The Kurds’ enduring struggle for self-determination
The Kurds are the largest ethnic community in the world without a state of their own. Around 40 million Kurds are scattered around the Middle East, mainly in Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. Most reside in Turkey and Iran.
The international community was impressed by the bravery displayed by the Kurds during the siege of Kobani in northern Syria. They defeated the jihadists of ISIS and recaptured the town in October 2015.
From a historical point of view, the Kurdish ethnic community attracted international attention as an important regional actor during World War I, and especially after the collapse and subsequent dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire. At that time, the legal foundations first for the emancipation and then for the legal right of self-determination of the Kurds were laid.
However, pledges that were not honored by the great powers left Kurds stateless in various countries in the Middle East. The Treaty of Sevres (August 10, 1920) provided for an independent Kurdistan in Articles 62 and 64. However, Turkish nationalism, later known as Kemalism, and suspicion and indifference by the great powers dashed any hopes for independence as the aforementioned treaty was replaced by the Treaty of Lausanne in July 1923.
The new developments created a peculiar condition in the countries where populations of Kurds dwell, sowing at the same time the seeds for future instability in the region. Kurds’ demands for political rights provoked and still provoke resentment and occasionally brutal repression by the host states.
In 2014, Kurds who reside in the Northern Syria region, known as Rojava, amid regional instability started to carve out a new structure based on the Swiss cantonal model. They created a model of regional administration in order to fulfill their dreams for further autonomy, perhaps in an effort to gain broad autonomy like what was established in the 1990s in northern Iraq, when the armed forces of Saddam Hussein were forced to withdraw from the region when a US and British no-fly zone was established to protect the Kurds. This structure was institutionalized as a component federal region of the Iraqi state after the US-led invasion of 2003.
The strategic target of the Syrian Kurds is to connect the three cantons in northern Syria and gain access to the Mediterranean Sea. As noted above, the Kurds from time to time seek to exploit strategic instability in order to gain autonomy and independent statehood.
More specifically, while President Bashar al-Assad was preoccupied with his struggle against the rebels, the Syrian Kurds were gaining territory while fighting both government forces and ISIS.
However, their actions alarmed both Damascus and Ankara, which feared that the Kurds were paving the way for secession.
If we look back to the historical record, there has been prolonged repression against the Kurds in the countries where they reside and prosper
Turkey, suffering from “Sèvres Syndrome,” was further alarmed that Kurdish plans in Northern Syria might have an impact on its own Kurds in the southeast, where around 15 million of them reside and struggle for further individual and political rights. This is the reason Turkey carried out Operation Euphrates Shield from August 2016 to March 2017 in Northern Syria against the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and ISIS as well.
The Turkish Army continued with its plans against the Kurds in Northern Syria with Operation Olive Branch from January to March this year, which resulted in the capture of Afrin.
Repression of the Kurds
If we look back to the historical record, there has been prolonged repression against the Kurds in the countries where they reside and prosper. In southeastern Turkey, where the Kurds are the predominant ethnic group, the Turkish authorities have brutally repressed them and on many occasions they have been denied a national identity, being referred to instead as “Mountain Kurds.”
The armed conflict between the Turkish state and the Kurds caused thousands of casualties on both sides. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan initiated an approach with the Kurds that resulted in a reconciliation process in 2013. However, this in effect collapsed in 2015. The events that ensued in northern Syria and Iraq are well known.
The case of Iraq is no better. Around 6,000 Kurds were slaughtered by Saddam Hussein in a chemical attack in Halabja in March 1988 in the last phase of the Iran-Iraq War.
As we have observed, the Kurds have tried to promote their self-determination over time amid general instability, deep suspicion by the central governments of their countries, and repression.
The quest for statehood
Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani’s referendum for independence in September 2017 (with a 93.25% positive vote) took things one step further for the fulfillment of Kurdish dreams for self-determination and independence. He calculated that the time was ripe for such a venture and that the great powers would support him by compensating the Kurds for their struggle against ISIS. However, once again the Kurds were abandoned.
Afterward, Baghdad’s coercive and retaliatory actions led to the temporary abandonment of the strategic vision for independence, and Barzani was forced to step down as president of Iraqi Kurdistan in November 2017. The central government of Iraq sent troops and retook the oilfield town of Kirkuk. Furthermore, in an effort to strangle the economy of Iraqi Kurdistan, Baghdad stopped international flights to Irbil and Sulaymaniyah.
Iran, fearful also of the developments, supported Iraq by deploying tanks near its borders with Iraq and declared that Tehran supported “Iraqi territorial integrity.”
In conclusion, one thing is certain: the Kurds will continue to demand their right to self-determination and the safeguarding of their political rights. This will create a vicious circle of reaction and counter-reaction among their supporters and opponents.