The Kurds in a Changing Middle East PDF Print E-mail


In last week’s column, I discussed the changing Middle East political chessboard in general terms.

This week I thought I would examine these changes and what they may mean for the Kurds.



The Kurds, of course, do not constitute some monolithic group with identical views, interests and needs, from the Jezira in Western Kurdistan (Syria), Diyarbakir and Dersim in Northern Kurdistan (Turkey), Erbil, Sulaimani and Dohuk in Southern Kurdistan (Iraq), or Mahabad, Sanandaj and Kermanshah in Eastern Kurdistan (Iran). Despite all the differences between different Kurdish groups, I think we can nonetheless agree on one minimal political interest that virtually every Kurd who identifies as such shares: Kurds fare better when the central governments that rule over them are not too strong. As minorities in every state they call home, Kurds suffered the most under authoritarian, illiberal, unrestrained and ambitious regimes.


It is therefore fitting that I type these words on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day. Like the Jews (and Armenians), Kurds know very well what it is like to be defined as “the other” – the threat to the destiny and grand ambitions of a “glorious,” virulently nationalist and modernizing regime. Around the slopes of Mount Ararat, the valleys of Dersim, the simple streets of Halabja and the meadows outside Sanandaj, Kurdish “others” were massacred by the tens or hundreds of thousands by authoritarian regimes answerable to no one.


When central governments were weak, they offered the Kurds concessions, a role in the political system and all kinds of promises. Whether in Iran, Turkey, Syria or Iraq, every time Kurdish parties were offered a chance to participate with the others within the system, they took it. Every Kurdish political party since the 1930s (with the exception of the PKK before 1993) called for autonomy within a democratic Turkey, Iran, Syria or Iraq rather than secession. As soon as central governments reconsolidated their power, however, their promises to the Kurds were forgotten. They quickly fell back to blaming Kurdish separatism and unreasonableness for the new impasse, and again banned the Kurds from the game.


It is therefore very worrying that despite Iraq’s new constitution and very decentralized political system, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki busily consolidates all power into his own hands. I didn’t know one man could be not only Prime Minister, but Minister of Defense, Minister of the Interior and Minister of State for National Security, all at the same time. He has also moved to take direct personal control of the army, the Iraqi Central Bank, the Iraqi Higher Electoral Commission and who knows what else. Perhaps all Iraqi Facebook accounts will soon also have to go through Maliki’s office. Despite the clear historical pattern and the very justified worry this provokes in Erbil, some American commentators and government officials think it is the “coddled Kurds” who are over reaching, increasingly authoritarian and a threat to peace in the new Iraq. Although they certainly have their faults, it seems beyond ironic to blame Iraqi Kurds for finally doing well for themselves when Baghdad was crippled – a feat they largely accomplished by dint of their own determination and effort. With all the changes around them, their challenge is now to carefully and prudently maintain those gains.


When it comes to Iran, very little of substance has changed for the Kurds since the 1980s. Barring outside military intervention, even the loss of its ally Assad in Syria would change little for Iranian Kurds. The regime in Teheran remain strong enough, and completely unaccountable for its misdeeds. Although many Iranian Kurdish opposition groups bravely and determinedly continue their struggle, there is an air of depression about it. Perhaps in the medium to long term things will look better for them.


In Turkey, Prime Minister Erdogan’s AKP government appears stronger than any since the 1940s. Mr. Erdogan even managed to finally bring the Turkish generals to heel. Although he once seemed determined to find a political solution to Kurdish disaffection in Turkey and even secretly negotiated with the PKK, Mr. Erdogan reneged on his promises to solve the “Kurdish problem” after the Habur incident of October 2009 (another story, and partly the PKK’s fault). The mass arrests of both Kurds and Kemalists since then caused further worry, as Mr. Erdogan like so many others seems intent on increasing his power. Despite it all, however, Kurds are taking advantage of an invitation to still play a role in the political system in Turkey, even if the game remains stacked against them: Mr. Erdogan invited the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party to have two members (the same number as other parties, including his) in the committee preparing a new constitution for Turkey. True to form, Kurds never say ‘no’ to such an invitation and are now busily trying to argue for official recognition of the Kurdish people, language rights and political decentralization. Although few hold their breath for a very positive outcome, the process itself is good while it lasts.


All of which, of course, leaves Syria. Like its namesake in Iraq, the Baathist regime in Syria dealt terribly with the Syrian Kurds. Damascus exemplified the strong, illiberal, virulently [Arab] nationalist, authoritarian and unaccountable regime. Now that the Assad regime is stumbling, it promises Syrian Kurds things it never gave them before, such as equal rights and, in the case of 300,000 paperless and futureless “invisible Kurds,” the return of citizenship papers revoked in 1963. The opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) promises much the same thing if the Kurds side with them. Many suspect that the price of Turkish support for the SNC included a refusal to discuss federalism or Kurdish autonomy, or perhaps the SNC people are as exclusive and Arab nationalist as the Baathists. In either case, it seems likely the SNC would quickly forget what little it has promised Kurds once they no longer need them. One SNC leader even thought it a good idea this week to point out that “there is no such thing as Syrian Kurdistan.” Thus while the changes in Syria offer Kurds there an improved position as both sides court them (kind of), they hardly have reason to celebrate yet. Their best option for the time being seems to involve offering half-hearted support to both the Assad regime and the opposition.


* David Romano has been a Rudaw columnist since August 2010. He is the Thomas G. Strong Professor of Middle East Politics at Missouri State University and author of The Kurdish Nationalist Movement (2006, Cambridge University Press).


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