The West will always choose Turkey over the aspirations of the Kurds. This is one area where The Americans and the Russians agree, allowing Rojava to separate from Syria. Russia has no desire to compromise relations with Turkey even as it tries to capitalize on success in Syria to strengthen its military presence. The Americans have withheld their backing for the Kurdish referendum in Iraq and they’re not likely to encourage the PYD. In Iraq, Turkey has established good relations with the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) led by Barzani, until recently, and the Iraqi Kurdish Party (KDP). Turkey has even invested heavily in KRG controlled areas. If the Kurds gave up their ambitions peacefully after the Iraq army occupied the area after the September 25 referendum, it’s because Barzani used it to revive the fortunes of the PDK (Democratic Party of Kurdistan) within Iraq itself.
In this regard, Abdullah Ocalan may have a bigger role in the specific Kurdish context. Ocalan, leader of the PKK has been in jail since 1999. He has led the guerrilla war against the Turkish state and until a few years ago maintained good ties to the Syrian government. Ocalan offers Kurds nationalism but also a vision in which to shape it. Ocalan appears favorable to a Syria organized as a democratic speaks of a democratic confederation emerging in Syria. Ocalan proposes something that appears to be a socialist utopia, marked by popular Assemblies, equal right for all, (not just the Kurdish), social welfare, a fair distribution of resources, the end of violence against women and care for the environment: these are what the pillars of the ideal Kurdish society.
But so long as Kurds remain autonomous, they remain problematic, if not dangerous, to their ‘host’ States. Depending on the state of their relations with the respective governments, Kurdish loyalty varies considerably to the point where superpower or regional interests can exploit this weakness into collaboration to the detriment of the host Country. In Iraq, the Kurds welcomed the American invasion in 2003 and supported it. From 1991 to 2003, Iraqi Kurdistan, protected by a UN No-fly zone resolution, has come the closest to achieving de-facto independence.
The Iraqi Kurds managed to unite to obtain the constitution of a federal statute and a separate ruling body, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), chaired by Massoud Barzani. The KRG could also boast a substantial fighting force of almost 200,000 before ISIS, the Peshmerga. The Iraqi army is not allowed to enter Kurdish territory. But, much to the anger of Baghdad authorities, foreign oil companies have secured oil contracts with foreign companies independently, exporting crude oil to Turkey, but also securing more exploration and export agreements.
In Syria, the Kurds promptly abandoned Damascus as soon as the revolts of southern Syria spread to Damascus and beyond. Therefore, when Kurds are repressed, they threaten national security and unity. The inclination for Kurds to associate with ‘outsiders’ with designs has exposed Kurdish nationalism to exploitation. That is also their undoing, as the various Kurdish factions are being reminded once again. Foreign interests will always take precedence over those of the Kurds. The Americans did not back the Kurdish referendum and they won’t back one in Syria either, even if they played a significant role in fighting ISIS.
In the current Sykes-Picot arrangement of the Middle East, the Kurds must always be prepared to be disappointed. The concept of an independent Kurdistan, attempted through the project known as ‘Rojava’ remains a chimera. It was always bound to fail, because no superpower, given the interests with Turkey, could impose a Kurdish State to rise along the Turkish border. Such a State would always be under fire from Turkish artillery to the north and under pressure from an Arab majority to the south. There may be no stronger incentive for an alliance of Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran than the pursuit of Kurdish independence.
The risk exists, however, that after the various parties in the Syrian war reconcile (other than the most extreme factions), the softening of confessional dissonance of Sunni vs. Shiite and no more common ISIS enemy to pursue, could result in Kurdish-Arab ethnic discord against a more pressing Kurdish nationalism. Moreover, tensions have also developed among the different Kurdish organizations, for they don’t all have the same vision. The emergence of a proto-Kurdish State in the Syrian region – Rojava – governed according to Ocalan’s Marxist principles clashed with the Iraqi Kurds and the more tribal interests pursued by the government of Mas’ud Barzani. This is not unusual of course. For years, the prospect of a Palestinian State has suffered because of contrasts between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas.
But, the Kurds can at least count on the viability of achieving autonomy first. The KRG has given Kurds the hope and the experience that in spite of all the difficulties, independence does not have to be the only desirable outcome. The autonomy of each separate Kurdish minority within their respective states can work, even if the prospects of a future union may have to be shelved or considerably delayed. Still, Autonomy can work better for some. The Kurds of Iraq can use independence as a card to play against the Iraqi central government, should the latter cease making concessions to the KRG. They have leverage in the form of control over rich oil and gas resources, giving them a few cards more with which to negotiate with Baghdad. (A.B.)