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The Making Of A United Kurdistan – OpEd

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Slowly, and much to the distaste of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the possibility of a united autonomous Kurdistan stretching across the northern reaches of Syria and Iraq is emerging.

The capture of the township of Manbij from Islamic State (IS) on 12 August 2016 produces along Turkey’s southern border an uninterrupted swathe of territory controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – an alliance of Arab and Kurdish militias. This area joins seamlessly with Iraq’s Kurdistan Region, the Kurdish populated area granted autonomy in Iraq’s 2005 constitution.

Just as the artificial boundaries and borders imposed on the Middle East by the victorious allies after the First World War are laughed to scorn by Islamic State (IS) in declaring its caliphate, so any united autonomous Kurdistan – if such an entity were ever to come into existence – would have to sit fairly and squarely across what now constitute the internationally recognised borders of Turkey, Syria. Iraq and Iran.

Iraq’s Kurdistan contains about 5 million of the world’s approximately 30 million ethnic Kurds; the liberated region in Syria about 2 million. Most of the rest reside in the areas immediately adjacent to Kurdistan’s northern and eastern borders, in Turkey and Iran respectively – both of which are deeply opposed to any suggestion of granting Kurds independence, or even autonomy on the Iraqi model.

It was in August 1920, shortly after the end of the First World War, that the dissolution and partition of the Ottoman Empire were incorporated into the Treaty of Sèvres. That Treaty, made between the victorious Allied powers and representatives of the government of Ottoman Turkey, abolished the Ottoman Empire and obliged Turkey to renounce all rights over Arab Asia and North Africa. Moreover, it required a referendum to be conducted to decide the issue of the Kurdistan homeland.

Sèvres was very quickly rendered null and void by the establishment in 1922 of the Turkish Republic under Kemal Ataturk. The result was a new treaty, the Treaty of Lausanne, which gave control of the entire Anatolian Peninsula, including the Kurdistan homeland in Turkey, to the new republic.

Kurdish nationalism emerged largely as a reaction to the secular nationalism that revolutionized Turkey under Ataturk. The first of many violent uprisings occurred in 1923 and, after 20 more years of struggle, Mullah Mustafa Barzani emerged as the figurehead for Kurdish separatism. Years of rebellion in Iraq ended with a peace deal between the government and the Kurdish rebels in 1970, granting recognition of their language and self-rule, though clashes over control of the oil-rich area around Kirkuk continued.

When Barzani died in 1979, the leadership of the KDP passed to his son, Masoud. But a new – and, as it turned out, rival – force had emerged in Kurdish politics with the founding by Jalal Talabani of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). During the Iran-Iraq War, which began in 1980, the KDP sided with the Iranians against Saddam Hussein and Kurdish Peshmerga troops helped launch an offensive from the north. In retribution Saddam ordered the notorious poison gas attack on the Kurdish town of Halabja, during which some 5,000 civilians were massacred.

The journey towards a unified Kurdish movement in Iraq, bedevilled by internal politicking, was long and bitter. In 1994 a power-sharing arrangement between the KDP and the PUK fell apart, leading to two separate administrations in Erbil and Sulaymaniyah and a no-holds-barred civil war for control of the Kurdish-dominated parts of northern Iraq. Finally, in 1998, Barzani of the KDP and Talabani of the PUK agreed a peace treaty and signed a joint leadership deal. Eventually the PUK and the KDP set up a unified regional government, and Masoud Barzani became a member of the Iraqi Governing Council.

When the Americans invaded Iraq in 2003, the Kurdish Peshmerga troops joined in the fight to overthrow Saddam Hussein. After he was driven from office the Iraqi people, in a national referendum, approved a new constitution which recognized the Kurdistan Regional Government as an integral element in Iraq’s administration. Barzani was elected President of Iraqi Kurdistan in June 2005.

In Syria the civil war, which began in earnest in 2011 in an attempt to topple President Bashar al-Assad and his administration, brought the Kurds to the forefront of the region’s politics. In early fighting Syrian government forces abandoned many Kurdish occupied areas in the north and north-east of the country, leaving the Kurds to administer them themselves. As early as October 2011, sponsored by President Barzani of Iraq’s Kurdish Regional Government, the Syrian Kurds established a Kurdish National Council (KNC) to press for eventual Kurdish autonomy. As in Iraq, political differences within the Kurdish community have resulted in a breakaway party, the PYD, challenging the national council.

The KNC is wholeheartedly in favour of establishing a Kurdish Regional Government in Syria, to mirror that in Iraq. The PYD favours establishing a multi-ethnic administration in the areas of northern Syria captured from government forces. An uneasy truce between the two groups, brokered by Barzani in 2012, seems to be holding, despite a succession of incidents between them.

Is some sort of amalgamation of the Syrian and Iraqi Kurdish areas a practical proposition?

“We will never allow a state to be formed in northern Syria, south of our border,” declared Erdogan in Istanbul on June 26, 2015. “We will maintain our struggle whatever the cost. They are trying to…change the demographics of the region. We will not condone it.”

If anything like Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan were to be established in Syria, and worse if it were to amalgamate with Iraq’s Kurdish Regional Government, it would feed demands by Turkey’s Kurds to be linked to it in some way. This would be anathema to Erdogan, who has consistently opposed his domestic Kurdish separatist movement – which explains why, on joining the US-led anti-IS coalition in Syria in July 2015, he began air-strikes against IS and the Kurds indiscriminately, tarring both with the terrorist brush.

Nevertheless Erdogan may have to bow to the politically inevitable, even if it causes him continuing domestic headaches with his substantial Turkish-Kurdish population. Everything turns on what sort of Syrian entity emerges from the current conflict.

It seems highly unlikely that Syrian President Bashar Assad, even with combined Russian and Iranian support, will ever regain the whole of his former state. Even the eventual elimination of IS in Syria, if that were ever to be achieved with the help of the US-led coalition, would scarcely be to Assad’s advantage, since the coalition is pretty well unanimous in wishing to see him deposed. The anti-IS coalition, moreover, is highly indebted to the Kurdish Peshmerga forces, who have proved themselves outstandingly effective fighters on the ground.

When the conflict is eventually resolved, and the spoils of victory come to be disbursed, gratitude and common decency seem to demand that Syria’s Kurds are at last awarded their autonomy. In that eventuality, a unified Kurdistan would be one step nearer to fulfilment.


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Neville Teller

Neville Teller

Neville Teller’s latest book is “The Chaos in the Middle East, 2014-2016” (2016), and writes the blog "A Mid-East Journal". He is also a long-time dramatist, writer and abridger for BBC radio and for the UK audiobook industry. Born in London and educated at Owen's School and St Edmund Hall, Oxford, he is a past chairman of the Society of Authors' Broadcasting Committee, and of the Contributors' Committee of the Audiobook Publishing Association. He was made an MBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours, 2006 "for services to broadcasting and to drama."

One thought on “The Making Of A United Kurdistan – OpEd

  • August 23, 2016 at 11:26 am
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    This writer is intellectually bankrupt. He has kept bringing themes from the New Israel Strategy for the Middle East which became popular in the early 1980s. This strategy is designed to divide the Arab and other Muslim countries into smaller and weak marginalized countries for creating more security for the State of Israel. And this strategy was documented by books on the clash of civilizations. According to this strategy Iraq should be divided into three regions one of which is Kurdistan and Iran should be divided into three smaller countries. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was also divided into three countries and Turkey into two or three countries. Other Arab countries such as Syria and Lebanon are also divided into smaller countries, and US imperialism tries to achieve this goal in Syria but will fail. This strategy has been supported by President Obama and George Bush and by the Clinton’s imperialist family. Other US senators such as Joe Biden (VP) and John McCain and other senators are also supporting this strategy. Even the US foreign policy is based on this strategy. I do not want to get involved in the history of many countries with social cohesion, but first I would like to state that the author is really bankrupt and kept writing about strategy that even he is not used as a reference to his article which has been published because it is promoting this Israel strategy. It is also true that US imperialism and Israel have been used the Kurds for the last 60 years for their own advantages. The author has mentioned the Barazani family because it is a Jewish family (see a book written by American Jewish scholar about the history of this family) but he has never mentioned the Kurdish people and other important families who like to live with the people of the region peacefully. Second, when Iraq was fighting the Barazani troops after 1958 what had happened was that the Qassim government in Iraq after defeating the British Empire on July 14, 1958 and the British imperialist left with their tails between their legs, the Qassim government invited Mula Mustafa AL Barazani back to Iraq as a freedom fighter and he received excellent treatment. But US imperialism and Israel used him later to destabilize the new national revolution in Iraq. And he was fighting until 1970 when Iraq made a deal with the Shah of Iran with the approval of Kissinger, the well-known war criminal. When the Shah closed the birders between Iraq and Iran the Peshmerga dropped their weapons and the Barazani family went to USA, and I think the Mula was buried in USA (may be in South Dakota). Basically, each time US imperialism and Israel find themselves in danger they start using the Kurdish card and terrorism such as Daesh and AL-Qaeda with its various names to destabilize the Muslim world. But these tolls of division of Muslim people and terrorism are not working, and US imperialism has been defeated in Iraq and Afghanistan and Palestine will be liberated. Finally, Israel has gotten the best deal because it has been using US imperialism to achieve its strategy without cost. But the American people have paid for these imperialist adventures that will bring more costs to the USA. US imperialism should follow the paths of the French and the British imperialism when both were defeated as well as the USSR when was defeated and disintegrated after the invasion of Afghanistan.

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