment of the Kurds is not only grossly unfair, but naively counter-productive.

An independence referendum in the Iraqi autonomous region of Kurdistan in 2017 secured overwhelming support but had little impact

Further reading

Westermann, W L. ‘Kurdish Independence and Russian Expansion’, Foreign Affairs (July 1946)

#WWIII? Unlikely but Soleimani Killing Adds Fuel to the Flames in Middle East

The US assassination of Qasem Soleimani, head of Iran’s notorious Quds Force and widely regarded as the second most influential figure in the Islamic Republic, has heightened tensions in the Middle East to a level perhaps not seen since immediately prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Thousands turned out for Soleimani’s funeral, although he was by no means universally popular in Iran

Twitter was abuzz with doom-laden predictions, one of the most frequently tagged being #WWIII. Another hashtag that trended heavily in the immediate aftermath of the assassination was #FranzFerdinand. Archduke Franz Ferdinand was the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne whose infamous murder in 1914 at the hands of Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip, set in motion the wheels of the First World War.

Whilst Donald Trump’s decision to sign off on the execution of Soleimani has understandably enraged the Iranian leadership – not to mention the oblivious Iraqis on whose soil the drone strike took place – predictions of a new global conflict are premature.

In 1914 the conditions in Europe were ripe for war between the great powers, whose possession of international colonies necessitated a translation into a global conflict. Two opposing blocs had formed between the triple entente of Britain, France and Russia, and the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary, soon to be joined by the ailing Ottoman empire and Bulgaria. These blocs in turn interfered and took sides in localised conflicts, particularly the incendiary Balkan states. If it had not been Princip’s trigger that toppled the first domino in the path to war it would have been something else.

The imperialist ambitions of Europe’s great powers ensured the crisis of 1914 mutated into a global war

Iran has vowed revenge for the killing of Soleimani but, even with its allies, it cannot launch a conventional military response to challenge the US. Indeed, such warfare has become increasingly difficult in an interconnected, interdependent world in which nuclear weapons proliferate. The geopolitical landscape has changed significantly since 1914.

True, there are still groups of enemy states backed by localised proxies, competing for regional ascendancy. One of Soleimani’s main qualities – at least according to Ayatollah Khamenei and his devoted followers – was his ability to mobilise proxy groups and states to carry out the bidding of Tehran. But the divisions of the Middle East are so intensely centralised that it is likely that any new ‘traditional’ conflict will be confined to the region.

Iran has for some time offered support to the Lebanese Hezbollah group in its struggle against Israel

This is not to say that Soleimani’s death will not have severe consequences. Iran will respond; it has to. Tehran has already further pulled back from its 2015 nuclear accord and is now likely to proceed at full speed towards nuclearisation (something it almost certainly would have done sooner rather than later in any case). It will continue to export terrorism across the Middle East and may potentially consider sponsoring an attack on the American mainland or on the territory of an American ally. Meanwhile the repercussions for Iraq, whose government may choose to expel American troops given this grave violation of its sovereignty, could lead to a new civil war and the resurgence of the Islamic State.

Trump may hold some of the arrogant delusions of his WWI predecessors who, in the words of Christopher Clark, ‘sleepwalked’ into a devastating conflict. Like them, he has proven unwilling to compromise on almost every issue, his scattergun foreign policy both terribly unsettling and fanning the flames of regional tensions whilst alienating allies.

Yet the question must be asked: how long was Iranian impunity going to be allowed to go unchecked? Tehran has exported terror and exacerbated humanitarian crises across the Middle East and further afield, all in the corrupted name of Islam. It has repressed its own people and allowed them to suffer through years of economic sanctions brought about by its rogue behaviour. A state with any moral capital left may choose to allow their anger to subside and issue a restrained response with the buy-in of the international community, the majority of which did not support the American action. This would allow Tehran to regain at least a portion of respect after years of inflammatory activity, whilst further isolating Trump.

Saudi Arabia says it was not consulted on the drone strike but has called for calm and refrained from criticising US actions

The chances of this happening, unfortunately, are zero. We may not be on the verge of World War Three. However, Donald Trump’s clumsy efforts to punish Iran for its diabolical behaviour are likely to precipitate a renewed battleground in the Middle East, where states will be forced to pick sides between the Islamic Republic and its warped Shiite goals, and the US vision of regional security, along with its steadfast backing of a Jewish state and Arab autocracy.

2020 looks set to be a bumpy ride indeed.