For all the promises, for all the sterling work they have willingly done in the fight against evil, for all the sympathy they have engendered, the Kurds will never achieve their greatest aspiration: their own homeland. The fact is the world doesn’t care. They are a people on their own to be exploited when it suits interests of the Middle East.
A recent doleful newspaper headline was all too predictable: KURDS FEAR BEING CAST ASIDE AS MARINES QUIT.
It was a report noting that the Kurds had spent four years doing the bulk of the heavy lifting on the ground to drive Islamic State (IS) out of Syria’s north. Mission accomplished, they were worried they were about to be abandoned by their main sponsor, the United States, which intended to reduce its small marine contingent. This would leave them at the mercy of two powerful rivals, Syria and Turkey.
The Kurds are accustomed to a life of eternal disappointment. They are said to be the world’s biggest minority group without their own homeland. They were promised one nearly a century ago – in 1920 – following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. They will be waiting forever because their people sprawl over four countries – Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. All have geopolitical anxieties of their own in these fraught times which leave no room to appease restless and potentially threatening minorities like the Kurds.
The Kurds themselves can be their own worst enemy with rival parties, different alliances and armed militias with dissimilar objectives depending on the country. Although Kurds as a whole aspire to their own homeland, they present anything but a united front of how to achieve that and, more importantly, exactly where. The original promise was a land-locked chunk of eastern Turkey, but the Kurds squabbled over its proposed borders. The rebirth of Turkish nationalism led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was anything but supportive. The promise was still-born.
Since then Kurdish aspirations have endured a long history of being brutally suppressed, including the use of chemical weapons by Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. They’ve also been victims of Western indifference. ‘When they are done using us, they’ll forget us’, said a Kurd, surveying a newly-liberated part of northern Syria, quoted by AFP.
Half of the estimated 25 to 35 million Kurds live in Turkey and are regarded as a dangerous nuisance by President Erdogan. Abdullah Öcalan, founder of the terrorist Turkish-based PKK (Kurdish Workers’ Party), is locked up for life in a jail on an island off Istanbul. Iran’s ayatollahs have for years suppressed Kurdish ambitions for independence in the north of the country. In Iraq, there is too much oil at stake in the Kurdish region. In Syria, President Bashar al-Assad may be grateful for the Kurds having driven IS out of northern Syria, but is hostile to the very idea of local self-rule in return.
Kurdistan, the autonomous province in northern Iraq, is the nearest the Kurds have to running their own show. By all accounts, it is prosperous, politically self-reliant and free of the external strife which bedevils the rest of the region. But the local government blundered catastrophically last October when it held an independence referendum against the advice of Baghdad as well as the US and other countries. The result was that the Iraqis – with the help of the Iranians – drove the Kurds out of nearby Kirkuk, an important source of oil revenue and undermined whatever trust Baghdad had in them.
Although Kurdish groups now run at least a quarter of Syria, they have not been invited to UN peace talks to date at the insistence of Turkey, which currently is attacking their cantons on the border. However, they say they will turn up at the Russian-sponsored talks in Sochi at the end of the month which are pledged to include ‘the participation of all segments of the Syrian society’. But so disparate are the various interests in Syria that the talks have little chance other than extending Russia’s growing influence in the Middle East.
In short, the Kurds are probably worse off than they have ever been. Yet they have been indispensable allies in the long battle to rid the region of IS. In Iraq, it was the Kurds who stepped in when the Iraqi army fled as the black banners of IS barbarians invaded the countryside. It was the Kurds who led the ground forces in driving IS out of Raqqa, its self-proclaimed capital in Syria. It was the Kurds who drove IS out of Kobane on the Turkish-Syrian border. Even their fierce female units terrified IS fighters who feared martyrdom in hell for being killed by a woman.
But as they are so widely scattered, the very best the Kurds can reasonably aspire to is a degree of autonomy along the lines of Kurdistan. Even then, the host countries will be wary of granting concessions to a people comprising a force to be reckoned with, never mind their divisive ways, grievances and perpetual restlessness.
FOOTNOTE. The Western argument against supporting an independent Kurdistan is the importance of maintaining Iraq’s territorial integrity. Yet when Britain established Iraq as a distinct political entity after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire they did so with their own imperialist interests in mind. The area’s history, demography and ethnic and religious diversity counted for nothing. A century later the region is reaping what another Empire sowed.
John Tulloh had a 40-year career in foreign news.