The Kurdish issue: deepening the regional dimension and gaining velocity

The Kurdish issue: deepening the regional dimension and gaining velocity

With the winds of change sweeping the region, the Kurds of Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria are coalescing into an interconnected collectivity.

Today the Kurdish issue is not a disparate issue of the separate countries where they live, but one that is steadily evolving into a region-wide dynamic across national boundaries. The Kurds from the different countries, joined by the diaspora outside the region, are interacting more and more and are trying to coordinate their approaches into a unified Kurdish stance. Kurdish national identity is becoming more pronounced, more straightforward and more demanding.

Factors both within and outside the region are playing an important role in this paradigm shift. In Iraq, the strained relationship with the federal government in Baghdad is providing fuel to the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Erbil to raise the ante in the power game. KRG leader Barzani, with his soft-spoken but well-timed allusions to “independence” is astutely acclimatizing the international environment to the idea of a sovereign Kurdish state. Hence, further delays in stabilizing the relationship between Baghdad and Erbil can only provide additional ammunition to Barzani, who is, for all intents and purposes, the leader of the Kurdish independence movement. 

The situation in Syria has turned the Kurds (about 10% of the population) there from a marginal group into an important domestic player. But equally significant is the fact that the Syrian Kurds in and out of the country are getting in closer contact with the Kurds in Iraq and elsewhere, seeking to devise a common stance about their shared destiny. To chart a strategy, the Syrian Kurdish expatriates even held a meeting in Erbil last January with participation from more than 20 different countries.

The 5 million Iranian Kurds, long repressed and persecuted, are another link in the chain of Kurdish nationalism in the region. PJAK is a player. While they may not exert a high profile in the Kurdish movement, they will exercise influence over its development and join forces under appropriate conditions.

The critical component in the big Kurdish puzzle is Turkey’s Kurds. The failure of the Turkish government to end PKK terror and to satisfy Kurdish demands has pushed Turkey’s Kurds to strengthen their ties with their counterparts in Iraq and elsewhere. The fallout of the events in neighboring Iraq and Syria has resulted in the escalation of the demands of the Kurds in Turkey and increasing coordination and collaboration with the Kurds of the region. What this trend means is that if the Turkish government is unable to settle this problem soon, the Kurdish issue might take on a regional character. 

There are also external factors at work. The United States and Europe regard the Kurds as their reliable allies in a turbulent region. Energy-hungry Western powers are already engaged in oil exploration in KRG territory, even though there is no final agreement yet between the KRG and the federal authorities in Baghdad covering the subject. KRG leader Barzani was received in the Oval Office by U.S. President Barack Obama, symbolically flashing a green light to Kurdish ambitions for independence. There is also the thought of creating a new entity that would be friendly to Israel. This supposed need has become more justifiable given the state of relations between Turkey and Israel. 

Given its complexity, the topic has been treated only in very general terms here. Nonetheless, the trend is unmistakable. The Kurds are coming together, though important divisions persist. Time is on their side because as the national governments are unable or unwilling to address their problems, their demands will rise and gain legitimacy in the eyes of the international community. The message for us is clear: Turkey must get its act together and take effective steps to resolve the Kurdish issue in a democratic and comprehensive manner before it is too late. 

*Faruk Loğoğlu is Deputy Chairman of opposition People’s Republican Party or the CHP.